Learning to Swim was originally published in 1982 by London Magazine Editions and was published in the U.S. in April, 1986, by Washington Square Press. It contains eleven short stories, all of which first appeared in British magazines. The collection was very well received in England, where Swift, though young, is already established as one of England's leading writers. In America, however, Learning to Swim received a much less favorable reception than did Waterland (published here in 1985), and in the words of Contemporary Authors (V.122) "more than one critic remarked that some of the tales seemed too studied and even uncompelling." It seems to be the nature of Swift's writing that many of his works, especially these short stories, leave the reader with many unanwered questions. The majority of such questions are, however, easily answered by considering Swift's work as a whole.
Learning to Swim is not a collection of happy, light tales. As one critic writes, "A list of themes reads like a microcosm of the Sunday morning newspapers: infidelity to partner (three), sexual traumas (two), incest (one), age (three), suspected bestiality (one), murder and mayhem (one)." The connections and inter-relation of these stories is even more complex than that critic saw. Each plot line reappears in one of Swift's later novels as a small detail contributing to the whole. There are also several types of images that play important roles in other works. These major images include: water (rivers, streams, ponds, oceans), time (especially when talking about the generation gap), the ongoing "war of the sexes," frequently fought by married couples, the ravages of war, and a common philosophical argument about knowledge and its dangers. These images appear in some combination in almost every story, and are more fully discussed in Swift's novels, The Sweet Shop Owner, Shuttlecock, Waterland, and Out of This World. It has been a concern of some critics that Swift packs too much into each of his stories, in the words of one he "uses too many words... Swift seems to write short stories with the mind of a novelist." The partial truth of this statement is proved by the greater involvement a reader will inevitably feel when confronted with a long novel. The short story for Swift seems to have been a place to try out ideas without having to commit them to a work of several hundred pages.
It is of stylistic interest that all but one of the stories ("Learning to Swim") are written in first person. A first-person narrative helps the reader to become more involved in the unfolding story, and often gives valuable insight into the minds of the characters, but it also reveals a flaw in Swift's writing. He writes from many different points of view, a range of narrators that extends from old men to little boys (the voice is always male), yet the words are always delivered in the same detached, intellectual voice. This is in large part the author's own voice coming through the text, and is most noticeable when little boys are narrating. It is simply too implausible that children could have the complex thoughts Swift gives them, let alone the vocabulary. Newsweek, among other publications, has compared Swift to Faulkner, but Swift's interior monologue is not quite as competent as his Southern predecessor.
These stories represent a fiction of unrest. All of the characters are unhappy, and in those rare occasions when they are happy they seem to be very uncomfortable. Is it significant that the British reviewers liked these characters more than their American counterparts? An American reviewer remarks that "One unmistakable thing is that [the stories] are all about moral cowards and spineless individuals collapsing within the insidious pressures of evaded responsibilities, evaded vision." While this is true, there is also something very gripping about all of Swift's characters that makes you sympathize. Swift's style evokes empathy from the reader for the character, and fosters in the reader a desire to learn more about the character and his problems. It is Swift's command of this style that make his tragic figures so interesting to the reader.