I’m old enough to remember when readers and critics took Norman Mailer seriously. Even I, starting in the mid-1960s, kept up for a while with the latest Mailer productions. I was a provincial, a naïf, and mistook critics for scientists formulating the laws of the literary universe. Few of us are born with skepticism and good taste. We acquire those gifts by reading everything -- the great, good, mediocre and worthless -- and by letting them rub up against each other and waiting to see what survives.
A friend recently read Richard Yates’ first story collection, Eleven Kinds of Loneliness (1962), and found it grim but good. I replied that Yates, when I was young, was judged a “second-tier” novelist. His first book, the novel Revolutionary Road (1961), was acknowledged as something special, a deeply disturbing study of selfishness and self-delusion, though widely pigeonholed as yet another anti-suburbia tract. Yates wrote other good novels – especially The Easter Parade (1976) – but he never caught on until after his death in 1992, briefly. By “second-tier” I mean Yates was no Updike or Bellow. His books met with critical approval but he was never championed by the academy and his work never sold well. With Yates I grouped J.F. Powers (1917-1999), author of the novel Morte d’Urban (1963) and some of the best postwar American short stories.
Who else? Whose fiction from those years has survived and is worthy of reading and rereading? But first, who hasn’t aged so well? Who has lost his looks, so to speak? Think of writers once celebrated who, thanks to the cleansing depredations of time, are left unreadable: Pynchon, Heller, Salinger, Kerouac, Barth, Styron, Vonnegut, Oates, Gaddis and so many others. A sad list. Not a list to celebrate or gloat over.
Who will some of us continue reading? They form a heterogenous group, a mix of formerly first- and second-tier. Nabokov, of course. The best of Isaac Bashevis Singer, Peter De Vries, Bernard Malamud, Ralph Ellison, Wright Morris, Eudora Welty, William Maxwell, John Cheever and so few others.