Friday, May 07, 2021

'Not a List to Celebrate'

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.


Pierre said...

Not a big fan of Pynchon but I think it'd be hard to argue that he's unreadable these days. Paul Thomas Anderson even managed to make a movie out of one of his novels, though that probably says more about Anderson's exemplary skill than anything. Nonetheless he's insanely popular for such an esoteric writer.

Baceseras said...

Thinking of "writers once celebrated" reminds me that celebrations are for the celebrants; the celebratee need only exist, or less than that. Of the nine writers listed, four were stellar (and still are, mutatis m.); three were very well known (and two of the three still are); and two - Barth, Gaddis - were famous to a handful of people. I think it was Roger Stern who said, "Sic transit gloria oops."

I once did a party trick - literary party trick, once, not more than twice - a mock-Latin declension along the lines: Barth-Barthes-Barthelme. There's been no call for it in the intervening years, and would I be surprised if there was!

Faze said...

Regarding the list of "unreadables", I'm not sorry to have read any of them. Even if we don't like them (though there are several I like very much), they lend context and perspective to our appreciation of the "readables".

(Yates taught a writing class at my college. I didn't take it, but I peeked into his cubicle whenever I passed it on the way to talk to my own teachers. He appeared old, unwell and unhappy.)

The Sanity Inspector said...

I always like Joseph Heller's riposte to criticism that he never wrote anything as good as Catch 22. "Well," he said. "Who has?"

The Britophile said...

I'm very happy to see John Cheever's name on your list of authors still worth reading. He was one of my writing teachers at Boston University in 1973-74 - the other was John Updike, who took over Mr. Cheever's classes after he left to undergo treatment for his alcoholism. I was never a big fan of Updike's work - his prose is too highly wrought and self-conscious for me - but even at the age of 18, and now when I'm 66, Cheever seemed one of the premiere writers of American prose. I hope his work is still being read, particularly his brilliant short stories.

Cornflour said...

Yikes, I agree with both of your lists. That's never happened to me before. One quibble: I enjoyed(?) reading Styron's "Darkness Visible." It's a short memoir of his struggle with depression.