It's the way I'm living right or wrong
Willem de Kooning, Pink Angels, 1945
* 1972 interview of Richard Yates
Interviewer: What novelist has told that kind of story best, in your opinion?
Yates: In my opinion? Flaubert. Madame Bovary is probably the greatest novel I’ve ever read—certainly not for that reason alone, but at least partly for that reason. Nobody and everybody is to blame in that book, as Emma perceives when she writes her suicide note to Charles, and as even Charles is able to understand when he tells Rodolphe that he holds nothing against him. There are no villains in that book, any more than there are in what I guess is my second all-time favorite novel, The Great Gatsby.
But I hope I haven’t managed to suggest, with all this talk of tragedy and calamity and downfall, that books with unhappy endings are the only kind I admire. Easy affirmations are silly and cheap, of course; but when a tough, honest writer can look squarely at all the horrors of the world, face all the facts, and still come up with a hard-won, joyous celebration of life at the end, in spite of everything, that can be wonderful. That’s what Dickens did so often and so well, to name only one of the all-time greats. And Joyce, I suppose, with all that “yes” stuff at the end of Ulysses. More recently, I think Joyce Carey managed to do that in most of his books, especially in The Horse’s Mouth. And so have a great many other first-rate writers.
Interviewer: Do you feel your work has been neglected, or that it has had a reasonable and just response to date?
Yates: Oh, sometimes, in my more arrogant or petulant moments, I still think Revolutionary Road ought to be famous. I was sore as hell when it first went out of print, and when Norman Podhoretz made a very small reference to it in his book several years ago as an “unfairly neglected novel,” I wanted every reader in America to stand up and cheer. But of course deep down I know that kind of thinking is nonsense. After all, it did quite well for a first novel, much better than average: it got generally good reviews, got nominated for the National Book Award, later sold a great many copies in paperback and was widely translated and published abroad. It’s too bad that my second book, Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, is out of print, but not at all surprising: most books of short stories disappear quickly, and at least mine had a few decent reviews and a paperback sale before it disappeared. What happened after those two books was my own fault, nobody else’s. If I’d followed them up with another good novel a few years later, and then another a few years after that, and so on, I might very well have begun to build the kind of reputation some successful writers enjoy. Instead, I tinkered and brooded and fussed for more than seven years over the book that finally became A Special Providence, and it was a failure in my own judgment, as well as that of almost everyone else, and was generally ignored. Now I feel I’m almost back where I started, with the added disadvantage of being middle-aged and tired. When this new book is done, it’ll be almost like publishing a first novel all over again. But no, to get back to the question, I can’t honestly claim my stuff has been neglected; it’s probably received just about the degree of attention it deserves. I simply haven’t published enough to expect more—not yet, anyway.
Interviewer: Who do you consider some other good, neglected writers?
Yates: Read the four splendid books by Gina Berriault, if you can find them, and if you want to discover an absolutely first-class talent who has somehow been left almost entirely out of the mainstream. She hasn’t quit writing yet, either, and I hope she never will.
And read almost anything by R.V. Cassill, a brilliant and enormously productive man who’s been turning out novels and stories for twenty-five years or more, all the while building and sustaining a large influence on other writers as a teacher and critic. Oh, he’s always been well known in what I guess you’d call literary circles, but he had to wait a long, long time before his most recent novel, Doctor Cobb’s Game, did bring him some widespread readership at last.
And George Garrett. I haven’t read very much of his work, but that’s at least partly because there’s so very much of it—and he, too, has remained largely unknown except among other writers. I guess his latest book, like Cassill’s, did make something of a public splash at last, but that, too, was long overdue.
And Seymour Epstein—ever heard of him? I have read all of his work to date—five novels and a book of stories, all expertly crafted and immensely readable—yet he, too, seems to have been largely ignored so far.
But hell, this list could go on and on. This country’s loaded with good, badly neglected writers. Fred Chappel. Calvin Kentfield. Herbert Wilner. Helen Hudson. Edward Hoagland. George Cuomo. Arthur J. Roth—those are only a few.
My God, if I’d produced as much good work as most of those people, with as little reward, I’d really feel qualified to rant and rail against the literary establishment.
* Weird Muppets piece
from The Tonight Show, 1974.
* "I have beliefs, of course, like everyone—but I don't always believe in them.”-- Joyce Carol Oates