From the Archive: An Interview with Richard Yates
Reprinted from Issue 3 of Ploughshares, Winter 1972.
(guest edited by James Randall)
Richard Yates was born in Yonkers, New York, in 1926. He graduated from the Avon School in 1944, served in the last years of World War II, and until 1952 worked at a variety of jobs, ranging from newspaper rewrite man to freelance ghost writer to publicity writer. He has taught at the New School for Social Research, Columbia University, and the University of Iowa; in 1963, he was special assistant in the United States Attorney General’s office. His first novel, Revolutionary Road, was nominated for the National Book Award in 1961 and has since gone through four editions and is currently available in the Dell “Contemporary Classics” series. A collection of stories, Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, appeared in 1962, was reissued in 1966, and is now out of print. In 1962, under contract to United Artists, Mr. Yates wrote a screenplay from William Styron’s Lie Down in Darkness. A second novel, A Special Providence, was published in 1971 and is still available both in hardcover (Knopf) and paperback (Dell). Mr. Yates is presently Distinguished Writer in Residence at Wichita State University, and a new book is in progress.
The interview was conducted during a reading tour last spring at Roger Williams College, and has since been modified by mail.
[Editor’s Note: Richard Yates passed away in 1992, twenty years after this interview was conducted. In the years following his death—as occurred often during his life—his books fell out of print. Interest in his work has steadily grown, however, and since the film of Revolutionary Road appeared in 2008, all of his books are again available, with several widely regarded as classics.]
Ploughshares: In Revolutionary Road, was the ending thought out before you began?
Richard Yates: Yes. I thought of that girl dying in that way, and then the whole problem was to construct a book that would justify that ending. And it wasn’t easy.
PS: When you first planned the book, did you have John Givings in there?
RY: No, I didn’t. He occurred to me as a character about midway through the writing of the book. I felt I needed somebody in there to point up or spell out the story at crucial moments, and I did know a young man very much like that at the time, a long-term patient in a mental hospital who had an uncannily keen and very articulate insight into other people’s weaknesses, so I worked a fictionalized version of him into the book.
PS: You really lambasted the suburbs.
RY: I didn’t mean to. The book was widely read as an antisuburban novel, and that disappointed me. The Wheelers may have thought the suburbs were to blame for all their problems, but I meant it to be implicit in the text that that was their delusion, their problem, not mine.
PS: Doesn’t the title suggest an attack on The System?
RY: I think I meant it more as an indictment of American life in the 1950s. Because during the fifties there was a general lust for conformity all over this country, by no means only in the suburbs—a kind of blind, desperate clinging to safety and security at any price, as exemplified politically in the Eisenhower administration and the Joe McCarthy witch-hunts. Anyway, a great many Americans were deeply disturbed by all that—felt it to be an outright betrayal of our best and bravest revolutionary spirit—and that was the spirit I tried to embody in the character of April Wheeler. I meant the title to suggest that the revolutionary road of 1776 had come to something very much like a dead end in the fifties.
PS: You weren’t knocking marriage?
RY: Oh, of course not. That’s another false interpretation too many people put on the book. And in a way Alfred Kazin was at least partially responsible for that, however inadvertently. The publishers sent the book to him in manuscript, and he wrote back a very nice letter that said in part—only in part—“This novel locates the American tragedy squarely on the field of marriage.” So the publishers grabbed up that one quote out of context and plastered it all over the dust jacket, in big red print—they thought it would “sell”—along with a cheap, vulgar illustration. And I let them do it, like an idiot, because I guess I thought they knew their business, but I’ve regretted it ever since. Oh, maybe it did help sell copies to people snooping around bookstores in search of an antimarriage polemic or something, but I think it must have repelled and turned away a good many other, more intelligent readers. After all, who but a maniac or a goddamn fool would sit down and write a novel attacking marriage? And who’d want to read such a novel? Don’t misunderstand, I’m not blaming Kazin—I’ve always respected him as a critic and still do. It was my own damn fault, for letting them package the book that way. In any case, that was a most unfortunate, misleading blurb.
PS: Still, your image of marriage in the book is hardly optimistic. All the families in time past or present, with the exception of the Camp-bells’ are broken, or they all result in abortions one way or another.
RY: Abortions, yes. Everything gets aborted in the book. That was supposed to be the theme of the book. I remember when I was first working on it and feeling my way into it, somebody at a party asked me what I was writing a novel about, and I said I thought I was writing a novel about abortion. And the guy said what do you mean by that? And I said, it’s going to be built on a series of abortions, of all kinds—an aborted play, several aborted careers, any number of aborted ambitions and aborted plans and aborted dreams—all leading up to a real, physical abortion, and a death at the end. And maybe that’s about as close to a real summation of the book as I’ve ever come.
PS: And yet the Campbells seem to weather all those abortions.
RY: Because somebody had to go on living in the story, right? Somebody had to come through with a kind of qualified hope at the end, and I meant it to be Shep Campbell. I meant his to be the one small voice of affirmation after the tragedy. But I guess tragedy is too lofty a word to use in talking about my own book—certainly it’s a much-debased word, and a word I’ve always tended to throw around all too easily. Calamity might be more appropriate, or downfall.
PS: What’s the best scene you’ve ever written?
RY: I think maybe the breakfast between Frank and April, just before he takes off for work, on the day she dies. I’ve always thought that came off nicely. He draws the diagram of the computer on the napkin, and she says, “It’s really sort of interesting, isn’t it?”
PS: What about the hardest scene you’ve ever written?
RY: The opening of A Special Providence, I guess. I sweated blood over that.
PS: The reason I ask about scenes, it’s something I think you’re brilliant at. Your dialogue and stuff is one of the main ways your stories come alive—and also your ability to paraphrase and catch the rhythms of speech in narration. Have you ever tried dramatic writing?
RY: I tried to turn “The Best of Everything” into a one-act play once and it didn’t work at all, and I didn’t finish it. I just realized I was no playwright.
PS: Are you frustrated by all the “stage directions” in fiction? All the he saids and she saids—it’s so easy to fall into mannerisms, even when you’re breaking the older cliches. Does that ever block you?
RY: Oh, sure. Most of my first drafts read like soap opera. I have to go over and over a scene before I get deep enough into it to bring it off. I think I’d be a slick, superficial writer if I didn’t revise all the time. The first draft of Revolutionary Road was very thin, very sentimental.
PS: It’s interesting that a book like Revolutionary Road, that tries to purge the reader of sentimentality, should have begun in sentimentality.
RY: Well, it did. I made the Wheelers sort of nice young folks with whom any careless reader could identify. Everything they said was exactly what they meant, and they talked very earnestly together even when they were quarreling, like people in some Sloan Wilson novel. It took me a long time to figure out what a mistake that was—that the best way to handle it was to have them nearly always miss each other’s points, to have them talk around and through and at each other. There’s a great deal of dialogue between them in the finished book, both when they’re affectionate and when they’re fighting, but there’s almost no communication.
PS: The more I reread your books, the more it strikes me that most of your characters are outsiders, inevitably misunderstood and rejected by the community they try to enter—for refuge, validation, whatever. Whether it’s the classroom, the Army, a newspaper staff, the “realm of the golden people”: repeatedly your characters strive to belong somewhere. What about the character who does assert himself, who has the courage to be and doesn’t need to belong? Is that something you’d like to do someday?
RY: I don’t know. I guess I’m not very interested in successful people. I guess I’m more interested in failures.
PS: Another thing I’ve noticed, in what I’ve read so far, is that you haven’t yet tried to show anyone who could really be considered an evil character—anyone who is human in being malicious, anyone who consciously plots to harm others.
RY: No, I haven’t, and I hope I never will.
PS: But surely such people exist: witness Hitler or Manson.
RY: The question is not whether they exist in real life, but whether they work as characters in fiction. And I don’t think they do—characters who succeed wholly out of malice or perversity, like Iago, which is the main reason why Othello is not my favorite Shakespeare play. I mean, if you can blame everything on one of the characters in the story, then where’s the weight of the story? Nothing falls into your own lap. In the case of the Sharon Tate murders, if someone were to write a novel about them, the problem is that everything could be blamed on Manson, which would provide too great a relief and too easy an escape for the reader, allowing him to dismiss the whole horrible business the minute he’d closed the last page. I much prefer the kind of story where the reader is left wondering who’s to blame until it begins to dawn on him (the reader) that he himself must bear some of the responsibility because he’s human and therefore infinitely fallible.
PS: Well, but if you allow no evil characters in fiction, then what brings on the tragedy—or the calamity, or the downfall, or whatever? Where is the evil? Doesn’t it exist?
RY: I like to think it exists as a subtle, all-pervasive force that permeates everything in the story. It’s in the very air the characters breathe as they all rush around trying to do their best—trying to live well, within their known or unknown limitations, doing what they can’t help doing, ultimately and inevitably failing because they can’t help being the people they are. That’s what brings on the calamity at the end.
PS: What novelist has told that kind of story best, in your opinion?
RY: 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.
PS: You used to open your class at Iowa with a lecture based on a quote from T. S. Eliot about the objective correlative. Maybe I misinterpreted it, but for me it’s grown into a whole theory of “otherness”: that real fiction, challenging fiction, has to go through this mysterious business of imaging your Other, and that when it doesn’t something goes wrong— suddenly there isn’t a guaranteed perspective on your subject at all.
RY: I suspect that’s why A Special Providence is a weak book—one of the reasons, anyway. It’s not properly formed; I never did achieve enough fictional distance on the character of Robert Prentice. And looking back now, I think this was the trouble: I’d written a good many careful, objective stories over a good many years—stories in which there may always have been an autobiographical element in one sense or another, but in which none of the characters was ever wholly myself. Then I wrote Revolutionary Road the same way: There’s plenty of myself in that book—every character in the book was partially based on myself, or on some aspect of myself, or on people I knew or composites of people I knew, but each of them was very carefully put through a kind of fictional prism, so that in the finished book, I like to think the reader can’t really find the author anywhere—or, to put the same thing another way—he can find the author everywhere. I’ve always admired Flaubert’s great line: “The writer’s relation to his work must be like that of God to the Universe: omnipresent and invisible”—and I was trying to live up to that ideal. But then, after all that work, I thought I’d try a direct autobiographical blowout, and see if I could make decent fiction out of that. So as a sort of experimental warm-up I wrote the story called “Builders,” which was almost pure personal history, with a protagonist named Robert Prentice who was clearly and nakedly myself. And I think that story did work, because it was formed. It was objectified. Somehow, and maybe it was just luck, I managed to avoid both of the two terrible traps that lie in the path of autobiographical fiction—self-pity and self-aggrandizement. Anyway, having done that, I felt I’d earned the right to extend the same kind of thing into a full-length novel, again with Robert Prentice as the protagonist. And what I finally learned, after much labor and much to my chagrin, was that I hadn’t earned the right after all.
PS: Why do you say “earn” the right?
RY: Because I think it’s a right that has to be earned. Anybody can scribble out a confession or a memoir or a diary or a chronicle of personal experience, but how many writers can form that kind of material? How many writers can make it into solid, artistically satisfying fiction? That was Thomas Wolfe’s great mistake: he may have been a brilliant writer, but he wanted every reader’s heart to break and bleed for Eugene Gant, or George Webber, or whatever he chose to call himself, at the expense of all his other characters. He never achieved any detachment, any distance on himself.
Oh, I’m certainly not trying to say that autobiographical fiction is impossible. We can all think of great writers who’ve done it beautifully: Dickens in David Copperfield, Lawrence in Sons and Lovers, Joyce with his Stephen Dedalus and Hemingway with his Nick Adams—even Flaubert himself, in A Sentimental Education—and of course Proust never wrote anything but autobiographical fiction. And there’s a writer in New York today named Anatole Broyard, now chiefly known as a critic, who has produced some of the finest autobiographical fiction I’ve ever read. It’s just that I think it’s a very, very tricky thing to undertake, that’s all, and you have to be one hell of an artist to bring it off. To form it.
PS: The current rebellion against traditional fiction seems to be against this very business—i.e., to make a book you have to form a book, to give that imaginative generosity to the Other—somehow the complaint is that it’s just too hard; life is too pressing on us—news, the quality of events…
RY: Oh, the hell with that. I don’t believe that.
PS: And yet it’s what’s happening: personal journalism and straight autobiography are taking over from traditional fiction, contaminating it to a shameless degree.
RY: Well, I find that reprehensible. And you do too, don’t you?
PS: Very much so. And yet I look backwards and I think of the twenties and earlier—the nineteenth century—when so much great fiction was written in such quantity, and I wonder if it was easier for those writers—easier, for some reason, to have this imaginative generosity, to resort to imagination, where so many people today are saying they can’t. You know the jargon: it’s the age of anxiety, therefore I can’t write.
RY: I can’t go along with that at all. I imagine Flaubert’s times seemed every bit as bewildering and brain-scrambling to him as ours seem to us. Have you ever read his letters? He thought everything was rapidly going to hell all around him. He said France was turning into a big Belgium. And think of Fitzgerald: as a man he was very nearly overwhelmed by his times, almost literally destroyed by his times, but as a writer he managed to produce Gatsby. No, I think it’s a cop-out to say that our times are too hectic or frantic or confusing for good, traditional, formal novels to emerge. I think that’s just a cheap answer.
PS: Is the resort to film also a cheap answer?
RY: I don’t see the movies as a “resort”—and certainly not as a threat to the novel, or even as competition. They’re two different art forms, that’s all, and there’s plenty of room for both. I like a good movie, but I like a good novel better—possibly because when you read you can let the narrative pictures create themselves in your mind as you go along, rather than having them arbitrarily flashed at you, and that seems a more rewarding experience. And I think it’s a curious thing, maybe a significant thing, that good novels—let’s say great novels—have almost never been adapted into good movies. I’ve had some personal experience with that: I was hired in ’62 to adapt Styron’s Lie Down in Darkness, which I consider a great novel, into a screenplay. The movie was never produced because it fell apart in the casting—they couldn’t get Natalie Wood for the lead—but the screenplay was accepted, and everybody seemed to like it, including Styron himself. And it was fascinating work, trying to turn verbal images into visual images for the screen—I greatly enjoyed doing it. But I kept finding out that there were things Styron had done with his pencil that couldn’t possibly have been accomplished with a camera—subtleties that would inevitably have been lost in the translation. If the picture had been made, it would have been a competent movie, I think, but it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as rich or as rewarding as the book.
PS: Were there any places in the screenplay where you feel you did especially well?
RY: Some. Here’s one example. In one of the scenes between Helen Loftis and Carey Carr, the minister—she keeps going to him for help, you know, and he can’t help her. Anyway, there’s one scene on a rainy night when she’s going home after one of their unsatisfactory interviews. They’re standing on his front porch, and the last thing she says is something like “Carey, sometimes I don’t think I know what God is.” And he says, “Oh, Helen, it’s so simple: God is love.”
In the screenplay, you see her face against a background of night and heavy rain, and she looks pretty haggard when she says she doesn’t know what God is. Then the camera cuts back to Carey, under the porch light, and you see him all warm and comfortable in his sweater against the dryness of his house, and he says, “It’s so simple: God is love.” Then, wham, instantly there’s a cut to the blinding hot sunshine of the Daddy Faith parade (which goes on all through the story) and you see these two white-robed blacks carrying a big satin banner that reads GOD IS LOVE. I think that might’ve been pretty effective. Here’s Carey delivering himself of what he thinks is a profound philosophical statement, and then you see these crazy, ignorant Daddy Faith people carrying the same message, and it undercuts it and makes it meaningless for you, as well as for Helen. Still, as I said, the movie couldn’t possibly have been as powerful as the book.
PS: I don’t mean to keep harping on the nature of your characters, but one last question I’d like to ask concerns their level of consciousness. It seems significant that in your earliest stories and in Revolutionary Road, nobody learns anything but the reader. Shep Campbell’s learned something by the end of Revolutionary Road, but he’s the only one. Then, in the Prentice stories, “Builders” and A Special Providence, you seem to be trying something new, to evolve within your vision a consciousness, a character who is in control of his life, who does learn, who manages to work his way through this vale of affectation and blunder to something like the author’s terms. Prentice almost does that in A Special Providence, but there remains some ambiguity at the end about what’s going to happen to him, about whether he’s really escaped the kind of self-consciousness and self-hallucination that has doomed his mother. Anyway, it seems to me in going from your early stories through the next two books that you do seem to be giving your protagonists more to work with, more resilience, more of the ability to face the truth about themselves and live with it.
RY: Well, maybe; I don’t know. It’s an interesting idea, but I’m not sure I can agree with it. Because I can’t honestly see that progression.
PS: What about your new book? You say that it concerns a father who takes away his son’s girlfriend and then goes crazy [Disturbing the Peace, 1976].
RY: Right. And I want to have him go progressively, irredeemably crazy, so it’s going to be another sad book—still no big affirmation, I’m afraid. But I do trust the idea of it; I think it’s a solid idea, if I can bring it off. This may sound pretentious, but if a young woman dying of a self-inflicted abortion was a good fictional metaphor for the fifties, which I still stubbornly think it was, then maybe a man going crazy just might turn out to be a good metaphor for the seventies. An appropriate metaphor.
PS: Then he’s going to be sort of like a Frank Wheeler who can’t stupefy himself, who has no sterile, eggshell world of work to retreat into, no way to protect himself against a truth he isn’t strong enough to face?
PS: How will you deal with a man who goes—as you say—progressively crazy? It intrigues me how you’d do it. I guess going crazy seems sort of an either-or thing to me usually—either you’re nuts or you’re in control of yourself. How will you manage it?
RY: I honestly can’t answer that yet, even though I’ve been working on the book for two years. It still needs a great deal of revision, a great deal of work.
PS: Will he realize he’s going crazy as he does go that way?
RY: Part of the time; not always. Not at all, toward the end.
PS: It’ll be cast, I take it, in a fairly conventional form like your other books.
RY: Yes. What I’d like to do is have the man go crazy without letting the book go crazy. But I really don’t feel prepared to discuss this new book in any kind of detail; it’s still very much a work in progress.
PS: Do you feel your work has been neglected, or that it has had a reasonable and just response to date?
RY: 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.
PS: Who among your contemporaries do you feel has been seriously neglected? What about the work of Edward Lewis Wallant?
RY: A fine writer; and yes, seriously neglected today, though he was by no means overlooked or unappreciated when his books first came out. Wallant worked with tremendous energy and tremendous speed. He didn’t even start writing until he was over thirty; then he managed to produce four novels in five years before he died very suddenly of a stroke at the age of thirty-six, ten years ago. He and I were pretty good friends, though we used to argue a lot about working methods: I thought he ought to take more time over his books; he’d disagree. It was almost as if he knew he didn’t have much time. If he’d lived, God only knows how much good work he might have accomplished by now. Anyway, the four books are there, and I do believe they’ll last.
PS: What about the novels of Brian Moore?
RY: Another very fine writer, also seriously neglected, though he’s very much alive today and still going strong. I just don’t understand why he hasn’t yet won a wider audience. Every good writer I know admires his work. I’ve always thought Judith Hearne is a masterpiece, and An Answer from Limbo comes pretty close. Even in his lesser books there are always fine things—great scenes, fine characterizations. And he’s such a steady producer, a real professional. He’s never yet allowed more than three years to go by without getting out a new book since he began, back in the fifties.
PS: What about Evan S. Connell?
RY: All I’ve read of his work so far is Mrs. Bridge, which I thought was beautiful, and a number of excellent short stories, but I know he’s produced a large body of fiction that’s much admired by people whose judgment I trust; so yes, sure, he too deserves to be much better known. Another excellent, underrated writer is Thomas Williams—or has he become well-established by now? If not, he ought to be.
PS: Who do you consider some other good, neglected writers?
RY: 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.
PS: Does that imply that you don’t feel qualified?
RY: Oh, hell, I rant and rail against the literary establishment all the time, qualified or not. For example, I’ve tried and tried, but I just can’t stomach most of what’s now being called “The postrealistic fiction.” I can’t read John Barth with anything but irritation. I can’t read Donald Barthelme at all. I can read hardly any of the many other new “postrealists,” whatever their ever-increasingly famous names may be. I know it’s all very fashionable stuff and I know it provides an endless supply of witty little intellectual puzzles and puns and fun and games for graduate students to play with, but it’s emotionally empty. It isn’t felt.
The one exception I’d make is Vonnegut, who is often—mistakenly, I think—placed among the “postrealists.” The difference is that there’s real fictional meat in his best work, despite the surface flippancy of his style—real suffering, real passion, real humor—especially in books like Mother Night and Slaughterhouse-Five. And speaking of neglect, Vonnegut worked in almost total obscurity for many years before the college kids discovered him and made him a culture-hero overnight— mostly for the wrong reasons. When I hear kids today mention him in the same breath with some silly clown like Richard Brautigan it drives me up the wall.
PS: OK; so much for the “postrealists.”Who among the more traditional writers with major reputations and wide readership—“Establishment” writers, let’s say—do you respect and admire? You’ve already mentioned Styron.
RY: Yes, Styron, certainly. And quite a few others, probably too many to name off the top of my head. Jones, at least the Jones of From Here to Eternity and The Thin Red Line. And Mailer, at least the prejournalistic, prepugilistic Mailer. And I still admire the early Salinger, very much. His first two books had an enormous impact on me, as they did on just about everybody else at the time, before he got tangled up in those convoluted Glass-family chronicles and fell into critical disrepute, and then into silence. But wouldn’t it be fine if he came back after all these years with a great big whopper of a novel, and rubbed everybody’s noses in it? I’d love to see that happen.
I think Updike’s very talented, though none of his novels have been wholly successful for me so far. I thought Philip Roth was vastly overrated for years until I read Portnoy’s Complaint; then I forgave him everything, including his millions of dollars. And old Nabokov, of course—how can anybody ignore him? I’m not one of those who stands in total awe of Nabokov—he’s human, after all, and he can write less than perfectly sometimes, like anybody else, and there’s a sort of narcissistic, self-congratulatory streak in some of his work that’s annoying—but I think we all have to agree that a novel as great as Lolita comes along about once in a lifetime. I haven’t read very much of Isaac Singer yet, but from what I’ve read I know he’s the kind of novelist I respect—and there again, it’s terrible that he had to wait so long for recognition.
Jean Stafford is a beautiful writer—still underrated, I think, for all her achievement—and so is Eudora Welty. Peter Taylor has written a large number of the finest short stories I know—and speaking of stories, I almost forgot to mention Flannery O’Connor, who died so young and whose best work is still so alive.
I like some if not all of Cheever—much of his stuff seems cute and slick to me—and most of Malamud, especially The Assistant. Then, among the writers to emerge more recently into what Esquire Magazine once called the Red-Hot Center (or was it Red-Hot Circle?), I’ve enjoyed some of Bruce Friedman’s work, and I very much admire almost everything I’ve read by Thomas Berger. More recently still, I think Joan Didion deserved every bit of her big success with Play It As It Lays.
PS: Who among the newer first novelists are you interested in?
RY: I thought Leonard Gardner’s Fat City, which came out a couple of years ago, was an excellent first novel, and I was glad to see it win such immediate and general acclaim. Apart from that book, I guess the first novelists I’ve paid the most attention to are those I’ve known personally at Iowa over the years. Quite a number of them have been breaking into the field recently, getting their first books published with greater or lesser degrees of success, and I can’t say I’ve liked all of those books. The best of them so far, in my opinion, are those by Andre Dubus, James Crumley, James Whitehead, Mark Dintenfass, Nolan Porterfield, and Theodore Weesner. They’re all fine writers—modern writers in the best sense, traditional writers in the best sense. So, by the way, are some five or six other young writers I’ve known at Iowa who haven’t published their first books yet, but who will soon.
And damn, I wish they were all here now, in person, so we could sit around and drink and shout and get into wild, violent arguments about fiction, and end up singing songs and telling jokes and acting silly: then when everybody started going home to sober up and get back to work, I’d like very much to shake their hands and to wish them luck. Because plain luck, after all, may be the one thing a good writer needs most. I think it probably is the hardest and loneliest profession in the world, this crazy, obsessive business of trying to be a good writer. None of us ever knows how much time he has left, or how well he’ll be able to use that time, or whether, even if he does use his time well, his work will ever withstand and survive the terrible, inexorable indifference of time itself.