Last night I read this interview of Richard Yates.
I've been thinking about it all day.
I've been thinking about why isn't Richard Yates a famous writer.
This will basically concern the book Revolutionary Road.
(I'm babbling here, these are more notes than theory)
Here are some speculations:
Revolutionary Road came out in 1961. At that time the beatniks were out. Writers like Kerouac did not have complex character development like Yates. But Kerouac was fun. Kerouac is highly enjoyable to someone that wants to be hip most anywhere in the world. But this is what Yates had to say about writers like Kerouac and the beatniks, I assume he is referring to them:
This is from the interview with Ploughshares:
"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 know 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.
Q. 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. . .
Y. Oh, the hell with that. I don't believe that.
Q. And yet it's what's happening: personal journalism and straight autobiography are taking over from traditional fiction, contaminating it to a shameless degree.
Y. Well, I find that reprehensible. And you do too, don't you?
Q. 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."
He wrote about it in The Easter Parade, Emily Grimes boyfriend the teacher at Iowa University confronted with the young people and their liking of new types of personal literature.
Literature in the fifties became more personal:
The three beatnik classics, Howl, On the Road, and The Naked Lunch all started with the letter "I".
Hunter S, Thompson who was mostly a journalist, but wrote more in a fiction style wrote only in first person.
Bukowski basically only wrote in first person personal writing.
Why basically a new personal literature came out of the fifties Yates says himself in the interview, "I think I meant it more as an indictment of American life in the nineteen-fifties. 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."
The "I" symbolized, a personal individuality. More on this later in the post.
Another thing Yates had to compete with was during that time writers usually took a stance on something, they weren't just writers but mythical in some way.
Kerouac was committed to the idea of travel and some sort spiritual thing.
Thompson was committed to politics and drugs.
Bukowski was committed to drinking and poverty.
Norman Mailer was committed to politics. And knifing his wife.
Burroughs was committed to politics, drugs, homosexuality.
Ken Kesey who road around the bus doing acid and being political.
Yates wasn't mythic or committed. He had way too much competition with those extremely charismatic people.
But here is my point in writing this:
Yates seemed trapped in the academia. Obviously from reading that interview he knew a shit load about writing. And he didn't have to use big words and cliches to sound intelligent. He was actually intelligent and knew what he was talking about when it came to writing.
But he didn't seem to have any idea about audience. Like who his audience could be or who would buy his books.
He refused to acknowledge the beats and join the first person writers everybody loved.
I don't think Revolutionary Road strictly academic though. When I read revolutionary Road I didn't know much about Yates. I assumed from reading it that it was an existential commie book. The characters in it seem to be motivated by circumstances, not by genetics or heredity. That if someone lives in the suburbs where everything looks the same, everything is safe and boring and average, you as a person will become like that also.
From the absurd situations of Mr.Givings hearing aide, Frank Wheeler working on his yard.
And how he shows the people making choices through out the story.
But when I read this interview I don't see any of that.
He just wrote honestly about human existence and it came out like that.
The thing that gets me is his lack of "I", of the personal in it.
I agree with Yates that individuality died in America, if it was ever there to begin I don't know. I just read Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis which is similar subject matter, and there wasn't any individuality there either.
Maybe Yates is more correct in assuming there is no individuality. That there are only circumstances. And when you stick any collective of humans in those similar circumstances they will behave similar.
That the beatniks were clinging to a past that never existed anyway.
But we could call John Givings a beatnik. Yates sticks the beatnik in the mental ward. You could say that John Givings is an actual "Jean Paul Sartre sort of man".
Maybe Yates is saying, or the book is saying, "If you want to be an individual you're crazy and your life will suck. And if you want to be normal your life will suck but will have a job."
The book somewhat resembles committed literature, like Sartre did with his plays.
People's personalities are based off of circumstances, they make choices, they act absurd, it ends in a stupid tragedy that could have been avoided. His books make a political statement. He is saying with Revolutionary Road, "Look, the revolution has ended. Time to start over again with something new." At that time, the term revolution did not just mean an overthrow of the government. It meant that a country has a revolution and for years after the ideals of the original takeover gets implemented into the population. He basically said, "The ideals have been implemented, this is the dream of the American revolution, and it ended with Frank Wheeler aborting all his dreams, April Wheeler dying in a kitchen, an old women obsessed with plants, a man that turns down his hearing aide so he can't hear his wife, and one person that is an individual that society put in a mental ward. You had a revolution, fought one war after another, had one voting period after another and this is where it ended up."
all hope has died in Revolutionary Road.
another thing that fucked Yates.
Yates book was directed at the white collar suburban class.
He wrote horribly about the white collar suburban class. In an earlier post I stated that people like to read about lives worse than theirs. Barely anyone wants to read about themselves. He wrote too close to home.
It is like that thing, how people don't want to be around people just like them.
Like I've met women who get beat by their boyfriends who can't stand to be near other women like that. Because the other women reminds them of themselves.
There are a lot books about the suburbs, but about it being boring or about it being shitty. But Yates points his finger in it, he points it right at the reader and says, "I bet you are just like this?"
Which isn't comforting while reading a book on your porch on a sunny day.
Personally I love the book. If someone asked me to write a list of the best books of 20th century American writing I would put Revolutionary Road in my top five.
Personally to me, this book is such an accurate picture of American life, such a straight out photograph, that no one really knows what to do with it. It is scary.
On the back of the book there are some blurbs, none of them mention any of the situations or characters in the book. It reminds of Bukowski, no one ever mentions his characters or situations, but they write endlessly about him.
It is fear of our actual lives. No one wants to admit they might be Frank Wheeler, hell, no one even wants to admit they might be related to Frank Wheeler.
I just read Babbitt, which reminded me of Frank Wheeler. Frank Wheeler is normal. He works hard, he pays bills on time, he has a nice yard, he thinks about his neighbor's opinion of him, he has children, he gets jealous of his wife, he wants to be respected, he has ideas on politics but doesn't actually believe any of them, he just exists in sad complacent narcissistic vortex of mediocrity where nothing really matters. He goes to work and pays the bills on time.
Which is not a legendary character like Henry Chinaski, Dean Moriarty, Yossarian, Raskolnikov, Meursault and Bigger Thomas.
Frank Wheeler is the ultimate anti-hero. He makes the nameless character of The Underground Notes look like superman.
In a culture obsessed with celebrity and fame, that assumes it is full of great minds, fantastic individuals, happy people, innovative inventers and all around greatness Frank Wheeler is the anti-christ.
Frank Wheeler is a square. Besides his affair, he doesn't do anything the whole book except for kill time. He makes up all these plans and has all these ideas, but they exist in land of language, nothing is made into reality. Frank Wheeler lives purely out of habit.
Maybe one of the terrifying things about the book is, that we live our lives in habit, that after a certain age, we buy a house, get married, have kids, and then just live for 50 years out of habit. Which is the antithesis to On The Road, which is people living impulsively.
There are a lot of reasons Revolutionary Road is a great great book. An almost impossible human accomplishment. But there are also a lot of reasons why no one reads it too.