Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Thoughts on Writers Now Seldom Read -- Bellow, Stafford, and More

Today I have been thinking about the rather melancholy topic of famous writers who are now seldom read, either because their reputations have been re-evaluated, or because they have somehow simply slipped out of fashion. I was reminded of this subject when I read an essay by Lee Siegal in the March 23-April 5, 2015 issue of New York on two biographies of Saul Bellow. Siegal used the review as an occasion to note that ”many people under the age of 50 have barely heard of Bellow, if at all,” and to ponder why and how Nobel Prize-winning Bellow’s reputation seems to have slipped. Some say it is because his persona has been revealed to be cantankerous, or, worse, because his views on gender and race appear to have been very backward. Siegal also speculates that “Bellow’s fiction turned off readers and writers suspicious of intellectual abstractions and doubtful of the authority behind them.” Yet the reviewer remembers a time when Bellow’s fiction was extremely important to him, and he can’t forget that. I have written here (4/27/10) about my own extensive reading of and (very slight) connection with Bellow: I read and connected to his fiction in my early 20s, and met him briefly in my 30s, but never really read him after that. Just as I was thinking about the case of Bellow, I read a poem by Craig Morton Teicher in the Spring 2015 issue of The Paris Review, titled “Book Review: ‘The Mountain Lion’ by Jean Stafford.” The poet mourns that Stafford, a writer he ardently admires, is no longer read. He writes: “No one reads Stafford anymore – I asked/on Facebook. Stafford died, her/legacy gently dispatched/into the low air. O, life/is terrible, literature/ridiculous. Stafford’s prose,/teaming and rich as loam,/could take Jonathan Franzen’s/for a walk, feed it biscuits./But who cares? Who remembers?” What a powerful and sad (and witty! I like the parts about Facebook and about Franzen…) tribute! The sad fact, in the cases of Bellow and Stafford and so many other authors, is that time moves on, new authors are born and write and come into favor and displace the old, all except for the very few at the very top. And even “the very top” means little except perhaps that they have survived, and thus the argument becomes circular: the best survive because they are the best, and we know they are the best because they survive? And yet, and yet…during the period of decreasing readership for any given author, there are readers who do remember, and who are grateful for what they have experienced in reading these once well-known writers. Surely these authors' writings leave a trace for a long time. And their books are still in libraries and bookshops, waiting for at least a few new readers to discover them. So yes, this is a melancholy topic, and yet I can’t accept that any good writer’s work is wasted, gone completely. Somewhere, somehow, their influence must linger.
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