Monday, November 10, 2008

Watch for falling reputations!

“In retrospect,” Frederick Crews wrote forty years ago in the Partisan Review, “it is easy to see that literary value in any given age has been glimpsed through a haze of ideology. . . .”

Rod Liddle’s retrospective on him yesterday in the Sunday Times suggests that John Updike is the latest overpraised American novelist for whom the haze has been cleared away. Liddle sets out to honor Couples (1968), which was, he says, “the first mainstream upmarket novel that really did sex. . . . Then, after Couples, the deluge. . . .”

Liddle’s historical proposition is interesting, though debatable (Mary McCarthy may have a better claim, having preceded Updike by five years with The Group.) His case for the novel’s literary merit is even more of an invitation to a quarrel (“It is an astonishing and beautiful book, perhaps Updike’s best”).

What really got me thinking, though, was Liddle’s opening question: “Has the reputation of any novelist fallen quite so far and so quickly as that of John Updike?” Well, he is not alone in having outlived his reputation, that’s for sure. James Gould Cozzens won the Pulitzer Prize in 1949 for Guard of Honor, but the reaction of “upmarket” critics eighteen years later to By Love Possessed destroyed his literary reputation. His last book, published the same year as Couples, was widely scorned. Ironically, the harshest and most effective critic was Updike, although many of his conclusions (“Cozzens has purposely evolved a prose unique in mannered ugliness”) would come in time to apply with equal validity to the critic.

When he died ten years later Cozzens was almost completely forgotten. The New York Times did not notice his death for three months. And few now read him, even though Robert Nisbet nominated Guard of Honor, along with Lolita, for immortality (both books express “something distinctive and important about our age”).

[Autobiographical note: Cozzens’s Just and the Unjust (1942) was one of the first involved and difficult novels that I ever read. In the sixth grade, wanting to be a lawyer when I grew up, I sent off a letter to the Harvard Law School—asking for what, I can’t remember or imagine. In reply, I received a bibliography of books about the law. Included was The Just and the Unjust. I found a copy in the used bookstore next to the Golden State Theatre in downtown Riverside—a first edition, still in my library—and read it from cover to cover, all 434 pages. Whether Cozzens is to be credited or blamed for the fact that I became a literary scholar rather than a lawyer is something I’m not prepared to say.]

A good guessing game for literary bloggers would be to identify the writers whose reputations will collapse in the next forty years. My money is on Don DeLillo, although Richard Powers and Michael Chabon are close seconds.