Friday, June 07, 2013

Fiction of the ’sixties

John Williams’s Stoner has been getting a lot of buzz lately, with stories in the Independent (a “slow-burn sensation,” at least “Until now”) and at the Millions (“through each decade, the book continued to be remembered”). Earlier in the week Bryan Appleyard of the Sunday Times phoned to interview me about my essay on the novel for Commentary. I won’t say anything about the interview, except to predict that Appleyard, unlike most of the other literary journalists who have written on it in recent weeks, will not focus on the novel’s publication history and reception, but on Stoner itself.

Stoner was published in 1965. Another novel from the same decade, which is beginning to generate some buzz because his daughter Katherine Powers is publishing his letters in the form of a novel about family life later this summer (Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life), is J. F. Powers’s Morte D’Urban (1962). Not coincidentally, both it and Stoner have been reprinted in lovely NYRB Classics editions. The other thing the books have in common is that they are both one of a kind. Nothing else like them—not even their authors’ later books—was ever written again.

A strong case can be made that the ’sixties were the best decade for American fiction—better even than the ’twenties. There are the obvious classics (Rabbit, Run, Catch-22, The Moviegoer, Revolutionary Road, Pale Fire, V., Herzog, A Fan’s Notes, Portnoy’s Complaint), and the last of those titles suggests how important the ’sixties were as a transitional decade or even a fulcrum for prying open the sexual reticence of the American novel.

But I am thinking of the minor classics from the ’sixties, the underground classics, the amazing books that still hold up and repay reading and rereading:

John Barth, The Sot-Weed Factor
E. L. Doctorow, Welcome to Hard Times
Wright Morris, Ceremony in Lone Tree
Flannery O’Connor, The Violent Bear It Away
John Updike, Rabbit, Run

R. V. Cassill, Clem Anderson
Peter De Vries, The Blood of the Lamb
Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle
Joseph Heller, Catch-22
Walker Percy, The Moviegoer
Edward Lewis Wallant, The Pawnbroker
Richard Yates, Revolutionary Road

Bruce Jay Friedman, Stern
Norman Fruchter, Coat Upon a Stick
Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire
Dawn Powell, The Golden Spur
J. F. Powers, Morte D’Urban
Clancy Sigal, Going Away
Isaac Bashevis Singer, The Slave

Wright Morris, Cause for Wonder
Thomas Pynchon, V.

Louis Auchincloss, The Rector of Justin
Saul Bellow, Herzog
Elaine Dundy, The Old Man and Me [Ed.: Later addition—see below.]
Thomas Berger, Little Big Man
Thomas Gallagher, Oona O’

James Leo Herlihy, Midnight Cowboy
Maureen Howard, Bridgeport Bus
Richard G. Stern, Stitch
John Williams, Stoner

Evan S. Connell Jr., The Diary of a Rapist
Ross Macdonald, Black Money
Larry McMurtry, The Last Picture Show
Bernard Malamud, The Fixer
Charles Portis, Norwood
Wilfrid Sheed, Office Politics

Stanley Elkin, A Bad Man
James B. Hall, Mayo Sergeant

Frederick Exley, A Fan’s Notes
Brian Moore, I Am Mary Dunne
Charles Portis, True Grit

Leonard Gardner, Fat City
Leo Litwak, Waiting for the News
Philip Roth, Portnoy’s Complaint
Thomas Williams, Whipple’s Castle

By any measure, that is an astonishing run of great and near-great fiction. What is fascinating is that several of the decade’s books which are now recognized as classics, including Revolutionary Road and A Fan’s Notes, were largely neglected during their own publishing season. They were elevated to agreed-upon greatness only later. Even The Moviegoer’s 1962 National Book Award was something a rediscovery. At the time, many critics complained that no one had ever heard of Percy’s first novel.

Such, perhaps, is the decade’s keynote. Not many readers of this blog, I would wager, have read Clem Anderson, Going Away, Cause for Wonder, Oona O’, Bridgeport Bus, Office Politics, I Am Mary Dunne, or Whipple’s Castle. And if I were to suggest that these books would be a better use of their reading time than the latest celebrated titles (Philipp Meyer’s The Son, for example, or Colum McCann’s TransAtlantic), I’d be dismissed with a condescending laugh. The pressure in the literary culture is to “keep up,” to “keep current.” Few will acknowledge that this pressure serves the business interests of the publishing houses, but not literature. Nine-tenths of what passes for literary discussion at any given time is merely book advertising under the pseudonym of literary criticism. The best critics, the best readers, are (in Rohan Maitzen’s wonderful phrase) fearlessly behind the curve.

A good place to start falling behind is with the fiction of the ’sixties.

Update: No sooner had I posted this list than the British novelist Linda Grant tweeted: “Did women not start writing fiction till the 70s?” What does it say about me that I never anticipate this objection, although it has become a routine of the literary life? What does it say: besides the fact that I don’t think about fiction in gender terms, I mean. Three of the names on the original list—Flannery O’Connor, Dawn Powell, Maureen Howard—are women’s names. I replied to Grant as I have taken to replying to such accusations: “[S]ince three women are too few, what percentage would be adequate?” This question is never answered. The implication is “more—no matter how many women you have included on whatever list, male critic.”

In plain fact, I’d considered and silently passed over several novels by women—Hortense Calisher’s False Entry, Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools, Mary McCarthy’s The Group—because they are not novels that, in my experience, repay rereading (the standard advanced above). In reply, Grant recommended that I consult the Virago backlist to see whom I had “missed.” I asked Grant which of the novels on Virago’s list was an American novel from the ’sixties. Instead of naming a single title, Grant shot back: “Just suggesting you refresh your own memory about the ‘woman's novel.’ ”

So in the end Grant simply wanted to change the subject—from American fiction of the ’sixties (my subject) to women’s writing (hers). Her insinuation that as a critic I am “forgetful” of women writers was a bit surprising, it seemed to me, coming from a writer whose novel When I Lived in Modern Times I had praised extravagantly, ten years or more after it was first published, in an effort to keep its reputation alive. Perhaps it is too much to expect that such a writer might familiarize herself with my other critical writings to see whether it is really true that my “memory” of women’s writing needs “refreshing.” And I won’t defend my record as a critic here. (I’m tired of doing so. I’m tired of being expected to do so.) Since Grant would not, however, I closely examined the Virago list and found one novel that I should have included on my list above. So I’ve added Elaine Dundy’s The Old Man and Me, a novel that is delightful in its harsh and biting tone.

But Grant did not ask me to include a specific book. She was not really interested in books at all. She was interested in an abstract demand for literary equity, which might have been satisfied by any books, as long as their number was right.

Update, II: I’ve been thinking a lot, ever since Linda Grant obliged me to do so, about fiction by women during the ’sixties. My old friend Carol Sklenicka, who is writing her biography, makes a strong case for Alice Adams’s Careless Love (1966) in the comments section.

Jessamyn West published a “companion” to The Friendly Persuasion (a prequel, really, but the word was not yet in existence) entitled Except for Me and Thee in 1969. In the New York Times Book Review, Carlos Baker found it “paler” than the first book, but praised its picture of domestic life on the Indiana frontier—“thankful, satisfying, unsentimental.” He also identified himself as among those who “are always eager to begin a new book by Jessamyn West.”

Joy to Levine! (1962), Norma Rosen’s first novel, about a New York office worker being squeezed out by women and automation, was described by Harper’s as “beautifully poised between pathos and comedy.”

Nine Months in the Life of an Old Maid (1969), Judith Rossner’s second novel, is a striking and unusual study of three siblings who are voluntarily orphaned by their Communist parents and grow up alone on Long Island.

None of these novels is great, perhaps not even near-great, but they shouldn’t be entirely forgotten either—especially since they are not generic novels by women, but interesting books with interesting strengths and equally interesting flaws.

There was a genuine masterpiece by a woman that was published as a novel in 1963—Lore Segal’s Other People’s Houses. The trouble is that, as marvelous as it is (its prose is magical), the book is not really a novel; it is a memoir. It was published as a novel only because it was written before memoirs were all the rage. As another famous woman would later say, “What difference does it make?” Quite a lot, I think. Segal’s next books—Lucinella (1976), a comedy of the New York literary world, and the hilarious interracial immigrant romance Her First American (1985)—are wildly inventive.

Other People’s Houses doesn't require the aid of invention. It traces her Austrian Jewish family’s flight from the Nazis in 1938 ending in America and her marriage in 1961 to David Segal, an editor at Alfred A. Knopf. Much of the dialogue is “fictionalized,” I’m sure, but the book takes its structure from the Segal family’s rambling experience and does not transmute it into art, no matter how beautifully it is written. Does it belong on a list of great ’sixties fiction? Can we agree it belongs on any list of great writing from the ’sixties (along with, say, Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem), and leave it at that?


David Belbin said...

Interesting post, thanks. Will follow some of those up. I read Stoner recently & blogged about it, having had it on a shelf for 2 years. I've read 'I Am Mary Dunne' at least 3 times (I wrote an undergraduate dissertation about Moore) and agree it's a terrific novel, but calling it an American one is a stretch. Moore might have been living in Malibu by then, but he was born and grew up in Belfast, and had Canadian citizenship having lived there for about a decade until not long before he wrote IAMD. While it's a leap forward in his fiction, it has a lot of things in common with my favourite of his novels, 'The Doctor's Wife'. (That said, one of the things I love about Moore is that he never wrote the same kind of novel twice - he was always stretching himself).

Unknown said...

What intrigues me about novels of the 60s is the fact that I belatedly encountered them; during the 60s, I (with my foxhole mentality) was preoccupied with surviving military service, and reading "literature" was far from my mind.

Now, though, I return often to the 60s via literature, and I discover how much I missed. Because of my interests in the ways religions affect people, my favorites from among your listed titles are The Violent Bear It Away, The Moviegoer, and Morte d'Urban.

BTW, O'Connor's stories and novels are perennial favorites among students in my Intro to Lit classes; however, they most often enjoy O'Connor's works for all the wrong reasons. Ah, O'Connor would enjoy the irony there.

Now, here are two questions for you: (1) Why do you suppose the novels from the 60s remain so worthwhile? (2) Would you care to identify and explain your favorite from among those you have listed?

Both of your answers would graciously extend and expand the blog dialogue.

Stacey Lee Donohue said...

Well, I wouldn't cut Mary McCarthy or Katherine Anne Porter, but that's me.

Here are a few more American women writers, classics, to consider:

Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” 1961
Susann’s “Valley of the Dolls” 1966
LeGuin’s “The Left Hand of Darkness” 1969

But one of the great novels by a woman in the 1960s is written by a British writer:

Spark’s “The Pride of Miss Jean Brodie” 1961

Thanks for the list!

Unknown said...

Regarding Linda Grant's argument, Harold Bloom would be amused. I am likewise amused, but I am also weary. These kinds of demands that the canon be "opened" to apparently overlooked "others" are annoying because of their subjectivity, lack of specificity, and self-serving haughtiness. I suppose that statement will also annoy Ms. Grant.

Unknown said...

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Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

I had assumed that Harper Lee and Joyce Carol Oates and for that matter Kurt Vonnegut and Richard Brautigan were not mentioned because David did not think the relevant books were good enough.

Grant seemed to think their absence meant David did not know they existed. I was puzzled by the argument.

My own experience as an enthusiastic young student of American literature, circa 1990, matches this post, that the 1960s were an exciting time in American fiction. Plus poetry was not yet withered, essay writing was innovative. Of course, the 1920s through the 1960s as a whole form an amazing period for U.S. literature.

The 1960s are also a rich period for Latin American fiction and quite strong for French. I don't know what was going on.

D. G. Myers said...

Perhaps I should point out that Cynthia Ozick’s Trust dates from 1966. Anyone who knows me knows that I love Cynthia Ozick’s fiction. But I don’t I love Trust.

srhcb said...


Paul Strassfield, Ph.D., LCSW, PLLC, (Retired)/WRITER said...

Stoner by John Williams was also recorded by Blackstone Audio and read by Robin Field. Silently reading Stoner's NYRB Classics edition while listening to it read is especially good because it helps solve the mystery of the novel for the reader more than doing either alone. It's a pleasure easily obtained by courtesy of the public library.

George Sim Johnston said...

An intriguing post. At the moment, I'm rereading "Slaughterhouse Five" and think in holds up nicely. I think "Revolutionary Road" has many virtues, but its take on America is ultimately vulgar and reductive. Despite its many flaws, I like Cheever's "Bullet Park". You're right, though: A great decade for fiction.

Frank Gibbons said...

I'd put "Big Sur" by Jack Kerouac on a list of notable fiction of the Sixties. It movingly employs haunting language to chronicle the terrors and madness of alcoholism. It is a spiritual work that tries to stay the demon of despair. We don't quite get the sense that the Kerouac figure in “Big Sur” succeeds in this attempt (indeed, Kerouac himself would die of alcoholism eight years later.) Nonetheless, the writing is lyrical, even poetic. Kerouac's unique voice is too often overlooked when putting together a canon of writers from the fifties and sixties.

Carol said...

You had a list not too different from this one when you were getting your M.A. at Washington University in the 1970s. I've often wished I'd saved my copy of that list, but this will be a good replacement.

How about Alice Adams's first novel, CARELESS LOVE (aka THE FALL OF DAISY DUKE in Britain) ?

D. G. Myers said...

For those of you keeping score at home, “Carol” directly above is Carol Sklenicka, biographer of Raymond Carver.

Carol and I were at Washington University together in mid- to late ’seventies.

Careless Love strikes me as a “typical” first novel—a warmup by an obviously gifted writer for better stuff to come. And better stuff came in 1975 with Families and Survivors.

Carol said...

Probably Families and Survivors and Listening to Billie and Rich Rewards are Adams's most original novels, but Careless Love, albeit first, also has the virtue of genre-bending; she's following a sleezy romance pattern and making it smart and funny, a transformation that was lost on her American reviewers but appreciated by the Brits. She had, by the way, written several unpublished novels before she sold CARELESS LOVE. One thing I bet we can agree on-- she wrote fatter and worse novels in the 1980s. Thanks for fixing my italics. I don't know how to do that.

Carol Sklenicka said...

I think Adams's warmup novel (CARELESS LOVE) could be seen as a warm up for a whole genre of novels by and about women that rained upon us in the 1970s. It's focused on a single woman adventurer/victim whereas Adams's next set of novels attempted to look at phalanxes and tribes of characters held in interesting social tensions. Maybe it's that single-focus that makes CL a practice novel, but ... well, it depends on what our criteria are here. Your list is good. And the people complaining about "no women" are missing their own point, so to speak. There weren't as many workaday literary novels by women in the 1960s. They often didn't get published. Writers like Flannery O'Connor and Ozick transcend categories. What about Leonard Gardner's partner, Gina Berriault? Ella Leffland did not publish till 1970. Or Diane Johnson? Carolyn See? Joan Didion? You'll argue RUN RIVER is a first novel? What's interesting to me, I realize as I type, is the sleeper wave of serious writing by women on the west coast that's moving toward shore in the late 1960s. Which is a different subject from your list, but thanks for the opportunity to comment.

D. G. Myers said...

If it’s not clear from her comments it should be: Carol Sklenicka is working on Alice Adams.

D. G. Myers said...

As for Joan Didion, whom Carol mentions. Her masterpiece, Play It As It Lays, was her second novel, published in 1970. Like Adams’s, Didion’s first nove, Run, River, was a warmup.

Btw, I own a first edition of Play It As It Lays which was a gift from Carol Sklenicka.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed this post probably because I read many of these books when they were first published. If you read book reviews in The New Republic, you knew about both Stoner and A Fan's Notes. Also I appreciated your listing Ross Macdonald's Black Money, perhaps the finest novel of a writer who was more widely read in the 60's than today.


kevin quinn said...

I'm glad to see DeVries on your list, as well as the amazing Stanley Elkin! Both highlu under-rated, I think.

Richard Sharp said...

I just came across your article on the literature of the Sixties and thought you might possibly be interested in my guest post on the Reading the Past blog.
The article deals with the outlook for a wave of historical fiction about the Sixties rather than an assessment of fiction written in the era, but I thought it might appeal to your interest.

A couple of related observations: (1) in many respects those living through the Sixties were more affected by authors sho wrote well before the Sixties than those who wrote within the period (e.g. Orwell, Golding, William Blake) and (2) to a considerable extent the literature of the Sixties might be found more in song lyrics than books.

Enjoyed your 60s post.