Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Forty years ago today

Well, yesterday. The rise and fall of literary reputations, about which I wrote below, provoked my wonder. What books were being praised exactly forty years ago?

In the New York Times Book Review of November 10, 1968, the following were listed as New and Recommended under fiction:

• Joyce Carol Oates, Expensive People.
• Saul Bellow, Mosby’s Memoirs.
• William Humphrey, A Time and a Place (”Two collections of excellent short stories,” the editors wrote in grouping the last two together).
• Millen Brand, Savage Sleep (“The story of the evolution of a psychiatrist, as he probes deeply into the causes of mental disorders”).
• Jerzy Kosinski, Steps. Now here is a reputation that has collapsed!

Otherwise it was a pretty measly Sunday for fiction. Richard M. Elman heartily disliked Richard Kim’s second novel The Innocent, Norma Rosen wondered whether François Sagan were “spoofing” François Sagan, Alan Lelchuk doubted that there was “finally a message from this literary put-on” that was Gerald Jay Goldberg’s first novel, and Robert Crichton concluded that Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Ragazzi, a novel about the street urchins of Rome that caused controversy when it was first published in Italy, has “not very much” meaning or value “for Americans today.”

Perhaps significantly, the non-fiction recommendations from the Book Review’s editors stand up much better forty years on:

• André Malraux, Anti-Memoirs.
The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell. An indispensable four-volume set.
• Robert Conquest, The Great Terror: Stalin’s Purge of the Thirties. Reprinted in 1990, this book achieved literary immortality, not only because it remains the definitive account of the Terror, but because it is a model of historical prose.
• John Berryman, His Toy, His Dream, His Rest. The firstsecond volume of the Dream Songs.

Is it the case that fiction is just harder to judge at the time than non-fiction?

Update: Dave Lull has corrected me. 77 Dream Songs (1964) was the first volume in Berryman’s sequence. I ought to have checked rather than relying upon memory.

Update, II: A friend writes privately: “How awful to think the Oates plague has festered for so long.” Couldn’t’ve said it better.