BOUND TO WRITE

“..leaving the page of the book carelessly open” – Anne Sexton

A Tragic Honesty

Posted by Carla Maria Lucchetta on November 8, 2009

yates olderI just finished reading A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates by Blake Baily (who has also recently written a bio of John Cheever).  Lacking enough time to pleasure read, I had to renew it from the library twice so for about three months I carried this hefty 650 + page book to and from work, hauling it out to read on transit. In the age of e-readers and soft covers, let me tell you, a hard back, very thick book elicits stares. Not that I noticed them really, Mr. Yates‘ life was so engrossing that a couple of times I almost missed my subway/bus stops.

As a self-confessed literary snob, and reader of what I consider fine literature, I’m feeling a bit sheepish that I only discovered Yates last year, because of the pending film treatment of Revolutionary Road. He was writing in my adult lifetime therefore I could have bought his books and helped, at least in a small way, to contribute to his livelihood. That’s probably a ridiculous thought but it does occur to me that a man who is more well-known posthumously as one of the greatest contemporary American writers could have used at least one more reader while he was alive.

Yates did possess a tragic honesty, in his writing and in his life. He lived in ways people couldn’t understand, perhaps not even himself. He wrote about things people didn’t necessarily want to see in the world and recognize in themselves. It occurred to me while reading about his efforts to get those wonderfully crafted stories published in various magazines (esp. his heartbreak over the elusive New Yorker), that the era of reaching career pinnacles is somewhat behind us. The struggle for an agent, publisher, good review, film contract – these are dying goals in an age when you can publish your own blog, thoughts in 140 characters, and books to sell on consignment in stores. Hell, we might not be needing bookstore soon. So reading this biography was in so many ways a look back into an increasing lost time of the great struggle for lasting art.

Yates was one of those creatives who really couldn’t fully see his own talent – all the while using it – and his yates youngstories were often rejected because his characters seemed “bleak,” the atmosphere “dismal.” In actual fact, he was writing about human foibles and realities that are largely inarticulated, even still. Some criticized the fact that he mined the same field – that of his chaotic childhood, father-less (for all intents and purposes) and mother-ful (always there but terrifically selfish). I just think autobiography is  what most artists circle back to. His writing was so much more than a mere account of wrongs done to him. He nailed human intention vs. behaviour – for better or worse. I can’t think of anyone I’ve read who does it better.

Now I’m back to reading (in some cases re-reading) his novels and stories, which are all the richer by knowing what influenced and affected him. Like many artists, he was his own worst enemy, procrastinating writing by poor living habits, and sadly because of  his post-war ill health, made worse by his  alcoholism. Although I have yet to write my first novel, and have only published one short story, I can certainly relate to the difficulty of having to hold down a responsible “day job”  that leaves no free time, physically or mentally, for writing. I fully relate to his frustration with the “PR dodge” an anathema to any kind of creative writing. In true form, he came up with the perfect phrase to encapsulate the rally of many writers between paying the rent and contributing artistically.

Obviously anyone who admires the work of this master should read this book. After I exhaust the far two few books in Yates’ library I plan to go back to the book and author that drove his writing ambition, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby Thought I’ve read it numerous times, this time around I want to try to see it through the keen and sensitive writerly eyes of Richard Yates.

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3 Responses to “A Tragic Honesty”

  1. zhiv said

    This is a great post, and it’s nice to see your heartfelt enthusiasm for and attachment to Yates–I went through it myself, and it can be intense. The Bailey book marks a big step in the appreciation and understanding of his work. I’d love to read your thoughts on some of his other books, even the sequence of your reading. The timing of your post is funny because I just read a new bit of Yates myself and am stumbling back into all of it again. The Fitzgerald stuff is very interesting, and there’s a great story, “Saying Goodbye to Sally,” that has some nice echoes from Fitzgerald–it’s a miniature swipe at Gatsby, with FSF’s Hollywood sojourn thrown in. I love to see such a nice post on Bailey’s book and Yates.

    • Carla Maria Lucchetta said

      Funnily enough, I had read “Saying Goodbye to Sally” before I read the bio, but just read it again yesterday and it had a whole other level to it. Thanks for reading my thoughts, which I feel are wholly inarticulate next in relation to Yates’ talent and do not even begin to do his work justice. I’ve been enjoying my sojourn with him though, and am not yet ready to move on from him!

  2. Sue Brown said

    I only discovered Richard Yates’ work a few months ago. I could not put down Revolutionary Road. Am now reading Young Hearts Crying. Love this man’s work. Sad to read that his work wasn’t appreciated in his lifetime. He deserved better.

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