Maura Kelly, a prolific writer for journals ranging from The New York Times to The Daily Beast and Marie Claire, wrote the other day to give this site a thumbs up. Prodded for a few of her own neglected favorites, she offered the works of James Salter, including Light Years, A Sport and a Pastime, and his memoir, Burning the Days. After decades of genuine neglect–books long out of print, periodic mentions by admiring fellow writers–Salter’s star has finally risen and one might fairly call him America’s best-known neglected writer. All of his books are back in print; he’s been a featured writer in the New York Times, and clocks in with over 300,000 hits on Google. None of which helped pay the rent forty years ago, of course.
She also mentioned John Gardner’s On Moral Fiction, which sparked a fair amount of controversy when it first appeared back in 1978. In th book, Gardner attempts to hold the high ground against contemporaries such as Bellow, Mailer, and the fearsome nouveau romans of Robbe-Grillet and others. He argues that,true art “clarifies life, establishes models of human action, casts nets toward the future, carefully judges our right and wrong directions, celebrates and mourns.” Whether his criticism was valid or not, it certainly helped make the book perhaps the best-selling work of literary criticism of its time. In a thoughtful piece for the Atlantic, published back in 2005, the novelist Mary Gordon argues–convincingly, I think–that Gardner was pretty much dead wrong. King Lear, for example, is certainly a work of true art, but one could hardly say that he’s a model of human action. A striking example of human action, yes. A model to be emulated, though? I side with Gordon’s much more straight-forward approach: that it’s the raising of “intriguing and unanswerable questions” that marks great fiction.
Gardner’s own novels, particularly Nickel Mountain and October Light, had a certain cult classic status among college students back in the 1970s, although I suspect the sales had as much to do with the fine cover art by Paul Bacon, which was a distinctive blend of the Gothic and the psychedelic that promised something much different from the grim tales of life in upstate New York one found inside the covers. I suspect that, in the long run, Gardner’s Grendel, a fierce retelling of the Beowulf tale from the perspective of the monster–a somewhat experimental piece more like shudder Barth’s Chimera than Middlemarch, that will maintain his artistic reputation.