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Daphne Merkin

No Success Like Failure

From the wreckage of his life, Richard Yates salvaged a few good books

Posthumous literary reputations are tricky affairs, as is the appellation “a writer’s writer.” It might be said that both serve a compensatory function, making up for a less than obliging reality by suggesting an artistic worthiness that doesn’t translate into popular appeal. Such is the case of Richard Yates, once neglected and now celebrated, who died from emphysema at the age of sixty-six on November 7, 1992, after years of smoking four packs a day, alcoholism, and general bipolar calamitousness (including one early suicide attempt and intermittent breakdowns).

Yates enjoyed brief visibility and acclaim with the publication in 1961 of his first—and indubitably best—novel, Revolutionary Road, which was praised by William Styron, Alfred Kazin, and Dorothy Parker and nominated for the National Book Award. (It lost out to Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer.) A 1962 collection of stories, Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, was well reviewed but did not sell, and then came a seven-year interim before he delivered his second novel, A Special Providence, which made few critical waves and sold miserably. Over the ensuing decades, Yates came to be perceived as a writer who had failed to deliver on his promise, despite five more novels and another volume of stories. (The Collected Stories of Richard Yates was posthumously published in 2001.)...

Bookforum | February/March 2009.


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