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February 3, 2009

Reactionary Road: James Wood Revisits Richard Yates

In a 2004 Guardian review of Blake Bailey’s biography of Richard Yates, A Tragic Honesty, James Wood gave the following evaluation of the author best known for Revolutionary Road:

Bailey's book, so densely researched and chattily peopled, is not just the biography of one writer's heroic struggle to be himself, but a portrait of a distinct literary scene:  that of minor American realist writers, who during the 60s and 70s began to fill university creative writing courses (Iowa being the most famous). Yates was in some ways a larger and broader talent than this world allowed; but he was prey to its limitations, too, above all its stubborn anti-intellectualism and its fixed conviction that fiction can have nothing to do with "ideas".

Bailey calls Yates a "great" writer, but he seems more often a beautiful minor craftsman. 

It’s a sober and sensible summing-up in a remarkably – for Wood, anyway – sober and sensible review.  It shows what sort of middling, inoffensive reviewer Wood might aspire to be if he weren’t always determined to write “his usual hectoring sermon,” as Dan Green once so pricelessly put it.  And it is right about Yates, too, a minor figure whose best work does no more than elevate him to the status of a major-minor.  The review even comes within spitting distance of the really crucial realization that Yates was limited by the very artistic means that enabled his work in the first place.  But to go further would mean to indict “realism” itself, whose bad-faith conventions and superceded protocols must necessarily consign any contemporary practitioner (not to mention critical advocate) to minor status.  That honesty, “tragic” or otherwise, eludes Wood. 

So instead, in his more recent New Yorker article on Yates’s Revolutionary Road, Wood doubles down on the bad faith.  There is an interesting and, I think, revealing difference between the earlier and the later reviews.  It’s not that Wood openly reverses his judgment and elevates Yates to a great or major figure, but the superlatives are noticeably more lavish – “the decade’s great, terrifying indictment of suburban surrender” and “a brilliant rewriting of Madame Bovary” are offered as blurb candidates – and the negatives are correspondingly more muted, with the overall verdict of “minor,” in particular, wholly omitted.  The difference between the two evaluations is still one of degree rather than kind, but pushed to the very threshold where the former turns into the latter – another few taps of the chisel and the bust would be ready for an alcove in eternity.  And the tone of the later article is different as well, more polemical and, yes, hectoring; the critic has mounted his hobby-horse again – it is James Wood, you might say, with a vengeance.  But revenge against what, or whom?  What accounts for this difference between the two Yates articles? 

Yates’s 1961 Revolutionary Road is a well-crafted instance of what amounts to an identifiable subgenre, the realist novel of suburban dysfunction, which grew out of the earlier (pre-WW2) novel of small-town dysfunction (such as Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street or John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samara) and which would grow into the dull-as-dishwater “minimalism” of Raymond Carver and Ann Beattie in the 80s.  If John Cheever was hailed as the “Chekhov of the suburbs,” some readers would like to claim Yates as that terrain’s Dostoevsky, but his work ultimately feels too merely “crafted” rather than wrung from its own inner imperative.  No doubt this is why Revolutionary Road is a favorite MFA-program novel – it is often the centerpiece of “Time Management in the Novel” workshops, for instance – where the “writing as craft” (i.e., paint by numbers) ethic prevails.  What realist “suburban dysfunction” novels have in common is the extent to which they almost invariably appear constrained by the very sensibility they purport to critique.  They are straitjacketed critiques of straitjackets, provincial novels of provincial narrowness, carefully staking out that “serious” middle ground – the suburbs, if you will – between the disorderly metropolis of actual literature and the vast acreage of commercial realism’s rural idiocy.*

Now that we know the score on Rev Road, let’s turn to the polemical heart of Wood’s sermon on the text of Yates:

Detractors of classic realism like to claim that it is the most complacent of narrative styles, because it never questions its own artifice. But “Revolutionary Road” is, essentially, a novel all about artifice, and thus about its own artifice. When Frank criticizes the suburbs for being insufficiently daring, his complacent ranting has the feel of a performance, no more successful than April Wheeler’s “The Petrified Forest.” But then Frank is always playing a role. He is introduced as a man who had “the kind of unemphatic good looks that an advertising photographer might use to portray the discerning consumer of well-made but inexpensive merchandise (Why Pay More?)” As a student at Columbia, he played at being an intellectual—he was “a Jean-Paul Sartre sort of man.” He plays at being a father, and at being a husband. Later in the book, when he is trying to persuade April not to attempt the abortion, he decides that he must impress her as he had once done when they were young. He embarks on a long effort to dissuade her, which involves “a form of masculine flirtation that was as skillful as any girl’s.” He holds his head “unnaturally erect,” and takes care to arrange his features in “a virile frown” whenever he lights a cigarette. On Revolutionary Road, life has collapsed into advertising: his attempt at dissuasion is described by Yates as “a sales campaign.”

But, of course, a novel in which characters have become brand names—“a Jean-Paul Sartre sort of man”—is a novel that also raises the question: So what is a rounded literary character? Frank’s theatricality is a form of fiction-making, after all. When Mrs. Campbell, at the end of the novel, tells the new owners about the “tragedy” of the Wheelers, she does so in a spirit of corrosive and luxurious gossip—her voice, Yates says, had taken on “a voluptuous narrative pleasure.” But she is doing, in this sense, no more than the novel itself has done; and if we find Mrs. Campbell’s lingering and cruel narrative offensive we shall have also to judge Yates’s own lingering and cruel narrative, and our ready complicity in it. In its forty-seventh year, “Revolutionary Road” seems more radical than ever.

These almost comical contortions place this review at quite a distance from the sober evaluations of 2004.  Now we’re being asked to believe that a novel about characters who “wear masks” or which has self-dramatization as one of its themes is more or less the same as, say, a Luigi Pirandello play.  They’re all in the category of the radically self-reflexive artifact, you see, which is why any responsible teacher of literature can go ahead and substitute Yates’s Revolutionary Road for Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons on the syllabus, just like Wood does in his own Harvard courses.  And for graduate-level students ready to tackle advanced literary theory, he’s put Eric Berne’s classic of Transactional Analysis, Games People Play, on reserve at Widener Library.       

So what has made Wood become so strained and silly?  Or more accurately, what has provoked him to bring his evaluation of Yates in line with his usual standard of strained silliness?  For in most respects this is indeed a run-of-the-mill Wood review, yet another example of his insistent Restorationism, extolling what is traditional and conventional as somehow “advanced” and assimilating what is innovative back into the traditional.  But there is nonetheless an extra edge here, a more pronounced note of hysteria inflecting the desperate illogic of the central argument.  “Detractors of classic realism like to claim that it is the most complacent of narrative styles,” he writes.  Unfortunately there aren’t really so many of these detractors about, and most of them are confined to the “blogosphere.”  Is Wood now swiping at blog critics in the pages of the New Yorker? 

I think it’s rather that a critique bearing some resemblance to those which have been circulating among lit-bloggers hostile to mainstream realism had finally percolated up into a mainstream publication, in the form of Zadie Smith’s much-discussed “Two Paths for the Novel” in the New York Review of Books.  In that article, Smith arraigns a certain type of realist novel – exemplified by Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, much approved by Wood – on charges very similar to those we find Wood responding to in his Yates review, including the charge of “complacency.”  As welcome as Smith’s article was, I have the feeling that it was distilled from a largely unacknowledged tutorial at sites such as This Space, The Reading Experience, and Ready Steady Book, among others.  Whatever its origins, it showed that she had shaken off the case of Stockholm Syndrome that had once upon a time prompted her to thank Wood for putting the screws to her first book, and had marshaled her forces to critique, however implicitly, her critic.  Wood’s review of Revolutionary Road – in which he tortures his own logic instead of her book – must be seen as his rebuttal, equally indirect and so self-lamed as to be impotent.   


* Of course, as novels such as Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children and Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland have shown, a fundamentally suburban novel can be written with an “urban” setting.

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