Falling Off

If you’re a writer or the kind of reader who doesn’t confine yourself to Dan Brown and Harry Potter, you probably believe that brilliance eventually triumphs: that even if a writer’s work goes out of print during his or her lifetime (e.g., Faulkner until the late 1940s), the obscurity isn’t permanent. Taste changes, after all.

But even if we leave aside talent that never got a chance to write in the first place (e.g., Virginia Woolf’s famous imaginary example, in A Room of One’s Own, of Shakespeare’s sister), is this actually true?

In a great essay published in the Boston Review in 1999, Stewart O’Nan (noice name) uses the American novelist Richard Yates to argue that it isn’t, at least not all of the time. Ironically, this piece helped revitalize Yates’s literary-historical fortunes. In the twenty-first century he has gotten reprints, a first-rate biography, a long essay in The New Yorker (unfortunately it’s by the staggeringly dull James Wood), and a Leo DiCaprio vehicle. Good on him. (That said, he’ll always be the Stone Temple Pilots to John Cheever’s Nirvana. And I like STP–but they aren’t Nirvana.)

But given the decline of reading among Americans (and lots of other people), you could say that every great writer is doomed to oblivion. Eh? Eh?

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