Emdashes—Modern Times Between the Lines

The Basics:
About Emdashes | Email us

Before it moved to The New Yorker:
Ask the Librarians

Best of Emdashes: Hit Parade
A Web Comic: The Wavy Rule


Richard Yates: Getting His Due at Last

Filed under: The Katharine Wheel: On Fiction   Tagged: , , , , , , ,

Richard Yates, the toughest and least sentimental of American realists, has been getting a lot of good press lately, as his work is reissued, and it’s high time. After all, he died in 1992, too late to benefit from the attention. (This new appreciation for his work has already become absurd, though, almost before it’s begun. His excruciatingly depressing novel Revolutionary Road has just been made into a movie, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, that will be in theaters later this year.)

I’m a huge fan of Yates, mostly because I admire the heck out of Liars in Love, a story collection I recommend as the best introduction to his work. Reading those stories, it’s mystifying that Roger Angell should ever have written, as Richard Rayner reported in the L.A. Times, “It seems clearer and clearer to me that his kind of fiction is not what we’re looking for.”

Nine years after Yates’s death in 1992, though, his story “The Canal” was published in The New Yorker. I wonder if Angell liked it better than Yates’s previous work, or underwent a change of heart.

For a detailed summary of Yates’s sad, angry life and the great fiction it yielded, one can do no better than to read Stewart O’Nan’s passionate essay in The Boston Review. Don’t have time for it? Then I recommend Nick Fraser’s shorter overview, in The Guardian.

If those guys don’t make you want to read Yates, nothing will.


I knew Dick, a little. I was a creative writing undergrad at Alabama when he came as visiting writer, and was utterly blown away by his reading of “Oh Joseph, I’m So Tired,” from Liars in Love. I came away from the reading having spent too much money on books — the local literary book shop always had a table at department readings — but ended up inadvertently picking up a first edition of Liars in the process. Dick signed them all at the reception, smiling at my obvious nervousness.

I saw him around the department, campus, and town with some frequency; we developed at least a nodding acquaintanceship, based largely I suspect on a long conversation we had at the department Christmas party over Budweisers and cigarettes we weren’t supposed to smoke in there (but who was gonna tell Dick?). I was an over-earnest 20 year old, but he was kind to me.

Later, when I took an off-campus duplex, I realized to my great pleasure that it was down the street from Dick’s own — though at the same time, it sort of horrified me. My roommate there said it best when he wrote, “It hurts my feelings that Dick has to live in the same kind of shitty duplex we do.” It did. It still does.

Dick never looked very healthy — comparing his author photo on my copy of Liars to the man I knew was a bad idea — but soon he started to look frail. His emphysema was bad enough that he became one of those oxygen-tethered people; a grad student was assigned to him to help out generally. He didn’t leave Tuscaloosa when his year was up; ostensibly, he was writing his final novel, but in the end he ran out of time.

I still remember the cold feeling I got in my gut when a friend of mine came by to tell me Dick had died. I knocked off for the day, and Jon and I picked up a bottle of whiskey to toast our favorite writer. If we’d been in charge, we’d have given him a nice place to live, we said. A shiny new typewriter on which to write. A car that didn’t sputter and cough and fail to start on cold mornings. Yates hadn’t wanted penthouses or fancy cars or probably even a new typewriter, though. He only wanted readers, as he told Andre Dubus in a 1989 Black Warrior Review piece.

I’m terribly glad Dick is getting the attention he’s long deserved, even if it’s posthumous. It’s awful he didn’t get to see it, or enjoy it, but the last several years have nevertheless put his work in more hands than ever before. The movie, God willing, will push it even further.

What rueful memories, Chet; thanks for sharing them. The portrait you paint is entirely in keeping with Yates’ fictional characters. Wish I could’ve been there for his reading of “Oh Joseph, I’m So Tired” — that’s one of my all-time favorite stories.

Richard Yates is justly remembered as a great short-story writer, but his “Revolutionary Road” holds a place among the best postwar novels. Yates is now receiving the attention he deserves. A putdown by Michiko Kakutani in the Times a few years ago only shows her lack of true critical depth.

I doubt the movie will make his writing more popular. It may make a few people familiar with his name but it won’t make his writing more popular. Richard Ford and Tobias Woolf have done a lot to bring his writing to the fore … but a movie usually does more harm to a writer than good. I do not see it raising his profile any further than it already has been raised through re-publishing of his works. This is likely as good as it gets.

It is wonderful to read good literature. Here is to Richard Yates!

He only wanted readers, as he told Andre Dubus in a 1989 Black Warrior Review piece.

that’s one of my all-time favorite stories.

“Liars in Love” is also my favorite Yates work. I picked it up as an undergraduate at SUNY New Paltz one afternoon, browsing through the library for something to read instead of studying some awful science text. I was blown away by his writing, which seemed to give me an insight into my parents’ world - the post WWII world of young adults who drank cocktails, acted inexplicably cruel on occasion and who seemed to be always wanting something more. “Saying Goodbye to Sally” remains my favorite short story of Yates. It’s a perfect snapshot of a short lived love affair, and although sad, the humor and self-awareness of the writer permeates the story. I read all of Yates’ work after reading “Liars in Love,” but it still remains my favorite. I’m sorry success eluded him in his life, but I think he knew that many, many people loved and appreciated his work. What more could a writer ever ask for?

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, it may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Thanks for waiting.)

2008 Webby Awards Official Honoree