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I’m sure you’ve heard this before: if it’s on your Facebook profile, it’s official. So let it be known that my religion is Richard Yates.

Richard Yates was a writer who still isn’t as well known as he should be, though I’d think come Christmas this year, that’ll change in a big way. His first novel, Revolutionary Road, was published in 1961 and will be finally seen on the big screen with the starting lineup of Titanic actors: Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, and Kathy Bates. Throw in Sam Mendes, the director of American Beauty, and you just may have a Best Picture Oscar nominee on your hands.

I’ve been obsessed with Yates since 2001, when The New Yorker printed a short story of his, “The Canal,” which concludes with this bit of beautiful ugliness of a couple in trouble:

“Betty,” Miller said. “Will you do me a favor?” And he watched her frown turn to a look of hurt in the light of a passing streetlamp. “Will you shut up? Will you please for God’s sake shut up?”

Like most writers, Yates hoped to be published in The New Yorker during his lifetime, but it never happened. “It seems clearer and clearer to me that his kind of fiction is not what we’re looking for,” wrote New Yorker fiction editor Roger Angell about Yates’ stories. I suppose you can say something like that when you have literary thoroughbreds like Cheever and Updike in your stable, but to me, it’s a shame that the magazine that supposedly showcases the finest writers of our time missed someone as talented as Yates.

When he died in 1992, I was a sophomore in college, oblivious to this writer’s passing. Nine years later, I would start reading Yates, and as I learned to appreciate every word of every sentence, my biggest regret was never being able to meet the man. I did everything I could to get closer: in 2003, the Housing Works bookstore in SoHo held a celebration for him, and I got to talk to Grace Schulman, a poet who was close friends with him back in the sixties. A month ago, I attended a reading at the Asian American Writer’s Workshop featuring Don Lee. After he read from his new novel, I asked him about Yates. Lee, who was the editor of Ploughshares for many years, wrote a lovely eulogy in the journal after his death, so I figured maybe he’d known him. He had indeed. Lee told me that when he got to Boston back in the eighties, what he wanted to do more than anything else was to meet the author. As luck would have it, on his second night in the city, that dream became a reality at Crossroads, a bar and restaurant on Beacon Street that Yates frequented.

“I just wanted to tell you that I’m a huge admirer of your work, Mr. Yates,” Lee said.

“Sit down,” Yates said, “have a drink.”

From all I’ve read, I knew Yates wasn’t always a pleasant man. There were plenty of stories of his drunken tirades and his mental instability (Disturbing the Peace, his third novel, was an autobiographical work that dealt with his convalescence at a psychiatric hospital), so maybe it was for the best that I got to know the best part of him: his writing.

Coming to that conclusion gave me the impetus to do something I’d been meaning to do for a while. Boston University’s Mugar Library houses the manuscript collection of Richard Yates, and my wife and I had tickets to see the Sox play at Fenway at the end of August. It was perfect timing.

If you have a favorite author who happens to have an archive of his or hers in some dusty, distant library, I would highly recommend a visit. It’s a hell of a high to hold and feel and read an earlier version of a manuscript of a serious writer at work, all those scribbled notes in the margins, paragraphs mercilessly excised with two crossing lines of a pen. I saw four different revisions of Revolutionary Road, and the sheer number of vastly different edits Yates made were not only astonishing but guilt-generating, because a month ago, I’d handed in the final edits of my first novel to my publisher. At that point, after working over my pages for what seemed like a Sisyphusian eternity, I couldn’t get it off the desk soon enough. But after seeing what Yates went through with his first novel, I felt like I could’ve done more, should’ve done more.

Lucky for me, the feeling didn’t last, because there was entirely too much to read from the collection and not enough time. If I had to pick my favorite Yates short story, it would be “A Glutton for Punishment,” a tale of a man who was “…a chronic, compulsive failure, a strange little boy in love with the attitudes of collapse.” It’s actually quite a funny piece, and it starts like this:

For a little while when Walter Henderson was nine years old he thought falling dead was the very zenith of romance, and so did a number of his friends.

In the archives, there is an earlier draft of the same story (“A Game of Ambush”), which begins:

For a while when I was nine years old, my friends and I thought falling dead was the very zenith of romance…

For Walt Henderson, who lived next door to me…

I didn’t get a chance to read it from start to finish, but I did skim it, and not only was it completely different, it was a lesser story. Yates had a soft spot for F. Scott Fitzgerald, and you can see a bit of the Nick Carraway narrative dynamic here, and it suffered for it. Seeing these sorts of misdirections from a writer of his caliber was an invaluable experience, once again reaffirming the belief that there are no brilliant writers, only brilliant rewriters.

I could’ve spent a month in those archives, but it was closing time. Crossroads was within walking distance, so that’s what my wife and I did, walk to Yates’ bar, and had ourselves a couple of beers.

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SUNG J. WOO is a writer living in New Jersey. Some of his short stories and essays have appeared in McSweeney's, KoreAm Journal, and The New York Times. His debut novel, Everything Asian (April 2009), has been praised by the Christian Science Monitor and received a starred review from Kirkus.

6 responses to “Searching for Richard Yates”

  1. Sung J. Woo says:

    Comment by Jim Simpson |Edit This
    2008-09-08 21:12:09

    I was first introduced to Yates’s life and work when I read an excerpt from A Tragic Honesty, a biography of the man by Blake Bailey in an issue of Night Train Magazine a few years ago. See — http://www.nighttrainmagazine.com/pdfs/bailey2.pdf — Many thanks to Rusty Barnes for that, and the magazine even features an annual contest named in honor of Yates.

    I then went out and bought his collected stories — many of them could be sentimental, but never maudlin: “Doctor Jack-o’-Lantern” still sticks with me. Yates’s own life had a rather sad ending.

    Thanks for posting this, and welcome to TNB!
    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Sung J. Woo |Edit This
    2008-09-09 04:56:30

    Thanks, Jim. I’ve read everything by him at this point except Young Hearts Crying. I can’t quite make myself read it, because if I do, nothing of his will be new anymore.

    I think most people consider Rev Road to be his best work, but for me, it’s The Easter Parade. For a book that slim to contain so much — we’re talking some incredible narrative compression.
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Wendy Lee |Edit This
    2008-09-09 06:42:10

    Glad to see you on here, Sung! This is a beautiful tribute…makes you think of all the writers out there who will never get the recognition they deserve in their lifetime. Yet the fact that they touch even one reader is invaluable. Thanks for this. Also, “there no brilliant writers, only brilliant rewriters”–so true.
    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Sung J. Woo |Edit This
    2008-09-09 08:42:26

    Hi Wendy,

    Yeah, it sucks he didn’t get his due until now, but better late than never, I suppose. The strange thing is that Yates never wrote difficult or inaccessible books — his prose is clear and concise and largely invisible. Mostly it’s his subject matter that put people off, delving into the every failures of being human.

    Not sure if you watch Mad Men, but I can see Yates being a fan of that show. I think I read somewhere that Matthew Weiner, the creator, gave the actors a copy of Rev Road to read to get them into the mood of the show.
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Kimberly M. Wetherell |Edit This
    2008-09-09 07:35:55

    Thank you, Sung! I love adding new authors to my ‘must read’ list!
    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Sung J. Woo |Edit This
    2008-09-09 08:45:20

    Hi Kimberly,

    Give Rev Road a shot — it was nominated for a National Book Award with Catch-22 and The Moviegoer (Moviegoer ended up winning), and deservedly so. Also, you can’t go wrong with the Collected Stories. The story “Saying Goodbye to Sally” has such a bittersweet, sad ending, one of the best in there.
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Jim |Edit This
    2008-09-09 10:42:13

    Yes, Walker Percy is another favorite. I love the line in The Moviegoer when he describes the grease of a freshly serviced Plymouth as “the thrifty amber sap of the slender axle tree.”
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by N.L. Belardes |Edit This
    2008-09-10 16:09:09

    I haven’t read anything by Yates either. Now I feel like a sonnenreise has opened up. I smell the citrus scent of his works already through your love of his words…
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
    2008-09-10 16:51:29

    Thanks, Sung, I had only read Revolutionary Road, and that ages ago. Loved it, but hadn’t heard of anything else. I’ll get some more to read now, because of you. Wasn’t paying appropriate attention, I suppose.
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Michael LaPorta |Edit This
    2008-09-10 18:37:57

    I’ve been obsessed with Yates since about 2002. Strangely enough, I graduated from Boston University in 2001. I drank my first legal beer at Crossroads, across the street from where I lived that year. I also worked a summer in that special collections library where you saw his work. I was oblivious of Yates the entire time, and instead spent hours poking around the Douglas Fairbanks Jr collection.
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by zhiv |Edit This
    2008-09-19 18:17:36

    This is very well done. What is it about Yates that makes his writing and stories so captivating? That is, to some of us, at least, while others are left cold, find it all off-putting, and he is widely acclaimed yet spends decades in obscurity, and will probably continue to do so, even after Leo, Kate, and husband Sam get through with him. It appears that you picked up the Yates virus a few years ago, and I only came down with it fairly recently, but I’ve really been enjoying writing about it. It has been a wonderful process of discovery. I love the stuff about looking through the archives. It seems as if Yates is going to last and be around for a long time, and my guess is that a lot of scholars will be looking through those same papers and studying his writing process. I know of one already, and I’ll probably be doing it myself in November.

    Your comment on Easter Parade is interesting. Yes, the compression is extremely impressive. It seems that he discovered a neat trick about playing with the flow of time in Disturbing the Peace, where he had other devices at work, and then pushed it all the way in Easter Parade. But as good as EP is, the prescience and layering of RevRoad and the portrait of a doomed postwar marriage seems to be a greater accomplishment–the whole Mad Men/RevRoad phenomenon speaks to that. I’d be curious to find where you saw Weiner mention RevRoad. I’m not sure that Yates would be a fan at all–my guess is that, in his curmudgeonly way, he would be extremely angry that a Hollywood guy, himself cut right out one of his characters out of Disturbing the Peace, ripped off his book and turned it into a TV show. But we’ll see if Weiner thanks Yates for the inspiration when he wins his Emmy. It won’t happen, but that would make up for a lot. My fear is that Mad Men is so good and such a big hit that it will affect the reception of the RevRoad movie, and have some damaging ripple effect. But that would just be par for the course for Yates.

    I’m fascinated by all of this, and it’s great to read good writing by someone who shares the fever. Looking forward to reading your work. Thanks.
    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Sung J. Woo |Edit This
    2008-09-20 12:28:22

    Hey zhiv,

    Thanks for your kind words. I found the Yates-Mad Men link here:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/30/arts/television/30roch.html

    You’re probably right — Yates probably would cringe at Mad Men. But who knows — the show is made with such style and emtional brutality that maybe he might give it a pass.

    I’m a bit afraid for Rev Road the movie, too — the bar’s set pretty damn high with Mad Men, and the trailer I saw didn’t blow me away. But we got the best talent for the movie, so let’s keep our fingers crossed that the translation from book to film is a success.
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by zhiv |Edit This
    2008-09-20 16:57:39

    As you must have seen, the story about the AMC executive changes the equation. Let’s give Weiner credit for coming up with his own post-war ad world story, and then since then he’s made the most out of discovering Yates. I did finally see this article last night or this morning–I thought this might be it. I think the NYT did a more recent profile of Weiner, where it wasn’t mentioned.

    Anybody whose religion is Richard Yates is alright by me. Seems to be a bit of a hard road, but good luck to you. You might have also seen that my most recent read was Disturbing the Peace, and I’d be curious to see what you think of it, especially in the current context of the movie and the TV show–it’s all a bit much for me at the moment.

    I especially like your line: “If you have a favorite author who happens to have an archive of his or hers in some dusty, distant library, I would highly recommend a visit.” I keep thinking about this. The other author of 08 for me is Mary McCarthy, and I know that her papers are at Vassar, so I’m more inclined now to go there too when I get a chance.
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Karen Moran |Edit This
    2009-05-11 12:11:53

    I finished Rev Road on the night before Mother’s Day… It was the latest “pick” for a neighborhood book club, meeting next week. A friend commented and I wholly agree that she couldn’t find one sympathetic character in the novel (except, perhaps the children). Yes, the narrative is brilliant…and consuming…and when the story is taken in context with it’s publication date — 1961 — the subject material is certainly more than provocative. (I immediately googled “Roe v Wade” to see what year that leg. was in effect … 1973 … go figure).

    It’s a story of existential meltdown… any generation can relate. In my opinion, the antidote to “hopless emptiness” is a simlple reality…connection to source. Divinity, God…spirituality…whatever you want to call it. Nameste.
    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Sung J. Woo |Edit This
    2009-05-11 16:55:51

    Hi Karen,

    I think this is the reason why Yates became (and will continue to be) an acquired taste. Many folks think he’s very hard on his characters, but for me, I have nothing but sympathy for everyone involved: Frank (who’s nothing but frank), April (who’s not exactly springlike), Mrs. Givings (who probably gives a whole lot less). I always felt that because Yates felt so much for his characters, he was relentless in showing every bit of their faults to us.

    But yeah, it’s no picnic. He writes simply but he writes about some very difficult subjects. The man writes like an open vein. And for that, I’m grateful.

  2. […] Hall of Fame In an essay entitled “Searching for Richard Yates”, author Sung J. Woo delivers a salute to one of American literature’s most underrated talents. […]

  3. Paul Clayton says:

    Sung, I enjoyed your article. Yates is finally getting some attention, too bad it had to come so late. And I’m sure there are lots of wonderful writers that will suffer the same fate. I think there’s simply too many of us. (in the sense that it’s hard to know what’s really outstanding and what’s not, not in the sense that I’m trying to discourage anyone from striving to be a great writer, not that I could do that to a great writer…)

    All my mentors are dead. I could have gone to Florida and approached James Jones, a favorite of mine. I think he would have liked what I’d started, maybe would have encouraged me. I did get a little help from Willie Morris, just before he died. I especially would have like to have met and maybe studied with John Gardner who died boldly on his motorcycle just like Lawrence of Arabia. I always rode motorcycles in my youth, then gave them up for a long time. I had three of them about a year ago but had to sell them all to cover some of my expenses when the great recession hit.

    I know I can ride like Gardner and Lawrence, but is there enough time left to write like them?

    Best to you and may your novel be a sucess.

    • Sung J. Woo says:

      Hey Paul,

      It was wonderful to see Rev Road get the star treatment last year. There was a point when both the trade and the mass market edition of the novel was on the New York Times Bestseller List during the same week. I bet he would’ve been happy about that, because more than anything, he wanted readers.

      Your mentors are top-notch. Every writer should read Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, which is worth it just for the exercises in the back of the book alone. One of these days, I’ll have to read The Sunlight Dialogues. On Writers and Writing, the posthumous collection of Gardner’s essays, he has an outline for that novel, and it’s just crazy he was actually able to execute that book as he’d envisioned it.

      I haven’t read any James Jones, but I’m a huge fan of Malick’s The Thin Red Line. Is the book like the movie (dreamy and philosophical, gorgeous and brutal, typical Malick)?

      – Sung

  4. Paul Clayton says:

    Sung,

    I’ve only read one of Gardner’s novels, forget the title, but it’s about a man who goes back to his home town to die. Some of his novels look difficult. I know there is one which is all text, or appeared to be when I skimmed it in the store, with hardly any paragraph breaks or dialogue or anything. Pretty daunting. As for The Thin Red Line, I had read the book years before so I did not remember a lot of detail. But Malick’s version was beautiful and sensual. Thinking back, Jones’ novel was meaty and detailed, a sumptious meal. Jones wrote back in the day when writers smoked pipes and wore dressy jackets and, most importantly, could write reams of stuff and have most of it make it into the book.

    I’ll have to read your book.

  5. Steven Goldleaf says:

    I spoke at that Housing Works reading you attended (I briefly studied with Yates at BU, and wrote my first book about him) and I would have spoken to you about him if you’d have approached me. I love his work, and am still writing about it–I’m writing an article on him and Scott Fitzgerald now.

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