March 14, 2009

James Purdy: Not Mainstream

Comes the melancholy duty to report that James Purdy has died at 94, on Friday the 13th no less. The New York Times, as always unable to note the passing of a writer without dismissing him, said that "he labored at the margins of the literary mainstream," which brought to mind the end of Cabot Wright Begins, a novel inevitably described as about a serial rapist but more significantly it is about the woman who tells his story, who declares when she's done that she will not be a writer "in a time and place like the present." (I may be forgiven if I misquote the line--my copy of the novel is in the storage bin). I read Cabot Wright when it was published, and then a new Purdy novel was, for someone like me, a literary event, and to think that the author of Malcom was outside the literary mainstream would have baffled me. Those of my friends who had read, say, Knut Hamsun's Pan, or Kafka's Amerika (with it's haunting grey Edward Gorey cover) thought Purdy was right there in the forefront of American fiction. Purdy already knew better, and the remainder of his published work, in fact, emerged and remained in the shadows. His prose grew ever more eccentric. I don't think I ever ran into an enthusiast of his later work.

I can name the moment when American literary culture changed: with the publication, in full, in the New Yorker of J. D. Salinger's farthest-out piece of fiction, "Hapworth 16, 1924." on June 19, 1965. (It can be found on the Web at When this short novel appeared, the most widespread opinion was that Salinger had gone out of his head, and afterward, he published no more. It would be too bleak to say that on that date, American literature died, for after 1965 a great deal of adventurous fiction was published by what we now call mainstream publishers, but the last gasp in a sense was the publication in the same year by Little, Brown of Donald Barthelme's Come Back, Dr. Caligari, Barthelme's first book. The editor at Little, Brown, Ned Bradford, who had been Salinger's editor, snapped Barthelme's book up and paid four thousand dollars for it--at a time when a literary minded editor had the power to make such a decision entirely on the basis of his taste, just as William Shawn had the power to publish a long, extremely unconventional work of fiction in its entirety in a single issue of The New Yorker.

In response to the Times's use of the phrase "literary mainstream" one might ask what that is. Mainstream fiction in this country isn't literary. To call a work of fiction "literary" today is like calling a politician, in the immortal words of Bush I, "a card-carrying liberal." One of the major literary events of last year was a discussion where J. K. Rowling, John Irving, and Stephen King occupied the same dais--joined by what they have in common. The only thing they have in common.

The same week that brought the news of the death of James Purdy also brought the publication of a weighty (in actual weight) new biography of John Cheever, which covers in excruciating detail his marital discord, his alcoholism, his remarkably average IQ, and his long-suppressed homosexuality. (Against a mythic background of grimly puritanical New England ancestry. Such darkness!) As I've noted, we've also had another tombstone, the Daugherty biography of Barthelme, and an astonishingly long biography of Flannery O'Connor.

The year 1965 also gave birth to The New York Review of Books, so to say that it was the year American literature died is obviously false.


The truth is, of course, that Thomas Pynchon published The Crying of Lot 49 a year later, inadvertently giving birth to David Foster Wallace. Who knew? And of course, Pynchon went on to publish, and was paid a hundred thousand dollars for, Gravity's Rainbow, followed by Vineland, a sequel to your Lot 49, then Mason and Dixon, and most recently the doorstopper of them all, Against the Day. (In terms of the current literary mainstream, it might be called Against the Reader.)

Against the Day is, in fact, an astonishing book; a vast Curiosity Cabinet that for anyone who has actually read it stands as Pynchon's most fully achieved and radical work, but to this point its greatest impact was probably on David Foster Wallace, who having read it could only have concluded that he was a terrible novelist and, as he had long suspected, a fraud.

The decline of literary publishing in the United States had three causes. The one most-often cited, and which is certainly important, was the rise in the 1970s of the bookstore chains, first Waldenbooks, then Barnes and Noble and Borders, which instituted the practice of shelving new hardcover fiction for no longer than three months and paperback editions of the same for no longer than they stayed in airport bookshops, six weeks. Books were published, to some degree, on the basis of whether they would be able to command that shelf space; at one time, Waldenbooks was the dominant force in American publilshing (where are they now?). Borders, you will remind me, maintained the largest stock of paperback fiction available in this country, regardless whether it sold, but how long will it be before that chain goes out of business? A direct consequence of the chain bookstore method of product delivery, along with the nationwide book tour, was the movement of publishing toward genre fiction, once as far from the mainstream as you could get. The second-most often cited factor in the decline of literary publishing was the disappearance of independent, editor-driven publishers into the conglomerates, most notably the destruction of Random House by Bertlesmann, a German publisher no more interested in American literature than Mercedes Benz was interested in Chryslers. But most likely, what really killed literary publishing was a change in the tax laws in the 1970s that meant publishers were no longer able to write off the overhead of the warehouses in which they stored unsold copies of their published books, once known as the backlist. Until that change in the tax laws, many books did not go out of print, even if their initial press run was only, say, 1500 copies and they sold 300 copies in the first year after publication, until all the existing copies were sold. A book that had a publicity budget of zero to start with, such as Catch-22, could be kept alive by word-of-mouth, and its publisher, noting its surprising staying power, could then take out a full-page ad in the New York Times Sunday Book Review, letting latecomers in on its underground success. After the warehouses lost their tax-loophole status, back stock was simply returned unsold by bookstores and promptly sold as remainders at pennies to the dollar, and whtever was left after that was pulped. So recycling entered the publishing business, and the lifespan of the average work of fiction was, as noted, four and a half months; many novels sold only to libraries, and the novelists who existed in that form became known, by the mid-eighties, as "midlist authors" who could expect to learn, when they next submitted a manuscript, that they no longer had publishers. As result, editors looked for bestsellers, and gifted young writers like John Irving, after publishing two or three critically well-received three-hundred page novels, were groomed for their "breakout" books.

James Purdy, it's true, continued to publish, so not all perished.


  1. What happened to your logic lobe?
    In particular, why do you confuse literary mainstream with mainstream fiction.
    Irving, King, Rowling: mainstream fiction.

    Cheever, Updike, Pynchon, etc. literary mainstream. No?
    Were they dismissed by the Times when they died?

    What is so dark about the fact that Cheever had a low I.Q.? Being in that class of struggling writers, I find that to be very encouraging. Maybe, despite Cheever, it isn't even necessary to be a pretentious, incestuous son of a bitch.

  2. Pynchon hasn't died yet, or I missed it if he has. The NY Times obituary of Updike could not resist rehearsing again the tiresome canard that his superb prose style was wasted on banal, suburban subject matter and added, gratuitously, that he was a "plodder." I just finished The Widows of Eastwick. It's not much good, mainly because the first 80-some pages are travelogues of, respectively, the Canadian Rockies and the Nile in the mask of an aging widow. But it's an interesting note to go out on--a meditation on the uselessness of the elderly in our culture. Likewise, the new biography of Cheever is touted as possibly reviving Cheever's sagging reputation. So there you go. The lilterary mainstream to which Purdy did not belong was not literature. That's the point. I'm glad you think there is a literary mainstream that is not best sellers.