What has the aesthetic of popular culture to do with formidable postwar writers of such enormous variety as Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison, William Styron, Don DeLillo, E. L. Doctorow, James Baldwin, Wallace Stegner, Thomas Pynchon, Robert Penn Warren, John Updike, John Cheever, Bernard Malamud, Robert Stone, Evan Connell, Louis Auchincloss, Walker Percy, Cormac McCarthy, Russell Banks, William Kennedy, John Barth, Louis Begley, William Gaddis, Norman Rush, John Edgar Wideman, David Plante, Richard Ford, William Gass, Joseph Heller, Raymond Carver, Edmund White, Oscar Hijuelos, Peter Matthiessen, Paul Theroux, John Irving, Norman Mailer, Reynolds Price, James Salter, Denis Johnson, J. F. Powers, Paul Auster, William Vollmann, Richard Stern, Alison Lurie, Flannery O’Connor, Paula Fox, Marilynne Robinson, Joyce Carol Oates, Joan Didion, Hortense Calisher, Jane Smiley, Anne Tyler, Jamaica Kincaid, Cynthia Ozick, Ann Beattie, Grace Paley, Lorrie Moore, Mary Gordon, Louise Erdrich, Toni Morrison, Eudora Welty (and I have by no means exhausted the list) or with serious younger writers as wonderfully gifted as Michael Chabon, Junot Díaz, Nicole Krauss, Maile Meloy, Jonathan Lethem, Nathan Englander, Claire Messud, Jeffrey Eugenides, Jonathan Franzen, Jonathan Safran Foer (to name but a handful)?
I got to this reading Anita Felicelli in the Weekly, a commenter mentioned Roth’s interview in March, 2014 in the Book Review of The Times. Roth was making an eloquent and not easily reducible statement about myth-making — Felicelli et al were discussing what I think of as a brilliant satirist Mike Judge of “Silicon Valley” (HBO) fame. Of those 71 writers, I would say I’m familiar with most of them but not well-read if the litmus test is would I mention them to an interviewer, and ready to field a follow up question about a specific work and not being exposed as a name-dropper, whereas obviously in my usage here at Plastic Alto, at this point I am name-dropping, or name-uploading, but maybe I can make this prescriptive and actually make progress with them.
How many have I heard of? 58 of 71, as in there are 13 in this list that I cannot identify at all.
How many can I name a title? 22, as in there are 49 that I cannot name even one of their works.
How many can I say I’ve read one or more titles? 17, as in, there are 54 important authors, according to Roth, that I have not even read, although with 5 more I can name a title (or maybe I saw the movie) and 41 more I claim I can identify, or say something about: like Robert Stone, I know he studied at Stanford, with Wallace Stegner, or John Edgar Wideman, I know he taught at Harvard, and his daughter played basketball at Stanford – -maybe I’ve clipped articles about him or cited something he once said, but I cannot name his work or claim “I’ve read him”.
How many have I met or can claim to know or have known personally? From readings (author appearances), just two. Vollman, when he spoke at Booksmith and then led a bunch of people across the street to drink whiskey, and Stegner, who lived down the hill from my parents’ house for about half my life, and I met a couple times,, I’ve described below. I saw Paley speak at Dartmouth, at the adaptation of the screening of one of her works to film, but didn’t meet.
I would say the book that had the most palpable effect on me, associated with these authors is “Motherless Brooklyn” by Lethem, which I guess is like Groucho Marx calling a woman beautiful and then saying “that does not say much for you“. (Capt. Spaulding to Mrs. Rittenhouse– Margaret Dumont — in Animal Crackers, 1930).