The Facts About John Cheever


cheeverThe publication of a great writer’s collected works should be a cause for celebration, and or at least a measured reassessment. How disturbing, then, that the Library of America’s two-volume publication of John Cheever’s stories and novels has also been cause for reluctant admiration, backhanded compliments, outright dismissal, petty personal attacks, and disingenuous exclamations of surprise of how little this important writer matters anymore. As though the reporters “reporting” how little Cheever matters anymore have nothing at all to do with creating the sense that Cheever doesn’t really matter anymore.

These reporters (who are sometimes reporters masquerading as book critics, and sometimes book critics masquerading as reporters) are wrong: Cheever does matter: he’s one of the greatest twentieth century American fiction writers, and one of the three (along with Flannery O’Connor and Donald Barthelme) most important American short story writers of the same period. This is a fact. It’s a fact because I say it’s a fact, and so you should accept it as such, in the same way you’re supposed to accept it as a fact when biographer Blake Bailey claims in his Cheever: A Life that “Cheever is hardly taught in the classroom,” and then when a “reporter” like Malcolm Jones in Newsweek quotes Bailey claiming it without bothering to ask apparently anyone if Bailey is right. Likewise when Charles McGrath claims in the New York Times Magazine that Cheever “is for the most part not on the syllabus,” we’re supposed to accept this as a fact, rather than wonder, “Whose syllabi have you seen, exactly? Is Cheever really not taught in the classroom anymore?” Because he is, at least by me. That is also a fact, among other facts.

If it sounds as though I’m angry, it’s because I am. Although not necessarily at Blake Bailey. True, many (although not all: Bret Anthony Johnston, Geoffrey Wolff, and the late John Updike have all used this occasion to, if not praise the biography, than to celebrate Cheever’s work and call for our return to it) of the recent “reassessments” of Cheever are really just slightly queasy, prurient plot summaries of Bailey’s new biography. If Bailey hadn’t written the biography, then perhaps some of the reassessors would focus more on the fiction than on the life. But then again, Bailey has edited both Library of America volumes, and it is impossible for me to be mad at him for that, just as it’s impossible for me to be mad at him for writing and publishing his biography, especially since I haven’t read it and have no plans to read it.

Let me make this clear: Bailey has every right to publish this biography, just as Cheever’s family has every right to approve of its publication, just as they had every right to publish Cheever’s journals a decade or so ago, just as Cheever’s daughter Susan Cheever had every right to publish a memoir about her father a decade or so before that. Just as they have every right not to give a damn whether or not I say they have a right to do anything they want when it comes to their family, their lives, their stories. It sounds as though they’ve had difficult pasts, and they have the right to do anything they want with them, including profit from them financially. Just as I have every right to not read any of the above-mentioned volumes, while still maintaining the right to hold forth about Cheever’s fiction, and how much it matters. And it does matter, much more than Bailey’s biography: I can claim this with authority, even though I haven’t, as I mentioned, actually read the book, and even though some of the recent reassessments of Cheever make it seem otherwise. McGrath quotes Bailey in defense of his biography: “’The Joyce Carol Oates notion of “pathography”—the idea that one should not place an unseemly emphasis on the private of lives of biographical subjects’—that’s nonsense, Bailey said, or a word to that effect.” Well, it’s not bullshit, which I assume is the word to that effect. A biography might be a necessary part of one’s appreciation of a general or a queen or a labor organizer, whose claim to significance, whose work, is not already on the page. But a biography is not a necessary part of one’s appreciation of a writer’s work; in fact, a biography may actually hinder one’s appreciation of a writer’s work.

And this is why I refuse to read Bailey’s biography: because if some of the recent magazine and newspaper pieces on Cheever are any proof, then reading Bailey’s biography immediately turns some readers of said biography into preening, judgmental, condescending assholes who, in not properly executing their reportorial or critical duties, reveal far more about their own limitations than they do about Cheever’s.

Take, for example, Jones’s March 9, 2009 Newsweek piece, “Suburban Stall.” Feel free to save your annoyance over the lame title, for there will be lameness aplenty ahead. Try to ignore the obvious schadenfreude when Jones predicts, “I doubt…that the Library of America volumes will have anything like the impact of the publication of the collected stories, which…sold more than 120,000 copies in hardcover”; try also not to wonder, rhetorically, if the 120,000 copies sold of the previous Stories of—plus the thousands and thousands sold in paperback—might not automatically cut down on the readers who might not want to buy another hardback book full of stories they mostly already own. Restrain yourself from pointing out, after Jones asks, “Why should Cheever suffer eclipse while an author such as the late Richard Yates enjoys a renaissance?” that Richard Yates’s “renaissance” can be attributed almost wholly to the fact that someone has just made a movie starring famous actors and actresses out of one of Yates’s novels. Save your outrage for when Jones admits that, after reading Cheever: A Life, “mostly I just wished that Cheever hadn’t been such an alcoholic bore.” Such a careful, measured, critical response to a fellow human being’s troubled life story deserves a response in kind: Fuck you. Because in that one sentence, in which Jones attacks the subject of the biography rather than the biography itself; in which rather than criticizing the biographer for either choosing such a boring subject or making him boring, Jones chooses to–viciously, snidely–wish that the subject of the biography—who did not ask to be the subject of this biography, by the way, no matter how many journal entries he wrote, no matter how many veiled hints he dropped that maybe, someday, he wouldn’t mind if the journals were published—did not have a terrible disease that had made him boring, Jones has abdicated his responsibility as a writer and therefore we’re free to respond likewise, without decorum. So let me repeat: Fuck you. I seriously hope, Malcolm Jones, that Blake Bailey’s next project is to write a biography of your life. I wonder, at the end of reading that book, if we’ll find out you’re a bore. I wonder, at the end of reading that book, if we’ll wish you had drank more, or that we had.

Brock Clarke has published four works of fiction, most recently the novel An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England, which was a national bestseller. His fifth book, entitled Exley, is scheduled to be published by Algonquin in Fall 2010. Clarke's stories and essays have appeared in New England Review, Southern Review, Georgia Review, Missouri Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, One Story, Ninth Letter, Mississippi Review, the Believer, Agni, as well as in the Pushcart and New Stories from the South anthology. He has twice been a finalist for the National Magazine Award for Fiction, and was a 2008 NEA fellow for fiction. Clarke currently teaches at the University of Cincinnati, and is the fiction editor of the Cincinnati Review. More from this author →