domain Meet Richard Yates

by Elizabeth Cox

Published in Issue No. 41 ~ October, 2000

Richard Yates (1926-1992) was known as the “great writer of the Age of Anxiety,” a man who wrote deftly about lostness. His first novel, Revolutionary Road (1961), was an instant success, a finalist for the National Book Award alongside Catch-22 and The Moviegoer, and equally deserving. A year later, Atlantic-Little, Brown published his first stories in Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, and in 1969, Knopf published his novel, A Special Providence. Delacorte published the rest of his work: Disturbing the Peace (1975), The Easter Parade (1976), A Good School (1978), Liars in Love (1981), Young Hearts Crying (1984), and Cold Spring Harbor (1986). His final novel, Uncertain Times, has never been published.

As a chronicler of mainstream American life during the mid-1900s, the critical respect his fiction received was matched only by John Cheever’s work. Yates consistently received praise from critics in all major venues, such as The New York Times Book Review, Esquire, and The Washington Post, and four of his novels were selections of the Book-of-the-Month club, but he never sold more than 12,000 copies of any one book in hardback. His work had a powerful influence on writers like Raymond Carver and Andre Dubus, yet all of his books are now out of print. Richard Yates is perhaps the last century’s least famous important writer.

I met Richard Yates many years ago at the Wesleyan Writers Conference, and he offered to help edit my first novel. This offer both thrilled and frightened me because his approach to fiction writing was intensely demanding. But of course I accepted. Over the next year he generously corresponded with me, and we met a few times in Boston cafes to discuss writing.

“What does your character really say, here, in this moment?” Yates asked me again and again. And I had to answer right away, at our lunch table or wherever we were. He didn’t let any insincere or dishonest remark go unchallenged. “Why did the character enter the room at this particular moment? What was he doing just before he entered?” Knowing Yates was an exhilarating exercise in straight talk. Never had I been with someone who spoke so directly and expected such reciprocal honesty, and it changed me. As a writer, I learned to want only what was true in every moment. As a teacher of writing, I came to believe that challenging another writer in this manner is a sign of real respect. I now incorporate similar explorations in my own work with students.

The last time I saw Yates I had just published my first novel, the book he had helped me on. We spoke as plainly as always. I said, in way of apology, “All I write about is family.” He answered, “That’s all there is to write about.”

His first book of stories, Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, is stylistically as direct and unadorned as a I remember Yates to be. His compassionate eye is unrelenting as he holds these characters accountable for every action. In this story, “Doctor Jack-o’-lantern,” a new boy in school is ostracized by his classmates. I am struck by Yates’ ability to take a familiar situation and move us into moments unexpected but wholly believable. The secret life of the children, as seen in their dialogue, works against the sacred mission of the teacher – to improve the life of this new boy, Vincent Sabella. The clash of these two perspectives ends in disaster, as Vincent Sabella finally attacks his teacher, the only person who has reached out to him.

Yates’ stories focus on the desperation and frailty of human character, even those who come with the best intentions. His characters still make readers wince with recognition, and in reading his stories, I remember him and the lessons I learned. It is regretful that many of these stories are now out of print. Yates is one of the best writers to read in order to understand the way life veers into unexpected paths and leaves us helpless.

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Elizabeth Cox is the author of Night Talk, Familiar Ground, and The Ragged Way People Fall Out of Love. Her collection of stories, Bargains in the Real World: 13 Stories, will be released in March 2001. She teaches at the Bennington College Writing Seminars and Duke University.