Talking Movies

July 12, 2011

Richard Yates Studies and Hollywood’s Gravity

It seems absurd to quibble about Richard Yates Studies when it’s such a triumph that there finally is such a field as Richard Yates studies, but I fear Hollywood’s gravity…

I fear it for this reason:
ACADEMIC 1: I’m speaking tomorrow on the comparative panel.
ACADEMIC 2: Who are you talking about alongside John McGahern?
ACADEMIC 1: Richard Yates, American writer, roughly contemporary.
ACADEMIC 2: Ah, yes, yes. (beat) What did he write?
ACADEMIC 1: (strained pause) Revolutionary Road.
ACADEMIC 2: Oh yes, the one with-
ACADEMIC1: Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, yes…

It’s a simple truth that, despite the glorious Vintage reprints of the past few years, the long critical neglect of Richard Yates has left its mark. And it’s all too easy for the fact that the first (incredibly belated) film adaptation of his work was of his debut novel, about the 1950s, to perpetuate the unfair perception that Yates wrote one great novel in 1961 and then deservedly disappeared. This ignores his bibliography. His stunning trio of novels Disturbing the PeaceThe Easter Parade  and A Good School, which between them incisively dissect American life from the 1930s to the 1970s, all appeared within three years of each other in the second half of the 1970s.

It’s also a danger that Sam Mendes’ film will type Yates as a gloom-merchant of unrelieved tragedy. Yates is the poet laureate of failed dreams, but, as I’ve noted elsewhere in relation to the film, there is terrific comedy on the path from hope to disappointment that his writings customarily traverse. I saw the 1972 film adaptation of Peter Barnes’ demented play The Ruling Class just before the New Approaches to Richard Yates conference last year. I thus suggested to David Fernley that a way to correct any Mendes-inspired popular perception of Yates as miserabilist would be to quickly film Disturbing the Peace with non-naturalist sequences drawing out Yates’ dark humour. After all Peter O’Toole’s description of The Ruling Class as black comedy with tragic relief fairly characterises some of Yates’ work.

Finally I fear Hollywood’s gravity could unbalance Richard Yates Studies on two fronts. It’s easier to write on an obscure text by a well-known author, because there are less existing critical readings defeating your attempts to say something original, but it’s also easier to write on a well-known text by an obscure author than it is to write on an obscure text by an obscure author. Name-recognition does count at some level, even if it’s in the subconscious of an academic planning an article for a refereed journal and worrying that an examination of two short stories by Yates might prove just too niche for a non-Yates journal. I plan to yoke together Revolutionary Road and A Special Providence because they nicely link for an unusual argument, but I’m convinced I thought of that argument because I subconsciously also felt that Revolutionary Road would add weight to A Special Providence in the same way that John McGahern said short stories in a collection can lean on each other for support.

The second front is a more consciously considered problem than the prospect of everyone writing about Revolutionary Road to improve their chances of publication. It is the problem of getting Yates onto curriculums. Getting a non-canonical writer onto an American Literature course wins plaudits but in a world of modularisation it’s not as simple a task as it might once have been when core courses covered a canon and selected alternatives to that canon at the whim of the lecturer(s). If students have a choice of competing modules common sense and basic economics says modules will start to bend towards attracting students by including books, canonical and alt-canonical, they’ll want to read. Revolutionary Road rather than The Easter Parade will always appear then because, thanks to the Hollywood hype machine, students will recognise one title and not the other.

Those are my fears about how Hollywood may skew Richard Yates Studies, but the wider idea of cinema bending literary studies will be returned to…

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