January 2009 | Nicholas Basbanes

Nick's Picks: Richard Yates

Richard Yates, the author of the critically acclaimed novel "Revolutionary Road," died in 1992 at the age of 66, a good three years before Amazon.com sold its first book online, and redefined forever the way people around the world would go about shopping for so much of their bookish needs.
Richard Yates, photo by Thomas Victor

As of 11:30 this morning, Amazon ranked  the special "movie tie-in" paperback edition of "Revolutionary Road" (Vintage Contemporaries, $14.95) at 46 on its list of top sellers--a list that includes, by rank, millions of available titles--and pegged the just-issued one-volume hardcover edition of "Revolutionary Road, "The Easter Parade," and "Eleven Kinds of Loneliness" (Everyman's Library/Knopf, $26) at 656. Sales figures for paperback editions of Yates's other books are equally robust, a circumstance that would undoubtedly have caused this man universally admired during his lifetime as a "writer's writer" to smile with wry amusement at the fickleness of it all.

I'm sure, too, that Yates would smile at the success of the film version of his 1961 novel starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, and while he might grouse over a beer or two at his favorite haunt in Boston's Back Bay--the Crossroads Irish Pub at 495 Beacon St--about the movie's being snubbed this week for an Oscar nomination, he would quickly point out that he didn't write the filmscript, somebody else did.

Much has been made in recent years of the fact that not one of Yates's books ever sold more than 12,000 copies in his lifetime, a circumstance regarded as especially egregious for a man who contemporaries such as William Styron, Alfred Kazin , Robert Stone, and Andre Dubus looked up to as a model of perfection. This irksome paradox, in fact, was one of the central points of a discussion I had with Yates on Dec. 17, 1981, in Boston.

We got together that day to discuss the recent release of "Liars in Love," Yates's seventh book, and his first collection of stories since "Eleven Kinds of Loneliness" had been published some twenty years earlier. In the newspaper column I later wrote, I riffed at some length on such concepts as literary respect and commercial success, and quoted a piece from Saturday Review that had described Yates as a writer with "astonishing skill and a robust intelligence," a craftsman whose "prose is urbane yet sensitive, with passion and irony held deftly in balance." How was it possible, I wondered--and I asked Yates this directly--that so many critics and authors held him in such high esteem, while the buying public, for the most part, had no idea at all who he was.

Yates thought for a few moments and took a sip of his beer before answering. Being called a "writer's writer" pleased him a great deal, to be sure, but "I'd much rather be known as a reader's writer, and I don't mean for the money or the fame," he said. "It's having the reader that counts. It is indeed painful not to have as many readers as I'd like. If you asked me how to go about writing a best seller, I'd say I haven't the slightest idea. What I do when I write is to sharpen a lot of pencils and do the best I can."

We covered a lot of ground in that interview--in fact, I'll be getting the entire piece posted on my web site later in the week, so check back in a couple days, if you're interested in reading it--but the final quote I used as my kicker is the one that lingers with me. I asked him what it was about the human condition that drove him to develop so many sad and lonely characters. "Perhaps," he said, "because sad and lonely people are more interesting than happy people. Loneliness does not mean just physical loneliness. I would think it means a sense of being separated from the main stream of the world."

yates_inscription.jpgTowards the end of our long liquid lunch I asked Dick Yates to inscribe my copy of "Liars in Love," which he did most generously, and which I include herewith.

Needless to say, I very quickly became a zealous Dick Yates collector, and given the relative disinterest in his books at the time, had no trouble acquiring first edition copies of all of his books in fine condition, and at very good prices. His best known effort remains "Revolutionary Road," which was shortlisted for the National Book Award given in 1962 for work published in 1961, along with Joseph Heller's "Catch-22," J. D. Salinger's "Franny and Zooey," Bernard Malamud's "A New Life," William Maxwell's "The Chateau," Isaac Bashevis Singer's "The Spinoza of Market Street and Other Stories," and the winner that year--in my view one of the truly outstanding years in the annals of American fiction--Walker Percy's "The Moviegoer."

For the record, I paid $50 for my copy of "Revolutionary Road." A search of abebooks.com this morning shows four first edition copies available for sale: one, inscribed, is going for $6,500; two good-plus copies, without signatures, list for $800 and $900 respectively. Now that kind of approbation, I assure you, would please Dick Yates in no small measure.