Wyatt Mason’s adulatory essay on Leonard Michaels (the “contemporary American writer I most admired”) offers a startling precis of how much the where and who of an author’s publication matters:
When Michaels’s first three books appeared, they launched his reputation as one of his generation’s most gifted writers. His first book, Going Places (1969), a collection of stories, was a finalist for the National Book Award; I Would Have Saved Them if I Could (1975), a second story collection, was named one of the six outstanding works of fiction that year by the New York Times; and The Men’s Club (1981), Michaels’s first novel, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and became a Hollywood film. But a publicist seeking to showcase comparable highlights from the next two decades of Michaels’s literary life would be faced with quite a task. Although Michaels continued to publish essays and stories, they came less regularly, tending to appear in journals with limited audiences; although he continued to publish books, no longer were they issued by a prestigious New York publishing house but rather by a tiny not-for-profit press. And of the books themselves, they seemed simultaneously to slim in size and fatten with material previously in print, earning notices that were remarkable mostly for their savagery. The falling trajectory of Michaels’s star seemed inarguable indeed, an apparent exhaustion of resources as common in the arts as it is in life. With most of his books out of print by the time he died of cancer, at seventy, in 2003, it was as though Michaels had been doubly erased.
Now, however, as Michaels’s original publisher has just begun reissuing his out-of-print work while bringing uncollected material to light, the injustice of such a foreclosure becomes uncomfortably apparent. For if his public fate, which is to say his commercial one, could not be disputed, his private fate, which is to say his artistic one, cannot be denied: it turns out that Leonard Michaels completed his finest work late in life. To read through The Collected Stories, a new omnibus volume, is to see that the author’s five decades of short fiction argue effortlessly for a place beside the work of America’s paragons of the story form.
Certainly someone was appreciating these uncollected marginally published works–Wyatt Mason, for one–but it is sobering to think how off the radar as fine an author as Michaels can become once he is out of the loop of the big New York publishers. (I had no idea of him until FSG began issuing their recent volumes of his work, although it didn’t take long before I jumped on the bandwagon, such as it was.) That said, I find it hard to imagine it being any other way. I highly doubt all but the most steadfast Michales devotee would assiduously buy up each new journal that he appeared in. Likewise, the resources and reach of most non-profit publishers all but assures a small readership, even, apparently, if the author formerly was a well-known commodity published by a major house.
One would hope that the ease of which information can be shared on the Internet would offer some remedies. I would say that there are some hopeful signs already . . . but I don’t mean to make this into another publishing-industry-dissection post since Mason’s essay on Michaels is excellent for its sweep (virtually his who career) and for its nuanced, sensitive readings. Go read it, and I hope it hooks you on Michaels:
Upon the appearance, in 1990, of Michaels’s collection Shuffle, a mix of autobiographical fiction and essays, Anatole Broyard delivered a savage auto-da-fe for the New York Times that used the book as an occasion to impugn the seriousness of everything Michaels had written to date. “It’s a failure of imagination, isn’t it,” Broyard claimed, “to write about the same thing all the time?” But it’s a failure of criticism, isn’t it, to ignore that most great writers are remembered for their preoccupations, for their compulsion to return, with mulish stubbornness, to the same field to see how it might be better plowed — as any familiarity with the works of writers as varied as Jane Austen, Samuel Beckett, and Philip Roth makes clear. And Broyard’s blanket condemnation of Michaels was particularly unjust given that Shuffle marked an essential moment in Michaels’s output: it contained “Sylvia,” the story toward which Michaels had, in some sense, been working all along.
“I waited thirty years before I wrote one word about this,” Michaels told an interviewer — “this” being his first marriage, in the early 1960s, to a woman named Sylvia Bloch . . .
Although Sylvia is, by the standard of most novels, comparatively plotless and physically slight, the breadth of its capacity to present, with precision and care, the despair of two people makes it one of the more revealing reading experiences I know.
Sylvia is a remarkable achievement.