October 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 5
Overrated Every writer wishes he or she could be overrated, but only a few in each generation are so lucky. Although forgotten within a decade of their deaths, overrated writers win a lot of prizes during their lifetimes, are well paid for their efforts, and generate a following among the critics. If you were an American novelist working in the early decades of the twentieth century, for example, you would have had to deal with the critical consensus that Joseph Hergesheimer was a truly great writer. Hergesheimer specialized in overwriting, and his best-known work, Java Head , published in 1918, was considered a masterpiece. The story of a fishing village on the coast of Massachusetts, it now seems horribly dated. Nobody reads it. Ever.
There were other highly regarded figures at this time, such as James Branch Cabell. His novel of 1919, called Jürgen , was a medieval fantasy, and writers like H. L. Mencken and Sinclair Lewis adored the book. Lewis, covering his bets, dedicated his own Main Street in 1920 to both Hergesheimer and Cabell.
Among postwar writers, nobody has been more overpraised and overrated than Saul Bellow. He’s a very good writer, to be sure. But I find myself without excitement for most of his novels, even though I once read them avidly, even with admiration. I still like Herzog , however dated it feels. I also admire Seize the Day , his early novella. But the rest of his books seem overwritten, boring, and pretentious. This is especially true of some of the later work, such as The Dean’s December , a real turkey.
I made an attempt to reread The Adventures of Augie March recently and was amazed by its lack of narrative momentum, its pumped-up prose. The picaresque technique doesn’t do much for the novel; the term itself seems, in this case, like an excuse for a plotless narrative.
Many of the celebrated novelists of Bellow’s generation will go the way of Hergesheimer and Cabell, but only time will tell us which ones. I certainly believe that Bellow will lack voluntary readers a decade or so from now, once the professors have stopped assigning his works in classes.
Underrated Sticking with the same generation as Bellow, I will argue that the single most underrated writer of fiction (I am dodging the term novelist here) is, without question, Bernard Malamud. A collection titled The Stories of Bernard Malamud appeared in 1984, and if you happen to find yourself unfamiliar with his stories, read the following as soon as possible: “The First Seven Years,” “Idiots First,” “The Magic Barrel,” “The Loan,” and “Angel Levine.” American literature just doesn’t get any better than this. “A Summer’s Reading” isn’t in the omnibus collection, but you must find it. It’s another masterwork.
Malamud writes in the Yiddish tradition of Sholem Aleichem, but he has thoroughly assimilated his predecessors and found a plaintive, lyrical voice. The tales focus on recent Jewish immigrants from the Old World, families in flight from the Nazis, who have landed on the shores of New York (mostly) only to find themselves perplexed, unwelcome, unhappy, and deeply anguished by their past. There is a bleak, wry humor in this work that seems pure Malamud.
He never wrote as well in longer forms, yet I do like two of his novels, The Assistant and The Fixer . These are sturdy vessels filled almost to the same brim as the short stories. They reward the reader with their poignancy and textures, their ingenious summoning of a world. But the short stories are peerless, a thing unto themselves.
Few people appear to read Malamud these days. If they do, they certainly don’t talk about him, at least to me. I hope there are readers out there loving these stories and rereading them with the same guilty pleasure I experience whenever I pick up one of them to begin again.