Name Recognition

A little while back the Charlotte Observer pondered the fading legacy of William Saroyan. In the meantime, the Fresno Bee has been digging in and investigating it, building a neat widgety timeline, posting an unpublished novella, Follow, and more, wrapping up its coverage with long feature on whether Saroyan’s reputation will improve in the future. (Fresno State University has a course on Saroyan, but it’s part of the Armenian Studies department, not English.) One suggestion as to why Saroyan isn’t on the top of readers’ and critics’ book piles:

But Saroyan’s legacy suffers because he has no great novels to his credit, said Fresno journalist and writer Mark Arax, who knew Saroyan.

“He was spontaneous,” Arax said. “He wrote in these incredible bursts of energy and creativity. That kind of talent served him best in short stories. I think he found the writing of the great American novel, and all the character development you have to do, a little tedious.”

Best Westerns

The Charlotte Observer ponders the legacy of William Saroyan, who was born 100 years ago in Fresno, California. Donald Munro writes: “Who can say why Saroyan doesn’t have the name recognition today of, say, his contemporary John Steinbeck?”

Funny you should ask! In today’s Washington Post, Jonathan Yardley joins Robert Gottlieb as a member of the Salinas Handwringers Society—a small but apparently growing group of critics who take whacks at Steinbeck’s works yet still find themselves enchanted by them. “Why do people still read Steinbeck today while his contemporary William Saroyan…is almost completely forgotten?” Yardley asks, then proposes an answer:

The only reason I can come up with for the high esteem in which Steinbeck is still held is his transparent sincerity. It has long been my pet theory that in the popular marketplace, readers instinctively distinguish between writers whose work draws on genuine feeling and those who rely on art or artifice, and that they reward the former while repudiating the latter. From Jacqueline Susann to Danielle Steel, from James Michener to James Patterson, readers have recognized the sincerity of feeling beneath the utter lack of literary merit, and have rewarded it accordingly.

Yardley isn’t being cute or glib here—his assessment is couched in a wise reading of Cannery Row, and the whole essay is worth your time.

Staying in the West a little longer: I’m a little out of practice in long-form reviewing, but I wanted a little more room than usual to discuss Rudolph Wurlitzer‘s The Drop Edge of Yonder and Willy Vlautin‘s Northline. My review of both novels is in this week’s City Paper.