Five Literary Fiascos by Great American Writers
From time to time a successful author decides he should take a chance, go for broke, write a revolutionary book. Whereupon said writer promptly lays an egg. Here are five literary fiascos, all by Americans: Cases of good writers gone shockingly bad.
1. Pierre, or The Ambiguities, by Herman Melville (1852).
Hard on the heels of Moby-Dick, usually the choice for greatest American novel of those who don't back The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, this is the virtually unreadable story of a well-born young man who may or may not (you won't care which) have committed incest with his mother and sister.
2. A Fable, by William Faulkner (1954).
Published a few years after Faulkner won the Nobel Prize for literature, this heavy-handed restaging of Holy Week is one of his few departures from the Southern milieu that fueled such masterpieces as The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom! He should have stayed in Yoknapatawpha County.
3. Ship of Fools, by Katherine Anne Porter (1962).
Porter had built up a towering reputation on the strength of short stories alone, but she had the misfortune to work at a time when you couldn't be considered a great writer until you'd produced a novel. Several decades in the making, this tedious, bloated book was her attempt to live up to unfair expectations. Combined with A Fable, it suggests a rule for ambitious young writers: Stay away from allegory.
4. Answered Prayers, by Truman Capote (1987).
Another case of expectations unfulfilled, except this time the author heaped them upon himself. As he aged prematurely, drank and popped pills, Capote kept harping on how he was drawing upon his unparalleled knowledge of American upper-class mores to become a latter-day Proust. Promises, promises -- he delivered only a few fragmentary stories, gathered into a posthumous volume that reads like the rantings of a talented frat boy.
5. Alnilam (1987), by James Dickey.
Starting with its unpronounceable title, this is a complete mess. After publishing a fine adventure novel called Deliverance (later made into a hit movie) in 1970, Dickey, who was primarily a poet, decided to do something Extraordinary. He tells his story from both an omniscient point of view and, in a parallel text, from the perspective of a blind man, and to read it is to risk losing one's patience (and perhaps sanity) on every page.
Feel free to add your own candidates below for biggest let-down by a well-known writer.
-- Dennis Drabelle
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