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

By Christian Pelusi |  June 19, 2008; 6:24 AM ET Dennis Drabelle , Fiction
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I bought "Answered Prayers" after reading Gerald Clarke's fascinating biography of Capote, which devotes a significant amount of space to the book and the uproar it caused. Some of the writing in "Answered Prayers" is brilliant -- personally, I think everything Capote wrote is worth reading -- but the real interest comes in knowing that a lot of what he wrote about is basically repeated, thinly veiled gossip about his upper class confidantes.

I haven't read much Norman Mailer -- just "The Executioner's Song," which is great -- but judging from what I've read about his work, it sounds like more of his books fall under the heading of "literary fiasco" than not.

Posted by: KLeewrite | June 19, 2008 9:39 AM

I think this may not be supported by many (and it's been many years since I read it, so perhaps the accrual of years has affected my memory), but at the time of reading it, I felt that "Tender Is the Night" was a bit of a massive failure -- compared against the strengths of "The Great Gatsby."

I could insert a string of additional equivocations and hedges here . . . but please assume I'm open to revising my opinion in the face of dissenting opinions.

Posted by: C | June 19, 2008 1:53 PM

I'm actually not sure whether this falls under the heading of "literary fiasco" or not -- and I guess you can debate whether he'd be in the pantheon of "Great American Writers" -- but I've never liked John Updike's "Couples." I guess, considering how much he writes, some of his books inevitably will be bad, but my problem with "Couples" was I didn't find one likeable character in it. That's a pretty big problem for a novel. But then, I felt the same way about "Madame Bovary," so maybe I'm not one to judge.

Posted by: KLeewrite | June 19, 2008 3:18 PM

I felt that Paul Auster's recent "Travels in the Scriptorium" was a fiasco.

Posted by: Matt | June 20, 2008 4:44 PM

I haven't read Auster's "Scriptorium" yet, but I would certainly say his previous effort, "The Brooklyn Follies," was a major folly of its own, if you'll pardon the pun.

I just find it endlessly tedious when writers take on contemporary politics. Just wait a few years, would ya?

Posted by: TomL | June 20, 2008 8:07 PM

Robert Frost's Witness Tree and In the Clearing, two of his late books -- not out-an-out fiascos, but many astonishingly cheesy poems for a poet of genius. While some of them are charming, they don't hold their own with some of the late work of other great poets, like Stevens' The Rock. (Stevens once said to Frost, 'the problem with your poems is that they have subjects.')

PS--I can understand see the earlier commenter dissing F Scott's "Tender," but I would say that The Beautiful and Damned is still his worst novel. But the view that he completely lost it at the end is contradicted by "The Tycoon," which is terrific in a lot of ways, esp for an unfinished work.

Posted by: mark tarallo | June 22, 2008 10:00 PM

The mention of Robert Frost reminds me -- Anne Sexton wrote some terrific poetry early in her career, but in the latter part of her career, her confessional poetry became more confession than poetry. She sort of vomited out her feelings rather than incorporating them into some sort of structure

Posted by: KLeewrite | June 23, 2008 9:51 AM

Just for the record, I quizzed my Book World colleagues for their suggestions before posting my five entries, and Jon Yardley voted for Mailer's Ancient Evenings. I kind of like it, though, so I left it out. It's been a long time since I read Tender Is the Night, but I remember at least the first section as being good. Couples, though, is a good one. I read it because it was supposed to be so racy, but mostly it was a snooze.

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