Friday, March 13, 2009

John Cheever

I'm listening to the Diane Rehm show (via the Internet; go here , scroll down, and you can listen too). I often try to catch up on shows that sound interesting, and at first I thought I would skip this one with Blake Bailey, who has just published a biography of Cheever. Then I read about Bailey and his efforts (in yesterday's Washington Post here), and decided I would listen.

What a treat! Lots of interesting information about Cheever, as well as some interesting things to think about when it comes to literary reputation.

Diane Rehm asked Bailey why we know so much about Updike, who just died, and Cheever seems to have dropped off of everyone's radar screen. Bailey said that Cheever is a writer's writer--writers appreciate Cheever's accomplishments in a way that academics never have.

I'm not sure I knew that. Cheever was so important to me that I just assumed that academics felt the same way. My academic field is 19th century British Lit, with a sub-specialty in 20th century British Lit, so I'm not always up on what literary critics of American Literature deem important.

I read Cheever's "The Swimmer" in an undergraduate Short Story class. It was one of those stories that made me want to write, which I was already doing, and made me aim for more for my writing. In that class, we learned how important he was and what he had done for the short story--or at least, I think we did--it's getting to be a long time ago. His short stories seemed so masterful, much like Chekhov--so perfect and accomplished.

It's interesting that I used to spend so much time reading short stories for school, both when I was a student and when I was teaching, that I didn't read them for pleasure. Now I don't read short stories much, although I'm not opposed to the idea; I'd prefer to lose myself in a novel.

It also makes me wonder about the influence of the short story on poets. I assume that everything we read is important, no matter what we write. But I do try to read a lot of poetry, and if time is short, as it often is these days, the poetry takes priority.

I feel slightly guilty, because I'm not likely to get around to reading this biography. Of course, if I was likely to read the book, I might not be listening to the show. Often, when I read the book of an author who has made the NPR rounds, I feel like I've already read the book. So I'm grateful for these NPR shows, which keep my brain from turning to mush, during these days that I don't have much reading time (sigh!!).

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