John Cheever sounds like a handful. (I’m sure this is not an original observation.) I enjoyed reading an essay in the Autumn 2008 issue of The Gettysburg Review about the fall semester Cheever spent teaching in Iowa City, where I grew up, as a guest at the famed Iowa Writer’s Workshop in 1973. He had quite the workshop: students included Ron Hansen, T.C. Boyle, and Allan Gurganus. Nearly forgotten as a writer, drunk much of the time (despite promises to family and friends that he wouldn’t drink), he still sounds like quite a formidable teacher:
“[Allan] Gurganus later worked with Stanley Elkin—a ‘genius teacher’ who provided a study in contrast. Elkin ‘was like an architect looking at a building and telling you exactly where the stresses were,’ said Gurganus. ‘John would either say yes or no. Either it would do or it wouldn’t do. He said yes to me more often than he said no, but it was frustrating when he said no because it was hard to get him to tell you what could be changed.’ The most disheartening part was that Cheever tended to be right, though it often required a lot of painful labor in the dark to discover why this should be so. Gurganus admitted that his own no stories were, in fact, buried at last in files somewhere (‘with all the Christian rites and honors’), and even Cheever’s formidable contemporary, Hortense Calisher, conceded the ‘ruthless’ accuracy of his literary judgments. ‘Come now, Hortense, that’s a fudge,’ he said when she had protested that she was still reading a book and hence was uncertain to its merit. ‘You can read a page and tell if it’s alive or dead.’ In workshop Cheever would express rejection with a vaguely grim poker face, perhaps a slight shrug, which was tantamount to a loud and insulting harangue. And if a student made the mistake of pressing him as to why a story didn’t work, or (worse) how it might be improved, Cheever would respond with a sort of pensive sarcasm: ‘If that character is supposed to be gay,’ he might say, feigning careful deliberation, ‘maybe you could show as much by having him lick his fingers and wipe his eyebrows…’ As [Ron] Hansen explained, ‘He meant to suggest that the story was such a mess that even a detail like that wouldn’t help.’”
I was surprised that the students then really didn’t have an appreciation of what a remarkable writer Cheever was:
“Mostly, though, Cheever was the soul of kindness and tact, and was even prepared to forgive his students’ dislike (or more often) total ignorance of his own work. ‘I’m terribly out of mode,’ he said again and again. ‘Nobody reads me anymore.’ The young [T.C.] Boyle agreed; like so many of his peers, he worshipped at the feet of ‘experimental’ writers such as Barthelme and Barth…’All writing is “experimental,” Tom,’ [Cheever] said. ‘Don’t get caught up in fads.’ Boyle inwardly scoffed and continued to regard Cheever as an ‘old stick in the mud’—until he finally got around to rereading his work with care. To this day he is still reading it, though a long time has passed since he has read any Barthelme or Barth. ‘Anyone can write a Barthelme story,’ said Boyle. ‘No one can write a Cheever story.’”
The essay is by Blake Bailey, author of Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates. (Richard Yates: Another brilliant handful of a writer!) Bailey is coming out with a biography of John Cheever in 2009, which, based on this piece, is certainly worth watching for.
Related: Here, an “ah-ha” moment that transformed my writing, thanks to John Cheever’s “The Country Husband.”