Don DeLillo's Bum Luck

The novelist's low status in an age of cultural proliferation

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In February, a literary event of no small significance occurred. Don DeLillo, arguably America's finest living novelist still in full control of his talents—and inarguably one of the most important and respected writers of the past 30 years—released his 12th work of fiction, a novella called The Body Artist. Though the critical response to The Body Artist has been less than uniformly positive, its sheer volume testifies to DeLillo's eminence. This is a book that has been written up everywhere that matters—The New York Times even saw fit to review it twice—and many places that don't.

Since his 1971 debut, Americana, DeLillo has gone from sometimes being dismissed as an epigone of Thomas Pynchon to being acclaimed (in the words of hard-to-please novelist Martin Amis) as "a writer of high intellect and harsh originality, equipped with extraordinary gifts of eye and ear—and of nose, palate and fingertips."

Along the way, DeLillo has crafted an oeuvre that includes such highly regarded novels as 1972's End Zone (which hilariously links college football and nuclear war); 1985's White Noise (which follows the travails of a professor who creates the academic field of "Hitler Studies"); and 1988's Libra (which offers a detailed and compelling meditation on Lee Harvey Oswald, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and the role of accident and chance in history).

In 1997, he published Underworld, a massive, 827-page novel about the second half of the American Century and the end of the Cold War that was universally hailed a masterpiece. Amis again: "It isn't every day, or even every decade, that one sees the ascension of a great writer."

DeLillo is, in short and in every way, what undergraduate literature courses dub a Major Author. Yet he is also an essentially invisible author, largely unread by and unknown to not simply the vast majority of Americans, but the vast majority of well-educated Americans, most of whom have never read one of his books and could not name even one of his many memorable characters.

His situation thus represents something of a mystery: In terms of literary merit and artful explication of an American experience—and in terms of relative sales—DeLillo is easily the equal or superior of a Hemingway or a Fitzgerald. Yet he occupies nothing like the cultural niche they filled. Indeed, he doesn't even rise to the level of presence achieved at times by such postwar authors as Norman Mailer or Gore Vidal.

What explains this? Part of it is surely DeLillo's own doing. While he has never obsessively shunned publicity ? la J.D. Salinger or Thomas Pynchon, he has rarely made himself available to the press or to critics; neither does he regularly publish reviews of or essays on contemporary writers, a tried and true way of boosting one's profile.

But a bigger part of the answer relates to the underlying dynamic of cultural proliferation and the vast outpouring in recent decades of art, music, literature, video, and other forms of creative expression. (See "All Culture, All the Time," REASON, April 1999.) In a world of ever increasing cultural opportunities—a world in which over 60,000 new books and 8,000 works of fiction are published each year—it is harder than ever for any individual writer to matter much.

A similar reality holds true for artists, musicians, movie?makers, and the like: The same situation that gives people the power to make and consume more culture undermines the clout of creators. As literary critic Stanley Fish has noted, "Artistic freedom is purchased at the expense of artistic efficacy." The result is a corresponding deflation in cultural power.

When it comes to literature, Mailer and Vidal are not simply old men, they represent old models of what it means to be an author, especially when it comes to leveraging literary fame into other areas. (On the strength of their literary success, for instance, both Mailer and Vidal ran for public office, and have acted—or at any rate, appeared—in movies.)

In short, DeLillo has had the bum luck of being a great novelist when such a figure doesn't command the attention, respect, and awe it once did. At least in America, the age of the novelist as culture hero has largely passed. To his credit, DeLillo does not seem particularly perturbed by his fate. "I've always liked being relatively obscure," he told an interviewer in 1991. "I feel that's where I belong, where my work belongs." His novel Mao II, which tracks the adventures of ultra-reclusive writer Bill Gray, is in part an exploration of the diminished expectations of the contemporary novelist.

Such a situation shouldn't be confused with the end of Literature, or with a barbarians-at-the-gate scenario. There are more novels (and volumes of poetry) in circulation than ever before, and more people read more books than ever before.

Indeed, one of the more interesting ironies of cultural proliferation is that artists can do quite well for themselves financially even if they no longer possess the sort of cultural capital they once did. It's worth underscoring that DeLillo is not simply a writer's writer or a critic's darling; his work also sells well. Since White Noise, DeLillo's books have been included in such high-volume venues as the Book of the Month Club, and they routinely chart on the bestseller lists.

By early March, The Body Artist, which revolves around a performance artist reflecting on her husband's suicide, had already cracked Amazon.com's top 1,000 and made the American Booksellers Association bestseller list for independent bookstores.

One can only assume its sales will continue to climb, even if its author's presence in American culture does not quite rise in equal measure.