One of the very first authors who really turned me on was William Saroyan, the warm jazzy humanism of whose novels and stories opened me up, when I discovered them in ninth-grade English, to what fiction writing can do. As much as Saroyan had meant to my own work, that was almost as much as I was dismayed and disappointed to discover that, as a father, he was a nasty piece of work.
That’s the picture convincingly painted in Aram Saroyan’s 1984 memoir, Last Rites: The Death of William Saroyan as Chronicled by His Son. When I found that book in a library, many years after ninth grade, I hunched over it expecting to find the open-hearted energy that gives the best work of Aram’s dad a creativity-stirring impact not quite like anyone else’s, at least for me. But then here was Aram — whose own name William had pilfered to title his best-known story collection, My Name Is Aram, in 1940 — writing that his dad was cold, selfish, degrading, and just downright mean to his ex-wife and his children. I didn’t know what to make of that. I still don’t.
What brought this confusion back was reading an article, in the July 22 New Yorker, on four other memoirs by children of famous late-20th-century male novelists, each of whom seems to have make his work so complete a priority that his kids have, to varying degrees, paid the price. The books are Home Before Dark, 1984, by Susan Cheever; My Father Is a Book, 2006, by Janna Malamud Smith; Reading My Father, 2011, by Alexandra Styron; and the new Saul Bellow’s Heart: A Son’s Memoir, by Greg Bellow.
“Do great novelists make bad parents?” asks the subhead to James Wood’s article. Personally, reading his piece led me to ask a different question. How often would a woman novelist give herself permission to disregard, even degrade, her own children in favor of her work?