JOHN CHEEVER BELONGS to a small and elite group -- he is a prophet with honor in his own country. Not only has he topped the best-seller lists and made the cover of Newsweek, he is also the recipient of just about every major literary award a grateful nation can bestow. So he enjoys both critical and financial success, a place both in literature and on the talk show. He was at the Waldorf, doing a little genteel publicity for Ballantine Books, paperback publisher of Bullet Park, Falconer, and The stories of John Cheever, which last year copped both the Pulitzer prize and a National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction.
"I thoroughly enjoy the recognition that the stories have received; that's an enormous pleasure. And also the fact that these are short stories, which, as merchandising goes, might be thought to be a complete flat tire. But to the contrary, they sold extremely well, which implies a sizable, well-informed, intelligent audience. The mail I get is from mature, well-informed men and women. Take Falconer. The letters were wonderful, with the exception of one homosexual who wanted a retraction of the fact that heterosexual love strikes me as being more desirable, and a cranky woman who wrote asking how could she burn the book? She had taken the jacket off and tried to burn it, but failed. However, she was to write two years later, saying that she had gotten the collected stories, and was now terribly apologetic. Out of 400 letters, one homoesexual crank and one lady who presently repented. The lonely they sometimes are, but then, so am I."
You've seen a lot of changes in publishing over the decades since your first stories appeared in the New Yorker, both in the way books are merchandised and the kinds of books that are merchandised. What do you see as the future for books?
"Well, it seems to me that Bob Gottlieb [editor in chief of Knopf, Cheever's publisher] is an extremely good example of a display of intelligence and vitality that can actually dominate combines. Bob Gottlieb is more important than any decision made by RCA when they owned the outfit, or by Newhouse, now that he owns it. Bob's list is diverse and makes all sorts of concessions to unprofitable seriousness. The best-seller list has always been highly irregular. Even when you are on the best seller list you always find yourself in mixed company. But the fact that there are serious readers all over the world and the fact that one is discovered are the most gratifying facts for a writer."
You metioned that Saul Bellow was your favorite writer.
"I feel quite strongly that literature is not competitive or even comparative. There are certain things that Saul does better than anybody else, certain things that John Updike does better than anybody else, but it isn't anything like a footrace. It seems to me that one makes a contribution to what is literature, which is what I consider to be the first mark of civilization. One makes a contribution, and it might be an enduring one, or it might be very brief. It doesn't make any difference, really so long as one keeps the stream moving. I've been reading for the American Academy for the last three years; I've been chairman of the grants committee, and it seems to me that I have not encountered one outstanding book that has not been sought out by the public. It seems to me that writing is a marvelous way of making sense of one's life, both for the writer and for the reader. With the invention of daguerrotype, writing was thought to be completely finished. Radio, TV, even the gramophone was supposed to have sounded the knell for literature. But that particular extremely intimate communication a writer and a reader enjoy, makes it somehow disappointing for me to meet an author. If late at night I might read a paragraph, sometimes no more than a sentence, but possessing a brilliance and an intimacy that completely transcends human relationships, to meet the writer in the lobby of the hotel is going to be a comedown."
When you sit down to write, what makes you decide between a short story and a novel?
"The short story is determined in my case by that which is intense and interrupted. I didn't even attempt to write a novel until I had enjoyed a sustained experience, a sustained emotional life which I didn't have until I was middle aged. I didn't start The Wapshot Chronicle until I was nearly 40. I'd lived with my wife for 15 years, I had children, and it seemed to me that the lanscape had evened out, and that I could write a novel. Up until that point, it seemed to me that my affairs were intense, broken and that this is the form that is necessary for the short story."
Is it fair to say that you write about the quality of life?
Do you think it's changing?
"It changes from moment to moment, and it has ever since I've been aware of the light of day. I write about the world in which I find myself, and it seems to me that what binds one writer to another in friendship or in love is that we all share a very keen sense of alienation, although in literature one never claims to have come from another world or to be about to be transported to another world. At the same time, there is the freshness of alienation to the observation. There is the rather thrilling sense of astonishment involved in literature. Rather like a winter twilight."
But then life goes on, doesn't it?
"Yes, it does. Which is the burden of literature, really. It's the sharing of melancholy and ecstasy, it's describing the human condition in terms that the reader enjoys. One is constantly writing or re-writing mythology, legends."
What are you working on now?
"I'm working on what I describe as 'a bulky novel.' When I'm not working for a day, it bothers me. It's really what I do best, what I most enjoy."
You're a lucky man, aren't you?
"I'm extremely fortunate." CAPTION: Picture, John Cheever, Copyright (c) 1977, by Nancy Crampton