In the winter of 1960, Mary McCarthy—the writer whom Norman Mailer once described as “our saint, our umpire, our lit arbiter, our broadsword”—gave a series of lectures in Europe sponsored by the US State Department. McCarthy was 47. Having published four well-received novels, she was struggling with a new one, about eight Vassar graduates living through the political and economic upheavals of 1930s New York.
McCarthy never knew just who would be in the audience that winter—they might be university students, children, intellectuals, retirees—so she rarely bothered to prepare a formal speech. Instead, she spoke in an impromptu fashion about the challenges of writing novels in the second half of the 20th century—after the golden age of realism, after modernism’s explosion, after Auschwitz. “The writing of a novel has become problematic today,” she declared in “The Fact in Fiction,” an essay she published based on her lectures. Novelists had turned away from the social world; they were no longer concerned “with the actual world, the world of fact, of the verifiable, of figures, events, and statistics.” They did not “stoop to gossip,” as the great novelists—Austen, Joyce, Kafka—once did. Instead, in 1960, the average writer was credentialed and professionalized; he lived in a world composed largely of “other writers and his girl friends” (and, perhaps lamentably, colleagues in a university English department). This was why the novel was so moribund in America. But McCarthy thought that a new generation of writers could reverse this trend: “someone may be able to believe again in the reality, the factuality, of the world.”
“The Fact in Fiction” offers the best of Mary McCarthy: her considered criticism of writers, her careful taxonomies, her bold and withering condemnations, and her impeccable, almost fastidious sentences. These were the qualities that made her one of the most respected—and feared—critics of her generation. They also reveal what she valued in fiction, both in what she read and what she wrote. Verisimilitude was paramount. Depicting a social world was more valuable than rendering a subjective consciousness, unless that consciousness was itself given to observations about the social world. A novelist could entertain, she could illuminate, but she must never swerve from the world as it is experienced. “Factuality,” her word for a precise and honest accounting of the observable world, was both McCarthy’s literary standard and her lodestar.
McCarthy’s fiction, collected by the Library of America in two new volumes, shows how her preoccupation with factuality shaped her art. The collection includes all seven of her novels—the first published in 1942, the last in 1979—as well as collected and uncollected stories and an essay on “the novels that got away.” Through it all, we see McCarthy’s fixation on the surface details that distinguish class and character: a middle-aged man from the Midwest who is given to wearing Brooks Brothers suits; a Yale man working at a leftist magazine who sports a “well-cut brown suit that needed pressing”; bohemian couples living on Cape Cod who drink too much and don’t bother keeping house. We learn that it was a status symbol in 1930s New York for a Vassar graduate to serve coffee with real cream.