So widespread is the literary world's scorn for John O'Hara that the inclusion two years ago of his Appointment in Samarra on the Modern Library's list of the 100 best novels of the twentieth century was used to ridicule the entire project. Although a number of writers -- John Updike, Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe, Louis Begley, Geoffrey Wolff, James Dickey, Guy Davenport, Fran Lebowitz, and Shelby Foote among them -- have admitted to admiring O'Hara, many writers and critics have long delighted in disdaining him and seem to resurrect this "middlebrow" author only for the sport of cutting him down again.
As a self-consciously "big-picture" social novelist, O'Hara has been an easy mark ever since minimalist fiction became the vogue, but his novels, though immensely popular (not to mention immense), were out of critical fashion even in their time, as O'Hara himself was all too aware. Today he is so passé that although he holds the record for number of short stories published in The New Yorker, the magazine's books editor confessed in 1993, when asked about an assault on O'Hara by Harold Brodkey in her pages, that she didn't know enough about O'Hara's work to comment.
Still, timing alone didn't make O'Hara the Rodney Dangerfield of American letters. In part his critics' response is personal, driven by an urge to take down a peg a man who masked his profound insecurity with aggressive vanity. O'Hara was desperate for praise, but sullied his chances for a sympathetic reading by chronically overinflating his achievements. For years he "hanker[ed] noisily," as Updike has written, after the Nobel Prize, an honor obviously beyond his reach. A comment he once made about himself (which his wife chose as his epitaph) encapsulates his strengths as a writer and also the way he consistently ensured that they would be undervalued: "Better than anyone else, he told the truth about his time. He was a professional. He wrote honestly and well." As Malcolm Cowley observed, all but the first phrase is "an accurate summation of his career," but the initial claim provokes such exasperation that critics might be forgiven for dismissing the whole.