In the January 2013 issue of The Believer, Colin Asher surveys the life and career of Nelson Algren, attempting along the way to illustrate the implicit claim that Algren is a neglected figure who is actually an important postwar American writer. Since my familiarity with Algren's fiction is limited, I am more or less agnostic on the merits of his work (although I certainly don't accept the assertion that The Man With the Golden Arm is "among the very best books written in the twentieth century"), but I don't think Asher's essay will be very successful in rehabilitating Algren's reputation, not so much because he overpraises Algren but because of the limitations of the sort of essay he has chosen to write.
It is in fact the kind of "critical" essay that has become the default practice in literary journalism, although the problem with this form of literary criticism is that there really isn't much actual criticism included at all. Instead, Asher provides us with a mini-biography of Algren, an extended narrative that literally takes us from Algren's birth ("Algren was born Nelson Algren Abraham in Detroit in 1909") to the disturbing circumstances of his death ("Algren’s body went unclaimed for two days"), while Algren's books, presumably the reason anyone would be interested in Algren at all, serve as plot points in between. Mostly they serve as prompts in the more sweeping story of Algren's rise and fall.
Granted, Nelson Algren's life especially lends itself to this synoptic approach, from his rough, working-class childhood to his voluntary experiences with the down-and-out, from the heights of literary success (including work in Hollywood) to the bottoming-out in near obscurity. But the biographical narrative doesn't really do much to convince us that the books he left behind are still worth reading, other than as curios that might further adorn this narrative were we to pick one up. The discussion of The Man with the Golden Arm, for example, consists of little more than some plot summary and some brief sociological analysis, locating the themes of the book in the context of the immediate post-World War II cultural milieu. Much more space is then given to Algren's struggles with success and with his role (as victim) in the Hollywood blacklist era.
If The Man With the Golden Arm is one of "the very best books written in the twentieth century," shouldn't we get more critical testimony establishing such a lofty status than this? Can we really conclude this is a valid judgment based simply on a truncated description of its plot and characters and an assurance it bears great historical weight in its depiction of postwar America? Algren's other books are given a similar treatment, each subsumed to the role it played in the ongoing saga of his life, the saga itself pinned to the thesis that Algren never compromised his integrity (he "kept going his own way"), even when that refusal might have harmed his career. The ultimate effect, although it is surely not the one Asher intended, is to suggest that Algren's life is more interesting than his work, that it is Algren as an emblematic figure hewing to his principles even when it leads to a tragic end we should remember.
If the goal is to bring this writer's books back into circulation as important work, "classic" American fiction, why wouldn't a publication like The Believer give space to a critical consideration of that work itself, rather than the same old conventional chronicle of the writer's life and fortunes? Why not focus entirely on The Man With the Golden Gun, or at least on what the critic believes is the writer's most important work, giving us a close analysis and a sense of the work's concrete accomplishments? This would seem to be a better way of cultivating interest in the writer, not all of whose books are going to seem equally deserving in the long run, anyway. As it is, Asher's essay encourages the conclusion that in reading it we have learned what's really important about Nelson Algren, making it superfluous to read any of the books--assuming we ought to read them in the first place.