Between 1982 and 1984 Paul Auster sent his manuscript for City of Glass to seventeen publishers; they all turned it down. Twelve years later, he sold his manuscripts to the Berg Collection in the New York Public Library, where they now lie in the company of those of Charles Dickens, Mark Twain and Vladimir Nabokov. Since 1984, Auster has published nine novels as well as books of non-fiction, while some of his early plays, along with a pseudonymous detective novel originally published in 1982, have been published in the form of appendices to new work. Meanwhile, his career in film has progressed from a cameo appearance in Philip Haas's adaptation of The Music of Chance to writing and co-directing Smoke and Blue in the Face with Wayne Wang, to a film written and directed by himself, Lulu on the Bridge. In the 1970s, Auster felt that everything he touched ‘turned to failure’ (HM 3); by the early 1990s, he could support himself through writing, and now the story has it that his books are kept behind the counter in many bookshops because he is a favourite among shoplifters. The critical attention he has received is no less impressive than his reversal of fortune; in a book published in 1995 Dennis Barone predicted an ‘exponential growth’ in Auster criticism in the late 1990s, and in 1996 alone four books on Moon Palace appeared in France.
Despite this success, Sven Birkerts has a point when he describes Auster as ‘the ghost at the banquet of contemporary American letters’, while Auster himself feels that what he is doing is ‘so contrary to what most novelists are trying to accomplish that I often have trouble thinking of myself as a novelist at all’ (AH 305). There are, as we shall see, various factors that may help to explain the peculiar position that Auster occupies in American letters. His fiction is hard to classify, as it borrows from different traditions and participates in, without belonging to, various ‘schools’ of writing. His work combines metafictive elements with a clearly articulated interest in, and engagement with, the contemporary world. Overt references to the act and the nature of writing and self-conscious subversions of traditional notions of story-telling are never divorced from questions pertaining to urban living, Western history, capitalism, the tyranny of money, and the role of the author in society.