Often when I am reading a book, I spend more time thinking about the context of the books' era than I do what is going on in front of me. This has apparently been one of the longest running battles in criticism, with a debate between those who want to look at only the text ("The New Criticism") versus those who believe a book can only be understood through its social milieu ("Death of the Author") with many other gradations in between. I am not professional enough to have a preference in this, but sometimes a book really jumps out at me one way or another.
"Miss Lonelyhearts" is a novella about a disaffected young man (referred only as "Miss Lonelyhearts") who writes an advice column in a newspaper. This assignment was given to him by his cynical editor and best friend as somewhat of a joke, but Miss Lonelyheart has begun to feel sympathy for the various pathetic people who write him letters. While these feelings of misery and religious sympathy grow in him, he continues to run around 1920s New York, drinking and fighting and indulging in the licentious, squalid side of life in the big city.
None of which is that surprising now. This book reminds me of Norman Mailer in his heyday. And it especially reminds me of Bright Lights, Big City: another novel about an unnamed young journalist in the big city with a cynical friend and self-destructive habits. The difference between Nathanel West and Norman Mailer and Jay McInnery is that he was living and writing a lot earlier than either one of them. And while writing a book where adultery, abortion and homosexuality are talked about openly might not be that big of a selling point in the 1980s, the raw tone of this book is pretty notable for being published in 1933. This is even more noticeable when I compare it to other works of literature from the early half of the century. Read the staid High School English classic "Ethan Frome", published in 1911, and compare it to "Miss Lonelyhearts", and see just how revolutionary the tone of "Miss Lonelyhearts" is.
So while this book might come up short for modern readers who have been spoiled by decades of gritty, it is important to remember just how raw and original the book was at the time of its first publishing.