The Library of America: Too Frisky?

Writing at Newsweek‘s Web site, Malcolm Jones rants that the Library of America has become a “publishing venture increasingly dependent on the idea that great American writers just can’t die fast enough.” His piece is a variation of the complaint that the Criterion Collection gets when it hastily canonizes recent movies like The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou or Che, but in this case Jones’ evidence for the Library’s lapses is remarkably thin. He’s largely unhappy with a new collection of Shirley Jackson, whom he dismisses as being “mostly famous for one short story.” Is that a problem with Jackson, though, or with what kinds of writers gain notoriety? And if this is a truly a case where “financial concerns go to war with esthetics,” as Jones writes, publishing a collection of Jackson hardly seems like a way to chase big bucks. After all, remember, she’s mostly famous for one short story.

That’s not the only case where Jones seems uncertain about what he’s agitating against. He cites a Dawn Powell collection as both an interesting choice and an example of the Library’s haste, and recent collections by John Cheever, John Ashbery, and Raymond Carver are proof that the “LOA wasn’t going to wait any longer for time’s verdict.” Ashbery is in his 80s and Carver and Cheever died more than two decades ago, so how long must one’s body be moldering in the ground before it’s OK to collect their work in a prestige edition?

Actually, you needn’t die at all, so long as you’re Philip Roth. Given that Jones registers no loud complaints about the Library’s Roth collections but sees little value in its H.P. Lovecraft and Philip K. Dick books, it’s safe to say that what’s going on here is that Jones simply has a constricted view of what makes for a canon. But then, so does the Library of America: Besides the Jackson book, its 2010 list includes Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mark Twain, John Marshall, Stephen Foster, and a collection of theater writing. If that’s the LOA getting impatient for time’s verdict, a little more impatience would actually be a virtue.

9 thoughts on “The Library of America: Too Frisky?

  1. If fame is truly a criterion, shouldn’t LOA begin planning for the eventual demise of Nicholas Sparks? He’s certifiably famous, albeit for a series of crappy romance – sorry, love story novels. And how can he possibly dispute that Carver and Cheever were major American writers?

  2. In my book, if you’re “mostly famous for one short story,” then you’re actually doing pretty good. A lot better than a lot of people.

  3. “…it’s safe to say that what’s going on here is that Jones simply has a constricted view of what makes for a canon.”

    Absolutely. Mr. Jones’ article left me a bit dumbfounded. If you’re going to take issue with LOA, you’re going to need a much better argument than that. Was he struggling to fill a column or what?

    However, I do love this blog.

  4. Which story is Shirley Jackson famous for? I guess he means “An Ordinary Day, with Peanuts.” Perhaps he meant “novel” and was referring to the acclaimed “The Haunting of Hill House.”

  5. “The Lottery.”

    Of course, sales and literary merit are rarely connected, but it’s my understanding the Phil Dick collections have sold very well for the LOA.

  6. Jones reminds me of Harold Bloom. I recently bought an anthology of critical essays about Isabel Allende’s work and his introduction to it actually attacks her! “I can locate no aesthetic achievement in the immensely popular The House of the Spirits, or in Paula, or in the recent Daughter of Fortune (Oprah’s Book Club).” Of course, he uses “popular” disparagingly and throws in Oprah as if her (admittedly questionable) reading list didn’t include writers like Faulkner. Then Bloom goes on to say, “Is this imaginative literature, or is it something else? Journalistically and historically, it has the accents of truth, and morally it is heroic, but is it persuasive as novelistic art? Is Isabel Allende truly comparable to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, or are we to seek her peers at a very different level, in the cosmos of supermarket fiction?”

    Shirley Jackson was questioned because none of her works outside of “The Lottery” are popular enough and Isabel Allende was questioned because her works are TOO popular.

    I’m with you all the way about the need to be “impatient” when it comes to expanding the canon and recognizing literary merit in all sorts of books by all sorts of people.

  7. Jones’ article was just stupid.

    But I just wanted to point out that Criterion putting out a flick should not be confused with them “canonizing” it.

  8. I think it’s long past time to finally shelve — in a dark, dusty corner of the library — the pasty, white old men (especially Harlold Bloom) who believe it is thier sacred, literary duty to tell everyone else what and _how_ to read. They’ve succeeded only in sucking all of the fun out of something that should — at heart — be an act of pure joy and discovery; and in making a name for themselves, and only because more than one person (in certain circles) actually gave credence to their opinions.

    If Jones is tunnel-visioned enough _not_ to have known that _most_ of Shirley Jackson’s ouevre — “The Daemon Lover,” “The Lottery,” “An Ordinary Day, With Peanuts”; WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE and THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE, etc. — is not only well-loved but well-known (even as far away as Australia), then he should retire and open a slot for someone with a broader “palate” when it comes to love, and knowledge, of literature (Harold Bloom remains beyond the pale, literally and figuratively).

  9. The Library of America can publish what it wants to publish, but true literary merit can only be determined by patiently letting the dust settle on the supposed “titans” of our day. Why this haste to yoke John Ashbery and Philip Roth to Robert Frost and Nathaniel West? Give it time!

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