April 12, 2010

Is the Library of America out of material?


“It’s a suspicion that’s been growing for some time,” Newsweek book editor Malcolm Jones observes in a new column. “Hard to say precisely when it started, maybe with the publication of living authors, maybe with whole volumes dedicated to–hmm, maybe it’s cruel to label H. P. Lovecraft a second-tier writer, but maybe not so mean to call him a fringe author. Anyway, it’s become harder and harder to ignore the fact that the Library of America is running out of writers.”

As Jones notes, the LOA’s own description of its mission is that it “preserve our nation’s literary heritage by publishing, and keeping in print, authoritative editions of America’s best and most significant writing.”

But recent LOA projects make Jones suspicious. For example:

… at the end of April, the LOA will publish a slim volume containing John Updike’s famous New Yorker farewell to Ted Williams, “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,” fleshed out with a little more eulogizing, published when Williams died. There has already been a LOA volume devoted to baseball writing, joining other volumes about American subjects (food, New York, Los Angeles, the legacies of Lincoln and Twain, the environment). You could file all these volumes under the heading, “Cleverly Curating the Franchise.” But somehow the Updike volume seems not just physically thin but insubstantial–too much made of a good thing. And then, in May, here comes an entire volume dedicated to …. Shirley Jackson? A writer mostly famous for one short story, “The Lottery.” Is LOA about to jump the shark?

Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House. Follow him on Twitter at @mobylives