After year of interesting editorial choices, the LOA faces uncharted terrain
As the Library of America enters its forty-third year, the nonprofit house can look back on 2021 as a year of hard work and aggressive publication of the works of diverse novelists, short story writers, poets, essayists, and memoirists. To be sure, 2021 was a busy time for the publisher, with a number of coups including the release of long-awaited volumes of Joan Didion, Ray Bradbury, O. Henry, S.J. Perelman, and Donald Barthelme. As we move into the new year, the series faces uncharted terrain, much like a number of authors in the series who came of age on the frontiers of a wild and violent land.
Today, the LOA operates in an environment where the number of great writers is finite, some question its editorial choices, and the words of critics like Malcolm Jones in Newsweek, who accused the LOA in 2010 of allowing its production schedule rather than editorial criteria to dictate the inclusion of writers, may still rankle. Jones questioned the addition of Philip K. Dick, H.P. Lovecraft, John Cheever, Shirley Jackson, and others to the series alongside the likes of such undisputed masters as Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, Edith Wharton, and Mark Twain. He took potshots at Lovecraft and conceded the greatness of one of Jackson’s tales (“The Lottery,” of course) while disputing the stature of her work in toto.
Since that attack, the LOA series has gone even more off the beaten path, enshrining in its black covers scored with red, white, and blue stripes the work of writers you may never have heard of, opening itself up even more to Jones’s charge of churning out books every year to fulfill a publishing quota rather than a mission of bringing the imperishable works of American writers to the world. Yet all the writers listed here have ardent fans. Who’s right? People may be wondering whom to believe and where the series should go next.
“Hello, Sir! Have You Lost Your Bearings?”
Some may recall this line from the 1973 film The Wicker Man, spoken by a resident of Summerisle to Sergeant Neil Howie from the mainland. It is also perhaps a question that critics may pose of a series whose output veers from the canonical to the obscure.
But 2021 has unquestionably been a bold year for the Library of America. It has taken initiative and published authors whom our seventh-grade teachers would never have dared assign. The books added over the past year fully deserve the title of literature, even as they manifest a topicality and trenchancy, a refusal to conform to dogma, that will displease some on the right and will almost certainly infuriate the left.
The writings of the late Joan Didion, which came out last April in a volume devoted to her mid-career work of the 1980s and 1990s, present an example of work that straddles fiction, journalism, and memoir while enlarging our sense of the possibilities of all three. Her writing is elegant without ever feeling stiff, and the voice is candid, conversational, yet imbued with the urgency that first drew people to Didion at the dawn of her career in the 1960s. Though sometimes pegged as conservative, Didion, like other writers who joined the Library of America in 2021, is an iconoclast who describes the world as she sees it without regard for ideology.
One of the biggest headlines in the latter part of 2021 was about Cuban citizens and refugees in Florida who protested the jailing of dissidents in Cuba and the refusal of the island nation’s president, Miguel Diaz-Canel, to allow a pro-democracy march through the streets of Havana. The crowds in Miami claimed to be rallying for human rights. In Havana, playwright and dissident Yunior Garcia reportedly planned to walk alone through the city with a rose in hand symbolizing his movement’s devotion to peaceful change. Here we have what appears to be a good conservative cause. It is hard to argue with human rights and nonviolent reform. How fortuitous, then, that just a matter of months preceding this affair, the Library of America brought out its volume of Didion containing an engaging piece of reportage, Miami. Didion has a lot to say here.
Despite what its title might lead you to believe, Miami is not really about the neighborhoods, streets, architecture, culture, or nightlife of that city. It is about the anti-communist diaspora centered there in the 1980s and the efforts of anti-Castro activists to ram through their agenda with any means they could find, legal or not. Miami drives home just how nasty the movement was, how willing to use terrorism of the vilest, most cowardly kind. It details how plotters went so far as to place bombs on crowded flights and how the authorities just barely nipped their plans in bud. This is not quite what anticommunists or conservatives want to hear, but Didion has more than done her homework and Miami reads like a nonfiction novel sans pareil.
In September 2021, the LOA brought out a collection of Ray Bradbury’s novels, including Fahrenheit 451, a sci-fi work from 1953 whose prescience borders on eerie. Here is a novel with the potential to annoy both the right and the left, but especially, in these days of regression and authoritarianism masquerading as enlightened thought, the left. Its corps of “firemen,” who burn books to wipe out the memory of how eloquent writers can be and how central literature once was to the fermenting of iconoclastic thought. That book’s message is more urgent than ever.
Yet another iconoclast brought to the world’s notice in 2021 is Donald Barthelme, a prolific scribe who deluged the New Yorker’s offices with manuscripts of his short stories in the 1970s and 1980s. The editor of the LOA volume of Barthelme is Charles McGrath, who relates in his introduction that he once had the duty of going through the New Yorker slush pile. In the course of this work, he came across would-be Barthelmes all the time, McGrath says.
Few of them could match Barthelme’s wit, imagination, or knack for displaying over and over how fiction, properly understood, can subvert dogma. As readers of Don DeLillo and David Foster Wallace know, postmodernist tales and fables are not tracts or treatises or exercises in hyperintellectual frivolity, but experiments that delve into real human experience in all its quirkiness and complexity. In doing so, they nullify poisonous dogmas that subsume human beings into pat categories in order to mark them for annihilation.
True to form, a few of the stories in the LOA’s volume of Barthelme may annoy jihadists and ideologues. The short story “On Angels” relates the dilemma of angels at the death of God. Maybe they feel kind of the way that Marxists felt when their own idol, communism, and its physical iteration, the Berlin Wall, came crashing down. But that is a leap of interpretation. A story with direct applicability to our moment is “I Bought a Little City,” which ran in the New Yorker’s issue of November 3, 1974. The narrator acts on a whim to buy the city of Galveston, Texas, and to run it as he sees fit without regard for the views of the rubes who live there. He gives the order to round up and shoot 6,000 dogs, and dismisses the protests of one owner. Though he may not call the owner a “deplorable,” this story about the arbitrary exercise of the machinery of state coercion and violence in the name of a collective goal holds up well today.
In the end, Barthelme is less interested in attacking the orthodoxies of either the right or the left than in fleshing out the oddness at the core of daily life. In his story “Edward and Pia,” the mismatched couple of the title engage in pointless and doomed efforts to relate to each other, made just bearable by their flitting from one city in Europe to another. Pia’s laugh at the end seems like a repressed acknowledgment of the gulf that would stare them both in the face without the papering over effected by their immersion in one distraction after another.
Barthelme, like Didion, Bradbury, and S.J. Perelman—from whom he is, otherwise, unrecognizably different—is a seditious voice who defies categorization and whose work affirms the limitations of ideology when it comes to capturing the complexities and truths of lived experience. The works of these writers in the recent LOA volumes are endlessly inventive and splendidly written, rendered in prose that dispenses with the prolixity and formality of the century of Matthew Arnold yet displays an elegance and poise that only those steeped in the best that has been thought and said can bring to bear. Only an illiterate would deride the inclusion of these facets of the American canon, diverse in the best, real, sense of the term. But, for the LOA, much is still undone.
The Way Forward
The LOA has lots planned for 2022, with releases on the way of the poetry of Gary Snyder and E.B. Sledge’s fine memoir, With the Old Breed, about a time when the Marine Corps cared more about winning wars than proving the equality of the sexes. But even when you include all the planned titles, there are many holes in the LOA list.
Be wary of a literary journalist who misspells the name of the author of The Day of the Locust as “Nathaniel West.” Malcolm Jones, who penned the Newsweek hit piece, did not really know his subject, and contrary to Jones, the problem facing the LOA at this juncture is not really a lack of worthy writers. There are authors out there, from all places and times over the course of the American experiment, who would be defensible choices for inclusion in the series, though admittedly not as many people have heard of them as we might wish. There are so many voices out there one can dream of seeing enshrined in the LOA.
McGrath, introducing Barthelme, mentions a dinner to which Barthelme once invited Walter Abish, John Barth, Robert Coover, William Gaddis, William Gass, John Hawkes, Thomas Pynchon, and others. (Guess which of them never showed up.) He suggests that some of these postmodernists may have felt envy over Barthelme’s success at getting into the glossy pages of the New Yorker, when he was not more gifted than they were. The same may apply to Barthelme’s inclusion in a series that to this day omits Abish, Barth, Coover, Gaddis, Gass, Hawkes, and Pynchon.
The LOA also omits oddballs and luminaries as diverse as fiction writers Charles Bukowski, William S. Burroughs, James Blish, Weldon Kees, Wyndham Lewis, James Purdy, and Thomas Wolfe, and poets Gregory Corso, Robert Creeley, Rebecca Newth, George Oppen, Sylvia Plath, Kenneth Rexroth, Theodore Roethke, Delmore Schwartz, and William Bronk, to name only a very few. The series has published James M. Cain in a collection of crime novels but not a standalone volume. All these authors have undergone translation into many languages and in some cases have had their work adapted for the screen. Their influence is beyond dispute.
Of course it’s a mistake to assume that the series omits a given author because its editors are too hidebound to publish him or her. Estates and publishers do not always want to grant permission. Jones in his Newsweek piece acknowledged this as a reason why Hemingway had not yet entered the series. (The LOA has since corrected that omission.) Be that as it may, some of us cannot hide our disappointment that to this day the series omits Sylvia Plath and Theodore Roethke while making a show of publishing little-known sci-fi and children’s authors who buttress the series’ multicultural bona fides more than its literary merits. The LOA is also publishing with fanfare decidedly minor talents such as Rachel Carson and Jonathan Schell, who are arguably activists first and writers second.
If the LOA does not have the money to reach deals with the copyright holders for American voices not yet in the series, there is no reason why a nonprofit publisher acting in the public interest cannot be public about its goals and make use of newfangled fundraising sites and apps in order to get there. Lots of people would pitch in for the sake of elevating the work of Plath or Burroughs to the series.
But the LOA needs to be clear about its mission. By publishing minor authors with a political bent, the series gives the appearance of having a woke agenda of its own that supersedes the cause of literature. The editors of the series would do well to ponder the work of one of the more glaring omissions, James Purdy, whom Gore Vidal rightly celebrated as one of the outlaws of American literature. Purdy turned his satirical lens on a literary scene rife with pretension and vulgarity, and in one of his short stories, “On the Rebound,” a woman at a party who has fallen from high society’s good graces performs a sexual act on a writer she disdains in the hope of scoring points with other guests. It will be more than tragedy if a great series with so many thousands of untilled acres before it goes down the same path.