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.