The Library of America and literary canons

Newsweek asks: has the Library of America jumped the shark? If so, you won’t find a good argument for it in this article: there’s a lot of innuendo and little of substance about who deserves to be in the “canon” and why. But the last paragraph gets a (very) little bit deeper:

Kidding aside, one sympathizes with the directors of a publishing venture increasingly dependent on the idea that great American writers just can’t die fast enough. In such a situation, conventional publishing goes head to head with curating, and financial concerns go to war with esthetics, which, depending on how conservative one cares to be, can argue for little or no growth at all. And of course all this plays out against a literary landscape where the idea of a literary canon has been pretty much shot to hell anyway, so maybe no one should care who gets into what anymore. Or maybe they should just turn the whole thing into a—you knew this was coming—lottery.

Shelfari (mostly) agrees with my comments and says:

For me, when the LOA started adding people like Lovecraft, Dick, and Powell (or personal favorite Nathanael West) was when it started getting lively and interesting. I’m glad they do beautiful editions of titans like Lincoln, Whitman, and James, but I’m far more glad that they haven’t just been passive about transmitting the canon, as it was spoken to them from above.

Agreed. I can’t think of anyone I’d love to see included, except perhaps Robertson Davies, who is Canadian (but Canada is part of North America, right?), and Elmore Leonard, who is still alive. Regardless, I’ve been impressed with a lot of the recent picks, like Philip K. Dick, who deserves his spot; tomorrow I’m going to hear a scholarly lecture on his work at the Arizona Quarterly Symposium, and I’ve heard talks on him elsewhere in academic venues. Maybe Jack Vance will be next, although he’s not been as cinematically popular as Dick.

Oh, and one other small note about the LoA: I tend to write in my copies.

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