Is the Library of America Irrelevant?

It's a suspicion that's been growing for some time. 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.

Latest reasons for suspicion: 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?

Here's how the LOA describes itself and its mission: "The Library of America helps to preserve our nation's literary heritage by publishing, and keeping in print, authoritative editions of America's best and most significant writing. An independent nonprofit organization, it was founded in 1979 with seed money from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Ford Foundation."

For three decades, the LOA has done a splendid job of making good on those claims. In uniform, black-jacketed editions, the works of Melville, Twain, Wharton, Faulkner and dozens of other Rushmore-sized American authors have marched onto our bookshelves. The enterprise was so respectable, so irreproachable that it caused a small stir when plans were announced in the late '90s to publish a living author for the first time. Of course, when the living author turned out to be Eudora Welty, big sighs of relief all around—if ever a living writer's greatness was beyond question, it was Welty's. Then came the decision to begin gradually publishing the collected Philip Roth. Again, not a very controversial decision. But then writers who were anything but canonical began to be included—Lovecraft, Philip K. Dick, Dawn Powell. And all this happening, mind you, while LOA still had quite a few deceased mastodons left to corral—thanks to the intransigence of publishers and literary estates, there is as yet no LOA Ernest Hemingway, Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams or T. S. Eliot.

In the last couple of years, as John Cheever, John Ashbery and Raymond Carver got their own volumes, it became clear that the LOA wasn't going to wait any longer for time's verdict. It was almost like the production schedule was dictating the editorial decisions. Hurry up, we've got to have some more great writers for the fall list! But the inclusion of those authors never raised critical eyebrows (perhaps they should've—taken a good look at all of Cheever lately? Not pretty). Nor did the more interesting editorial choices of the past few years—Nathaniel West, Powell. But Shirley Jackson? Not a bad writer, but her inclusion seems so random, haphazard. Why Jackson before Jean Stafford, or Peter Taylor, Wallace Stegner, or why not simply more of James M. Cain than The Postman Always Rings Twice?

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.