Better Critics Please

by zunguzungu

On hearing that Shirley Jackson is getting a Library of America volume, Malcolm Jones was suspicious 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?

…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…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?

Laura Miller, on the other hand, is suspicious of Malcolm Jones:

The question of whether a figure like Jackson is sufficiently “Rushmore-sized” (Jones’ term) to deserve inclusion in a series of collections dedicated to such writers as Mark Twain and William Faulkner was again brought to mind by a blog posting by Lee Siegel at the New York Observer. [here] “Where Have All the Mailers Gone?” it was called, and in it Siegel lamented the irrelevance of fiction since the heyday of such titans as “Bellow, Updike, Mailer, Roth, Cheever, Malamud” and pointed to the ascendancy of nonfiction in its stead. Even the commercial fiction of yore, Siegel maintains, “mattered to people” more than today’s bestsellers. The soapy epics of Herman Wouk and Marjorie Kellogg “illumined the ordinary events of ordinary lives … and they were as primal as the bard singing around the pre-Homeric fire.”

While Siegel’s posting was for the most part too silly and uninformed to bother responding to, it serves as a reminder of just how arbitrary, unreliable and tiresome the Literary Greatness Sweepstakes can be. Make no mistake: Mid-20th-century Americans believed that novels by the jostling alpha males on Siegel’s list were important and “central to their lives” largely because a chorus of cultural authority figures united to tell them so. That’s not to say that those novelists weren’t fine writers, or that the depiction of an upwardly striving middle-class descended from relatively recent immigrants (many of them Jewish) didn’t provide lively new subject matter. But it certainly wasn’t everyone’s story (as it was often made out to be), or a literature that everyone found interesting or that everyone would have consumed with “existential urgency and intensity” in absence of those endorsements.

Jackson, mostly unendorsed, wrote during more or less the same period, but where the fiction of Mailer and Bellow is expansive, hers is (intentionally) claustrophobic. She was the bard of the domestic nightmare (as Ruth Franklin astutely pointed out in a recent essay for the New Republic), of people who were trapped, excluded, usurped and pushed in a corner to wither away unnoticed. If there was anything Homeric about her — and come to think of it, I believe there was — it was the serene pitilessness with which she dispensed their doom….Those “meek little wives” Raymond Chandler wrote about at the beginning of “Red Wind” — the ones who, under the influence of the Santa Ana, suddenly begin to “feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks”? Those are Jackson’s people. Was their experience any less American — or any less “central” — than Alexander Portnoy’s or Rabbit Angstrom’s?

Is Jackson as “great” a writer as Bellow or Malamud? Oh, I don’t know. I suppose not, by whatever conventional standards of greatness are still being propped up by the mugs who advocate such competitions. But, as someone who has manfully hacked her way through the anecdotal thickets of “The Adventures of Augie March” (“What I want to know,” I crankily asked a friend about two-thirds of the way through, “is when the adventures are going to start”), I can say that such questions come to seem more meaningless to me every day.

Among other things, I’m struck by the performance aspect of both Jones’ and Siegel’s pieces. Miller actually makes a positive case for the terms in which Shirley Jackson is good — the case for the defense, as it were; biased, but usefully so — and you can agree or disagree, however you want. But I feel like both Jones and Siegel are just performing the usual rote rendition of “literary curmudgeon” without any burden to defend or define the alternative to whatever it is they’re diagnosing (except some vague sense that something would/could/should be better). Perhaps this is what the Newsweek website means when it describes Jones as serving as an “all-purpose culture writer”?

After all, while I get a clear sense for why Miller values Shirley Jackson’s work — which would seem to be an important thing for a critic to do — one looks in vain for a sense of why “Jean Stafford, or Peter Taylor, Wallace Stegner, or more of James M. Cain” seem so obviously a better choice than Shirley Jackson. He just says it as if it’s obvious. Which is to say, even if we grant that Malcolm Jones could recount their virtues as writers in glorious detail, the fact that he didn’t is more telling to me: his argument proceeds not so much by asking you to take his word for their superiority, but rather, by implying that the case is so intuitive and obvious that he doesn’t even have to make it, establishes an “us” of the critical know-betters, defined pretty much only in terms of our preference for writers besides Shirley Jackson. Note, for example, that he doesn’t  actually argue that Jackson is undeserving, either;  to do would mean actually to engage with the nature of her writing, and he has no apparent interest in doing that. Easier to damn her faint praise (“A writer mostly famous for one short story…Not a bad writer”) and then rely on your ignorance (now officially confirmed) of all the other stuff she wrote.