Sunday, July 18, 2010

Shirley Jackson not good enough for Library of America?



Ed here: As you've probably guessed by now I'm a big admirer of Laura Miller's reviews and literary criticism. Here she writes with particular insight about the snobbery of literary elitists.

From Salon:

Is Shirley Jackson a great American writer?

The author of "The Lottery" is still not getting the respect she deserves
BY LAURA MILLER

Salon
The Shirley Jackson Awards for excellence in "literature of psychological suspense, horror, and the dark fantastic" were awarded over the weekend, and the results are a refreshing mix of well-known and emerging writers, from large and small presses working in both literary and genre traditions -- or, rather, in the wild and fruitful territory between the two. The awards are only 3 years old, but have already proved a fitting tribute to a writer who roamed freely over similar ground and has never quite gotten the respect she deserves.

In fact, it's a banner year for Jackson's legacy: the Library of America has just published "Shirley Jackson: Novels and Stories," edited by Joyce Carol Oates and containing 47 short stories in addition to her two most celebrated novels, "The Haunting of Hill House" and "We Have Always Lived in the Castle." Yet these laurels were tarnished a bit in April, when Newsweek critic Malcolm Jones used the publication of the Jackson volume as the occasion for an essay asking whether the LOA was running out of important writers to publish. "Shirley Jackson?" he wrote. "A writer mostly famous for one short story, 'The Lottery.' Is LOA about to jump the shark?"

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. "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.

for the rest go here:

http://www.salon.com/books/laura_miller/index.html?story=/books/laura_miller/2010/07/14/shirley_jackson

14 comments:

Richard S. Wheeler said...

One simply does not see writers of popular or genre fiction celebrated for their genius or greatness of contributions to the American literary canon these days.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

Yet these laurels were tarnished a bit in April, when Newsweek critic Malcolm Jones used the publication of the Jackson volume as the occasion for an essay asking whether the LOA was running out of important writers to publish. "Shirley Jackson?" he wrote. "A writer mostly famous for one short story, 'The Lottery.' Is LOA about to jump the shark?"

If being famous for a short story as good as The Lottery is tantamount to "jumping the shark" may we all be as fortunate to leap over a man-eater like that.

Kenneth Mark Hoover said...

These are the same slackjaws who still think "Brave New World" is the epitome of the SF novel. Though, of course, they would never deign to actually use the term "SF" in describing it because then it wouldn't be fit for their bookshelves....

Steve Hockensmith said...

I recently read my first New Yorker story in years. It was by a famous literary author who specializes in novels about dysfunctional upper-class families. It was also, in my opinion, complete hooey, and not even particularly well-written hooey. I did not pick up the story with a chip on my shoulder. I honestly wanted to see what I've been missing, since I haven't been reading literary short fiction lately. It'll be a while before I try it again.

As for where all the Mailers have gone, I would suggest to Lee Siegel that they have retreated up his ass, along with his big head.

djande said...

I recently reread WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE, and found it a remarkably well-written novel. There were sections that were so evocative that I literally felt I was IN the novel. Yes, THE LOTTERY is her best-known work, but when's the last time any of these critics actually READ it? It's still just as creepy and meaningful as it was when it ticked off all those NEW YORKER readers.

Steve Hockensmith said...

In reading further into the Salon article Ed links to, I ran across this fun fact: "The Lottery" was first published in...The New Yorker! Man, if *that* had been the story I read the other day, you can bet I wouldn't be grumbling here now....

Steve Hockensmith said...

Funny that DJ and I were posting at the exact same moment, since he was obviously aware of the New Yorker connection when I wasn't. Anyway, I'm now adding the Shirley Jackson Library of America book to my (heart-breakingly long) To Be Read list....

Ed Gorman said...

She's a wonderful writer. She captures the horrors of everyday life better than anybody I've ever read. As claustrophobic as Woolrich but a better writer and with a much greater range.

Anonymous said...

I've read very little by Jackson but I'll mention that LOA published Charles Willeford and his pulpy yet excellent "Pick Up."

Dan Luft

Deb said...

If a person read nothing of Jackson's but her brilliant short story "The Possibility of Evil," they would know instantly that here is a writer worthy of a LOA volume. What is it with these nitwit literary critics? No wonder nobody takes them seriously anymore!

Peter L. Winkler said...

Let's see, Mr. Wheeler, the LOA have published Chandler, Phil Dick, Hamett, Lovecraft and a two-volume set of crime fiction, but there's a bias against recognizing genre fiction?

Todd Mason said...

Well, Blogspot seems to have eaten my response...sorry if it comes up twice eventually...

Ms. Miller and several here seem to be acting as if Malcolm Jones or NEWSWEEK should be taken seriously by anyone.

Why?

NEWSWEEK is a dying magazine with a history of hiring insecure fools at their book-review desk, as those who remember Peter S. Prescott, their would-be savant of the '70s and '80s, might recall.

Meanwhile, Dashiell Hammett is remembered primarily for one short novel, as is F. Scott Fitzgerald. Man, they must suck.

K. A. Laity said...

Hee hee! You're so right, Todd. Surely quantity is the only measure of quality, thus the high esteem for Barbara Cartland.

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.

An excellent point to remember: Shakespeare was regarded as someone who needed "improving" and Blake was almost completely forgotten. There are still those who consider Austen "chick lit" instead of the witty and insightful cultural critic she is.

Usually, it's people who've never read the things they dismiss. I fell comfortable dismissing Updike and Mailer because I really hate their writing and have read it (much to my dismay).

Richard said...

Recognition of Shirley Jackson--making her more "famous"--is long overdue. To say that she shouldn't be famous because only one story of hers is famous is inane reasoning. Putting her into the Library of America is an excellent way of letting readers decide for themselves. I'm betting that it will have the effect of heightening general and critical awareness of her quietly unorthodox brilliance.