Friday, April 20, 2012

Crime in the canon

Remember a few years ago when everyone was getting all worked up about literary canons and whether or not they were good things?

Geoffrey O'Brien sidesteps such matters neatly when talking about David Goodis. The American literary canon, he said -- and he used the word without hesitation or explanation -- exists, but it's expanding constantly into the future, as time passes, and also into the past.

O'Brien's remarks carry considerable weight because he's editor-in-chief of the Library of America, probably the closest thing to an American literary canon, and because LoA has just published David Goodis: Five Noir Novels of the 1940s and 1950s. O'Brien joined the Library of America in 1992 and has been editor-in-chief since 1998, and he says he's been reading Goodis since he was 14 years old. I don't know about you, but I like the idea of genre fiction having a mole on the inside of high American culture. During his tenure, Philip K. Dick had joined the canon, as have Jim Thompson, Cornell Woolrich, James M. Cain, Patricia Highsmith, and now, with his own volume, Goodis.

So, any more Goodis on its way to the canon? "We will continue to talk about Goodis," O'Brien told a questioner at the Free Library of Philadelphia. "That's for sure."

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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13 Comments:

Blogger seana said...

I have never been a supporter of the idea of 'genre fiction' as a derogatory term. I am very glad that LOA has O'Brien on board.

April 20, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The Library of America web site links to an interview with Jonathan Lethem, who edited the LoA's Philip K. Dick volumes. He says he calls Dick "science fiction's Lenny Bruce," and he makes a good case that Dick was doing something very different from other writers in the genre. He makes a case not only for Dick but also, implicitly, for the proposition that genre labels just might encompass writing more varied and interesting than those who have not read it might think.

So yes, I'd say the Library of America has some good people choosing, editing, and writing about some of its unconventional additions to the canon.

April 20, 2012  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Don't understand what he means at all. Sounds like academic double-talk to me. What canon? That word covers a multitude of vaguely impressive but meaningless pronouncements.

If we're talking about the crime (detective, mystery) genre here, that in itself is so broad that you cannot possibly come up with a single meaningful description.

April 20, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Perhaps his meaning would be clearer if one considered the Library of America's catalogue, which started with Melville and Hawthorne, grew to include the Founding Fathers, and now includes Patricia Highsmith and David Goodis.

April 20, 2012  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

The Library of Congress includes everything. Wasn't that the aim of the LoA? Are they patting themselves on the back for being generous and forward-looking by including lowly genre types?

April 20, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Poor LoA. They'd be derided as elitist for excluding crime, science fiction, (and journalism), and now they're sneered at for including them.

April 20, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Also, I don't know the original aims of the Library of America, but I can't imagine it was ever to be as comprehensive as the Library of Congress. Publish everything? I think not. Rather, I assume its intent was to publish, preserve, and make available what it regards as the best in American writing, and I think it ought to pat itself on the back for including crime.

April 20, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

Library of America does a very nice blog called Reader's Almanac, which I think is pretty representative of their aims.

April 20, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

In fact, most of the communication I've seen from the Library of America has been refreshingly free of talk about lofty aims and has concentrated instead on the authors and the books, as it should.

And thanks for that link. The two folks quoted in the Goodis post, Polito and O'Brien, signed my copy of the Goodis book last night.

April 20, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

That's pretty cool, Peter.

April 21, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I had met Robert Polito before, at Noircon 2008. That's one of the things that makes crime conventions fun, especially a small convention like Noircon, where one meets everybody.

April 21, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

Peter, I think things have gotten to a place where people are happy that they get to meet you.

April 21, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yeah, well, I haven't contributed to the greater good of mankind or made a ton of money yet, and it's hard for me to scare up an entourage in most places.

April 21, 2012  

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