A RISKY GAME.

Anne Trubek has a piece in The Atlantic about the manuscript and a rare book collection of the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, hardly an untapped topic—I’ve seen many discussions of it over the years, and if I recall correctly its eager pursuit of living authors has figured in a satirical novel or two. But this one ends with this intriguing passage:

But it’s a risky game, this betting on contemporary authors. What if Denis Johnson’s hardcovers get remaindered? What if Norman Mailer does not stand the test of time? With an eye toward protecting investments, Staley does his part to promote his authors. Alice Adams, the novelist and short-story writer, was a major acquisition in 2000 and now seems to be the subject of a subtle awareness campaign. Staley admits as much, saying he works at “keeping writers like Alice Adams before the public.” His employees follow his lead. En route to the Wallace archive, one staffer pointed out to me the 27 boxes comprising the Adams collection. Later, another employee, while showing me DeLillo’s letters, offhandedly mentioned her love for Adams’s stories. “She really should be better-known,” the woman said, looking up at me hopefully.

I find the idea of archivists trying to promote their authors pretty hilarious; I suppose they can’t be blamed for trying, God love them, but they should really leave publicity to the experts and canon formation to the public at large. (Thanks, Paul!)

Comments

  1. Not really so laughable — but perhaps she should start a blog.

  2. they should really leave publicity to the experts
    It seems to be working pretty well. I’d never heard of her.

  3. The problem here, if there is one, is that these archives are playing the game of “buy cheap before the price goes up”. That is, they are trading in literary futures, just like pork-belly or contemporary art futures.
    Why shouldn’t they do that ? What’s this about “canon formation” ? The price of canons goes up and down over the decades, in step with the ephemeral favor they find with the public and academics. If by canon you mean a stable investment, then of course you should buy government bonds, not books.
    they should really leave publicity to the experts and canon formation to the public at large.
    Shouldn’t that be the other way around ? The public is reponsible for publicity, whereas the experts sit in their rooms cleaning and polishing the canons, like good soldiers.

  4. Canon formation is such a bore. Boom, boom!

  5. “His first major acquisitions included manuscripts by the newly canonized modernists….”
    Makes it sound as if there’s a rite of passage here. Who sends out the memo?
    Myself, I have grave doubts about Mailer in the next century. Hell, I have grave doubts about him right now.

  6. Sooner or later some writers are bound to initiate their own canonization in this way, if only to make a quick buck selling some of their rough drafts. Go for it, jamessal. I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that we’ll go along with it.

  7. A thesis our Iberian lit professor offered us was that several canonical authors (Petrarch, Camões) got to be canonical by consciously marketing themselves as such.

  8. cleaning and polishing the canons
    “In the lowest, seventh ring [of Minas Troney] dwelt the city’s sturdy yeomen. Oft they could be seen dutifully polishing their brightly colored yeos for some idiotic festival or other.” —Bored of the Rings

  9. God, Bored of the Rings made me laugh when I was in college. Haven’t seen a copy since then.

  10. Another parody that made me laugh a lot was the Israel Bond (Agent Oy-Oy-7) books by Sol Weinstein; I’m glad to see they’re available again.

  11. Edward Bulwer-Lytton, despite having coined “the pen is mightier than the sword” and being a tremendously successful author with, apparently, quite a flock of literary groupies at his beck and call, is mostly remembered today for the writing contest which bears his name.
    One can imagine that, at the time of his burial in Westminster Abbey in 1873, literary archives might have competed mightily for his archives. But can one imagine what they would have done with it since?
    I can remember as a child visiting the archive of Lord Tweedsmuir (John Buchan) at Queen’s University (Kingston). It was a very impressive room with elegant panelling and comfortable furniture, full of all sorts of books, papers, etc. It was not that easy a place to get into, actually, but I had connections.
    I went back there a few years ago to relive my early life, only to find out, from one of the older librarians who still remembered what I was talking about, that they have bunged the whole lot into storage.
    It’s not as though The Thirty-Nine Steps and some of the others have been forgotten like much of Bulwer-Lytton’s works. Not to mention that, as Governor-General of Canada, he played a fairly important political role in the years before WWII (arranging a royal visit to the US in 1939, among other things).

  12. John Emerson says:

    Petrarch and Mailer, screw both of them.

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