Bookmark: Oh, the literary injustices

You know the feeling. You're looking at the best-seller list and a title catches your eye.

"What?!" you sputter. "That piece of (expletive deleted) is a hit, while (insert title of favorite obscure novel) is a flop? Ah, the injustice!"

Life is not fair. Neither is the literary world.

Many good books never get a decent chance; they are, like the lovely flower in Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard" (1751), "born to blush unseen," destined to "waste its sweetness on the desert air."

Many bad books, conversely, climb the best-seller list like a nimble burglar scaling the fire escape.

This situation is infuriating. It is odious. It is insulting. And worst of all, it is something about which absolutely nothing can really be done.

Thomas Vinciguerra knows whereof I speak. He is the editor of "Backward Ran Sentences: The Best of Woolcott Gibbs From The New Yorker" (Bloomsbury), a new collection of sparkling essays, book reviews and theater criticism by Gibbs (1902-58), a writer of whom I had never heard until Vinciguerra's book crossed my desk.

My ignorance was a perfect illustration of literary injustice. Why didn't I know about Gibbs, when I certainly knew plenty about his contemporaries in the New York magazine world, writers such as Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley? Or so many of the glib, smartypants, ultra-popular essayists of today, grinning anecdote-dispensers such as David Sedaris?

Gibbs, as the selections in Vinciguerra's book demonstrate, was as good as any of those folks and better than most. Yet he remains a well-kept secret in American journalism.

"I'm not irate about it, but I am astonished" that Gibbs is largely forgotten today, Vinciguerra said in an interview from his New York office. "No one is as determined to resurrect him as I am. When you're determined to tell the story, it's hard to keep the proselytizing tone out of your voice."

Gibbs, who suffered from alcoholism and debilitating illnesses throughout much of a sad and emotionally turbulent life, was once "mentioned in the same breath as E.B. White and James Thurber," Vinciguerra noted.

But time has a funny way of teaching writers who's boss — and it isn't the guy or gal with the pen.

Brief quotations can't give you a true sense of Gibbs' style; his essays move from point to point like beautifully meandering conversations, building steadily and entertainingly toward an amusing and fearless conclusion. But take a look at his delicate assessment of the songs of "South Pacific," offered in his 1949 review:

"Some time ago ... Cole Porter remarked that he wished to hell theater critics would refrain from discussing music, on the grounds that even the most educated of them wouldn't recognize the national anthem unless the people around them stood up. Having taken that advice to heart, I will confine myself to say ... that 'Some Enchanted Evening' ... seems to me to be a tremendously moving song, and ... 'There Is Nothing Like a Dame,' as sung, or bellowed, by the naval personnel, strikes me as being among the liveliest of Mr. Rodgers' and Mr. Hammerstein's joint efforts; and, to intrude one dismal note in this rhapsody, I wasn't particularly impressed by 'Bali Ha'i,' which sounded to me a good deal like any number of other songs celebrating exotic place names, or by something called 'You've Got to Be Taught,' a poem in praise of tolerance that somehow I found just a little embarrassing."

Vinciguerra hopes that his book will bring new readers to Gibbs' work, and I do, too. But I'd also like to put in a quick word for two living novelists who ought to be tearing up the best-seller lists: Irish writer Peter Cunningham and Australian writer Peter Temple.

Each time I see what's selling, I gnash my teeth. I snap my pencil in half. Why, I rage at the heavens, don't more people read Temple and Cunningham, and forgo reading that mediocre nonsense peddled by (insert name of scandalously overrated and inexplicably successful novelist)?

There is no answer, of course.

There is only a perpetual sense of outrage at egregious literary injustice, and, as a consequence of all that reading and seething, a determination within many of us to share with others the books that strike us as unforgettable — even when their authors, alas, are forgotten, if indeed their names were ever widely known at all.

JULIA KELLER is the Chicago Tribune's cultural critic. She was awarded the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing.

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