Bookmark: Oh, the literary injustices

February 16, 2012|By Julia Keller, The Chicago Tribune

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.

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