Surrounded by so much literature that is new, I confess that my own recent reading has included a novel more than half a century old, Wilfrid Sheed’sOffice Politics. I had never read Sheed before—the name conjures up instead his famous parents Frank and Maisie—but it was recommended to me the week I started working at America this past July by an unimpeachable source: Michael Leach, the famous “dean of Catholic publishing.” In this case, he had his tongue firmly embedded in cheek. I was barely a page into Office Politics before I realized the plot centers on a somewhat shabby Manhattan magazine with a low circulation and high literary pretensions.
Laugh it up, fuzzball, I thought, but kept reading, and was charmed by Sheed’s gracious prose and gentle-but-acid characterizations of the editors and writers of The Outsider. Sheed’s literary reputation never reached great heights, and Martin Amis once called him “a capable middleweight.” But I found Office Politics reminiscent of the finest comic satires of Amis’s own father, Kingsley, author of the incomparable Lucky Jim and Take a Girl Like You. Time and the marketplace are crueler judges, however, and Sheed’s novels are now out of print.
The Italians have an expression for this, “Si stava meglio quando si stava peggio,” “Things were better when they were worse.”
This discovery caused me to lapse momentarily into the hermeneutic I usually most despise: declinism, the notion that we are slowly slipping into total degeneracy, one emoji and one shade of grey at a time. The Italians have an expression for this, “Si stava meglio quando si stava peggio,” “Things were better when they were worse.” And it is true that even as the quantity of published books has soared (over a million a year in the United States, up from 400,000 annually a decade ago), there seem few diamonds in that rough.
What does one make of the extraordinary literary output of our age, or the fact that some of it is so wonderfully crafted and so much is pap? I found an intriguing answer in the writings of Phyllis Tickle, another publishing legend, who died in 2015 (Jon M. Sweeney’s official biography of her will be out in February 2018.) In her 2008 book The Great Emergence, Tickle borrowed from the Anglican bishop Mark Dyer the notion that “about every 500 years the church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale.”
She did not mean the church was full of garbage, only that it needed to sift through its treasure and decide what was important. The first such sale was perhaps the fall of the Roman Empire; the second Tickle dated to the Great Schism of 1054; the third was undoubtedly the Reformation and Counter-Reformation; and now we are in the fourth.
Tickle’s metaphor works for literary culture as a whole, and this time the rummage sale is global instead of just for the neighbors of the Mediterranean basin. It has been going on since 1950, at least, though certainly the digital revolution and the rise of social media have magnified its scale. Every product of the age is out on the lawn and labeled, and the bargain hunters and treasure seekers are a-hunting.
Every product of the age is out on the lawn and labeled, and the bargain hunters and treasure seekers are a-hunting.
With this issue we hope to provide the reader with glimpses of the treasures, as well as an appreciation of some of the finest literary works to be found in any search. It is, of course, a painfully short and narrow view, but 64 pages is a lot for the mailman to carry already.
A final note: While I was happy to write the introduction to this literary review, I admit that in truth it is the harvest of a season of diligent toil by others here at America. As the “new guy,” I was allowed a deplorable number of moments to stand around looking puzzled while others did the work. This issue is the result of the labor first and foremost of Raymond A. Schroth, S.J., editor emeritus of America.