Note: The original was published April 2, 2012 on the website LibraryThing and is here retooled.
All anthologies must be viewed with suspicion. After all, in the time it takes to read (in this case) 418 pages you could have read a real book. You could have read Madame Bovary or The Heart is a Lonely Hunter or _______ and made your TBR pile just a little bit shorter. Instead, you opted for an anthology, and if it was a good one, your TBR pile is now several books longer. That’s just not sensible.
But anthologies are fun. They’re handy. They’re leisurely. A 400+ page book is a full meal. An anthology is a box of candy. In this case, bittersweet and poisoned candy that may warp the mind or else prove addictive. You’ve been warned.
The Grove Press Reader 1951 – 2001 is a tribute to one of America’s most important publishing houses. During the 50s and 60s, Grove introduced the American reading public to authors too corrosive or avant-garde to interest the mainstream: Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, Henry Miller, Jean Genet, to name a few. The entire modern literary scene owes its existence to Grove Press. If that sounds like a gross exaggeration, then consider this: the 1950s weren’t just a time when Miller was banned and Lolita was chased overseas to France, it was a time when you could not walk into a bookstore and acquire a copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Pick five notable novels from the past five years – some of them, maybe all, would have been brought to court in the 50s on charges of obscenity. Grove changed all that.
The pilot light of Grove was the lately deceased Barney Rosset (1922 – 2012). Rosset was a pioneer and financially well-off. He was determined to publish whatever he pleased and he had the money to buy a foundering press and run it, at least for the first decade or so, with little concern for the financial returns his books were likely to bring in.
So why read this book rather than the individual titles? There is firstly the wealth of information included on the history of the press, reminiscences and interviews, hands-on accounts of the way things were that are of undeniable interest to those people (like me) who find the publishing/copy-editing business fascinating. There are letters between Rosset and Beckett negotiating translators, a touching tribute from Grove inheritor Morgan Entrekin and an interview between Rosset and fellow independent publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, the man who lucked out with first editions of Doctor Zhivago and The Leopard.
Then there’s the bonus for literary newcomers (like me) who are daunted by the reputations these writers possess. This Reader offers a perfect way to gain a feel for their voices, to see if Ionesco or Burroughs are right for you. This doesn’t entirely work – excerpts can be misleading. Waiting for Godot’s excerpt is Lucky’s speech, a bad choice both in that it makes the play look borderline unreadable when in fact it’s great fun to read and because the point of the play is monotony; with Lucky’s speech being practically the only incident that occurs it gives entirely the wrong impression. However, that is nitpicking.
Another nitty concern is the absence of introductory papers for most of the authors. However, in the internet age, this is hardly a problem. If the scene from Harold Pinter’s Homecoming leaves you baffled, you can find out everything online.
The book is divided by decade. The 50s is one of the best segments, selecting only the strongest works from literary heavyweights. You get Matthew Gregory Lewis, D.H. Lawrence, Beckett, Antonin Artaud and De Beauvoir on De Sade, among others. It’s all credible, though the editor lost an opportunity to excerpt from The Golden Bowl – to see Henry James’ mannered but no less challenging aesthetic among those names would have made a fascinating juxtaposition.
The 60s – Grove’s heyday – take up the lion’s share of the book (188 pages) to a slightly detrimental effect. Yes, you get a complete Borges story, selections from Duras, Oe, Stoppard, etc. There’s some good paraphernalia from the Tropic of Cancer case and clips from several non-fiction works, ranging from sociological studies to memoir to philosophy. Yet also included are several more or less forgotten writers whom Grove seems to have published less for their literary quality and more for their subject matter. Some (Selby and Trocchi) hold up well with sinewy, hard-hitting styles. Others such as Rechy and Tuotti are aggravating and a chore to read. Similarly, the explicit sexual encounters depicted in My Life and Loves and My Secret Life are essentially boring when compared to the linguistic flair and psychological subtext of such writers as Henry Miller and the 90s’ Alina Reyes. If this was The Radical Sixties Reader I wouldn’t care, but it should be a compendium of Grove’s “Best,” not its most groundbreaking, authors. Considering that their stable included Pablo Neruda, Bertolt Brecht and e.e. cummings, I protest.
Be that as it may, no compilation is perfect and there’s still plenty of interest in the 60s segment. The 70s is an enormous let-down, selection-wise. That was the height of Grove’s financial troubles, as they had to start bidding against other publishers for the books they would have automatically acquired during the censorship era. Mostly they coasted on their backlist, and the decade is summed up by one rather lengthy clip from a David Mamet play. Which is rather sad.
The 80s contains only a few selections, some from respected names in the avant-garde such as Kathy Acker and Robert Coover, along with a Bharati Mukherjee story and their big 80s success, the freak Pulitzer winner A Confederacy of Dunces.
By the 90s, Rosset was no longer on board and Grove was bought out by Atlantic Monthly, who still own it and who managed to restore the imprint to some degree of health while retaining its artistic integrity. So there are plenty of publications in this era: things the company missed in the early days such as The Magic Christian and The Painted Bird, shock artists like Will Self and Barry Hannah, foreigners like Banana Yoshimoto and Ivan Klima…. There is in fact a greater trend toward world literature and the 90s is differentiated from previous eras by sudden shifts in global setting – there’s a miner in Johannesburg, a Venetian gambler, a Guatemalan woman, a modern American Indian and an alien with sixteen fingertips. The literary scene becomes a carnival where anything goes and is a lot more fun to read than the more cautiously experimental 80s.
The Grove Press Reader, despite my little complaints, was for me a very satisfying book to read and peruse, a showcase of rarely anthologised authors who take risks, try new things and take me places I’m not always comfortable going. There’s an exhilaration to having the rug pulled from under one’s feet, but your mileage will vary – that’s exactly the point. It is a difficult collection and a rewarding one. Depending on how many of the authors you’re already familiar with, the book will appear more intriguing or more redundant. However, if you care about 20th Century literature, you must know about Grove Press’ contributions to the scene.