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  • Anthologizing Contemporary Literature: Aesthetic, Cultural, Pedagogical, and Practical Considerations
  • Robert L. McLaughlin (bio)

In his essay for a volume called Why I Write, David Foster Wallace extends a Don DeLillo metaphor comparing a book-in-progress to a “hideously damaged infant,” who constantly demands the writer’s attention and love. Wallace writes,

And so you love the damaged infant and pity it and care for it; but also you hate it—hate it—because it’s deformed, repellent, because something grotesque has happened to it in the parturition from head to page; hate it because its deformity is your deformity (since if you were a better fiction writer your infant would of course look like one of those babies in catalog ads for infant wear, perfect and pink and cerebro-spinally continent) and its every hideous incontinent breath is a devastating indictment of you on all levels . . . and so you want it dead, even as you dote on it and wipe it and dandle it and sometimes even apply CPR when it seems its own grotesqueness has blocked its breath and it might die altogether.


Now, I certainly don’t mean to compare my experiences editing Innovations: An Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Fiction to Wallace’s writing Infinite Jest, but I do think Wallace articulates wonderfully the conflicting feelings any writer (or editor) can have, feelings about the distance between conception and actualization, about the combination of self-critical awareness of the piece’s flaws and the desire that others will love it, about the pride in one’s accomplishment subverted by the knowledge of how much of the accomplishment was really out of one’s control. Looking back over the course of events that led to the publication of Innovations, I can identify the ways that various [End Page 90] considerations—aesthetic, cultural, pedagogical, and, unfortunately but inescapably, practical—worked together and/or at cross purposes in influencing the anthology I ended up with.

The journey began in the summer of 1994 when I gave John O’Brien, the executive director of Dalkey Archive Press, a nonprofit literary publisher located on the campus of Illinois State University in Normal, Illinois, a proposal for “The Dalkey Archive Press Anthology of Contemporary American Literature.” I intended to organize this much as I organize my undergraduate course in contemporary American literature. A substantial first section was to contain pieces illustrative of some of the fundamental characteristics of postmodernism: antireferentiality, self-reflexivity, intertextuality, indeterminacy, deconstruction of defining binary oppositions, conflation of subject and object, the death of the author, and so on. The second and third sections—at the time I saw a clear distinction between them, though I don’t see it now—were to contain pieces illustrative of contemporary fiction’s attempts to work within the theoretical implications of postmodernism to discover ways to talk about the world and to have some sort of social impact. John rejected my proposal for two reasons: first, while he wanted to publish an anthology, he didn’t want to limit it to texts written in the United States after World War II; second, and more significantly, he disagreed with the argument of my proposed introductory material, that postmodern aesthetics is the product of specific sociohistorical events, trends, and ideas in the postwar world.

This latter point led to a counterproposal. John and then-editor-in-chief Steven Moore had for some time been wrestling with the problem of an anthology that would make a case for the historical primacy of the kind of formally and stylistically innovative fiction to which Dalkey Archive Press is dedicated. This anthology would argue and demonstrate that the confinement of prose fiction within the conventions of realism, as effected by F. R. Leavis, Ian Watt, and the editors of the New York Times Book Review, among others, greatly distorts literary history. In fact, the texts that account for what we call literary realism cover a fairly small historical period and are an aberration from the mainstream of literature. This mainstream, from The Arabian Nights to Empire of the Senseless, is of prose fiction playfully aware of its limitations in trying to represent an unrepresentable world, of the...

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pp. 90-100
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