Best of the West

The world needs a "Collected Essays and Reviews of Rebecca West," and the International Rebecca West Society aims to provide it. (Our actual working title is "The Best of West.") Born Cicely Fairfield, West (1892-1983) was called "the world's number one woman writer" by Time magazine in 1947, the period in which she was covering the Nuremberg Trials for the New Yorker. She wrote in a wide range of genres: novel, short story, biography, reportage, literary essay, travel essay, memoir. She was a great wit: "There is, of course," she wrote, "no reason for the existence of the male sex except that one sometimes needs help in moving the piano." And she brought a fresh, provocative perspective to everything she touched. The pieces destined for the collection take in a large slice of the 20th century: reviews, for instance, of Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" (1932), Winston Churchill's "The Gathering Storm" (1948) and Alexander Solzhenitsyn's "Gulag Archipelago II" (1974).

The only problem is, as you can probably imagine, the parlous and shape-shifting state of book publishing these days. At a board meeting of the Society in New York last week, we went back and forth about which houses to approach. (Most of the other members are academics; I am the sole representative of the Fourth Estate.) We want the book to garner as wide an audience as possible, which means that university presses are not our first choice. Various publishers of classics have brought out paperback editions of West's novels, but they may or may not be interested in handling an "original" gathering of material. We want to aim high because her readers and West deserve it, but the bottom line looms larger and larger even in publishing houses that once enjoyed reputations of impeccable distinction. At times last week we felt we were reaching for a prize that some unseen puppeteer kept yanking out of our grasp. I think that in the end, with the help of a bright agent, we will find the right match; but if it's any consolation, struggling writers might take note. Getting published is tough sledding even for geniuses these days.
-- Dennis Drabelle

By Denny Drabelle |  January 13, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
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Good luck with you and the Society's worthwhile effort. One would think lovers of literature worldwide would be grateful.

I remember reading "A Train of Powder" back in the WP Book Club days. We had a fun discussion. As I recall, unlike Thesiger (another of your selections), you never met her personally. I think I recall her also as one of Beatty's "witnesses" in "Reds."

Let me ask you: I have jotted this note (not sure from whom or where): "The reputation of her (West's) novels tends to have been eclipsed somewhat by the aggressive panache of her reportage and journalism. Her novels have been judged by some as "too intellectual." How do you feel? Thanks.

Posted by: lheffelkcrrcom | January 17, 2009 11:46 AM

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