The Way It Wasn’t is a very strange object. Grossly over-produced, printed on glossy stock so heavy it could be used to shingle a house, filled with gulfs of white space amid a disorienting collection of typefaces, snapshots, reproduced documents and book jackets, it seems to be a gesture towards new-style autobiography (or, as James Laughlin was wont to call it, ‘auto-bug-offery’). With all due respect to a man who published many of the most important books of his time, spending a good part of his considerable fortune in the process, The Way It Wasn’t might better be classed as the giblets of a memoir.
We shouldn’t blame Laughlin. He may have been a spoiled rich kid – heir to a Pittsburgh steel fortune, educated at Choate and Harvard – but in his sixty years of running New Directions, which brought into the world writers ranging from Vladimir Nabokov to Ezra Pound, Tennessee Williams to