Apparently Steve Wasserman believes that "The best reading experience is to occupy your time with the worthy dead rather than the ambitious living."
This remark (actually among the first words to come out of Wasserman's mouth during the Open Source interview) certainly tells us a great deal about why the Los Angeles Times Book Review has never fulfilled its promise, or really even come close to being a reliable guide to contemporary letters.
The truth is pretty close to exactly the opposite of what Wasserman would have us believe. Not only is it the case that, as Ed Champion has put it, "the very form of the novel has evolved precisely because of efforts from the ambitious living" (one could say the same thing about other literary forms as well), but the "worthy dead" were probably the most intensely "ambitious" writers one could imagine--not necessarily ambitious for worldly success (although many would have no doubt gladly accepted it) but, because until the mid-nineteenth century (at the earliest) financial success as we would define it was more or less unthinkable (not enough readers), for "literary immortality." The great writers of the past literally wanted their work to survive through the ages, as testimony to their "success" as literary masters. (Remember the first stanza of Paradise Lost?: "Sing, Heav'nly Muse. . .I thence/Invoke thy aid to my advent'rous Song,/That with no middle flight intends to soar/Above th' Anonian Mount, while it pursues/Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhyme." How audacious to think your poem could successfully "justify the ways of God to men"!)
Furthermore, one suspects that Wasserman finds reading the "worthy dead" the best way to occupy his time precisely because it doesn't have to be an overly strenuous "reading experience." After all, these writers have already been pronounced "worthy"; all one has to do is nod sagely while passively absorbing all the greatness previous generations of readers have been kind enough to pre-determine for you. What a nice way to pass a rainy day. Some people might even be impressed with your good taste and admirable discernment.
In fact, the best (defined as "challenging") reading experience is precisely to read the "ambitious living." Judgments have yet to be reached about these folks; their work has to be explored and assessed. Some of it even strikes out in directions with which one is unfamiliar, and requires more than ordinary concentration. This sort of writing has yet to be certified as Literature, and while reading it might not provide the same sense of security that one's experience will be "worthy," it does test one's ability to comprehend what makes literature literary in the first place.
Ultimately, Wasserman's pronouncement is at least as condescending to the "worthy dead" as it is to the "ambitious living." It implies that their work is safely ensconced in the collective literary mausoleum, no longer embroiled in the petty concerns of the living. It expresses a view of Literature that only makes living readers less likely to be interested in the literature of the past, held out by the likes of Wasserman as something so much grander than what the puny present could produce. Younger readers especially recoil (justifiably so) at such a display of supercilious superiority (itself so thoroughly unjustified). In my opinion, if the literary work of the "worthy dead" is perceived as detached from the affairs of the present, with nothing to say to those who must live in it--and in many cases this is simply not the case--it doesn't have much value to anyone. It's not what is passed on to us from the worthy dead. It's just dead.