The Dreiser Dilemma


AS PART of our preparation for the All-Time American Writers Tournament, we’re re-reading several classic American writers to see, frankly, if they’re any good. The National Football League has their “combine” for evaluating talent. This is the stage we’re in now.

How are the writers doing?

Not that well. Perhaps worst of all is Theodore Dreiser, who wrote at least two historically significant novels. I just completed reading one of them, Sister Carrie. While one can see why the book was controversial in its day, by our “Pop Lit” standards it doesn’t hold up– even though it was a populist novel. The word-clotted style doesn’t help it. The narrative never creates momentum or excitement. The plot becomes predictable about halfway through– from that point the story is a slowly winding-down dirge. It’s a poorer read than a Rex Beach novel we recently reviewed, written in the same time period. But Dreiser’s book was “Literature,” don’t ya know.


The question is: How far do we go in keeping writers in context– in giving them credit for their importance in their own era? We don’t wish to completely discount that– but, we also plan to bring objectivity to this tournament.

Do we then also bring the same criteria we’re bringing to Dreiser (“Show us how good you are!”) to more recent, trendy authors?

David Foster Wallace is as unreadable as Dreiser– except in the opinion of his fan club, a well-connected, over-educated clique which carries weight in today’s lit world. Putting Wallace into context might work to his detriment. His writing may be as obsolete in 100 years as Dreiser’s is now.

Dilemmas! Dilemmas! We’ll post our criteria soon. . . .

One thought on “The Dreiser Dilemma

  1. Don’t get us wrong. The novel Sister Carrie has its attributes. We question is whether it and its author are in the top tier. The novel is a daring look at the underside the American dream of its day, with many realistic details, as befits a naturalistic novel. Dreiser uses too many details– he’s infatuated with them– every occurrence of Carrie’s rise through the ranks on Broadway, for instance. Every smile; every giggle from the audience. Dreiser wrote before movies showed the effectiveness of editing. As is, the book is depressing to an extreme, with hardly anything counteracting the bleakness. I’ve been through some tough periods– but it’s good to balance hard times with faith and hope. Otherwise one ends up like the character Hurstwood. Hurstwood’s steady decline is analogous to Theodore Dreiser’s standing in our tournament. . . .


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