The Writer as Public Figure?

ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

J-D-Salinger-TIME-1961

THE UNSTATED PREMISE of those who are touting the new movie about J.D. Salinger, “Rebel in the Rye,” is that his absence from the lit scene for decades created mystery about him. They’re hoping to capitalize on that mystery.

There’s something to be said for this viewpoint. There are multiple examples of performers and artists who achieved a level of lasting fame because they removed themselves from the scene at an early age. Greta Garbo, Marilyn Monroe, and James Dean jump immediately to mind. In the lit game, Sylvia Plath. Mystery has been an essential component of charisma for a long time. (See fan dancer Sally Rand. The brief, unsatisfied glimpse.) Or look at the most famous person in history. The mystery of Jesus’s death and resurrection is the most compelling part of the Gospel narratives.
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Yet J.D. Salinger was able to vanish because his literary celebrity had already been built. He wrote at a time when writers mattered.

How much more difficult the task is now, when even the biggest name writers walk around as virtual unknowns, not part of the conversation of general culture– a culture 1,000 times noisier than it once was.

Can one create mystery and charisma about a writer by keeping that person offstage– yet somehow still get the word out?

NEXT: “Star Power.” A Counter-Argument. 

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#4 Seeds Aftermath

ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

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WHILE antifa protesters raged outside the hall– upset at the inclusion of Ezra Pound in the Tournament– three of the latest selections held an impromptu Q & A with members of the local press. (Pound remained secure in his hotel room, sharing drinks and stories with old friend Ernest Hemingway.)

A few highlights:

John Steinbeck:  “I thank the Tournament judges for finding me worthy of this honor. In my heart there may be some doubt that I deserve to be included over other men of letters whom I hold in respect– but there is no question of my pleasure in being included.”

Steinbeck gave a shout-out to Pound, noting that the poet might be used to being confined in tight places and would survive the experience.

William Faulkner related the oft-told anecdote about hunting with Clark Gable and Howard Hawks, when they were discussing books and Gable discovered Faulkner was a writer. Asked by Gable to recommend a few authors, Faulkner said, “Thomas Mann, Willa Cather, John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway, and myself.”

Faulkner was never much of a conversationalist, so having him repeat the story was a minor coup. He also answered a few questions, such as this one:

“Was the writer character played by Dick Powell in the classic film ‘The Bad and the Beautiful’ based on you?”

One-minute pause.

“No.”
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The highlight of the afternoon was Sylvia Plath reading one of her poems. It sounded something like this:

All-in-all, the press conference was a success.

The #4 Seeds

ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

A.)  Ezra Pound

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Pound would make the tournament on his promotional and editorial skills alone, his crucial influence on the work and careers of several of the greatest writers ever– among them James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, and T.S. Eliot. But Ezra Pound was also an important poet in his own right who helped create modernist poetry (and modernist literature period); doing more things with the poetic art, via allusions and wordplay, than any American poet had done before. (A throwback to Shakespeare in that regard.)

B.)  Sylvia Plath

Sylvia_Plath

Both of us at New Pop Lit regard Sylvia Plath’s work as the apex of poetic achievement. As intent a student of the art who ever lived, imbibing every available influence, acquiring every tool in the poet’s toolbox– and using them. Examples are in the poems themselves. We also have Plath’s recorded readings, which are dynamite. A transformative experience for the listener– showing just how powerful poetry can be.

As added bonus, Sylvia Plath also wrote an extremely powerful novel, The Bell Jar, which more than holds its own against other novels present and past when read today.

C.)  William Faulkner.

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The godfather of Southern Gothic– complicated plots of murders and rapes, incest and inheritances, set in the decaying world of white trash ogres, crumbling mansions, and Southern mud. Aristocrats and sharecroppers; rich and poor. The prose is as convoluted as the plotting– for an involving read the novels of William Faulkner have seldom been topped.  For sheer luridness, and one would think, offensiveness, Sanctuary rests high on the objectionable list. But is it art? Maybe not, but among American writers Faulkner is impossible to overlook.

D.)  John Steinbeck

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THE definitive American writer of the 1930’s– take that for what you will. His big novel during the decade was The Grapes of Wrath— but Cannery Row and In Dubious Battle might be, in the long run, more important. Steinbeck is underrated by literary critics in part because his prose is (usually) so simple– which we see as an asset. Steinbeck’s work remains accessible to all readers. Like Frank Capra or Aaron Copland in their fields, John Steinbeck had the ability to capture the feel, the texture, the sound of the American people and the American land.

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Protest City

ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

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SHOPKEEPERS at this resort town are nailing boards over their storefronts. Not for a hurricane. Instead: For antifa!

We’re expecting mad activist mobs to rush up here once we announce our #4 seeded entrants into the Tournament. One of the selections is a controversial figure– if he were around now he’d be banned or bullied by today’s New Censorship Movement.

But we’re ready! We plan to sneak said writer surreptitiously into town in the middle of night, before we make the announcement. He’ll be surrounded by bodyguards.

NEXT: #4 Seeds

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Our Criteria Revisited

ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

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A.)  The ACHIEVEMENT.

The author’s works: How do they hold up?

B.)  INFLUENCE.

Influence on literature AND on American culture.

C.)  PERSONA.

Like it or not, the writer is a public figure. Writers are the face of the art.

D.)  EXCITEMENT QUOTIENT.

Is energy generated among readers and society by the author and/or the work?

E.)  AMERICAN.

How authentic is the writer and the writing? How representative of some important aspect of American life, ideas, or people? Is the work an expression of American language, sound, voice?

F.)  HUMANITY.

Polished technical exercises aren’t enough. Does the writing have emotion? Heart? We’re not selecting A.I. robots.

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Gil Scott-Heron or John Ashbery?

ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

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(Left: Ashbery. Right: Scott-Heron.)

Twin strands of American poetry. Two poles. Divergent extremes.

One up from the street, taking poetry to the people.

The other representing a withdrawal behind fortress bastions of the academy.

John Ashbery, RIP. Harvard, Columbia, Fulbright. Partisan Review. The New Yorker magazine.

Was Ashbery’s success an intentional reaction, by the literary establishment, against the threat of Rexroth and Ginsberg– against the populist energy, the accessible strong language of the Beats?

Accolades for Ashbery flow in– but which poet truly, TRULY, was more important, more influential these past decades?

Ashbery or Scott-Heron?

Which poet spawned an entire popular musical genre? Which continued the Beat tradition of dynamic open mics? Which made poets and poetry exciting and relevant– breaking the mold of obscurely tame poetry sessions isolated within universities during which every audience member has fallen asleep?

The Question really comes down to: What place should poetry hold in American society?

We give here and now no answer. We’re simply asking: John Ashbery or Gil Scott-Heron? Gil Scott-Heron or John Ashbery?

Media and Mediums

ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

JehanGeorgesVibert-The_Fortune_Teller

(“Who Creates the Canon?” Part III.)

EVERYTHING WE EXPERIENCE is processed through one medium or another. Distortions are the norm. National media will cover a local incident day and night– images on every television channel; screaming headlines in every newspaper; the matter discussed by late-night TV comedians, every one– until hysteria peaks and the incident is thought symptomatic of the nation as a whole.

Celebrities are created in similar fashion, their images and reputations blown up by repetition and exaggeration far out of proportion to their talent. Ours is a P.T. Barnum civilization, built through a high magnitude of ballyhoo.

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WRITERS

Who builds the reputation of writers?

Big Five publicity departments and Manhattan magazine review sections are only part of it.

The serious reputation is built by literary critics who write for “serious” newspapers or journals. They bring to the task their biases and their parochial viewpoints. They’re expected to meet institutional expectations– not stray too far from the acceptable tastes of the respectable intellectual herd.

The lasting reputation is created by universities, which teach, discuss, and otherwise publicize their approved icons long after their deaths.

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The teachable or politically-correct talents comprise the Canon. Henry James is a canonical writer because everyone has said he is for 70-plus years. His biggest patrons during that time have been the most exclusive universities– elite of the elite: Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge. Fitting that they’d choose an upper-class author with whom they can strongly identify.  The work is complex enough to be teachable at the highest levels– professors endlessly searching for “figures in the carpet”– that elusive meaning or symbol which can never quite be found.

America is a huge nation full of vast landscapes and diverse classes and peoples, areas which Henry James never visited, much less wrote about. Even today’s token academic “diversity” is screened through the same filter; the properly correct but also properly elite Harvard/Yale/Oxford/Brown student or professor viewing the world and America through a narrow lens– a reversed telescope. For any authentic Canon, this isn’t good enough.

Our task at the Tournament is to strip away the PR of papers and seminars to ask: How relevant has this writer been to the American civilization? And– Is the work any good?

We take nothing for granted.
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(Featured painting: “The Fortune Teller” by Jehan Georges Vibert. Henry James photo by Alice Boughton.)