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(Who is this writer?)

THE ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

THE FORTUNES of writers can change quickly– even in a short period of time. After all, five years ago Jonathan Franzen, after his big bird novel, was considered THE top current living American novelist, and Donna Tartt was far back in the pack; a once-young phenom who’d never lived up to her hype. A flop here; a big success there, and things turn around.

WHO’S UP?

Donna Tartt.  Tartt’s novel The Goldfinch put her at the forefront of contemporary American novelists. More importantly, it all but assured her a spot in the Tournament.

Octavia Butler.  Has sci-fi writer Butler turned from egregiously unrecognized to mildly over-recognized with the shifting winds of politics and approval? It helps that science fiction itself is on a credibility upswing. As the world becomes more technological– as it turns into science fiction– this upswing is likely to continue.

Gertrude Stein.  With even a new opera out about her, “27,” building on an appearance this decade in Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” (poorly played by Kathy Bates), Stein’s standing as a persona, if not a writer, continues to climb.

Philip K. Dick.  With so many young people on social media identifying themselves with and as robots– with the knowledge people will soon enough be hybrid robots, androids and the like– Dick’s arrow of relevance is pointing upward.

Mary Gaitskill and Philip Roth.  Two writers who each began with modest trendy success via edgy short fiction collections– Mary Gaitskill with Bad Behavior in the late 80’s; the recently-retired(??) Philip Roth with Goodbye Columbus in the early 60’s. Through sheer staying power; cranking out unexceptional novels on a steady enough basis– each novel geared toward the thoughts of the intellectual hive mind of the moment– they’re considered to be writers of serious heft, in a society and age known for its shallowness. Everything is relative.

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WHO’S DOWN?

Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson.  Once considered the top American intellectual and a major poet, today he’s seldom heard from. Stray quotes of his appear occasionally on twitter.

Eugene O’Neill.  This most Irish of American writers was still ranked in the 60’s and 70’s as top American playwright along with Tennessee Williams. O’Neill’s plays seem not to have endured (though one was recently produced on Broadway), possibly because they haven’t made outstanding movies. We have room in the tourney for a mere handful of playwrights. O’Neill is at risk of not making the cut.

Jay McInerney.  The literary reputation of the Manhattan literary “brat pack” of the 1980’s hasn’t fared well; McInerney’s rep least of all, as he was the first of the bunch, and made the biggest splash with his stylish short novel Bright Lights, Big City.

Jay Mc w Marla Hanson

Critics and publicists acclaimed McInerney the next Scott Fitzgerald– Jay has been trying to live up to this prediction in big novel after big novel, ambitiously failing to do so. Fitzgerald famously quipped, “There are no second acts in American life.” One of the few individuals the quote applies to is Jay McInerney.

Sinclair Lewis.  Won a Nobel Prize, I’m told. Lewis once said, “Our American professors like their literature clear and cold and pure and very dead.” Lewis’s work is fairly dead, though he’s taught not in colleges but high schools.

Jonathan Franzen.  The “American Tolstoy” as Time magazine or someone equally feckless proclaimed– or a second-rate Irwin Shaw? Time will tell. Shaw at least was a fairly good short story writer. Franzen may make the tourney on hype and reputation alone, though as a persona– as someone pushed to be the face of American letters– he’s been something of a dud.

Thomas Wolfe and John Dos Passos.  Speaking of Irwin Shaw, there are a host of American authors “of the moment” once thought capable of writing the great American novel; who received a ton of critical and popular attention. Then they slid slowly, painfully slowly, down the mountaintop. For Wolfe and Dos the slide continues. Our activist character “Cherry Bomb” would attribute it to them being white males and wrongly valued or “privileged” to begin with. I imagine Cherry saying, “They’re like blondes in California; throw a rock and you’ll hit a dozen of ’em.” But some of the gang aren’t bad reads, to this day. We’ll discuss those at a later date. With others like John Dos Passos and Thomas Wolfe, the quirky and the wordy, a case for the defense is harder to make.

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Which writers are “of the moment” now?

Interview with Mailer

ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

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an interview conducted by tournament analyst Mel Diper

(Background: A protest group calling themselves “Outraged Writers Against” has been protesting the Tournament because of the possible involvement of renowned author Norman Mailer. The group accuses Mailer of being a misogynist, and has said this disqualifies him from public notice. This past weekend, Mel Diper sat down with the controversial figure to ask him about the matter.)
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MEL DIPER:  “Did you once stab your wife.”

NORMAN MAILER:  (Leaning forward in his chair while gesturing with his hands.) “The matter has already been adjudicated. Ancient history– like the ancient Egyptians who I wrote about you know in a novel which was not very well received despite its ambitious heft– nothing to do with my wife, ha! you know. But surely you’re aware I was advised by my attorney not to discuss the matter. My wife, not the novel. Fire away with all other questions, and I’ll try to dodge them like Joe Frazier dodging jabs from Ali. Ali! Ali! Ali! I understand you’re a former sports personage so you know the allusion– writers good writers anyway are full of allusions.”

MEL:  “Uh, yeah. I guess they are.” (Reviews notes.) “But how do you respond to the protesters who don’t want you involved with the All-Time American Writers Tournament?”

NORM:  “It’s all very surprising you know yet at the same time not at all surprising to I, Mailer, when you have understandably these types of ‘womyn’-led kind of interest groups or causes, fragmentations of actual philosophies which are representations of the female need to control what I call the male ego, masculine gritty-in-the-bowels or at least the balls instinct you know our need for self-expression in this shitty kind-of existentialist universe of bowel-led ‘protesters’ without a cause in our causeless phenomenological universe and–”

MEL:  “Thank you Mr. Mailer.”
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Mad Mel

 

 

(Mel Diper can be emailed at meldiperjr@gmail.com. His twitter handle is @meldiper.)

 

 

Writers Removed from Consideration Part I

ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

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(Pictured: Jane Smiley.)

From New Pop Lit‘s Editor-in-Chief.

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Eudora Welty.  Big rep. Something of a folk writer. Corny dialect. I could never finish reading “Why I Live at the P.O.”

William Kennedy.  There was a brief William Kennedy vogue fifteen (or 25?) years ago. Remember it? It was not enough for him to make the Tournament.

Booth Tarkington.  Booth’s stock hasn’t just declined in the past 80 years. It’s fallen off a cliff.

Jane Smiley.  Jane Smiley is one of those faux-populist “literary” writers who write about farms or colleges and imagine they’re far more witty or profound than they are in reality. (For witty satire of a college, see Kingsley Amis.) If there is such thing as middlebrow, Jane Smiley is middlebrow. Plus, Jane Smiley has an irritating name. Out!

Bernard Malamud.  Malamud has a fairly big name in literary circles, and did write one highly readable, close-to-great novel, The Natural. This is balanced by this editor having been assigned Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer once in an English course. The two books are examples that occasionally a novelist is best off writing about his own time and milieu– what he knows. Next!

Paul Harding. Sounds like an old-time NFL football player. Ever hear of Pulitzer Prize Fiction-winner Paul Harding? Neither have we.

Wallace Stevens. Insurance guy who wrote poems. A good poet with an esteemed reputation among insider poetry circles, but with no real following among the general public. (Are there Wallace Stevens Poetry Festivals somewhere?) With only 12-16 slots for poets to fill, “good” isn’t good enough. We may as well start culling the herd now.

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jane smiley speaking

But what do you think?

(Second photo: Jane Smiley speaking.)

 

 

A Side Issue

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ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

PROTEST STATEMENT

(NOTE: This is a side issue to the Tournament itself– one we debated discussing at the site. We ultimately decided to run this, in the interest of putting as many happenings as possible connected to the Tournament on the record. Take it for what it’s worth.)
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New Pop Lit has received a bad-quality video on dvd. It shows a petite young woman in a mask, dressed in black, reading a statement. Behind her with arms folded stands a tall male, similarly dressed and masked. They are supposed representatives of the activist group upset with our Writers Tournament. The poor quality of the sound and image prevents it from being shown here.

One hour after receiving the video, an envelope was dropped off at our headquarters. The envelope contained a statement whose words correspond, more or less, to those of the young woman shouting on the video. Here’s the text of the statement:

“We piss on your Tournament and your privileging of white male writers Ernest Hemingway and Walter Whitman, and the archaic notion that you can privilege anybody by combating writers against one another as if they were gladiators to feed the Hyper-Capitalist Spectacle that is America now. We say, ‘NO MORE CRUELTY!’ We shit on your privileging of American anything (There Is No Amerikkka!) which reeks of borders, fascism, intolerance and patriarchy. We will NOT participate in this clown show! We will be engaging in a sit-in and hunger strike at the auditorium, hall, saloon, cafe or other where the ‘Tournament’ is to be held– as soon as someone figures out where the ‘Tournament’ is to be held. The sit-in and hunger strike will continue until our demands are met. We will at a future time submit those demands to the capitalist pig asshole media, if this ‘event’ occasions any media. Preemptive shutting down of potential hate events before they occur is our only defense. WE WILL NOT TOLERATE THIS! Thank you.”

The printed statement was signed, “OPA! Outraged Protesters Against.”

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To date the first two tournament selectees, Mr. Hemingway and Mr. Whitman, have no comment regarding this matter. They have yet to arrive in town.

(All nominations for Tournament candidates can be sent to newpoplitATgmail.com)

 

First Two #1 Seeds

ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

Here are our first two #1 seeds:

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A.) Ernest Hemingway. Possibly the biggest writer persona ever. In his day he was a bigger figure than movie stars and pop singers. Instantly recognizable. Larger than life. A giant part of the culture. He destroyed the effete image of literature. He had popular best-sellers but was also a critical darling. He defined, at least for a while, the American voice– and transformed the English language. Even the Brits weren’t the same after Hemingway. In America, the hard-boiled detective genre sprang from a single Hemingway short story. (“The Killers.”) Hemingway began as an underground writer, the artistic creation of Sherwood Anderson, Gertrude Stein, and Ezra Pound. He took from his mentors, synthesized their ideas and made them accessible to the world. It’s impossible for us today to understand how revolutionary was the early Hemingway sound. Though some of his work today sounds dated, his best stuff holds up– his “Macomber” story one of the most exciting tales ever written; his top novels, “Sun” and “Farewell to Arms” striking reads also.

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whitman middle-aged
2.) Walt Whitman. More than any other single writer, Walt Whitman created the American voice and justified a distinctive American literature very different from its Old World models. Beyond that, he transformed the art of poetry on a world scale. Many consider him the father of free verse. Not just his art, but his persona was distinctively American. “Leaves of Grass” was every bit as revolutionary an artistic happening as anything Hemingway wrote. Or, for that matter, Allen Ginsberg and the Beats, who would’ve been impossible without Whitman blazing the trail before them. Whitman was the first hippie. He lived during a time when poetry was popular, and he was the most popular poet. The American character is a mix of several influences. Whitman is surely one of them.
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 THE NEXT two #1 seeds will be announced in a few days. There will be 16 brackets of four writers each. Remember that we’re allowing ourselves one week to change our mind about our announced choices for the tournament, depending on feedback, disappointment or outrage. . . .

The Venues

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WE’VE given much thought to the venues for the All-Time American Writers Tournament. As the city of Philadelphia was a successful spot for the recent NFL draft, we’d like to hold the tournament itself in that fair town. But for the period when we fill in the brackets– the “season” before the event– we’ve decided on a roomier place. Less hectic. A more rustic setting– a small town near woods and lakes. There will be plenty of space for the legendary names to relax and be themselves, before we bring them intensively under the spotlight.

Format and Criteria

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FORMAT FOR THE ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

There will be sixteen seeds, sixty-four writers altogether. A writer will have to be good simply to make the tournament. Brackets will be set up, starting with four #1 seeds, then the #2 seeds, and so on. Then, the writers begin squaring off mano a mano. We hope to enlist volunteers to choose between, say, Henry James or Allen Ginsberg. The winner moves on. This continues until we have an overall winner.

BRACKETS

We had to decide if the brackets will be arbitrary, or split up between, say, regions, or using other classifications, such as a Poetry bracket, Playwright bracket, and so on. We decided against the latter, simply because the history of American literature has been dominated by the novel. It would be unfair to leave out novelists who’ve had a huge impact on the civilization and culture in favor of poets or playwrights who’ve had little impact at all. Is this fair? No. But the best poets and playwrights will be represented. We’ll also listen to, and post, all arguments pro and con.

CRITERIA

What places a writer above another? We’ve sketched out what we believe are the main points, but welcome more.

A.) Influence/Importance/Relevance. Meaning: impact on America and the world. Not simply on the literary art, but on culture itself. Has the writer’s work become part of the culture?

B.) Popularity. Not the main point, but a major point.

C.) Persona. The writer’s persona is part of the writer’s impact. We refuse to take the narrow view of writers that, say, New York editors take, where the work is assessed in a vacuum. Literature has thrived in this crazy country when the main writers have been larger than life. Their very presence has promoted the vibrancy of the literary art.

D.) Critical Standing. This means, the quality of the work itself. Has the body of work stood the test of time? Is it considered world class? Are significant ideas expressed in the work? Great themes relevant to people anywhere? Does it have impact beyond the historians and critics? Does the person’s writing convey energy or emotion and create excitement for the literary art?

E.) American. Is the writer and the work authentically, recognizably, quintessentially American? Is he or she representative of the land, this nation, and the nation’s voice? To some extent, writers should be of their place and time.

The writer’s mastery of form, and of various forms, can be considered as well. The forms include Novels, Poetry, Plays, Short Stories, Essays, and Criticism.

What are we leaving out?