Appreciation #7

“Gene Wolfe” by Robin Wyatt Dunn

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ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

“Cry Wolfe”

Gene Wolfe, the old fat man, we’ll sing for him—though it be wrong.

How many men will write the etymology of their own name and admit what it makes them? (Wolfe did in his story “Wolfer”).

Gene Wolfe fought in the Korean War, helping the pedophiles who run the United States Government get little children to eat, and all it taught him was “you need to keep shooting.”

Still, he is one of our best writers. Like the Russian writers, who all come out of the Caucasus, feasting on human flesh, and ready to spill blood onto the page.

Though he is a conservative, honored by some of the most conservative bodies here in North America, the golden fascists of the Science Fiction Writers of America—shouldn’t he be honored more greatly, and given the same laurels as Barry Obama?

I love Gene Wolfe; I’ve written about my love for him before, in a piece for Black Heart Magazine, which they later deleted, without comment. I only said I wanted to kiss him on the mouth.

Our Wolfe is howling, and we cannot know why.

Though he began on territory similar to the alt-right “Sad Puppies,” his first novel (he admits himself) prenticework attacking liberals in government, he matured in his work to be one of the few American writers, as David Lynch is one of the few American filmmakers, to use surrealism in his mainstream narrative work, without a second thought, without irony, without compunction, to find the truth.

In his search for the truth, like Kurosawa, he was forced to use dreams. Unlike Kurosawa, there is a bloody spirit in Wolfe, always hunting fresh meat, wherever he may find it.

Today it strikes me that honoring writers is a very tedious business, but this is only because I am a writer longing for honor. Perhaps I should have been killing more children in Asia.

What does it mean that we have Wolfe? Grand Master of Science Fiction: ensconced! Ennobled! Beloved. And we do love him. So much.

Wolfe is not prepared for the end of America; he is sentimental. He shoveled the corpses into its maw, and in his fiction, like all great American writers, he examined the psyche of the psychopath, in Severian from The Urth of the New Sun, in Patera Silk (another child eater) of The Book of the Long Sun, and he also sought and found the little psychopath lurking inside all of us, only awaiting the right circumstances to bring it out.

Like Asimov, Wolfe is a humanist. Unlike Asimov, Wolfe understands how monstrous a thing that is.
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Robin Dunn’s last story for us was “Travelogue.” Find his books here.

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The Novelists

Catch22

When creating a tournament like this, one has to deal with a critical consensus that has decided which are the great works and great authors. Look at their selections, and you’ll see that while a few undeniable masterpieces are included, the overall judgement is arbitrary. The resulting lists are badly skewed, and have more to do with academic and media trends and biases in place when the works were written than with excellence. Once on the “list,” the work never gets off.

Lolita, for instance, may have been daring in its time. Today it reads like an embarrassment. Catch-22 takes one joke and runs it into the ground. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is an interesting but minor work. Compare these to the best of the French and Russians– Hugo, Dumas, Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky– and they’re not in the same ballpark.

John O’Hara remains highly placed on the lists. I’m actually a fan of his– but does anyone today read or cherish John O’Hara? His many novels and stories never rise above the competent.

What do we do with three American Nobel Prize winners: Sinclair Lewis, Saul Bellow, and Pearl Buck?

Main Street and Lewis’s other novels are stodgy and dated. Model T vintage literature, pseudo-intellectual, smirky and sarcastic with no depth, as narrow and provincial as his subjects, nothing about the characters and language which any longer lives. Bellow’s reputation and relevance dates and declines by the year. “Seize the Day” is a great short work. The rest of his oeuvre is noise. Pearl Buck?

The question isn’t just whether or not the authors are still read, but how good they are. I was going to leave one of my faves, James Gould Cozzens, out of the brackets because he’s largely forgotten. Yet his novels are better, as novels, than the bulk of American works on a “Modern Library” list. The Last Adam, The Just and the Unjust, Guard of Honor— adult, intelligent novels written by an observer who understood America and its workings, and used the architecture of the novel to depict this complex country.

There are a lot of competent American novelists to consider. Over a hundred who could potentially be chosen. Our attitude with the rest of the seeding is this: A few good novels isn’t good enough. The novelist should’ve written at least one great or dynamic novel. We aim to punish mediocrity and reward artistic ambition, striking talent and exciting accomplishment .

Battle of the Divas

ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

-Barra-sontag

Camille Paglia

WE PLAN to include at least one “public intellectual” (emphasis on the public) in the Tournament. In one of the next two (7th or 8th) brackets. That is, a writer known primarily for opinions about literature and culture. A critic– but more.

The two leading candidates for the spot are both women– Susan Sontag and Camille Paglia. Which one belongs?

Or should someone else take that slot?

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#6 Seeds!

ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

Kurt_Vonnegut_1972

 

 

 

 

 
(Kurt Vonnegut.)

THESE SELECTIONS are a mixed bag of qualities and achievements. Perhaps all they have in common is that each attained, at some point– while alive or afterward– an enormous critical or popular reputation. Are the reputations larger than the actual work?
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A.)  Harriet Beecher Stowe

Harriet_Beecher_Stowe_by_Francis_Holl

(Etching by Francis Holl.)

Author of the most influential novel in American history. (Abe Lincoln himself half-in-jest credited Uncle Tom’s Cabin with starting the Civil War.) No American novel so keyed into its moment of time– the zeitgeist of the day. Or so provoked the emotions of its readers.
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B.)  James Baldwin

James_Baldwin_35AllanWarren

 

Like other writers of his era– Gore Vidal; Mary McCarthy– Baldwin was a better essayist than novelist. An excellent essayist, during a golden age of American essays. But he was also a superb short story writer, penning several which retain their power and relevance; “Sonny’s Blues” and “Going to Meet the Man” among them.

(Photo by Allan Warren.)

 

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C.)  Kurt Vonnegut

One cannot ignore the Cult of Vonnegut! He took the serious American novel out of strictly realistic bounds into new worlds. The novels Slaughterhouse Five and Breakfast of Champions were imaginative and wildly popular– especially among college students. (Would that a novelist could be so now!) In his later works Vonnegut was trying too hard to be original while simultaneously repeating himself. His best novel might be his first, Player Piano.
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D.)  Henry James

A critical darling, reputation courtesy of Harvard and Oxford. Producer of a collection of plodding, word-clotted novels, James makes the Tournament based on three of his shorter works. The pop story “Daisy Miller.” The creepy gothic pop tale Turn of the Screw. And the weirdly effective novella, Altar of the Dead.

Jacques-Emile_Blanche_-_Henry_James

(Portrait of Henry James by Jacques Emile Blanche.)

 

#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.

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.

robotfromjonathanmcintosh

Gil Scott-Heron or John Ashbery?

ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

John_Ashbery_2_by_David_ShankboneGil_Scott_Heron

(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?