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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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.

Carny barker
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.

Alice_Boughton_-_Henry_James

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.)

Who Creates the Writer?

ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

michaeljacksonwaxfigure

(Photo: Michael Jackson wax figure.)
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“Who Creates the Canon?” Part Two

THE CURRENT VERSION of pop music is generic dance music first performed in the 1970’s, perfected in the 1980’s by the charismatic likes of Michael Jackson and Madonna– but the real creators were record producers on the order of Tommy Mottola. Today the creativity of the artist takes place within narrow parameters. All sounds are studio originated, created by studio engineers as much as studio musicians. All distribution, marketing, promotion, needless to say, is performed by the conglomerate to which the artist-or-face-of-the-product belongs.

PUBLISHING
For the world of publishing, of “literature,” the question is how major a role is played by the writer.

RayCarver2

(Pictured: Raymond Carver.)
TAKING the Gordon Lish – Raymond Carver association as example, the answer is that the writer is thought of, in the conglomerate book business, as a necessary but interchangeable piece to be plugged into a tidy spot within the production process. A hired hand, whose work can be altered, even rewritten, at whim.

Gordon Lish has stated, in a Paris Review interview, that if not for him, Ray Carver would never have been published. This is a true statement.

But what does this say about the “Big Five” publishing industry?

Ray Carver proved in the final years of his life that he was a talented writer. That he could create literary art without the intrusion of an editor. How many equally talented writers are out there who’ve never found publishing success, because they were less willing to abase themselves– to have their vision, their work, mutilated– as Carver was?

Was Carver’s early work truly unpublishable? This commentator has been on both sides of the question, as a literary novice having had his work severely edited in the 1990’s by editors. Yet now many years later, as New Pop Lit editor, having taken out portions of submitted work on occasion to make, in his view, the piece stronger.  (We’ve also left in writing that we knew– we knew– other editors would’ve taken out.) There’s a line there to be crossed, or not crossed.

The story is that Gordon Lish didn’t just edit Carver’s stories– he rewrote them. He saw them as mere raw material for he, powerful editor at Esquire magazine, to do with as he wanted.

We know the arguments on his side. Lish took that material and improved it, by drastically gutting it. This doesn’t change the facts of the process itself. (Lish claimed he performed similar surgery on the work of a host of well-known writers.) The Lish-Carver story affirms that within the bounds of official literature now, the writer has no power.

Is this relationship unavoidable; intrinsic to the publishing process?

When the reading public buys a book, they see the author. The face on the back of the dust cover, precisely posed and photographed. Nowhere are there photographs of the agent, editor, publisher, publicist, newspaper reviewers, or the rest of those involved.

The author carries the reputation. What lies behind it?
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(One of the motives behind the DIY movement in music and writing was to return control to the artist. To the visionary. The creator– to whom other talents should act not in superiority, but support. The idea behind the DIY-spawned Underground Literary Alliance was to make writers an active part of the editing and publishing process. A quixotic project.)

The Macho Fifties

ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

James Jones

In the wake of Ernest Hemingway, who made the idea of the Great American Novelist respectable– even macho– the 1950’s was the heyday of the male American novelist. The decade showcased a score of ambitious new male authors, if no great ones, all pursuing the traditional novel.

Among them, James Baldwin, Saul Bellow, John Cheever, Ralph Ellison, James Jones, Norman Mailer, James Michener, J.D. Salinger, Irwin Shaw, William Styron, Gore Vidal, and Herman Wouk. At the end of the decade but ably writing about it, J.F. Powers and Richard Yates.

(Throw in playwrights Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, William Inge; poets from John Berryman to Kenneth Rexroth to the Beats; and short fiction writers like Truman Capote, and the list becomes more impressive.)

The role of novelist was thought of not as an effete pursuit but as masculine as working construction– and as fast a road to celebrity as pop singer or baseball player. A legion of men leaving military service in particular wanted to be novelists. They wanted to be Hemingway.

Not every one of these men can make the tourney brackets.

Should any of them?

 

Who Is Finnegan?

ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

Hemingway shooting

WHEN WE PRESENTED our “Hemingway-Fitzgerald Trivia Question” we were fairly confident in our answer. We looked for critical support. We received instead a response from Dr. Scott Donaldson disagreeing with our analysis.

“‘Snobbish Story’ possibly based on E.H., Finnegan definitely not (FSF writing about himself). . .”

Scott Donaldson is THE authority on the two legendary American authors. His works include Hemingway vs. Fitzgerald: The Rise and Fall of a Literary Friendship, plus separate books on both men. Hard to believe he could miss on this story, “Financing Finnegan.” (Or indeed on both stories.)

Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Is F. Scott Fitzgerald writing about himself? Or, instead, as we contend, about his on-and-off friend Ernest Hemingway?

You can read the story here and judge for yourself.
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As for ourselves, further research on the matter confirms our original opinion.

Dr. Donaldson has bought the accepted narrative on F. Scott Fitzgerald. In part, a portrayal of Fitzgerald as victim, with bearish Hemingway as antagonist. This viewpoint is in part attributable to Hemingway himself, and his seemingly unprovoked attacks on Scott in A Moveable Feast. But also to Scott’s “Crack-Up” essays in Esquire.

But again we ask, is Scott “Finnegan”?

At one point in his career he might’ve been. His experiences and one-time standing as a literary wonderboy no doubt informed his view of the character. But at the time he wrote “Finnegan,” nothing about Scott himself any longer fit. And hadn’t fit for a long time.

“Finnegan” is a famous novelist. By contrast, in 1938, for the greater public, Scott Fitzgerald was almost forgotten. He didn’t become a legendary author until the 1950’s, years after his death. In retrospect. No one considered him to be one in 1938. (On the other hand, Hemingway’s standing in 1938 was almost exactly the same as Finnegan’s.)

“Finnegan” has unending money problems– owes his publisher money on advances. Scott Fitzgerald had once been in this situation. But in 1938 he was not working on a novel, had received no advance for one. Instead, in 1937, as described on his Wikipedia page, F. Scott Fitzgerald had “entered into a lucrative exclusive deal with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer” to write screenplays. In 1937 Fitzgerald earned $29,757.87– the equivalent of $540,000.00 today. Over half-a-million dollars. In 1938 when he wrote “Financing Finnegan” he was swimming in money. For anyone alive during the Great Depression it was a near-fortune.

If anything, Scott’s situation fits well not with Finnegan, but the narrator of the tale.

What of Ernest Hemingway?

Again, we have to go back to 1938, when Fitzgerald wrote the story. Hemingway’s latest novel, To Have and Have Not, released in October 1937, had been a giant flop. It was slammed by reviewers, including the New York Times, which said, “this new novel is an empty book.” It was Hemingway’s first novel in eight years. It’s generally regarded by critics today, as it was then, as his worst novel.

As for finances, a glance at Hemingway’s Selected Letters shows he was in continual money trouble– at least as much as Scott had ever been. In part because Hem refused to crank out scores of short stories (or screenplays) purely to earn money. In 1938, after the failure of a long-awaited novel, Hemingway’s financial situation must’ve been particularly precarious.

Anyway you slice it, “Finnegan” is a depiction not of F. Scott Fitzgerald but of his one-time friend, Ernest Hemingway. Still smarting from his buddy’s shot at him in Esquire, Scott used the same forum to subtly even the score. Scott Donaldson didn’t catch it– but the ever-sensitive Ernest would have.

Ritz Bar w FSF picture

The American Novelist

THE ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

Irwin_Shaw_(1948)(Pictured: Irwin Shaw.)

HAVING READ and reviewed Jay McInerney‘s most recent novel as a way to check his suitability for the big Tournament, we encountered, in the book’s strengths and weaknesses, more than we expected.

We found the novel, Bright, Precious Days, no better than a 1950’s novel by O’Hara, Cozzens, Wouk, or Shaw. The corollary to this is that their once-admired novels are no better than his.

We caught McInerney using the trademark James Gould Cozzens plot “surprise” two-thirds of the way through to jumpstart the narrative. Effective– if you haven’t already experienced it.

One can travel back in time further than J.G. Cozzens and Company to find apt comparisons to the McInerney book– to Booth Tarkington, the most popular award-winning novelist of the 1910’s and 1920’s. Tarkington’s writing style and subjects are notably similar to those of Mr. McInerney. “The novel of manners.” Which isn’t Booth’s fault– but Jay’s. Or the publishing industry’s.

The next step in this line of thought: The very concept of “The Great American Novel” may be obsolete. Perhaps the novel form itself.

Which calls into question the premises of our tournament.

THE idea of American literature for over 100 years has been the idea of the novel. The belief that the novel is the “white whale” of American letters. The chief object for a writer to pursue.

Yet when you read or re-read these thick books; well-designed products created by giant corporations filled with talent– products as surely as are automobiles manufactured by General Motors– you find that, as art, most of them are failures. Diverting, yes. Absorbing? Often. Insightful? Occasionally.

Deep art which shakes the soul of the reader? Which shatters assumptions, premises, convictions, viewpoints; turning the world upside down? No.
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IN FILLING THE BRACKETS of this tournament, we have the almost impossible task of assessing each writer in context. Which means not undervaluing literary giants of the past because they’re no longer considered giants– while not overvaluing the literary stars of now. (The latter task is easier, as there no longer are literary giants who overawe the culture-at-large.) This means factoring in the extent to which hype and unearned critical acclaim– or mere politics, pro or con– have distorted a writer’s reputation.

Joyce_Carol_Oates_2013

(Pictured: Joyce Carol Oates.)

If this were 1930, Booth Tarkington would be a shoo-in to make an all-time American writers tournament. If it were 1987 instead of 2017, Joyce Carol Oates would be a shoo-in. Sometimes writers, by failing to take another step intellectually or creatively beyond initial promise, take care of their own reputations. Or maybe, in time, it becomes apparent their initial successful work was overvalued all along.

Appreciation #2

“Nelson Algren” by Joseph S. Pete

ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

nelson algren 3

Nelson Algren loathed the film adaptation of “The Man with the Golden Arm,” refusing to be photographed by a marquee of a movie he “had nothing to do with” and saying Frank Sinatra’s take on down-on-his-luck vet Frankie Machine made it look like he was trying to recover from a cold instead of quit morphine.

But it landed the Detroit-born Chicagoan a windfall he used to buy a beach cottage in the Miller neighborhood of nearby Gary, Indiana. One winter, he bought a six-pack from a package store and took a popular shortcut across an iced-over lagoon, but the ice cracked and gave way, plunging him into frigid water. Though delirious, he warned rescuers not to venture onto the brittle ice and instead throw a rope to drag him out.

Algren was always like that, empathetic.

His compassion was why he was known as “the bard of the down-and-outer.” Some think he developed a fondness for life’s castaways and woebegone losers after he was jailed for five months in Texas for stealing a typewriter during the Great Depression. They blamed his stubborn attachment to the squalid underbelly of outsiders and sinners for his waning stature, even after he won a National Book Award for Fiction, saying he remained fixated on the downtrodden while society started to view the world in a more optimistic light.

Maybe Algren cared too much. Nobody wrote as well about addicts, the poor, the hustlers, the wretched refuse just trying to get by.
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Joseph S. Pete is an award-winning journalist, an Iraq War veteran and a Baconfest Chicago Poet Laureate who’s been widely published in journals like Lumpen, the Blue Collar Review, Stoneboat and Prairie Winds.