Trendlines

Eugene_O'Neill_1936

(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?

More #1 Seeded Writers

THE ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

We fill in the other two #1 spots in our Tournament brackets with two other legendary names from the past.

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C.) Herman Melville. What does one do with Moby Dick? One of the other top competitors, Toni Morrison, explained once in a long essay the novel’s symbolism and significance. Talk about writing about America! The Pequod with its hierarchy, mad captain, and multi-cultural crew remains a striking metaphor about the country and concept “America.” What do they chase? That which Melville, writing ten years before the Civil War, saw as America’s founding flaw– the “white whale.” An allusion to slavery at minimum. I doubt if any novel ever written by anyone anywhere has been more ambitious– ambitious in terms of discussing the world, nature, society– and ambitious in looking inward toward man’s sins and soul. It’s also a great yarn. Lest we think this was all Melville wrote, he began as a popular novelist, wrote some classic short stories, including one, “Bartleby,” which in our cubicle work world is more relevant today than ever. Herman finished his career with a great novella, “Billy Budd,” just to show he still had it. But Moby Dick. A novel which can stand with any novel written by the world’s best, even the Russians.
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mark twain young
D.) Mark Twain. We happily bow to the voice of the crowd on this selection. As a persona he’s up there with anyone. He has his undeniable masterpiece, other classic works, fantastic essays and a few good stories. If we’re talking about which writers defined the culture and the American voice, then figures like Twain have an undeniable edge. We also can’t deny there was a time when American lit was much bigger in cultural importance than it is now. But be aware– there are many brackets to fill. A wide variety of voices will be announced.
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(We will be staging a press conference at which all four #1 seeded writers will be present. At least, we have commitments from them. Could be exciting.)

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.

The Dreiser Dilemma

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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

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. . . .

The Hilary Mantel Fiasco

NEW POP LIT NEWSROOM

The latest big news in the literary world is the simultaneous publication on Friday, September 19, in both The Guardian and The New York Times Book Review, of a story by esteemed establishment writer Hilary Mantel, “The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher.” The story is a way for both newspapers to promote Mantel’s new book of short stories, released under the same title as the story.

There are FIVE questionable points about Hilary Mantel’s story and its publication.

1.) The appearance of monopolistic behavior by the two gigantic book conglomerates behind the book’s publication, HarperCollins (via Fourth Estate) in the United Kingdom, and Macmillan Group (via Henry Holt) in the United States. These are two of the “Big Five” conglomerates accusing Amazon of monopolistic behavior. It seems bad timing for these two giants to combine with the two most influential newspapers on the planet in the same-day hyping of a single author. Some could say it’s evidence of the insular and cronyistic nature of the old-style legacy publishing world.

What does monopoly look like?

2.) What short story masterpiece could’ve brought about this combination of powerful forces? Surely it must be a tale for the ages.

Yet when one reads the actual story, “The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher,” one is captured by its relentless mediocrity. It’s a classic  example of contemporary literary banality. The title is the only striking thing about it.

At his blog, NEW POP LIT’s Karl Wenclas has penned this quick takedown of Hilary Mantel’s not-very impressive achievement:

http://kingwenclas.blogspot.com/2014/09/dueling-assassins.html

3.) The question has to be asked, because conservative commentators will surely ask it (or not; HarperCollins is owned by Rupert Murdoch): Is “The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher” merely a cheap political hit piece on one of the icons of conservative thought? Given the way The Guardian is spotlighting Hilary Mantel’s “boiling detestation” of Ms. Thatcher, the writer comes across more as an axe-grinding (or axe-wielding) ideologue than a serious author. Which raises question number four.

Hilary Mantel

4.) Have both Guardian Books and the New York Times Book Review displayed spectacularly poor judgment in promoting this story? It has the air of desperation on the part of supporters of the tottering mainstream publishing world. Beyond seeking to manufacture sales for the conglomerates, they appear to be attempting to manufacture controversy– which is particularly unseemly, and not a position these two prestigious news giants should be in. A related question: Are they objective newspapers, or glorified advertisers? (Or, how much ad space is bought in the Guardian and the Book Review by Macmillan and HarperCollins?)

5.) Why are no other literary sites covering the monopolistic aspects of this story? Where are the editors of The Millions, n+1, Electric Literature, and others? Are they that wedded to support of the publishing status quo that they won’t touch this matter?

-KW