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.)

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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.)

Specialists

ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

O-henry-photo2-200x300

(Pictured: O. Henry.)
The Tournament is open to specialists of any variety. One-book authors have a chance– if the book is a great one.

We won’t exclude anyone for being just a short story writer. We value the short story. We love it. We see the short story as literature’s future. Its way to break out of its snobby neighborhood. Its exclusive ghetto.

It’d be like excluding rock n’ roll singers with strings of hit singles but no important album from the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame. It’d be an outrage. (See Chubby Checker and Tommy James.)

Neither should poets be excluded for being just poets. Or playwrights excluded for being merely playwrights.

Novelists are valued by critics highest of all writers of the past 150 years– but the novel is overrated. Few novels can truly be said to be gems of art. Truly accomplished works of art. Most are time fillers.

(The Great Gatsby is a gem of a novel, but it’s not the greatest American novel.)

Some few novels are time-filling compelling reads– but more.

katherineanneporter

Katherine Anne Porter was a talented short story writer who wrote a novel because she felt she had to.

The novel, Ship of Fools, isn’t a bad novel. Neither is it enough of an achievement to place her into the Tournament. If Katherine Anne Porter makes the Tournament it will be because of her short stories. And her novellas.

Raymond Carver never wrote a novel, but this isn’t enough of a factor to keep him out of the Tournament.

Other factors will likely keep him out of the Tournament.
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TRIVIA QUESTION: What do writers O. Henry and Katherine Anne Porter have in common aside from fact both were American and both specialized in the short story form?

(First correct answer wins a free batch of New Pop Lit postcards.)

What Are the Limits?

ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

Ezra_Pound

With recent moves by activists to ban public display or honor to all known racists and fascists– actions overwhelmingly backed by the U.S. literary community– what do we do with historically important American poet Ezra Pound?

After all, Pound supported Italy’s fascist government during World War II. He made radio broadcasts in Italy during the war, at the connivance of the Italian government. “Fascist” is a much overused term. Given his connection to the historical Fascist government, if anyone deserves the designation, Pound does.

At the end of the war, Ezra Pound was arrested by the U.S. military. At one point he was left, like a wild animal, in a cage on a hot airport runway– for hours. Back in the United States he was charged with treason. Pound was eventually judged to be insane and committed for over ten years to a mental institution in Washington D.C. (During times of national hysteria, anyone who bucks overwhelming public consensus must be insane. We may be in one of those periods now.)

Ezra Pound was a fascist. He was also one of the most important figures in American literary history. Pound was mentor, tutor, advisor, supporter, and editor to giant literary figures such as James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, and Ernest Hemingway. As an editor and poet, Ezra Pound invented Modernist poetry. Along with writers like Hemingway and Gertrude Stein, he revolutionized the English language. The full extent of Pound’s influence on American– and world– literature is incalculable.

Ezra Pound will without question make this tournament. Likely soon. Our question: Should he?

Will it give honor to fascist ideas by honoring– with his presence in our tournament– a fascist?

Will it be a provocation? A hate-filled act?

When it comes to restraint of expression and speech, what are the limits?

Where does one draw the line?

 

The #3 Bracket Seeds

ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

Do we again go too far back into the past for our choices? Remember, these are seedings. Any one of these writers– or all of them– could easily be knocked out in the Tournament itself.
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Tennessee Williams

A.)  Tennessee Williams.  “Stella!” Among American playwrights, one stands above the rest– creating timeless characters such as Blanche DuBois and Stanley Kowalski, Big Daddy and Maggie the Cat. Combining pathos and passion with measured pace and memorable dialogue. The words, the lines, wait only for capable actors to speak them.

Jack_London_young for card

B.)  Jack London.  Uniquely American yet also read and loved around the globe. His colorful tales, whether set in South Sea islands or the Yukon, are simple, basic, brutal and real. They translate to any culture. No one wrote better short stories. His novels aren’t quite as good– except when they’re about dogs! Jack London was the greatest literary populist. His work, from Call of the Wild on, defined pop writing.

We have one of London’t stories– one of his best: “Lost Face.”

Note how the main character may have been modeled on fellow adventurer and adventure writer Joseph Conrad.
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Poe

C.)  Edgar Allan Poe.  We originally considered two other names for this slot. Henry James or William Faulkner? William Faulkner or Henry James? Gigantic literary reputations. But another classic American author deserves to make the brackets ahead of both of them. Poe– who invented the detective genre and perfected the horror genre, for good or ill. He was also a terrific poet. AND, as a student of the literary art, he understood the importance of momentum in narrative, building in intensity toward an explosive end. (See “William Wilson,” “Ligeia,” others.)

In many ways, Edgar Allan Poe invented pop literature.
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emily-dickinson painting

D.)  Emily Dickinson.  “Emily D” is one of the characters in the fictional aspect of this tournament. Though publicly unknown while alive, today Dickinson is one of the biggest names in the history of American poetry. Maybe the biggest. After 130 years her poems more than hold up. Real, direct, witty, sharp– a surprising amount of it. Her reputation: solid.
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Part of our task with the Tournament is to determine which writers will continue to be read– those whose work remains alive– and those whose reputations, however impressive now, will fall by the wayside. These means considering how changes in the ways literature is read or heard– whether smartphones, e-books, or audio books– will impact the literary art itself.

The work of these four wonderful talents has universal qualities. If Jack London’s stories remain widely read in China, France, Germany, Japan, Russia– everywhere– if they translate across borders, one can guess they’ll translate across eras. Note the clarity and immediacy of London’s writing in “Lost Face.” Part of our calculation is that the short story will gain in popularity and prominence– this has begun happening, as if it were designed for new devices and different mediums. The best, most “pop” poetry will easily translate as well, which puts Dickinson and Poe in great shape for new worlds of reading and literature to come.

On the other hand, overwrought “literary” work which presents a barrage of verbiage may not fare well. We’ll be covering that topic. . . .

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?

 

Appreciation #6

“Ernest Hemingway” by Samuel Stevens

Hemingway Time Cover, October 18, 1937, Waldo Peirce

(Time cover by Waldo Peirce.)

There is probably no writer more controversial than Ernest Hemingway, attacked by academia as a misogynist, while others see him as a talentless hack with an inflated reputation. Yet his work endures despite all of it.

Hemingway was able to show deep emotion with his stripped-down style, changing American literature in the process. His novel The Sun Also Rises captures the relationship between men and women in such a way that few other writers have been able to do. He was also a master of the short story, demonstrated in “Soldiers Home,” “The Killers,” and “A Clean, Well Lighted Place” among many others.

He was not a perfect man, nor even a perfect writer– but who is? His myth has lived on more than who he truly was, laid bare in his novels and short stories. He is also an archetype of American success, spending years in obscurity among the Paris avantgarde before working his way up to literary fame.

Many have tried to imitate him, but there will only ever be one Ernest Hemingway.
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Samuel Stevens’s last story for New Pop Lit was “The Vast Conspiracy.”