Appreciation #7

“Gene Wolfe” by Robin Wyatt Dunn

Gene_Wolfe,_2005

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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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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The Mary Gaitskill Problem

THE ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

Mary_Gaitskill_by_David_Shankbone

(Photo by David Shankbone.)

IT’S A PROBLEM many esteemed contemporary writers seem to have– the lack of a philosophical foundation, a metaphysical perspective on life and the universe, which for all their talent prevents their work from having greater depth and meaning.

FOR a literary writer Mary Gaitskill is supremely talented. At her best, with a story such as “Girl on a Plane,” she reaches a level of strong emotion. Like a punch to the gut. After reading more of her fiction one realizes they’re all of a piece– the characters intelligent but superficial animals whose primary motivation is sex.

An accurate depiction of today’s society. There are no happy endings. Men and women exist in dysfunctional hate-love relationships with scarcely the possibility of getting along. Captives of their drives. The sexually liberated society; which comes across as an unending sadomasochistic nightmare. No escape. No hope of redemption or salvation. At the end of the tale one of the characters is humiliated. Or both of them. Destroyed. Shattered. Lost animals without souls to tarnish. No heroes or even anti-heroes. It’s a problem not of the writer so much as society– particularly, their urban New York City or San Francisco milieu. A typical tale is “Kiss and Tell,” in which a struggling male screenwriter is in love with a struggling actress. The sex is briefly very good, but friendship is the only way they can ultimately connect– then even that collapses. The friendship ends in betrayal and bitterness.

The writing, like the sex, is very good. But is it enough?

Has Mary Gaitskill done enough to enter the Tournament?

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.)

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?