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.

Writers Removed from Consideration Part I

ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

jane smiley

(Pictured: Jane Smiley.)

From New Pop Lit‘s Editor-in-Chief.

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Eudora Welty.  Big rep. Something of a folk writer. Corny dialect. I could never finish reading “Why I Live at the P.O.”

William Kennedy.  There was a brief William Kennedy vogue fifteen (or 25?) years ago. Remember it? It was not enough for him to make the Tournament.

Booth Tarkington.  Booth’s stock hasn’t just declined in the past 80 years. It’s fallen off a cliff.

Jane Smiley.  Jane Smiley is one of those faux-populist “literary” writers who write about farms or colleges and imagine they’re far more witty or profound than they are in reality. (For witty satire of a college, see Kingsley Amis.) If there is such thing as middlebrow, Jane Smiley is middlebrow. Plus, Jane Smiley has an irritating name. Out!

Bernard Malamud.  Malamud has a fairly big name in literary circles, and did write one highly readable, close-to-great novel, The Natural. This is balanced by this editor having been assigned Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer once in an English course. The two books are examples that occasionally a novelist is best off writing about his own time and milieu– what he knows. Next!

Paul Harding. Sounds like an old-time NFL football player. Ever hear of Pulitzer Prize Fiction-winner Paul Harding? Neither have we.

Wallace Stevens. Insurance guy who wrote poems. A good poet with an esteemed reputation among insider poetry circles, but with no real following among the general public. (Are there Wallace Stevens Poetry Festivals somewhere?) With only 12-16 slots for poets to fill, “good” isn’t good enough. We may as well start culling the herd now.

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jane smiley speaking

But what do you think?

(Second photo: Jane Smiley speaking.)