The Novelists

Catch22

When creating a tournament like this, one has to deal with a critical consensus that has decided which are the great works and great authors. Look at their selections, and you’ll see that while a few undeniable masterpieces are included, the overall judgement is arbitrary. The resulting lists are badly skewed, and have more to do with academic and media trends and biases in place when the works were written than with excellence. Once on the “list,” the work never gets off.

Lolita, for instance, may have been daring in its time. Today it reads like an embarrassment. Catch-22 takes one joke and runs it into the ground. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is an interesting but minor work. Compare these to the best of the French and Russians– Hugo, Dumas, Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky– and they’re not in the same ballpark.

John O’Hara remains highly placed on the lists. I’m actually a fan of his– but does anyone today read or cherish John O’Hara? His many novels and stories never rise above the competent.

What do we do with three American Nobel Prize winners: Sinclair Lewis, Saul Bellow, and Pearl Buck?

Main Street and Lewis’s other novels are stodgy and dated. Model T vintage literature, pseudo-intellectual, smirky and sarcastic with no depth, as narrow and provincial as his subjects, nothing about the characters and language which any longer lives. Bellow’s reputation and relevance dates and declines by the year. “Seize the Day” is a great short work. The rest of his oeuvre is noise. Pearl Buck?

The question isn’t just whether or not the authors are still read, but how good they are. I was going to leave one of my faves, James Gould Cozzens, out of the brackets because he’s largely forgotten. Yet his novels are better, as novels, than the bulk of American works on a “Modern Library” list. The Last Adam, The Just and the Unjust, Guard of Honor— adult, intelligent novels written by an observer who understood America and its workings, and used the architecture of the novel to depict this complex country.

There are a lot of competent American novelists to consider. Over a hundred who could potentially be chosen. Our attitude with the rest of the seeding is this: A few good novels isn’t good enough. The novelist should’ve written at least one great or dynamic novel. We aim to punish mediocrity and reward artistic ambition, striking talent and exciting accomplishment .

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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.