New Pop Lit Writers Combine Day One

ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

cabins
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A bus pulled up at the gate to the training camp. Exiting were thirty-some American writers, most of them not yet selected to the big tourney and wanting to prove their qualifications. Joining them were a handful of the already selected– Ernest Hemingway most prominently; he of the famous grin– out to have a good time but also confident they could prove themselves in any field; against any assortment of literary competition.

Old_Bus_(3658175083)***
Also among the group were our two correspondents, Emily Dickinson and Norman Mailer, the first already in the big event, the other desiring very much to be in it.

Jonathan Franzen, one of the last to step off the bus, blinked at the piercing sunlight.

franzen
(Jonathan Franzen.)
***
Awaiting the group were the Combine’s Director and Assistant Director. Count Leo Tolstoy wore a brown cassock, with an enormous Orthodox cross hung around his neck. Dark-browed, bearded, and tall, with Slavic features, he was a formidable-looking man, with formidable-looking eyes.

220px-Tolstoy_kramskoy

(Kramskoy portrait of Tolstoy.)
***
His shorter assistant, Vladimir, appeared equally Russian, but was fairer in hair and complexion, and stockier. More akin to a blond bulldog. He wore white shorts and a white t-shirt. Around his neck was a whistle. Facially he resembled a particular Russian president.

They scrutinized the American writers with curiosity and some scorn. Neither of them was easily impressed. Their attitude toward the Combine was, “You’re here to impress us. Show us what you can do.”

The writers, awaiting instructions, broke into small groups. Ernest Hemingway stood with his friend F. Scott Fitzgerald, who he’d convinced to sign up for this.

fsfbookcover

***
“It’ll be easy to stand out in this crowd, Scott,” Ernest assured his friend while speaking out of the side of his mouth. “The others are mugs.”

Hemingway carried a football under one arm while shadowboxing with imaginary opponents, hoping the Coach (he saw the Count as a coach) would notice. Hemingway paused and slapped Scott on the back, almost knocking him down.

“You will not need that,” Vladimir said to Hemingway.

“What?” the writer asked.

“That!” Vladimir said, pointing to the football, which Hemingway quickly placed on the ground.

Next to Hemingway, Scott looked delicate. Terrified but determined. The perpetual scrub team player eager to make good. His blue eyes considered. He was not without talent. Whether it would impress the formidable count/coach as well as the scouts and analysts was another matter.

“Line up, please,” Vladimir instructed, blowing his whistle twice.

Count Leo stepped from behind his assistant. He perused the lot of them, black eyes considering. Tiny Emily, scrawny Mary Gaitskill and Joyce Carol Oates, and unimpressively short Truman Capote, Scott Fitzgerald and Norman Mailer, among others, were almost beneath his notice. They didn’t look like great writers. “Clerks,” he muttered in Russian. To his mind it’d be a task to coach them up.

450px-Joyce_carol_oates_8333(Joyce Carol Oates.)
***
Two in the crowd appeared to have potential– Hemingway, who he’d heard much about, and another tall writer, Franzen, who’d been advertised to the Count as “The American Tolstoy.” Leo observed the transparent arrogance of both men and thought, “Good.”

The Count murmured in Russian. Vladimir translated in a loud voice.

“Count Leo has your submitted manuscripts. He will assess them before deciding your testing regimen. We are here to evaluate your suitability to be presented to the world as great writers.”

Much sarcastic emphasis on the word “great,” as if only Russians could truly be great at the art. It was a voice of authority. Vladimir told the group to stow their gear in their cabins. They were to reassemble at the nearby training ground in precisely one hour. He blew the whistle sharply, twice, to show he meant what he said. The writers scattered.

Hem serious
(Ernest Hemingway.)
*******
(Next: “Combine Day One” continued.)

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Salon Painters of the Lit Game

ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

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As we sketch in our brackets for the big tourney, we wonder what to do with award-winning literary personages of today such as Richard Price and Joyce Carol Oates. Both cover lower-class subjects, yet both are System writers through and through. Which means both write in the standard bourgeois word-clotted “literary” style that wins awards. (Both likely don’t think they do.)

We love populist writers (think Jack London) but believe the style of writing should fit the genre. Especially now, when literature needs to be as readable as possible to survive as a relevant art form.

The world moves on– yet Ms. Oates and Mr. Price write the way award-winning novelists wrote decades ago. Playing by the rules. No shortcuts found by these trapped animals! Here it comes– obsessively excessive detail so you learn the number of hairs in a character’s nose, and the variety of plants and brand-name of shoes in the room, and the patterns of wallpaper.

The first long introductory paragraph shows they still have it; they still can write– take that, young MFA students!– but the general reader is gone.

One wonders anyway what Joyce Carol Oates still recalls of working class life– she left it circa 1960. Especially from her Princeton ivory tower office. Princeton being the most isolated and bucolic of all isolated Ivy League ivory towers. So, the narrative is “imagined.” Which involves assuming the proper pretended “voice.” Ventriloquism, with puppets.

Keep those awards coming!

Oates and Price remain long shots to make the tourney brackets, unless someone convinces us otherwise.

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.
*******

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.

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(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.