Overheard at NPL Combine

ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

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(Norman Mailer.)
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NOTE: Some stray comments among themselves were inadvertently made by our broadcast team at the New Pop Lit Writers Combine. A partial transcript.
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Mel Diper:  “What I don’t want us doing is smiling. No grinning. No smiling. Notice I never smile when the camera is ON. I’m an expert! I never smile. Never smile. Experts don’t smile.”

Norman Mailer:  “I wouldn’t say I smile, I mean, I’d never say I never smile because I do in fact smile only very rarely, very occasionally but I could never say never categorically that I never smile after all ‘never’ is a term of some fixity some fixed authority some like fecal tangibility and I’d not go there. No. Never. I mean, never in the statement, not the smile.”

Diper:  “I just don’t want us with fixed Howdy Doody grins like the hosts at the Winter Olympics. Grinning like idiots. Katie Couric and the guy. They never stopped smiling! It was a freak show. Scary.”

Mailer:  “Yes, ghoulish, I entirely agree.”

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Diper:  “–grins plastered over their faces. Even when snowboarders wiped out, breaking legs or in body casts. Thought  I saw one of them in a body cast anyway. What a crazy sport. Guy in a cast. There they are. The NBC hosts. Grinning! My God! But Couric has had so much plastic surgery all she can do is grin.”

Mailer:  “I look forward to Vidal wiping out on something, as a matter of fact. Or Lillian. Or Mary! Did the Count put up an obstacle course?”

Emily Dickinson:  “You shouldn’t wish bad things on people, Norman. We are all writers. Well, not Mel, but everyone else. The participants.”

Diper:  “Are you prepped and ready, Emily?”

Dickinson:  “Am I ready? In a sense, I’ve always been ‘ready.’ then again, I’ve never been. I am concerned about the large peering glassy objects and the red lights.”

Mailer:  “Cameras, my dear. Cameras! Hon, those are cameras.”

Dickinson:  “I’m not your ‘hon,’ Norman.”

Diper:  “Uh, Norman, nowadays there’s something called ‘mansplaining.’ We’re never supposed to mansplain. Not on camera anyway. So please watch that.”

Mailer:  “The feminists, you mean? Had ’em in my day. Conflicted with them often. Is Emily, I mean, Ms. Dickinson, is she– or let me direct my question to you directly, Emily– I trust I may be allowed to call you Emily? My question is: Are you a proto-feminist? Sorry– an amusing idea.” (Turns to Mel.) “Mel, were you just mansplaining to me about mansplaining?”
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Our NPL Combine Coverage Team

ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

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OUR EXCLUSIVE COVERAGE of the New Pop Lit Writers Combine begins soon. We have a first-rate team in place, both for conducting the exercises, and covering the event for the public.
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COMBINE DIRECTOR AND ASSISTANT DIRECTOR

Director of the Combine is Count Leo Tolstoy.

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Count Tolstoy’s assistant is a sarcastic individual who was introduced to us simply as “Vladimir.”

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REPORTERS

Chief Analyst: Mel Diper @MelDiper.

Mel Kiper

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Commentator #1: Emily Dickinson.

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Commentator #2: Norman Mailer.

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To add authenticity to their coverage, both Ms. Dickinson and Mr. Mailer will be participating in all tests and drills with the other writers. Better than the Winter Olympics! Don’t miss a minute of it.

 

 

 

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 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 .

Star Power

ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

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(Ad photo of Misty Copeland for Under Armor.)
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Should writers just write?

Should ballet dancers just dance?

Ballet has been most popular– and most relevant– when it had stars to put out front. Most famously, the star pairing of Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev in the 1960’s.

Today ballet has Misty Copeland, prima ballerina at New York City’s American Ballet Theatre. Walk into any Macy’s store and you encounter a large poster of Misty Copeland. She appears in TV commercial after TV commercial, on the cover of magazine after magazine. Feature articles everywhere.

The result? Ballet matters. Little girls grow up dreaming of being the next Misty Copeland. Dance schools are filled– a flow of new talent streaming into the art.

Think about it: The marginal art of ballet(!) has developed a more prominent personality, a more important cultural phenomenon, than the entirety of literature with all its schools, publishing companies and publicity departments. This is failure, people. Across-the-board failure.

American literature once had stars. Our goal as a literary project is to find or create new ones. Specifically, the Great American Writer.

This tournament is our way of resetting the standards and examining the nature of literary star power.

The Writer as Public Figure?

ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

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THE UNSTATED PREMISE of those who are touting the new movie about J.D. Salinger, “Rebel in the Rye,” is that his absence from the lit scene for decades created mystery about him. They’re hoping to capitalize on that mystery.

There’s something to be said for this viewpoint. There are multiple examples of performers and artists who achieved a level of lasting fame because they removed themselves from the scene at an early age. Greta Garbo, Marilyn Monroe, and James Dean jump immediately to mind. In the lit game, Sylvia Plath. Mystery has been an essential component of charisma for a long time. (See fan dancer Sally Rand. The brief, unsatisfied glimpse.) Or look at the most famous person in history. The mystery of Jesus’s death and resurrection is the most compelling part of the Gospel narratives.
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Yet J.D. Salinger was able to vanish because his literary celebrity had already been built. He wrote at a time when writers mattered.

How much more difficult the task is now, when even the biggest name writers walk around as virtual unknowns, not part of the conversation of general culture– a culture 1,000 times noisier than it once was.

Can one create mystery and charisma about a writer by keeping that person offstage– yet somehow still get the word out?

NEXT: “Star Power.” A Counter-Argument. 

Is This the Face of Literature?

ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

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(Pictured: George R.R. Martin.)

–OR IS THIS THE FACE OF LITERATURE?

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(Pictured: Jonathan Franzen.)
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ON THE WEEKEND of the much-ballyhooed Floyd Mayweather-Conor McGregor fight, we see as possible match-up between the two poles of the lit-world now, two of the more UNcharismatic, uninteresting individuals who could be found. Yes, they’re writers– which is why much of the country is fascinated by the contest between an over-the-hill boxer and a brawling Irishman– while the happenings of the lit world fascinate only a few elitist cliques in New York. (Fans of the “Games of Thrones” TV show are more interested in dragons than in whatever feckless ideas popped out of George R.R.’s head.)

DO WE NEED A NEW CANON?

The answer: YES!!! “Literature” needs to be rethought from top to bottom. It needs to get its head out of the 18th century and realize presentation is all. Mistakes that led to a canon of unreadable and/or bland writers have led to the condition of the literary art now— marginalized within the culture of greater America. Or: No one cares.

How do we get people to care?

NEXT: “Who Creates the Canon” Part II