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.

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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

Who Creates the Canon?

ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

jesse pearson

(First in a series.)

THE FIRST THING you see when encountering Literature-with-a-capital-L (pronounced “Lit-ah-CHAH”) is a collection of cardboard figures little different from the cardboard figure of rock singer Conrad Birdie parked in a promoter’s office at the beginning of the movie musical “Bye Bye Birdie.” The intent in both cases is the same– but in one case the intent is disguised via layers of pontifications from professors in bow ties.

Is the intent to build up an art? To further artistic progress? To improve American culture?

Or is it to justify one’s career existence and resulting paycheck? To avoid the fate of an actually difficult job, such as grinding heavy iron bars, or cleaning toilets, or McDonald’s?

The reader who graduates from comic books to dragon fantasies to more thoughtful and realistic novels, wondering what it’s all about– and who are the best at it– is first handed not the writer, not the work, but the reputation. The cardboard cutout.

In this short series– before our Tournament writers return from summer vacation– we’ll examine how and why those reputations are created. The layers and justifications. Information you’ll not find in a classroom. We’ll look behind the cardboard and the classroom.
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(Photo from Chicago Reader.)
Interesting, then, that 2017 saw the opening of a years-in-the-making American Writers Museum in Chicago. Rooms of cutouts. Spacious halls. Like all museums, it’s as much mortuary as tourist attraction. Literature Embalmed. Yep, THAT’ll bring the art form back!

The Museum tells you that THESE are the canonical American writers. Gaze at them in obeisance. No effort required. The matter has already been decided.

WHO decided?

The Macho Fifties

ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

James Jones

In the wake of Ernest Hemingway, who made the idea of the Great American Novelist respectable– even macho– the 1950’s was the heyday of the male American novelist. The decade showcased a score of ambitious new male authors, if no great ones, all pursuing the traditional novel.

Among them, James Baldwin, Saul Bellow, John Cheever, Ralph Ellison, James Jones, Norman Mailer, James Michener, J.D. Salinger, Irwin Shaw, William Styron, Gore Vidal, and Herman Wouk. At the end of the decade but ably writing about it, J.F. Powers and Richard Yates.

(Throw in playwrights Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, William Inge; poets from John Berryman to Kenneth Rexroth to the Beats; and short fiction writers like Truman Capote, and the list becomes more impressive.)

The role of novelist was thought of not as an effete pursuit but as masculine as working construction– and as fast a road to celebrity as pop singer or baseball player. A legion of men leaving military service in particular wanted to be novelists. They wanted to be Hemingway.

Not every one of these men can make the tourney brackets.

Should any of them?