The Writer as Public Figure?

ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

J-D-Salinger-TIME-1961

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. 

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Is This the Face of Literature?

ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

georgerrmartincommons

 

 

 

 


(Pictured: George R.R. Martin.)

–OR IS THIS THE FACE OF LITERATURE?

jonathanfranzencommons

(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?

 

T.S. Eliot Question RESOLVED

ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

T_S_Eliot_Simon_Fieldhouse
(T.S. Eliot drawing by Simon Fieldhouse.)

AFTER much research, discussion, and introspection, we’ve come to a resolution regarding the question of whether T.S. Eliot is a British or American citizen– and whether, or not, he can be accepted into the brackets of the Tournament.

The first fact to consider is that Eliot is in the Academy of American Poets.

The second fact is that the British Library (www.bl.uk) lists T.S. Eliot as an American poet.

The third fact is that the Encyclopedia Britannica calls Eliot an American-English poet– which is fence straddling.

Finally there’s a quote on the matter from T.S. Eliot himself, which appears in a number of places online, including at wikipedia:

“I’d say that my poetry has obviously more in common with my distinguished contemporaries in America than with anything written in my generation in England. That I’m sure of. …  in its sources, in its emotional springs, it comes from America.”

The preponderance of evidence says that– though he became a British citizen, T.S. Eliot considered himself an American poet.

Therefore he will be in the Tournament.
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Appreciation #3

Philip K. Dick by D.C. Miller
Philip K Dick
ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

 Philip K. Dick’s claims to greatness don’t rest on the clarity of his style, or the sophistication of his characterizations, but on his depth of immersion in postmodern American culture. It’s no coincidence that his best novels were completed during the last period of his life, when he lived in Orange County near Disneyland – as Baudrilllard reminds us, a world presented as imaginary, in order to make us believe that the rest is “real”, when in fact all of Los Angeles and the America surrounding it are no longer real, but of the order of the hyperreal and of simulation.” Already in 1984, Jeff Kinney, the editor of the magazine Gnosis, was comparing him to L. Ron Hubbard, as well as Swedenborg, and predicting the emergence of a “Dickian religion” with the Exegesis, Dick’s 8,000 plus pages of mystical writings, at the centre. Today, Dick resembles a figure, who instead of describing reality, dreamed the future we’re inhabiting – a future of flattening characterization, incoherent and contradictory transmissions, disintegration. If every revolution in art is a return to realism, no other writer today is as necessary.
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D.C. Miller is at @dctv_od
Library Tower Los Angeles

Press Conference Aftermath

ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

trash 2

Writers and their fans love a party.
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Hem fishing

Ernest Hemingway was able to squeeze in some trout fishing at a nearby river early that morning.
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Beatlemania latest

Fans of Walt Whitman greeted his entrance into town, then followed him everywhere.
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We were surprised at how much trash talking the “Big Four” writers did at the event, especially Mark Twain and Whitman. Apparently it’s an American tradition of long standing. You get a hint of this in our initial report.

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Our reporter Mel Diper (@meldiper) did three interviews before becoming indisposed. Here are statements gleaned from his notes:

maya angelou

Poet Maya Angelou:  “I was exquisitely gratified by the experience, I truly was. A spring tonic to renew the spirit. Such men. I feared entanglement with brutes! But they were, all four of them– even Ernest– very charming.”
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george plimpton at cafe

Participatory Journalist George Plimpton:  “I met the organizer of this event once before, you know. Don’t trust him!” (To a waitress): “I believe I’ll have a be-ah.” (Note: beer.) “It’s been ye-ahs” (years) “since I had one.” (An assistant of Plimpton’s pays for the beer. Like many writers of his station, George never carries money.)
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Mary McCarthy

Critic/Novelist Mary McCarthy:  “Young man, have you been drinking too much? You are not looking well!”
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Stay tuned for more reports from the venue!