Specialists

ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

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(Pictured: O. Henry.)
The Tournament is open to specialists of any variety. One-book authors have a chance– if the book is a great one.

We won’t exclude anyone for being just a short story writer. We value the short story. We love it. We see the short story as literature’s future. Its way to break out of its snobby neighborhood. Its exclusive ghetto.

It’d be like excluding rock n’ roll singers with strings of hit singles but no important album from the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame. It’d be an outrage. (See Chubby Checker and Tommy James.)

Neither should poets be excluded for being just poets. Or playwrights excluded for being merely playwrights.

Novelists are valued by critics highest of all writers of the past 150 years– but the novel is overrated. Few novels can truly be said to be gems of art. Truly accomplished works of art. Most are time fillers.

(The Great Gatsby is a gem of a novel, but it’s not the greatest American novel.)

Some few novels are time-filling compelling reads– but more.

katherineanneporter

Katherine Anne Porter was a talented short story writer who wrote a novel because she felt she had to.

The novel, Ship of Fools, isn’t a bad novel. Neither is it enough of an achievement to place her into the Tournament. If Katherine Anne Porter makes the Tournament it will be because of her short stories. And her novellas.

Raymond Carver never wrote a novel, but this isn’t enough of a factor to keep him out of the Tournament.

Other factors will likely keep him out of the Tournament.
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TRIVIA QUESTION: What do writers O. Henry and Katherine Anne Porter have in common aside from fact both were American and both specialized in the short story form?

(First correct answer wins a free batch of New Pop Lit postcards.)

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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?

 

Appreciation #5

“Thomas Pynchon” by D. Greenhorn

Phantom of Opera 1925

(Not a photo of Thomas Pynchon.)

Thomas Pynchon’s greatest scene sees Charles Mason stuck in a time warp created by England’s transition to the Gregorian calendar. Typical of Pynchon is its weird setting, its oblique prose, its obsession with the effects of technology on man. Atypically, we find Mason longing for his wife—a rare display of pathos from Pynchon’s characters, who are generally a mob of proto-autists and freaks. Yet when Pynchon deigns to converse with us humans, there is no better living author.

Pynchon is the greatest American prose stylist of the late 20th Century. His audacious use of the vernacular recalls Twain—betters him, when at a poetic height. Pynchon is the most religious American since Hawthorne, except his religious is conspiracy. His first three novels exist in a paranoid oikonomia, the characters searching for God in the form of a letter, a mail carrier, a German fiber. In his nonstop conspiracy-mongering, Pynchon taps into the most genuine religion of our age.

Pynchon is the quintessential university novelist. His knowledge is capacious, but his wisdom rises and ebbs with his poetic intensity. His characters blur together; his scenes manage to be absurd yet unmemorable. His poor works are so wretched, and so closely resemble his great works, that they taint his genius as a whole.

Yet when good, Pynchon is the best of the moderns. His fantastic prose carries us beyond his often lame wit and precocity, making him an author worthy not only of being read, but revered.
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D. Greenhorn is a writer living in the Midwest. His first novel, Western Empire, will soon be available by Lulu. New Pop Lit will feature a new short story of his in September.

 

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.

More #1 Seeded Writers

THE ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

We fill in the other two #1 spots in our Tournament brackets with two other legendary names from the past.

moby dick book cover

C.) Herman Melville. What does one do with Moby Dick? One of the other top competitors, Toni Morrison, explained once in a long essay the novel’s symbolism and significance. Talk about writing about America! The Pequod with its hierarchy, mad captain, and multi-cultural crew remains a striking metaphor about the country and concept “America.” What do they chase? That which Melville, writing ten years before the Civil War, saw as America’s founding flaw– the “white whale.” An allusion to slavery at minimum. I doubt if any novel ever written by anyone anywhere has been more ambitious– ambitious in terms of discussing the world, nature, society– and ambitious in looking inward toward man’s sins and soul. It’s also a great yarn. Lest we think this was all Melville wrote, he began as a popular novelist, wrote some classic short stories, including one, “Bartleby,” which in our cubicle work world is more relevant today than ever. Herman finished his career with a great novella, “Billy Budd,” just to show he still had it. But Moby Dick. A novel which can stand with any novel written by the world’s best, even the Russians.
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mark twain young
D.) Mark Twain. We happily bow to the voice of the crowd on this selection. As a persona he’s up there with anyone. He has his undeniable masterpiece, other classic works, fantastic essays and a few good stories. If we’re talking about which writers defined the culture and the American voice, then figures like Twain have an undeniable edge. We also can’t deny there was a time when American lit was much bigger in cultural importance than it is now. But be aware– there are many brackets to fill. A wide variety of voices will be announced.
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(We will be staging a press conference at which all four #1 seeded writers will be present. At least, we have commitments from them. Could be exciting.)

Format and Criteria

nfl draft board

FORMAT FOR THE ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

There will be sixteen seeds, sixty-four writers altogether. A writer will have to be good simply to make the tournament. Brackets will be set up, starting with four #1 seeds, then the #2 seeds, and so on. Then, the writers begin squaring off mano a mano. We hope to enlist volunteers to choose between, say, Henry James or Allen Ginsberg. The winner moves on. This continues until we have an overall winner.

BRACKETS

We had to decide if the brackets will be arbitrary, or split up between, say, regions, or using other classifications, such as a Poetry bracket, Playwright bracket, and so on. We decided against the latter, simply because the history of American literature has been dominated by the novel. It would be unfair to leave out novelists who’ve had a huge impact on the civilization and culture in favor of poets or playwrights who’ve had little impact at all. Is this fair? No. But the best poets and playwrights will be represented. We’ll also listen to, and post, all arguments pro and con.

CRITERIA

What places a writer above another? We’ve sketched out what we believe are the main points, but welcome more.

A.) Influence/Importance/Relevance. Meaning: impact on America and the world. Not simply on the literary art, but on culture itself. Has the writer’s work become part of the culture?

B.) Popularity. Not the main point, but a major point.

C.) Persona. The writer’s persona is part of the writer’s impact. We refuse to take the narrow view of writers that, say, New York editors take, where the work is assessed in a vacuum. Literature has thrived in this crazy country when the main writers have been larger than life. Their very presence has promoted the vibrancy of the literary art.

D.) Critical Standing. This means, the quality of the work itself. Has the body of work stood the test of time? Is it considered world class? Are significant ideas expressed in the work? Great themes relevant to people anywhere? Does it have impact beyond the historians and critics? Does the person’s writing convey energy or emotion and create excitement for the literary art?

E.) American. Is the writer and the work authentically, recognizably, quintessentially American? Is he or she representative of the land, this nation, and the nation’s voice? To some extent, writers should be of their place and time.

The writer’s mastery of form, and of various forms, can be considered as well. The forms include Novels, Poetry, Plays, Short Stories, Essays, and Criticism.

What are we leaving out?

The Dreiser Dilemma

dreiser

AS PART of our preparation for the All-Time American Writers Tournament, we’re re-reading several classic American writers to see, frankly, if they’re any good. The National Football League has their “combine” for evaluating talent. This is the stage we’re in now.

How are the writers doing?

Not that well. Perhaps worst of all is Theodore Dreiser, who wrote at least two historically significant novels. I just completed reading one of them, Sister Carrie. While one can see why the book was controversial in its day, by our “Pop Lit” standards it doesn’t hold up– even though it was a populist novel. The word-clotted style doesn’t help it. The narrative never creates momentum or excitement. The plot becomes predictable about halfway through– from that point the story is a slowly winding-down dirge. It’s a poorer read than a Rex Beach novel we recently reviewed, written in the same time period. But Dreiser’s book was “Literature,” don’t ya know.

THE QUESTION

The question is: How far do we go in keeping writers in context– in giving them credit for their importance in their own era? We don’t wish to completely discount that– but, we also plan to bring objectivity to this tournament.

Do we then also bring the same criteria we’re bringing to Dreiser (“Show us how good you are!”) to more recent, trendy authors?

David Foster Wallace is as unreadable as Dreiser– except in the opinion of his fan club, a well-connected, over-educated clique which carries weight in today’s lit world. Putting Wallace into context might work to his detriment. His writing may be as obsolete in 100 years as Dreiser’s is now.

Dilemmas! Dilemmas! We’ll post our criteria soon. . . .