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. . . .