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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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.

Media and Mediums

ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

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(“Who Creates the Canon?” Part III.)

EVERYTHING WE EXPERIENCE is processed through one medium or another. Distortions are the norm. National media will cover a local incident day and night– images on every television channel; screaming headlines in every newspaper; the matter discussed by late-night TV comedians, every one– until hysteria peaks and the incident is thought symptomatic of the nation as a whole.

Celebrities are created in similar fashion, their images and reputations blown up by repetition and exaggeration far out of proportion to their talent. Ours is a P.T. Barnum civilization, built through a high magnitude of ballyhoo.

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WRITERS

Who builds the reputation of writers?

Big Five publicity departments and Manhattan magazine review sections are only part of it.

The serious reputation is built by literary critics who write for “serious” newspapers or journals. They bring to the task their biases and their parochial viewpoints. They’re expected to meet institutional expectations– not stray too far from the acceptable tastes of the respectable intellectual herd.

The lasting reputation is created by universities, which teach, discuss, and otherwise publicize their approved icons long after their deaths.

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The teachable or politically-correct talents comprise the Canon. Henry James is a canonical writer because everyone has said he is for 70-plus years. His biggest patrons during that time have been the most exclusive universities– elite of the elite: Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge. Fitting that they’d choose an upper-class author with whom they can strongly identify.  The work is complex enough to be teachable at the highest levels– professors endlessly searching for “figures in the carpet”– that elusive meaning or symbol which can never quite be found.

America is a huge nation full of vast landscapes and diverse classes and peoples, areas which Henry James never visited, much less wrote about. Even today’s token academic “diversity” is screened through the same filter; the properly correct but also properly elite Harvard/Yale/Oxford/Brown student or professor viewing the world and America through a narrow lens– a reversed telescope. For any authentic Canon, this isn’t good enough.

Our task at the Tournament is to strip away the PR of papers and seminars to ask: How relevant has this writer been to the American civilization? And– Is the work any good?

We take nothing for granted.
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(Featured painting: “The Fortune Teller” by Jehan Georges Vibert. Henry James photo by Alice Boughton.)

Who Creates the Writer?

ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

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(Photo: Michael Jackson wax figure.)
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“Who Creates the Canon?” Part Two

THE CURRENT VERSION of pop music is generic dance music first performed in the 1970’s, perfected in the 1980’s by the charismatic likes of Michael Jackson and Madonna– but the real creators were record producers on the order of Tommy Mottola. Today the creativity of the artist takes place within narrow parameters. All sounds are studio originated, created by studio engineers as much as studio musicians. All distribution, marketing, promotion, needless to say, is performed by the conglomerate to which the artist-or-face-of-the-product belongs.

PUBLISHING
For the world of publishing, of “literature,” the question is how major a role is played by the writer.

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(Pictured: Raymond Carver.)
TAKING the Gordon Lish – Raymond Carver association as example, the answer is that the writer is thought of, in the conglomerate book business, as a necessary but interchangeable piece to be plugged into a tidy spot within the production process. A hired hand, whose work can be altered, even rewritten, at whim.

Gordon Lish has stated, in a Paris Review interview, that if not for him, Ray Carver would never have been published. This is a true statement.

But what does this say about the “Big Five” publishing industry?

Ray Carver proved in the final years of his life that he was a talented writer. That he could create literary art without the intrusion of an editor. How many equally talented writers are out there who’ve never found publishing success, because they were less willing to abase themselves– to have their vision, their work, mutilated– as Carver was?

Was Carver’s early work truly unpublishable? This commentator has been on both sides of the question, as a literary novice having had his work severely edited in the 1990’s by editors. Yet now many years later, as New Pop Lit editor, having taken out portions of submitted work on occasion to make, in his view, the piece stronger.  (We’ve also left in writing that we knew– we knew– other editors would’ve taken out.) There’s a line there to be crossed, or not crossed.

The story is that Gordon Lish didn’t just edit Carver’s stories– he rewrote them. He saw them as mere raw material for he, powerful editor at Esquire magazine, to do with as he wanted.

We know the arguments on his side. Lish took that material and improved it, by drastically gutting it. This doesn’t change the facts of the process itself. (Lish claimed he performed similar surgery on the work of a host of well-known writers.) The Lish-Carver story affirms that within the bounds of official literature now, the writer has no power.

Is this relationship unavoidable; intrinsic to the publishing process?

When the reading public buys a book, they see the author. The face on the back of the dust cover, precisely posed and photographed. Nowhere are there photographs of the agent, editor, publisher, publicist, newspaper reviewers, or the rest of those involved.

The author carries the reputation. What lies behind it?
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(One of the motives behind the DIY movement in music and writing was to return control to the artist. To the visionary. The creator– to whom other talents should act not in superiority, but support. The idea behind the DIY-spawned Underground Literary Alliance was to make writers an active part of the editing and publishing process. A quixotic project.)

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.

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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.)

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?

 

What’s Wrong with New York Literary People?

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WHY have not New York-based literary people rallied in defense of one of their own? An author’s book is blackballed by U.S. publishing for content reasons yet all we see from the brave writers and commentators in Brooklyn and Manhattan is SILENCE.

If even a staff writer at The New Yorker magazine can be casually censored, what about other writers?

New Pop Lit is here to break the silence. Read our interview with novelist John Colapinto here.