The Novelists


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 .




(Who is this writer?)


THE FORTUNES of writers can change quickly– even in a short period of time. After all, five years ago Jonathan Franzen, after his big bird novel, was considered THE top current living American novelist, and Donna Tartt was far back in the pack; a once-young phenom who’d never lived up to her hype. A flop here; a big success there, and things turn around.


Donna Tartt.  Tartt’s novel The Goldfinch put her at the forefront of contemporary American novelists. More importantly, it all but assured her a spot in the Tournament.

Octavia Butler.  Has sci-fi writer Butler turned from egregiously unrecognized to mildly over-recognized with the shifting winds of politics and approval? It helps that science fiction itself is on a credibility upswing. As the world becomes more technological– as it turns into science fiction– this upswing is likely to continue.

Gertrude Stein.  With even a new opera out about her, “27,” building on an appearance this decade in Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” (poorly played by Kathy Bates), Stein’s standing as a persona, if not a writer, continues to climb.

Philip K. Dick.  With so many young people on social media identifying themselves with and as robots– with the knowledge people will soon enough be hybrid robots, androids and the like– Dick’s arrow of relevance is pointing upward.

Mary Gaitskill and Philip Roth.  Two writers who each began with modest trendy success via edgy short fiction collections– Mary Gaitskill with Bad Behavior in the late 80’s; the recently-retired(??) Philip Roth with Goodbye Columbus in the early 60’s. Through sheer staying power; cranking out unexceptional novels on a steady enough basis– each novel geared toward the thoughts of the intellectual hive mind of the moment– they’re considered to be writers of serious heft, in a society and age known for its shallowness. Everything is relative.




Ralph Waldo Emerson.  Once considered the top American intellectual and a major poet, today he’s seldom heard from. Stray quotes of his appear occasionally on twitter.

Eugene O’Neill.  This most Irish of American writers was still ranked in the 60’s and 70’s as top American playwright along with Tennessee Williams. O’Neill’s plays seem not to have endured (though one was recently produced on Broadway), possibly because they haven’t made outstanding movies. We have room in the tourney for a mere handful of playwrights. O’Neill is at risk of not making the cut.

Jay McInerney.  The literary reputation of the Manhattan literary “brat pack” of the 1980’s hasn’t fared well; McInerney’s rep least of all, as he was the first of the bunch, and made the biggest splash with his stylish short novel Bright Lights, Big City.

Jay Mc w Marla Hanson

Critics and publicists acclaimed McInerney the next Scott Fitzgerald– Jay has been trying to live up to this prediction in big novel after big novel, ambitiously failing to do so. Fitzgerald famously quipped, “There are no second acts in American life.” One of the few individuals the quote applies to is Jay McInerney.

Sinclair Lewis.  Won a Nobel Prize, I’m told. Lewis once said, “Our American professors like their literature clear and cold and pure and very dead.” Lewis’s work is fairly dead, though he’s taught not in colleges but high schools.

Jonathan Franzen.  The “American Tolstoy” as Time magazine or someone equally feckless proclaimed– or a second-rate Irwin Shaw? Time will tell. Shaw at least was a fairly good short story writer. Franzen may make the tourney on hype and reputation alone, though as a persona– as someone pushed to be the face of American letters– he’s been something of a dud.

Thomas Wolfe and John Dos Passos.  Speaking of Irwin Shaw, there are a host of American authors “of the moment” once thought capable of writing the great American novel; who received a ton of critical and popular attention. Then they slid slowly, painfully slowly, down the mountaintop. For Wolfe and Dos the slide continues. Our activist character “Cherry Bomb” would attribute it to them being white males and wrongly valued or “privileged” to begin with. I imagine Cherry saying, “They’re like blondes in California; throw a rock and you’ll hit a dozen of ’em.” But some of the gang aren’t bad reads, to this day. We’ll discuss those at a later date. With others like John Dos Passos and Thomas Wolfe, the quirky and the wordy, a case for the defense is harder to make.


Which writers are “of the moment” now?