The Novelists

Catch22

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 .

Battle of the Divas

ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

-Barra-sontag

Camille Paglia

WE PLAN to include at least one “public intellectual” (emphasis on the public) in the Tournament. In one of the next two (7th or 8th) brackets. That is, a writer known primarily for opinions about literature and culture. A critic– but more.

The two leading candidates for the spot are both women– Susan Sontag and Camille Paglia. Which one belongs?

Or should someone else take that slot?

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#6 Seeds!

ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

Kurt_Vonnegut_1972

 

 

 

 

 
(Kurt Vonnegut.)

THESE SELECTIONS are a mixed bag of qualities and achievements. Perhaps all they have in common is that each attained, at some point– while alive or afterward– an enormous critical or popular reputation. Are the reputations larger than the actual work?
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A.)  Harriet Beecher Stowe

Harriet_Beecher_Stowe_by_Francis_Holl

(Etching by Francis Holl.)

Author of the most influential novel in American history. (Abe Lincoln himself half-in-jest credited Uncle Tom’s Cabin with starting the Civil War.) No American novel so keyed into its moment of time– the zeitgeist of the day. Or so provoked the emotions of its readers.
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B.)  James Baldwin

James_Baldwin_35AllanWarren

 

Like other writers of his era– Gore Vidal; Mary McCarthy– Baldwin was a better essayist than novelist. An excellent essayist, during a golden age of American essays. But he was also a superb short story writer, penning several which retain their power and relevance; “Sonny’s Blues” and “Going to Meet the Man” among them.

(Photo by Allan Warren.)

 

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C.)  Kurt Vonnegut

One cannot ignore the Cult of Vonnegut! He took the serious American novel out of strictly realistic bounds into new worlds. The novels Slaughterhouse Five and Breakfast of Champions were imaginative and wildly popular– especially among college students. (Would that a novelist could be so now!) In his later works Vonnegut was trying too hard to be original while simultaneously repeating himself. His best novel might be his first, Player Piano.
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D.)  Henry James

A critical darling, reputation courtesy of Harvard and Oxford. Producer of a collection of plodding, word-clotted novels, James makes the Tournament based on three of his shorter works. The pop story “Daisy Miller.” The creepy gothic pop tale Turn of the Screw. And the weirdly effective novella, Altar of the Dead.

Jacques-Emile_Blanche_-_Henry_James

(Portrait of Henry James by Jacques Emile Blanche.)

 

The Mary Gaitskill Problem

THE ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

Mary_Gaitskill_by_David_Shankbone

(Photo by David Shankbone.)

IT’S A PROBLEM many esteemed contemporary writers seem to have– the lack of a philosophical foundation, a metaphysical perspective on life and the universe, which for all their talent prevents their work from having greater depth and meaning.

FOR a literary writer Mary Gaitskill is supremely talented. At her best, with a story such as “Girl on a Plane,” she reaches a level of strong emotion. Like a punch to the gut. After reading more of her fiction one realizes they’re all of a piece– the characters intelligent but superficial animals whose primary motivation is sex.

An accurate depiction of today’s society. There are no happy endings. Men and women exist in dysfunctional hate-love relationships with scarcely the possibility of getting along. Captives of their drives. The sexually liberated society; which comes across as an unending sadomasochistic nightmare. No escape. No hope of redemption or salvation. At the end of the tale one of the characters is humiliated. Or both of them. Destroyed. Shattered. Lost animals without souls to tarnish. No heroes or even anti-heroes. It’s a problem not of the writer so much as society– particularly, their urban New York City or San Francisco milieu. A typical tale is “Kiss and Tell,” in which a struggling male screenwriter is in love with a struggling actress. The sex is briefly very good, but friendship is the only way they can ultimately connect– then even that collapses. The friendship ends in betrayal and bitterness.

The writing, like the sex, is very good. But is it enough?

Has Mary Gaitskill done enough to enter the Tournament?

Latest Tournament Selections

ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

frost(Photo of a young Robert Frost.)

Have the Tournament judges had it with novelists? This seems to be the case with the latest selections, the #5 seeds, all poets.

A.)  T.S. Eliot

Once THE biggest name in the poetry game– “The Wasteland” remains, perhaps, the most famous of all American poems.

B.)  Robert Frost

Talk about famous poems by famous poets. The title “The Road Not Taken” has become part of the national conversation. For decades Robert Frost was the widely-known face of poetry in America.

C.)  Maya Angelou

mayapensive

For a couple decades until her death in 2014 Maya Angelou was the face of American poetry– aided by her performances at Presidential inaugurals. Who’ll rise to the forefront to replace her?

D.)  Allen Ginsberg

This beat poet’s entry into the “Most Famous American Poem” sweepstakes is “Howl.” An audacious bid for greatness. Allen Ginsberg never came close to writing another poem with similar impact.

ginsbergasshowman

Letter from an Activist

ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

Unacceptable-Public-Domain

(Editor’s Note: We’ve received this poem in reaction to our choice of Ezra Pound as one of the writers to appear in the tournament.)

“Ode to Dead White Male Poets” by Cherry Bomb

NO fossilized memories lapsed
No comfortable trust fund hangers-on
who jumped on the change bandwagon
when the key founders were corrupted, co-opted, or gone.

NO designated set-aside protest areas,
regulated dissident zones
of tenured professors
defanged and neutered,
leashes brought from home.

NO inert fake po-biz foes barking bravely on computers
in their bedrooms,
bunny rabbit slippers.
By 2040 they’ll be ready to move;
(Make that 2047, if all goes well.)

NO Nazis, no fascists
No dead white male assholes,
No waiting for revolution
Meanwhile being jailed,
or jelloed into quivering dessert.

NO past, no tomorrow,
no what-might-have-been sorrow
Only resistance
Upturn the System
Overthrow the pig patriarchal pet poets past or present,
NOW!

-Signed, Cherry Bomb, Assistant Director, OPA!
(Outraged Protestors Against!)
@outragedprotest

 

stop

Protest City

ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

barricades

SHOPKEEPERS at this resort town are nailing boards over their storefronts. Not for a hurricane. Instead: For antifa!

We’re expecting mad activist mobs to rush up here once we announce our #4 seeded entrants into the Tournament. One of the selections is a controversial figure– if he were around now he’d be banned or bullied by today’s New Censorship Movement.

But we’re ready! We plan to sneak said writer surreptitiously into town in the middle of night, before we make the announcement. He’ll be surrounded by bodyguards.

NEXT: #4 Seeds

boardedstore

Media and Mediums

ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

JehanGeorgesVibert-The_Fortune_Teller

(“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.

Carny barker
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.

Alice_Boughton_-_Henry_James

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.)

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.)

The #3 Bracket Seeds

ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

Do we again go too far back into the past for our choices? Remember, these are seedings. Any one of these writers– or all of them– could easily be knocked out in the Tournament itself.
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Tennessee Williams

A.)  Tennessee Williams.  “Stella!” Among American playwrights, one stands above the rest– creating timeless characters such as Blanche DuBois and Stanley Kowalski, Big Daddy and Maggie the Cat. Combining pathos and passion with measured pace and memorable dialogue. The words, the lines, wait only for capable actors to speak them.

Jack_London_young for card

B.)  Jack London.  Uniquely American yet also read and loved around the globe. His colorful tales, whether set in South Sea islands or the Yukon, are simple, basic, brutal and real. They translate to any culture. No one wrote better short stories. His novels aren’t quite as good– except when they’re about dogs! Jack London was the greatest literary populist. His work, from Call of the Wild on, defined pop writing.

We have one of London’t stories– one of his best: “Lost Face.”

Note how the main character may have been modeled on fellow adventurer and adventure writer Joseph Conrad.
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Poe

C.)  Edgar Allan Poe.  We originally considered two other names for this slot. Henry James or William Faulkner? William Faulkner or Henry James? Gigantic literary reputations. But another classic American author deserves to make the brackets ahead of both of them. Poe– who invented the detective genre and perfected the horror genre, for good or ill. He was also a terrific poet. AND, as a student of the literary art, he understood the importance of momentum in narrative, building in intensity toward an explosive end. (See “William Wilson,” “Ligeia,” others.)

In many ways, Edgar Allan Poe invented pop literature.
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emily-dickinson painting

D.)  Emily Dickinson.  “Emily D” is one of the characters in the fictional aspect of this tournament. Though publicly unknown while alive, today Dickinson is one of the biggest names in the history of American poetry. Maybe the biggest. After 130 years her poems more than hold up. Real, direct, witty, sharp– a surprising amount of it. Her reputation: solid.
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Part of our task with the Tournament is to determine which writers will continue to be read– those whose work remains alive– and those whose reputations, however impressive now, will fall by the wayside. These means considering how changes in the ways literature is read or heard– whether smartphones, e-books, or audio books– will impact the literary art itself.

The work of these four wonderful talents has universal qualities. If Jack London’s stories remain widely read in China, France, Germany, Japan, Russia– everywhere– if they translate across borders, one can guess they’ll translate across eras. Note the clarity and immediacy of London’s writing in “Lost Face.” Part of our calculation is that the short story will gain in popularity and prominence– this has begun happening, as if it were designed for new devices and different mediums. The best, most “pop” poetry will easily translate as well, which puts Dickinson and Poe in great shape for new worlds of reading and literature to come.

On the other hand, overwrought “literary” work which presents a barrage of verbiage may not fare well. We’ll be covering that topic. . . .