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(Who is this writer?)

THE ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

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.

WHO’S UP?

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.

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WHO’S DOWN?

Emerson

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.

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Which writers are “of the moment” now?

Press Conference Aftermath

ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

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Writers and their fans love a party.
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Hem fishing

Ernest Hemingway was able to squeeze in some trout fishing at a nearby river early that morning.
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Beatlemania latest

Fans of Walt Whitman greeted his entrance into town, then followed him everywhere.
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We were surprised at how much trash talking the “Big Four” writers did at the event, especially Mark Twain and Whitman. Apparently it’s an American tradition of long standing. You get a hint of this in our initial report.

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Our reporter Mel Diper (@meldiper) did three interviews before becoming indisposed. Here are statements gleaned from his notes:

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Poet Maya Angelou:  “I was exquisitely gratified by the experience, I truly was. A spring tonic to renew the spirit. Such men. I feared entanglement with brutes! But they were, all four of them– even Ernest– very charming.”
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george plimpton at cafe

Participatory Journalist George Plimpton:  “I met the organizer of this event once before, you know. Don’t trust him!” (To a waitress): “I believe I’ll have a be-ah.” (Note: beer.) “It’s been ye-ahs” (years) “since I had one.” (An assistant of Plimpton’s pays for the beer. Like many writers of his station, George never carries money.)
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Mary McCarthy

Critic/Novelist Mary McCarthy:  “Young man, have you been drinking too much? You are not looking well!”
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Stay tuned for more reports from the venue!

Writers Removed from Consideration Part I

ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

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(Pictured: Jane Smiley.)

From New Pop Lit‘s Editor-in-Chief.

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Eudora Welty.  Big rep. Something of a folk writer. Corny dialect. I could never finish reading “Why I Live at the P.O.”

William Kennedy.  There was a brief William Kennedy vogue fifteen (or 25?) years ago. Remember it? It was not enough for him to make the Tournament.

Booth Tarkington.  Booth’s stock hasn’t just declined in the past 80 years. It’s fallen off a cliff.

Jane Smiley.  Jane Smiley is one of those faux-populist “literary” writers who write about farms or colleges and imagine they’re far more witty or profound than they are in reality. (For witty satire of a college, see Kingsley Amis.) If there is such thing as middlebrow, Jane Smiley is middlebrow. Plus, Jane Smiley has an irritating name. Out!

Bernard Malamud.  Malamud has a fairly big name in literary circles, and did write one highly readable, close-to-great novel, The Natural. This is balanced by this editor having been assigned Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer once in an English course. The two books are examples that occasionally a novelist is best off writing about his own time and milieu– what he knows. Next!

Paul Harding. Sounds like an old-time NFL football player. Ever hear of Pulitzer Prize Fiction-winner Paul Harding? Neither have we.

Wallace Stevens. Insurance guy who wrote poems. A good poet with an esteemed reputation among insider poetry circles, but with no real following among the general public. (Are there Wallace Stevens Poetry Festivals somewhere?) With only 12-16 slots for poets to fill, “good” isn’t good enough. We may as well start culling the herd now.

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jane smiley speaking

But what do you think?

(Second photo: Jane Smiley speaking.)

 

 

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.

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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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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.)

The Venues

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WE’VE given much thought to the venues for the All-Time American Writers Tournament. As the city of Philadelphia was a successful spot for the recent NFL draft, we’d like to hold the tournament itself in that fair town. But for the period when we fill in the brackets– the “season” before the event– we’ve decided on a roomier place. Less hectic. A more rustic setting– a small town near woods and lakes. There will be plenty of space for the legendary names to relax and be themselves, before we bring them intensively under the spotlight.

Format and Criteria

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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

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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. . . .