#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.

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(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?

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

Star Power

ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

Misty-Copelandunder armor

(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.

The Writer as Public Figure?

ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

J-D-Salinger-TIME-1961

THE UNSTATED PREMISE of those who are touting the new movie about J.D. Salinger, “Rebel in the Rye,” is that his absence from the lit scene for decades created mystery about him. They’re hoping to capitalize on that mystery.

There’s something to be said for this viewpoint. There are multiple examples of performers and artists who achieved a level of lasting fame because they removed themselves from the scene at an early age. Greta Garbo, Marilyn Monroe, and James Dean jump immediately to mind. In the lit game, Sylvia Plath. Mystery has been an essential component of charisma for a long time. (See fan dancer Sally Rand. The brief, unsatisfied glimpse.) Or look at the most famous person in history. The mystery of Jesus’s death and resurrection is the most compelling part of the Gospel narratives.
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Yet J.D. Salinger was able to vanish because his literary celebrity had already been built. He wrote at a time when writers mattered.

How much more difficult the task is now, when even the biggest name writers walk around as virtual unknowns, not part of the conversation of general culture– a culture 1,000 times noisier than it once was.

Can one create mystery and charisma about a writer by keeping that person offstage– yet somehow still get the word out?

NEXT: “Star Power.” A Counter-Argument. 

Our Criteria Revisited

ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

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A.)  The ACHIEVEMENT.

The author’s works: How do they hold up?

B.)  INFLUENCE.

Influence on literature AND on American culture.

C.)  PERSONA.

Like it or not, the writer is a public figure. Writers are the face of the art.

D.)  EXCITEMENT QUOTIENT.

Is energy generated among readers and society by the author and/or the work?

E.)  AMERICAN.

How authentic is the writer and the writing? How representative of some important aspect of American life, ideas, or people? Is the work an expression of American language, sound, voice?

F.)  HUMANITY.

Polished technical exercises aren’t enough. Does the writing have emotion? Heart? We’re not selecting A.I. robots.

robotfromjonathanmcintosh

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.)

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.

RayCarver2

(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.)

Is This the Face of Literature?

ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

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(Pictured: George R.R. Martin.)

–OR IS THIS THE FACE OF LITERATURE?

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(Pictured: Jonathan Franzen.)
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ON THE WEEKEND of the much-ballyhooed Floyd Mayweather-Conor McGregor fight, we see as possible match-up between the two poles of the lit-world now, two of the more UNcharismatic, uninteresting individuals who could be found. Yes, they’re writers– which is why much of the country is fascinated by the contest between an over-the-hill boxer and a brawling Irishman– while the happenings of the lit world fascinate only a few elitist cliques in New York. (Fans of the “Games of Thrones” TV show are more interested in dragons than in whatever feckless ideas popped out of George R.R.’s head.)

DO WE NEED A NEW CANON?

The answer: YES!!! “Literature” needs to be rethought from top to bottom. It needs to get its head out of the 18th century and realize presentation is all. Mistakes that led to a canon of unreadable and/or bland writers have led to the condition of the literary art now— marginalized within the culture of greater America. Or: No one cares.

How do we get people to care?

NEXT: “Who Creates the Canon” Part II

Who Creates the Canon?

ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

jesse pearson

(First in a series.)

THE FIRST THING you see when encountering Literature-with-a-capital-L (pronounced “Lit-ah-CHAH”) is a collection of cardboard figures little different from the cardboard figure of rock singer Conrad Birdie parked in a promoter’s office at the beginning of the movie musical “Bye Bye Birdie.” The intent in both cases is the same– but in one case the intent is disguised via layers of pontifications from professors in bow ties.

Is the intent to build up an art? To further artistic progress? To improve American culture?

Or is it to justify one’s career existence and resulting paycheck? To avoid the fate of an actually difficult job, such as grinding heavy iron bars, or cleaning toilets, or McDonald’s?

The reader who graduates from comic books to dragon fantasies to more thoughtful and realistic novels, wondering what it’s all about– and who are the best at it– is first handed not the writer, not the work, but the reputation. The cardboard cutout.

In this short series– before our Tournament writers return from summer vacation– we’ll examine how and why those reputations are created. The layers and justifications. Information you’ll not find in a classroom. We’ll look behind the cardboard and the classroom.
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(Photo from Chicago Reader.)
Interesting, then, that 2017 saw the opening of a years-in-the-making American Writers Museum in Chicago. Rooms of cutouts. Spacious halls. Like all museums, it’s as much mortuary as tourist attraction. Literature Embalmed. Yep, THAT’ll bring the art form back!

The Museum tells you that THESE are the canonical American writers. Gaze at them in obeisance. No effort required. The matter has already been decided.

WHO decided?