Specialists

ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

O-henry-photo2-200x300

(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 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?

 

T.S. Eliot Question RESOLVED

ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

T_S_Eliot_Simon_Fieldhouse
(T.S. Eliot drawing by Simon Fieldhouse.)

AFTER much research, discussion, and introspection, we’ve come to a resolution regarding the question of whether T.S. Eliot is a British or American citizen– and whether, or not, he can be accepted into the brackets of the Tournament.

The first fact to consider is that Eliot is in the Academy of American Poets.

The second fact is that the British Library (www.bl.uk) lists T.S. Eliot as an American poet.

The third fact is that the Encyclopedia Britannica calls Eliot an American-English poet– which is fence straddling.

Finally there’s a quote on the matter from T.S. Eliot himself, which appears in a number of places online, including at wikipedia:

“I’d say that my poetry has obviously more in common with my distinguished contemporaries in America than with anything written in my generation in England. That I’m sure of. …  in its sources, in its emotional springs, it comes from America.”

The preponderance of evidence says that– though he became a British citizen, T.S. Eliot considered himself an American poet.

Therefore he will be in the Tournament.
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Appreciation #6

“Ernest Hemingway” by Samuel Stevens

Hemingway Time Cover, October 18, 1937, Waldo Peirce

(Time cover by Waldo Peirce.)

There is probably no writer more controversial than Ernest Hemingway, attacked by academia as a misogynist, while others see him as a talentless hack with an inflated reputation. Yet his work endures despite all of it.

Hemingway was able to show deep emotion with his stripped-down style, changing American literature in the process. His novel The Sun Also Rises captures the relationship between men and women in such a way that few other writers have been able to do. He was also a master of the short story, demonstrated in “Soldiers Home,” “The Killers,” and “A Clean, Well Lighted Place” among many others.

He was not a perfect man, nor even a perfect writer– but who is? His myth has lived on more than who he truly was, laid bare in his novels and short stories. He is also an archetype of American success, spending years in obscurity among the Paris avantgarde before working his way up to literary fame.

Many have tried to imitate him, but there will only ever be one Ernest Hemingway.
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Samuel Stevens’s last story for New Pop Lit was “The Vast Conspiracy.”

Who Is Finnegan?

ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

Hemingway shooting

WHEN WE PRESENTED our “Hemingway-Fitzgerald Trivia Question” we were fairly confident in our answer. We looked for critical support. We received instead a response from Dr. Scott Donaldson disagreeing with our analysis.

“‘Snobbish Story’ possibly based on E.H., Finnegan definitely not (FSF writing about himself). . .”

Scott Donaldson is THE authority on the two legendary American authors. His works include Hemingway vs. Fitzgerald: The Rise and Fall of a Literary Friendship, plus separate books on both men. Hard to believe he could miss on this story, “Financing Finnegan.” (Or indeed on both stories.)

Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Is F. Scott Fitzgerald writing about himself? Or, instead, as we contend, about his on-and-off friend Ernest Hemingway?

You can read the story here and judge for yourself.
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As for ourselves, further research on the matter confirms our original opinion.

Dr. Donaldson has bought the accepted narrative on F. Scott Fitzgerald. In part, a portrayal of Fitzgerald as victim, with bearish Hemingway as antagonist. This viewpoint is in part attributable to Hemingway himself, and his seemingly unprovoked attacks on Scott in A Moveable Feast. But also to Scott’s “Crack-Up” essays in Esquire.

But again we ask, is Scott “Finnegan”?

At one point in his career he might’ve been. His experiences and one-time standing as a literary wonderboy no doubt informed his view of the character. But at the time he wrote “Finnegan,” nothing about Scott himself any longer fit. And hadn’t fit for a long time.

“Finnegan” is a famous novelist. By contrast, in 1938, for the greater public, Scott Fitzgerald was almost forgotten. He didn’t become a legendary author until the 1950’s, years after his death. In retrospect. No one considered him to be one in 1938. (On the other hand, Hemingway’s standing in 1938 was almost exactly the same as Finnegan’s.)

“Finnegan” has unending money problems– owes his publisher money on advances. Scott Fitzgerald had once been in this situation. But in 1938 he was not working on a novel, had received no advance for one. Instead, in 1937, as described on his Wikipedia page, F. Scott Fitzgerald had “entered into a lucrative exclusive deal with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer” to write screenplays. In 1937 Fitzgerald earned $29,757.87– the equivalent of $540,000.00 today. Over half-a-million dollars. In 1938 when he wrote “Financing Finnegan” he was swimming in money. For anyone alive during the Great Depression it was a near-fortune.

If anything, Scott’s situation fits well not with Finnegan, but the narrator of the tale.

What of Ernest Hemingway?

Again, we have to go back to 1938, when Fitzgerald wrote the story. Hemingway’s latest novel, To Have and Have Not, released in October 1937, had been a giant flop. It was slammed by reviewers, including the New York Times, which said, “this new novel is an empty book.” It was Hemingway’s first novel in eight years. It’s generally regarded by critics today, as it was then, as his worst novel.

As for finances, a glance at Hemingway’s Selected Letters shows he was in continual money trouble– at least as much as Scott had ever been. In part because Hem refused to crank out scores of short stories (or screenplays) purely to earn money. In 1938, after the failure of a long-awaited novel, Hemingway’s financial situation must’ve been particularly precarious.

Anyway you slice it, “Finnegan” is a depiction not of F. Scott Fitzgerald but of his one-time friend, Ernest Hemingway. Still smarting from his buddy’s shot at him in Esquire, Scott used the same forum to subtly even the score. Scott Donaldson didn’t catch it– but the ever-sensitive Ernest would have.

Ritz Bar w FSF picture

A Character Arrives

ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

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Drenching summer rains have chased away most of the tourists, except for a few large families staying at the hotel. With the Tournament on hiatus, the resort town is devoid of celebrity.

We’re in an upstairs suite in the hotel. Rustic, not elegant– everything wood– with a porcelain water pitcher on a round table, a green-patterned rug on the hardwood floor. My co-editor naps on the sofa, under a blanket. We were up late.

The Tournament is on hiatus because we’ve hit an impasse over the #3 seeds. Three of the four names are set. We can’t make up our minds over the remaining name, are dissatisfied with either choice: Henry James or William Faulkner. Names dictated by reputation and body of work. Unsatisfying nevertheless. Someone else? Scratched-out names on a piece of paper on the nearby desk. My colleague looks at me with Collette eyes.

theshadow

Down below, a stranger enters the hotel’s empty saloon, carrying a single valise. He’s dressed oddly for the town and time of year, in fedora and cape. The visitor has a neatly-trimmed black moustache on his beige face, from which stare penetrating black eyes. The eyes carry an expression of disbelief.

“They told me to take a bus past a broken tower, then transfer. I became lost. But, I’m here.”

He pauses for a moment, as if the timing of his phrases is important.

“I thought I might be late. I see that I’m not.”

The bartender is just setting up, but prepares to take the man’s order. A tinny piano echoes from an attached room. The arrival steps to the bar with a deliberate walk, like that of a stage actor. The walk seems affected– maybe only because of the cape.

“May I smoke?” he asks, taking a cigarette from a case.

He speaks with a polite southern drawl. The bartender gestures to him that he can.

A few weeks ago this room raged with noise– with personalities like Hemingway pounding fists on the bar, and challenging strong townsmen to arm-wrestle. While charismatic pretty women like our own commentator Emily D looked on with surprised amusement. Now it’s quiet, save for the stray keys of the piano. The stranger takes a seat at the bar, instantly feeling– and looking– at home.

What does the arrival portend?

We’re not sure, are not much concerned. We have two budding controversies to attend to first before we return to these exotic, egoistic, churlish and childish writers.

 

Appreciation #4

Hunter S. Thompson by Joseph S. Pete

Hunter S Thompson

ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

Every year since 2014, the alt weekly Nuvo has run an Indianapolis 500 guide for the benefit of “naïve first-timers to the Speedway, their minds filled with excitement and sugar plums, totally oblivious to some of the ugly realities awaiting them – the inherent, unavoidable realities of cramming 800,000 people or whatever into a 2.5 mile POWDER KEG OF INTENSITY AND/OR BEER.” Author Roy Hobbson was clearly channeling Hunter S. Thompson and specifically “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved” when he penned lines like “that is how it has been done for GENERATIONS, since AJ Foyt and Beowulf built this heavenly Speedway out of bricks & sorcery some 2,500 years ago.”

It’s a testament to Dr. Gonzo that so many writers emulate or channel him, especially when covering major events or politics. Many young journalists go through a Hunter S. Thompson phase, often while cutting their teeth for their college newspaper.

The author of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail” and “Fear and Loathing on ESPN’s short-lived bid for respectability Page 2” got great himself through imitation.

Long before his legendary drug binges and manic bursts of gonzo journalism, Thompson honed his craft in his native Louisville by retyping “The Great Gatsby” and “A Farewell to Arms” in full.

Perhaps the greatest testament to the late great Raoul Duke is that anytime politics get weird, someone inevitably will lament he’s no longer around to cover it.
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Joseph S. Pete is an award-winning journalist, an Iraq War veteran and a Baconfest Chicago Poet Laureate who’s been widely published in journals like Lumpen, the Blue Collar Review, Stoneboat and Prairie Winds.

 

Owning the Future

ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

race car for street

We consider ourselves little different from car designers, out to build a better product. The reality about the literary world now is that the future is up for grabs. Those who can offer a truly BETTER lit product– novels, poetry, stories– will own that future. In this hyper-competitive age, complacency isn’t good enough.

The main complacency agent for literature today is the academy. Professor’s drumming moldy institutional choices into students’ heads, while the world changes outside their doors. Everyone pats one another on the back, assuring themselves all is well– while the standing of literature in the culture dwindles.

Many are okay with that– they want the art to remain rarefied, marginal, mummified, so they can control it. “Our thing.” Like the award-winning author who once said the literary world was 5,000 people in New York.
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By understanding where we’ve been as an art form, we can better understand where we’re going. That means examining ALL received attitudes and hand-me-down literary gods. Which is what the ATAWT tourney is about. In that endeavor, this project we call New Pop Lit has barely started.

 

The American Novelist

THE ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

Irwin_Shaw_(1948)(Pictured: Irwin Shaw.)

HAVING READ and reviewed Jay McInerney‘s most recent novel as a way to check his suitability for the big Tournament, we encountered, in the book’s strengths and weaknesses, more than we expected.

We found the novel, Bright, Precious Days, no better than a 1950’s novel by O’Hara, Cozzens, Wouk, or Shaw. The corollary to this is that their once-admired novels are no better than his.

We caught McInerney using the trademark James Gould Cozzens plot “surprise” two-thirds of the way through to jumpstart the narrative. Effective– if you haven’t already experienced it.

One can travel back in time further than J.G. Cozzens and Company to find apt comparisons to the McInerney book– to Booth Tarkington, the most popular award-winning novelist of the 1910’s and 1920’s. Tarkington’s writing style and subjects are notably similar to those of Mr. McInerney. “The novel of manners.” Which isn’t Booth’s fault– but Jay’s. Or the publishing industry’s.

The next step in this line of thought: The very concept of “The Great American Novel” may be obsolete. Perhaps the novel form itself.

Which calls into question the premises of our tournament.

THE idea of American literature for over 100 years has been the idea of the novel. The belief that the novel is the “white whale” of American letters. The chief object for a writer to pursue.

Yet when you read or re-read these thick books; well-designed products created by giant corporations filled with talent– products as surely as are automobiles manufactured by General Motors– you find that, as art, most of them are failures. Diverting, yes. Absorbing? Often. Insightful? Occasionally.

Deep art which shakes the soul of the reader? Which shatters assumptions, premises, convictions, viewpoints; turning the world upside down? No.
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IN FILLING THE BRACKETS of this tournament, we have the almost impossible task of assessing each writer in context. Which means not undervaluing literary giants of the past because they’re no longer considered giants– while not overvaluing the literary stars of now. (The latter task is easier, as there no longer are literary giants who overawe the culture-at-large.) This means factoring in the extent to which hype and unearned critical acclaim– or mere politics, pro or con– have distorted a writer’s reputation.

Joyce_Carol_Oates_2013

(Pictured: Joyce Carol Oates.)

If this were 1930, Booth Tarkington would be a shoo-in to make an all-time American writers tournament. If it were 1987 instead of 2017, Joyce Carol Oates would be a shoo-in. Sometimes writers, by failing to take another step intellectually or creatively beyond initial promise, take care of their own reputations. Or maybe, in time, it becomes apparent their initial successful work was overvalued all along.

Appreciation #3

Philip K. Dick by D.C. Miller
Philip K Dick
ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

 Philip K. Dick’s claims to greatness don’t rest on the clarity of his style, or the sophistication of his characterizations, but on his depth of immersion in postmodern American culture. It’s no coincidence that his best novels were completed during the last period of his life, when he lived in Orange County near Disneyland – as Baudrilllard reminds us, a world presented as imaginary, in order to make us believe that the rest is “real”, when in fact all of Los Angeles and the America surrounding it are no longer real, but of the order of the hyperreal and of simulation.” Already in 1984, Jeff Kinney, the editor of the magazine Gnosis, was comparing him to L. Ron Hubbard, as well as Swedenborg, and predicting the emergence of a “Dickian religion” with the Exegesis, Dick’s 8,000 plus pages of mystical writings, at the centre. Today, Dick resembles a figure, who instead of describing reality, dreamed the future we’re inhabiting – a future of flattening characterization, incoherent and contradictory transmissions, disintegration. If every revolution in art is a return to realism, no other writer today is as necessary.
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D.C. Miller is at @dctv_od
Library Tower Los Angeles