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?

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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. . . .

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.”

Appreciation #5

“Thomas Pynchon” by D. Greenhorn

Phantom of Opera 1925

(Not a photo of Thomas Pynchon.)

Thomas Pynchon’s greatest scene sees Charles Mason stuck in a time warp created by England’s transition to the Gregorian calendar. Typical of Pynchon is its weird setting, its oblique prose, its obsession with the effects of technology on man. Atypically, we find Mason longing for his wife—a rare display of pathos from Pynchon’s characters, who are generally a mob of proto-autists and freaks. Yet when Pynchon deigns to converse with us humans, there is no better living author.

Pynchon is the greatest American prose stylist of the late 20th Century. His audacious use of the vernacular recalls Twain—betters him, when at a poetic height. Pynchon is the most religious American since Hawthorne, except his religious is conspiracy. His first three novels exist in a paranoid oikonomia, the characters searching for God in the form of a letter, a mail carrier, a German fiber. In his nonstop conspiracy-mongering, Pynchon taps into the most genuine religion of our age.

Pynchon is the quintessential university novelist. His knowledge is capacious, but his wisdom rises and ebbs with his poetic intensity. His characters blur together; his scenes manage to be absurd yet unmemorable. His poor works are so wretched, and so closely resemble his great works, that they taint his genius as a whole.

Yet when good, Pynchon is the best of the moderns. His fantastic prose carries us beyond his often lame wit and precocity, making him an author worthy not only of being read, but revered.
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D. Greenhorn is a writer living in the Midwest. His first novel, Western Empire, will soon be available by Lulu. New Pop Lit will feature a new short story of his in September.