Thursday, December 29, 2011
Fiction can easily do something similar. It's what I've been striving toward with my ebooks Ten Pop Stories and Crime City USA. I'm not talking about 1980's minimalism, which minimalized not just the style, but every other part of the work, so that it withdrew into itself. Instead, simplify the style, have a simplified structure, then you can be over-the-top, corny, and melodramatic-- like "The Artist"-- and still create powerful emotion and great art.
Monday, December 26, 2011
Monday, December 19, 2011
Thursday, December 15, 2011
1.) Write Simply.
Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Carver are classic examples of the natural American voice. They aren't by any means the only examples. Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Jack London, Frank Norris, Willa Cather, Gertrude Stein, Sherwood Anderson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Steinbeck, Ralph Ellison, and Jack Kerouac are among many representations of the American personality.
2.) Get Into the World.
The classic American writer, such as Herman Melville or Ernest Hemingway, doesn't escape into the mind, but instead plunges outward into the world. Huck Finn escaping from conformity by traveling on a raft down the Mississippi. Often this means projecting the mind onto the world; interior conflicts worked out among the environments of cities or nature.
3.) Write Big.
Think big. Dream big. BE big. Larger-than-life. Like America itself. "The Great American Novel." In poetry, "Howl." Break the mold. Push the art, crudely, madly, exuberantly.
Monday, December 12, 2011
My scale is 1 to 10, and as you can see at the blog, I use all of it. If a book receives a "5," then it's average, which in today's world of literature means, not very good. But likely readable, so whether you read the book or not is up to you.
For me there are no 10's. The perfect novel has yet to be written. There are a handful of novels I'd put in the high 9's-- a few of the best classics-- which gives today's scribblers something to shoot for. There's room at the top. At the bottom also.
Saturday, December 10, 2011
John Updike once wrote six rules for book reviewing, which have been followed faithfully by Loyalist members of the literary status quo:
1.) Understand what the author tried to do.
2.) Use enough direct quotations.
3.) Confirm your description of the book with quotations.
4.) Go easy on plot summary.
5.) Cite a successful example of a book (author's or other). "Try to understand the failure. Sure it's his and not yours?"
6.) "Do not accept for review a book you are predisposed to dislike, or committed by friendship to like. Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition; an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in an ideological battle . . . Review the book, not the reputation."
John Updike was of course himself a caretaker of a tradition, what might be called acceptable "literary" writing, best represented by the refined tastes of The New Yorker magazine. Literary fiction is a narrow form which has been stagnant for decades and best should have been buried with Updike.
The much touted objectivity of writers of the literary establishment is a pose. Look carefully and you find tons of bias. Worse, it's bias in favor of a stale type of literary art.
With new ways of bringing books to market, and expanded ways of announcing them, should come also a more exciting style of writing. That's what this blog was set up to announce.
Updike's rules, especially #5 and #6, put handcuffs on the reviewer, whose chief task is to get the casual onlooker reading the review. Book review sections have been dropped from newspapers across the country for one major reason. Because they were boring!
There is one rule for book reviewing: BE ENTERTAINING.
I've begun putting my ideas into practice at Blitz Book Review, which can be accessed at
Thursday, December 8, 2011
about whether it's worthwhile to read/hear/experience the plays of William Shakespeare. The answer: Of course it is!
The first thing to understand about the Bard and his plays is that he was a "pop" writer. His works are graphic novels with better language. They're melodramatic, over-the-top. They push the bounds of emotion in ways no "literary" writer today does.
There are two ways of writing fiction.
1.) Subjective. The "literary." Stream-of-consciousness, meaning, most of the work takes place in the writer's or a character's head. It's self-conscious and solipsistic to the max. A slog to read and not much fun when you do read it.
2.) Objective. This is what a playwright like Shakespeare does. You see characters from the outside. Character is revealed through action, words, and plot.
I've been trying to pull my fiction in the #2 direction. Graphic novels without the graphics. I visualize my tales as scenes, dramas, comic books. My goal is to thrust my characters into dramatic situations, and then make room for them to speak.
I do this a little in several stories in my ebook Ten Pop Stories. Do you know which ones? I do it some in "Bluebird" in Mood Detroit. I do it more in Crime City USA.
I'm doing it way more in the novel I'm currently writing, the subject of which is revolution. I give the plutocrat, on one hand, and the most radical radical, on the other hand, room to explain themselves. They're given what are in effect short speeches. I want the written picture combined with speech.
What's the goal? To create strong emotion. Like pop singers do. Like "Sadness Is a Blessing" by Lykke Li. Emotion is all.
I remember, about fifteen years ago, in Detroit, reading a text about classic comic strips of the past. The book showed a few panels from "Terry and the Pirates," in which the Dragon Lady has captured one of the square-jawed heroes, who's handcuffed. As the hero sleeps, the Dragon Lady leans over him-- clearly in love with him-- and recites verse that could only come from Shakespeare. From "Romeo and Juliet" I later found out. "Would I were sleep and peace, so sweet to rest!" I could only think, "Wow!" It's romantic. It's melodramatic. It's ridiculous. It's art.
Ever since that time, I've wanted to create that same kind of aesthetic effect. Simple, very simple, yet very powerful.
At his best, Shakespeare creates such effects. In a masterpiece like "King Lear"-- a masterpiece not just of literature but of all art-- he creates those effects in spades.
Friday, December 2, 2011
2.) Hobby. Using time. Filling up space in one's life. Doing something. Macrame.
3.) Money. Write a best-seller and retire from life.
4.) Therapy. Personal dilemmas laid out on a page. Journals for an unseen shrink.
5.) Message. An announcement. Having something to say and compelled to say it. A discovery.
6.) Change. Writing to change society, or the culture, or the neighborhood. Or the world.
7.) Immortality. Creating the masterpiece that will live forever, honored by all subsequent generations. A place in future generations.
8.) God. To understand or commune with the universe.
Obviously, there's overlap. Many individuals write for more than one reason.
What's your reason?
Thursday, December 1, 2011
The literary story is inward, subtle, slow, sensitive, domestic and domesticated, whose every preciously crafted sentence says, "It's been done."
600,000 workshop grads write finely-mannered literary stories. Few people write pop stories.
I don't like to follow the crowd.
Wednesday, November 30, 2011
The way is open for other writers to grab the real universe-- the world of reality, humanity, authentic emotion: the Here and Now.
Friday, November 25, 2011
Stay in touch with the freshest opinion anywhere in the literary game.
If you're brave, take the Blitz Challenge and submit your masterpiece for a Blitz Rating.
More info at
Wednesday, November 23, 2011
This is what I'm trying to accomplish with my version of pop literature, especially with the ebook Mood Detroit, and a new one, Crime City USA. I've made both hyper-affordable to encourage feedback.
Art is an expression of life but also of ideas.
Thursday, November 17, 2011
Of course, the sonnet is a formula. Berry Gordy's Motown was a formula. Generic literary stories have their own formula. The trick is what can be done within a formula. Once put into place, a formula becomes a jumping off point for new creativity.
My theories of pop fiction are based on a few key points.
1.) The Opening.
2.) The Close.
5.) The Kick.
("Kick" meaning that the tale have a kick to it; a moral or idea or revelation or punch or point.)
A simple formula, right? Yet most short stories being written today fail it.
Friday, November 11, 2011
Wednesday, November 9, 2011
Do you really have time to wade through Chad Harbach's enormous 500-page 25-dollar novel only to discover it's not very good? Harbach presents standard overwrought baby-mentality literary puffery.
Try instead fiction with a punch.
(The ebook Crime City USA is now on sale.)
Friday, November 4, 2011
Writer/cartoonist Brady Russell strongly urged me last year and this to start producing ebooks. The final motivator for me was the realization of where publishing is headed. The Borders store closings; new inexpensive ereaders; new ebook stars like Amanda Hocking and John Locke: the trend is unmistakeable.
One thing I learned, and learned well, during my life in Detroit is that change is constant. When I sought to hang on to the past—melancholy bartender in a Detroit riverfront dive full of nostalgia for Detroit's golden era—I was told by a business-type customer, "Change. Change! Change or die."
Change is nature's only constant.
In 2000 I reinvented myself as King Wenclas, crazy radical literary promoter. I formed the Underground Literary Alliance and shook up the clubby halls of literature. We were the most exciting writers group on the planet.
I've learned through the course of my life to adapt, on a moment's notice. Physically and mentally I live out of a duffle bag.
THE INESCAPABLE FACT
The inescapable fact is that the $25.99 Harbach/Franzen novel, lit's standard, is an economic and artistic dinosaur. Unexciting; lethargically paced; solipsistically self-focused to the max same-old same-old. Overpriced and supported by a top-heavy structure of writing programs, agents, editors, chain stores, and high-lease Manhattan skyscrapers.
What's my infrastructure? An el cheapo netbook and a two-dollar coffeeshop purchase.
I don't need a bureaucracy. I can outwrite, outedit, and maybe outmarket the publishing dinosaurs. The pop prose in my newest ebook Crime City USA is sleek and explosive. Tighter than any MFA editor, or phlegmatic Harvard-educated intellectual, could make it. Against the industry's slow-moving 4,000 pound Buicks I offer fast and fun race cars at 1/25 the price.
Stop by the King Wenclas showrooms at Kindle or Nook and pick one up.
Friday, October 28, 2011
The prevailing characteristic of literary fiction today is how slow it is. Establishment writers from Jonathan Franzen and Jonathan Lethem to Ann Beattie and Alice Munro to Mark Gaitskill and Madison Smartt Bell to Francine Prose and Lorrie Moore think and write in slow motion. Not society's greyhounds or pit bulls. Poodles. They pile on irrelevant meaningless detail throughout their narratives, which slows things down until the pace is that of a turtle's. For them, slowness is of high value. So their stories and novels go ever slower, s-l-o-w-e-r.
The reader is asleep in his armchair, snoring loudly, head back, mouth open, book of well-crafted literary fiction dropped to the floor.
Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. . . .
The literary slows are caused by two factors.
One is the removal of these esteemed Approved writers from the hectic high-speed madness of the contemporary world. Through awards, advances, or university teaching assignments they've willfully isolated from the knockabout struggle of life which gives edge to an art. (Think early punk. Early rock n' roll. Think Van Gogh.) These well-lauded comfortable bowed-and-ribboned poodles-on-leashes have no edge. None. Not once does a one of them anymore lose control. Most of them never have.
The other factor is the way fiction writing today is taught. Painstaking craft, dawdling over the proliferation and precision of words, is the focus. They're conditioned to write not for readers, but their peers. They compete with one another to impress experts with word-clotted dead-thought go-nowhere slowness, reaching an audience of tepidly comfortable aficionados, or at least, themselves.
WANT TO READ NEW WRITING? Read the new e-book novella, Crime City USA, available at Kindle or Nook.
Read http://kingwenclas.blogspot.com/p/jonathan-lethem-and-postmodernism.html and tell me what you think.
Tuesday, October 25, 2011
Saturday, October 15, 2011
Have you read yet Crime City USA?
Sunday, October 9, 2011
It's what I offer with e-books like Ten Pop Stories, but especially with Crime City USA.
Friday, October 7, 2011
Hard, fast-paced, exciting pulp fiction is what I'm offering with Crime City USA, my new e-book release.
Is my short pop novel over-the-top? YES it's over-the-top. Balls-to-the-wall is how I've run my literary life. I'm not about to stop.
Thursday, October 6, 2011
Wednesday, October 5, 2011
-Ten Pop Stories.
-Crime City USA.
Can you afford 99 cents?
Pop fiction is new art.
Tuesday, October 4, 2011
Among my more visual, cartoony stories are "The Strange Case of Mr. Box" in Ten Pop Stories, and "Kevin and Koreena" in Mood Detroit. It's not that they're not realistic. Like impressionism, they're a different take on reality.
My most Lit-as-Art e-book to date will be my next. Officially released any day. A colorful painting come to life. Watch for it!
Pop fiction is new art.
Friday, September 30, 2011
Wednesday, September 28, 2011
These same questions apply as well to literature. Is literature more-- shouldn't it be more-- than a series of finely crafted sentences?
The meaning, relevance, and passion which go into the words is what most counts.
Read "Bluebird" as part of Mood Detroit, an e-book available at Kindle or Nook.
Friday, September 23, 2011
1.) Pop Music.
2.) Pop Art.
With Pop Fiction I seek to key into all three tangents.
Pop Fiction is populist in that it's open to everybody, carrying echoes of America, the nation, land, people.
Thursday, September 15, 2011
The only way to know Melissa Bluebird is to experience the story in which she appears, "Bluebird," part of Mood Detroit.
To purchase Pop Lit at a bargain price, clink on the links to the side.
Friday, September 9, 2011
Tuesday, September 6, 2011
Pop is the answer.
Friday, September 2, 2011
"Bluebird," the most ambitious tale in Mood Detroit, asks the question, "Who is Melissa Bluebird?"
The question has two aspects.
The task of a narrative about a person is to set up the puzzle of identity. What makes a personality? What explains a celebrity?
The second aspect of the question is this: Does Melissa Bluebird have any real-world models?
What do you think?
Buy the e-book Mood Detroit for an el cheapo price at Nook or Kindle. All questions are answered.
Thursday, September 1, 2011
Which is fine. American literature needs these flagships. By all reports, "Fielding" is very much about America. (What's more American than baseball?) All to the good.
These big, high-priced novels are akin to giant battleships pre-World War II. Extremely impressive to look at; wonderful to have at the head of a fleet. Yet, at the same time, irrevocably obsolete. The shame was having to send such monsters into battle.
With my American Pop Lit e-books I offer an alternate model. The objective of Ten Pop Stories is to be readable and fun. New fiction as quick and affordable as possible-- yet still relevant and topical. Small, efficient vehicles built for the times we live in now.
No, this isn't the Apple Store. Call it the APL store-- American Pop Literature. Get in on the ground floor. The fun has only started.
Friday, August 19, 2011
Friday, August 12, 2011
Recession priced! Buy it now.
Sunday, July 24, 2011
POP SINGER AMY WINEHOUSE DEAD AT 27.
Amy Winehouse should be remembered for kicking off one of the few interesting pop music trends of the last ten years, the British-based Motown-influenced Girl Soul revival. Talents like Duffy and Adele owe Winehouse a large debt.
Saturday, July 23, 2011
Thursday, July 21, 2011
I heard someone on the radio last night say that China is the most dynamic society on the planet. I take dynamic to mean fluid, innovative, changing, new-- with all the excitement that comes with such.
For a very long time America was that kind of place, including in the literary world.
American literature could become what American pop music was in the late 50's-- a fun, populist happening which caught the imagination of the world.
(Buy the ebook Ten Pop Stories NOW at Amazon's Kindle Store,
or as a Nook Book at
Tuesday, July 19, 2011
At my personal blog-- which I've been intending to shut down but never get around to--
--I've been covering the tough circumstances of Eric Broomfield, aka Jellyboy the Clown. Eric was a key player in many historic events of the Underground Literary Alliance, including the 2006 Miller Hall/Columbia University "Howl" reading crash.
Now Eric fights for his life, on a respirator in a New York City hospital after being caught in a Queens fire.
His writing is now available via an ebook, at
Publisher Jeff Potter has generously agreed to give all proceeds of sales of this ebook toward Eric's hospital bills-- even if it means sending Eric or Eric's brother cash. Needless to say, Eric has no health insurance.
As important, you'll find Eric to be quite an entertaining writer. An undergrounder worth keeping around.
Buy your copy now!
Monday, July 18, 2011
Saturday, July 16, 2011
Hyperbole? Sure. But the short and simple tales collected in Ten Pop Stories are set among the here and now, amid a diverse collection of folks from high to low. My objective was to create fiction as simple and clear as a hit pop song, hopefully with each work having a "kick" to it. Whether I succeeded with all of them or any of them is for you to judge. The price makes the collection strictly a low-risk gamble. The upside is discovering the new-- an alternative path for what has become over the past several decades a dead art form.
How do we revive the short story form?
We do it first with tales that are simple and fun. With that foundation, and holding to that foundation, we can build in meaning and complexity while retaining a superstructure of pop clarity.
Here then are short descriptions of the Ten:
The H Group
A terrorist's bomb explodes on an airliner over the Atlantic.
Strange Mummer Creatures of Philadelphia
What or who are the Mummers? Why do they celebrate? Will Maggie the Mummer find her lost Mummer love?
Saturday Night in Detroit
A hectic car chase through the violent streets of Detroit.
A young writer takes a job in a mysterious office building.
Elvis Meets Frankenstein
A legendary happening in the life of America's greatest folk hero.
The Red Door
Fast-paced adventure as an American Marine is trapped in a deadly maze.
The Strange Case of Mr. Box
A masked vigilante arrives in a troubled east coast city.
Fake Face Meets Senator Crupt
The cynical gangster Fake Face encounters a man even more evil than himself.
The search for a missing heiress leads to mayhem along the Detroit River.
A mismatched couple prepares to jump into matrimony.
Quite a lot going on! You get your money's worth.
Purchase the ebook now as a Nook Book at Barnes & Noble, or at the Kindle Store at Amazon. The future of the American short story is here.
Thursday, July 14, 2011
With the dog days of summer upon us, the American Writer Tournament is on hiatus. After all, some of the writers involved-- Melville, Hawthorne, Whitman, and Company-- are by now quite aged! ("A mere pup," Ernest Hemingway has been saying about himself. "Compared to them I'm a mere pup!") We don't want these giants melting in the heat.
The break will allow me to focus on my ebooks, as well as on promoting the pop literary idea-- defining and refining the idea against the pop lit fakirs. My next ebook, Mood Detroit, will be out shortly, followed by a non-fiction book which may or may not critically examine the literary hipster scene.
When the Tournament returns, I'll announce the remaining participants, as well as a format for the actual "games." I'll then focus my time on the Tournament exclusively.
Don't stop reading! A lot will be happening.
Tuesday, July 12, 2011
Keep in mind this is merely my first pop lit ebook. The emphasis is on keeping things simple. I’ll take things another step in my next release, due shortly, which will focus on the tragic city of Detroit.
Thursday, July 7, 2011
But please, skip the pseudo-pop and go for the genuine article.
Wednesday, July 6, 2011
What makes a great writer? Is it experience of the world? Herman Melville on his sea voyages? Or something else?
Tuesday, June 28, 2011
I was thinking about that while reading one of Asimov's great "Foundation" books. As I consider doing a few more ebooks, the prospect of writing a sci-fi novel is in front of me, given the genre's popularity. I decided to read more from one of the very best creators of that genre. Asimov is that.
The layers of mental tricks and battles being displayed by his characters is impressive.
Who are other genius American writers from now or the past? David Foster Wallace has been portrayed as one. Was he really? What is there to learn from him? Wasn't his obsession with consciousness and self a waste of brain power?
On any list of brainiest American novelists I'd put Scott Fitzgerald, Ayn Rand, Cozzens, Melville, Asimov, a very few others. Those whose understanding of the complexities of society, people, and the world is something to learn from.
Sunday, June 26, 2011
The stories are available exclsuively as a Nook Book at
Watch for its appearance soon at other outlets!
Wednesday, June 22, 2011
Thursday, June 16, 2011
As final decisons are being made for the remaining slots, I can at least reveal the names of several writers who definitely won't make it.
I tried to read and accept Stephen King's writing, I really did, but cannot bring myself to include him. My first and overarching thought is, "This is typical commercial fiction junk." As manipulative, empty, and derivative as a Stephen Spielberg shock movie.
Dorothy Parker? A few good jokes but a minor writer.
I'm sorry to say that Truman Capote won't be in the tournament. Most of his fiction is overly precious and literary. He wrote one great nonfiction book. But there's only so much room in one tournament for Mailer-style publicity hounds. Truman was squeezed out. Blame Norman Mailer for it.
Let him take as consolation the fact that at least two Nobel Prize winners, Sinclair Lewis and Pearl Buck, won't make the cut. Today their writing looks moldy and stiff.
Harper Lee won't be in the tournament. She's known for one nice but slight novel. High school teachers love her, but. . . . Not enough.
A giant of the 1930's, Thoman Wolfe, whose status once nearly overshadowed Hemingway and Fitzgerald, is unable to squeeze in to the brackets.
Philip Roth proves that continued mediocrity, despite plaudits, is still mediocrity.
Longfellow was a great poet in his day, but he long ago lost much of his relevance.
John Updike? As with Stephen King, I can't bring myself to include John Updike. He might be considered the other pole of everything wrong with American writing now.
No Joseph Wambaugh. Blame him for the endless parade of TV police dramas. No John or Washington Irving. No Mario Puzo, alas. He came close.
Finally, I can reveal that Gertrude Stein won't be in the tournament. Blame her absence on the Kathy Bates-playing-Kathy Bates non-impersonation of her in "Midnight in Paris."
Friday, June 10, 2011
A.) Mary McCarthy.
B.) Norman Mailer.
C.) Katherine Anne Porter.
D.) Edith Wharton.
A.) Edgar Rice Burroughs.
B.) Herman Wouk.
C.) Ralph Ellison.
D.) Isaac Asimov.
I've tried to construct each seed with its own small theme. With #13 I continue to tweak Norman Mailer's ego. In many ways his ego was the best part of him, from a larger American Lit perspective, overshadowing the actual writing. He was the last American author who sought to be as big and ambitious as the land and the culture, as big as the American Dream. (The title of one of his ambitious if failed novels.)
I've surrounded Norman Mailer with three American ladies, who represent an evolution of the American woman in this society. Wharton the epitome of refinement and society still represents too much the box within which our literature has allowed itself to become confined. (The next seed, #14, is a full reaction against such domestication.) Porter shows an increased cynicism and knowingness about this country and about life, if not fully into grotesque Flannery O'Connor territory. Katherine Anne Porter wrote small short story and novella jewels, masterpieces the equal of anyone's. Her novel, Ship of Fools, is underrated.
As for Mary McCarthy, she takes Porter's cynicism almost over the edge in her barracuda essays and novels, which remain highly readable and relevant. For awhile she cranked them out like a John O'Hara, but with her interest in politics kept them intelligent. (One I read about a German terrorist group-- I'll add the name at a later date!-- of course remains topical in this day.)
In the next seed I highlight four diverse popular novelists.
Ralph Ellison a popular novelist? Yes. One of the best of them, though he published only one book in his lifetime, Invisible Man, which is an over-the-top kaleidoscope of impressions, characters, and plot, capturing as well as any author has the noise of America. Was this book the last great melding of "literary" and "pop"? Cynical, knowing, yet throughout, highly entertaining. A full reading experience.
Herman Wouk wrote a ton of novels. War and Remembrance includes the best attempt to understand the mystery of Franklin Roosevelt as a leader-- with two opposite viewpoints on him, either of which might be right. Wouk didn't have the persona of Norman Mailer, nor his joy of using language, but he was a more intelligent writer.
Wouk will be remembered for The Caine Mutiny. If you work jobs you'll encounter a "Queeg" and his situation at some point in your life. The knowledge of personalities caught within a structure of command and hierarchy, as well as the drama of both the mutiny itself, and the later trial, remain compelling. The trial part of the novel became a classic stage play.
Isaac Asimov brought surpassing intelligence to his superb "Foundation" series, the forerunner of Star Trek, Star Wars, Battlestar Whatever, and so much else, much of it admittedly crap.
Edgar Rice Burroughs, for all his obvious flaws, is the greatest pop writer of all time in his sheer imagination and excitement. He took what existed in American legend and culture, with a large dash of Rider Haggard, and created the myth of the Anglo-Saxon Superman which still exists in American culture. See Batman, Iron Man, Green Lantern, et.al. A cultural subtext of history, politics, exploration and Imperialism, and, yes, racism. Tarzan has become an uncomfortable stereotype, with much baggage. The John Carter series on the other hand continues to be pure pop reading.
Saturday, June 4, 2011
The film is an example of how Fitzgerald and Hemingway have become mythic figures in American culture. In their day, they were akin to rock stars. They're remembered for their striking depictions of their time, but also for having lived in their time. They moved through history and created history.
The irony is that they weren't the most interesting figures during that time in Paris. (The 1920's.) Even if we set aside other literary giants like James Joyce and Ezra Pound. The distinction instead best belongs to Kay Boyle and Robert McAlmon, the main characters in John Glassco's immortal recollection of the period, Memoirs of Montparnasse. Glassco depicts Boyle with a pseudonym. She stands out nevertheless.
Kay Boyle wrote her own memories into her compilation of McAlmon's Being Geniuses Together. She was also strikingly portrayed in a Humphrey Carpenter history of the period.
One may also wish to rent a Keith Carradine movie from the 1980's, "The Moderns."
I don't know how good the Woody Allen film is. The ultimate movie of the period has yet to be made.
Would that writers were as interesting and glamorous now!
Tuesday, May 31, 2011
A.) O. Henry.
B.) Ralph Waldo Emerson.
C.) Tom Wolfe.
D.) Saul Bellow.
O. Henry is hugely underrated as a writer. There was much more going on in his tales than meets the eye. (I have a short ebook planned on him.)
Emerson was at some point obligatory, given the huge influence he had on early American thought. He was a poet and an essayist.
Tom Wolfe was the best of the "New Journalists" of the 1960's. Wrote some classic essays and a couple good nonfiction books like The Right Stuff. In the 1980's he turned himself into a novelist. Not as good as he thinks he is, but like Emerson, too important a figure to leave out.
Carrying on that theme, we close this seed with Saul Bellow, who's been hugely overrated. Bellow wrote one great novella. His novels are failures. His characters, like Henderson the Rain King, are always loudly expressing emotion, but the narratives seldom create emotion in the reader. In the same way, Bellow is always trying to express ideas, to be intellectual, the attempts almost laughably failing in a big way. He ended up being the crankiest American author ever, far surpassing even the likes of Clemens and Cozzens. Still, for one brief moment he put everything together.
Wednesday, May 25, 2011
Does any writer today qualify? The thoughts of most well-hyped establishment writers like Jonathan Franzen are so banal and trivial they're embarrassing.
Monday, May 23, 2011
Who, for instance, is a major, younger American poet? Peter Gizzi? He might be, but his work is so language-poetry influenced that it's the kind of thing which sits lifeless on a page, and when read, puts listeners to sleep.
Saul Williams? He's helped bring poetry back into the mainstream, is marketing the art in new ways, and gives dynamic readings. Yet his work fails to explore the creative possibilities opened up by the masters of American poetic history, including individuals already part of the tournament seedings.
One kind of poet is completely the captive of the academy. The other, of commerce.
As with the American novel, and the short story, the poetic art over the past fifty years has regressed.
The few poets who bridge the divide, creating a synthesis between both streams, practice their work in obscurity.
Saturday, May 21, 2011
Thursday, May 19, 2011
Yes, a few-- including two or three of the most controversial American writers who ever lived. Check out this un-p.c. crowd:
A.) Amiri Baraka.
B.) James Gould Cozzens.
C.) Ezra Pound.
D.) Raymond Chandler.
Amiri Baraka-- once the Beat poet Leroi Jones (this guy's been around)-- is included in few anthologies or lists of the best living American poets, but for all his anger and skewed point of view you won't find a stronger poet anyplace. His words burn through the page.
James Gould Cozzens today is all but forgotten, but no American author better mastered the form of the novel, nor better understood and depicted the stoic mindset of those who founded and ran this nation. A few of Cozzens' opinions are outdated. For all his flaws, there remains an ethical underpinning-- often hypocritical-- to his work. This is a writer who's trying to understand the universe and his place within it. Cozzens knew as well as anyone has what makes this particular civilization work. His best novels are like well-built houses. Nothing within them is ever, ever overdone. They leave impact with the intelligent reader regardless.
The Last Adam, Men and Brethren, The Just and the Unjust, Guard of Honor-- his best novels are an impressive body of work perhaps not equaled in their entirety by any American. Cozzens also wrote a handful or so of excellent short stories. No one today reads them.
His most famous and controversial novel, By Love Possessed, which gained Cozzens a Time magazine cover in the 1950s, is not one of his best. It contains great strengths, but also more weaknesses than the rest of his novels put together, as if his ideas and prejudices so long held under tight rein at last overwhelmed him. James Gould Cozzens is the most adult American writer, in the sense that other American writers seem unserious, not in control of their material, even trivial by comparison to a work like the massive and complex Guard of Honor, an apex in the American novel which won the Pulitzer though its competition for the year was the much lauded The Naked and Dead by Norman Mailer. One time the judges got it correct.
Ezra Pound was the most influential American poet of all time, in his innovative work and also in the many journals and literary movements he initiated, and in the steady support, teaching, and encouragement he gave to other writers-- to giants like Eliot, Hemingway, and James Joyce. Few suffered more for his ideas than Pound-- misguided though he may have been. I have the image of him left in a small cage in the sweltering heat on an airport tarmac in Italy at the end of World War II, treated like an animal, and not like one of the greatest American writers who ever lived.
Raymond Chandler was the best writer among all mystery writers ever, anywhere.
NEXT UP: A seed of more contemporary figures-- which creates a new set of problems, as I'll soon explain.
Monday, May 16, 2011
-Katherine Anne Porter versus Flannery O'Connor.
-Thomas Wolfe versus Erskine Caldwell.
-Mickey Spillane versus James Ellroy.
Should any of these people make the cut? Which more stand out?
Saturday, May 14, 2011
One of the hardest things to do when setting up brackets like these is to remain impartial. Or: bias is a given, but we need to work to balance that bias.
For instance, if the last slot comes down to David Foster Wallace or Chuck Palahniuk, which writer goes in?
Both have cult followings. In his fiction, Foster Wallace stands for everything I abhor in postmodern lit. The work of both writers is rather dark. Which writer is more important, influential, and representative of our era?
David Foster Wallace put his mind out there as perhaps no author ever has, pushing the envelope of hyper-stimulated intelligence. What his fans react to more than the works themselves is the sensitivity of the person behind the words. His was a dead-end path, in my estimation, yet Wallace took the path all the way to the end, which ended in his own destruction. A cautionary tale, but in its way, an admirable one.
Palahniuk is a more transparent writer. Does this necessarily mean a shallower one? His warmed-over Nietzscheanism has appeal to young men today. Is there anything remarkable or lasting in it? That's the question.
What happens when we throw Michigan writer Jim Harrison into the mix, who's been shown on these threads to have his share of followers?
One thing Harrison isn't, is a trailblazer. He seems to have burst full-born from Hemingway's head. His best-known work, Legends of the Fall, includes a segment about World War I, and is obviously-- obviously-- a nod to Hem and the Hemingway ethos.
That said, Harrison's work feels more American than either Wallace's or Pahluniak's-- there's more affection for the country, the people, the land. With a mere 64 slots to play with, do we include a local colorist? What, then, about Erskine Caldwell? Bret Harte?
Decisions, decisions. . . .
Wednesday, May 11, 2011
A.) Frank Norris.
B.) John Berryman.
C.) Ray Bradbury.
D.) Margaret Mitchell.
Norris was a great essayist about literature. He also wrote perhaps the greatest American novel, The Octopus.
Bradbury was a master writer at novel or story, wrote the best sci fi ever-- always a metaphor for our own era-- helped popularize the genre and more than anyone made it respectable.
Mitchell wrote possibly the most famous American novel and in it, two characters everyone knows in Rhett and Scarlett.
As for John Berryman, I'm including him because he was probably the best American poet at a time when American poetry was at its apex.
Each of these four, in very different ways, are giants of American literature. I'd have a hard time finding others at this point I could say that about-- though the rest of the crowd isn't lacking for wannabes, or those who came close.
Tuesday, May 3, 2011
To what extent does the approved canon of American literature no longer work?
This question has run through my head several times while putting together brackets for the All-Time American Writer Tournament. How far does one go in respecting the past—or not even the past, but writers of the past approved by literary mandarins now?
John Updike is an example of what I’m talking about. Updike is considered a major literary figure of the last fifty years of our literature—considered so by those who control literature. But these refined persons represent in fact a sliver of the American public. Updike’s world was a narrow world. He never connected with the true mainstream of American culture.
Who in fact are the American writers of past and present that we should be honoring?
Monday, April 25, 2011
Thursday, April 21, 2011
32 SLOTS ARE LEFT
ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITER TOURNAMENT
Choices, choices. Does Truman Capote have a large enough body of work with one great nonfiction book and a handful of decent stories? If so, who does he displace? Joseph “Catch 22” Heller? Herman Wouk? Caine Mutiny’s strawberries are part of the culture. Prolific icon Philip Roth? Richard Yates? Yates wrote a few great stories and at least one pretty good novel. As did J.F. Powers. Richard Wright? Can Wright be left out? Or Thomas Wolfe of a few giant novels? Or observant journalist and novelist Tom Wolfe? “The Right Stuff” and “Bonfire of the Vanities” are terms known by those who haven’t read the books.
We’ll see that 32 places isn’t a lot.
Playwrights? August Wilson? Langston Hughes? Neil Simon??? Will Neil Simon’s plays last? Will David Mamet’s plays last? In any sales job one meets individuals who quote from Mamet: the Glengarry leads; coffee is for closers, and such. Should any past but now largely forgotten playwrights like Clifford Odets get in?
32 slots isn’t a lot.
Why isn’t Ralph Waldo Emerson listed yet? Henry David Thoreau? Theodore Dreiser? Robert Lowell? Erskine Caldwell? Remember Tobacco Road. David Foster Wallace of our own time. Bret Ellis. Henry Miller. Joan Didion. Thomas Pynchon. James Dickey. Updike will likely have to take a space, like it or not. Hart Crane Wallace Stevens John Ashbery (ugh!) William Carlos Williams Maya Angelou Alice Walker James Cain Philip K. Dick IsaacAsimovNormanMailerEdithWhartonBernieMalamudSaulBellowSinclairLewisJamesJonesPearlBuckWilliam(EdgarRice?)Burroughs help!
32 spots isn’t a lot.
Tuesday, April 19, 2011
A.) T.S. Eliot.
B.) Gore Vidal.
C.) Susan Sontag.
D.) Allen Ginsberg.
A.) Harriet Beecher Stowe.
B.) Nathaniel Hawthorne.
C.) William Faulkner.
D.) Robert Frost.
A.) Stephen Crane.
B.) Carl Sandburg.
C.) J.D. Salinger.
D.) Arthur Miller.
A.) Joyce Carol Oates.
B.) James Baldwin.
C.) Charles Bukowski.
D.) Kurt Vonnegut.
This fills out the top half of the bracket. Many spots are left. So far, I've listed very few living writers-- in part because few have a large footprint in society, and because literature itself no longer has a large footprint in society. There are no major figures, with the possible exception of Stephen King, who's a terrible writer. is too limited to have the artistic and intellectual ambition of a Rand or Sontag, has no personality, and breaks no new artistic ground.
Some writers like Chuck Paluhniak, mentioned in a comment on a previous post, have some footprint in the culture. Enough to include them in the brackets, but not ahead of these other figures.
It's not a great time for the art. Eliot gave readings in the 1950's in stadiums. Great poetic talent then, whether from vistors like Dylan Thomas or home grown poets like John Berryman, or fledgling geniuses like Sylvia Plath, was everywhere. Novelists like Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal through the 60's were celebrities. Some, like Susan Sontag, had personality and style. Creative writers were considered major thinkers.
Which creative writer is considered a major thinker now? If I'm missing a couple, please let me know!
Friday, April 15, 2011
A.) Tennessee Williams.
B.) Jack London.
C.) Henry James.
D.) Emily Dickinson.
A.) Kenneth Rexroth.
B.) Sylvia Plath.
C.) Edgar Allan Poe.
D.) John Steinbeck.
Not many surprises, I hope. Rexroth was not only a great poet and essayist, he mentored and influenced the Beats in San Francisco. I don't believe Ginsberg's "Howl" would've been possible without the example of Rexroth's "Thou Shalt Not Kill" before it.
With the rise of the feminist movement in the 1970's, and the publication of Plath's autobiographical novel The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath became something of a pop figure. But, the talent lives up to it. Not only did she master the elements of real poetry, rhythmns, euphony, symbols, but she added an intense insight and energy-- her personality-- to the words. As with Emily D's work, the best poetry is eternal.
Jack London? Possibly the best-known and loved American writer in the rest of the world. Few short story writers equalled his mastery of the form. None were better. Ya gotta also love his dog tales.
Tennessee Williams' plays remain potent and remembered. "Stella!"
Though he took American letters in the wrong direction, IMHO, the stuffy, overwritten, and the self-absorbed, Henry James had too much strong output overall for him to be ignored. Even some semi-pop stuff like "Daisy Miller" and "Turn of the Screw." My favorite James work is "Altar of the Dead." Perfect reading for the depressed!
Poe more-or-less invented the detective story and the horror genre, which we've been stuck with, for good and ill, since.
With such a tournament, the question is still who's been left out.
Wednesday, April 13, 2011
The tournament site became a wild place last Saturday after the #2 seed announcements.
The Big Four dropped back into town so Hemingway could join Scott in the celebration. They held court at the new bistro. Mailer joined the two for a time but couldn't keep up with their drinking. Mailer was last seen staggering out the back door after losing an arm-wrestling contest to a grinning Hemingway. Mailer hasn't been seen since. Scratch one of my commentators.
At the same time, Emily D joined the two friends. She wore a sleek white dress, and spoke to Scott while Hem was engaged in his arm-wrestling.
"I am small like the wren, and my hair is bold," she told Scott, "as is my pen. If you would have the leisure to speak to me, I should feel quick gratitude."
She fell instantly in love with him, but was also intensely intimidated by Scott and by the situation. While Hemingway bellowed nearby.
Fitzgerald's green eyes were indeed entranced by the poet. He gazed at her wistfully-- but two glasses of wine were too much for Emily and she fled back to her room, vowing to ever remain. Scratch my other commentator.
Fitzgerald was later carried off unconscious himself, but has promised not to take another drink while in training. An observer, Raymond Carver, remarked that this "was a good thing. A small thing, but a good thing."
The rest of the night is blurry. Hemingway stood in the middle of the street challenging any writer to a fight. Melville and Twain wondered whether or not to intervene. Just then a dogsled pulled up. Jack London stepped out from behind the pack.
"What's doing?" he asked.
Herman M pointed to swaggering Hem, as if to ask for a favor.
Jack London, an authentic tough guy, knocked the bear out with one punch. Melville thereupon picked up the sprawling writer, threw him over his shoulder, not without difficulty, and the Big Four went back to their camp to resume fishing in the morning.
The night culminated at the coffeeshop across the street, which was packed to the rafters when Jack Kerouac stepped to the podium.
"This reading this coffeeshop this small all-American town incredible big porch big bridge in the mist this Emily Dickinson evening of beatitude writers everywhere without beginning or ending, heavenly, man. O Whitman! O Salinger! O Twain! It's Saturday night all over America.
"I think of Hemingway bears, Scott purple pink ties, Mailer Oates Plath noisemakers hepcat Walt Whitman writers sucking on beers and pipes scratching into paper nutty wild jazzy sweet words people are yelling or whispering blown boom trombone insights and attitudes to the beat of their inner peace,
"I think of soft smart Wharton Eliot Updike Redcoats sky-high with their reps happy to be part of this sacred gathering prayerful celebration,
"I think of all writers everyplace carrying on the tradition, man, karmic drinking of this art this experience, this too-musical too-cool tournament give me the vibe the beat the bebop syncopation keeping me going man while I sneak out the back door back stairs back on the road back into the starry Van Gogh heavenly night."
Next: The #3 and #4 seeds.
Tuesday, April 12, 2011
Thomas Mallon, in a 11/9/09 essay in The New Yorker, called Rand a “crackpot,” and assured his readers that Atlas Shrugged is “badly executed on every level of language, plot, and characterization.”
Really, Mr. Mallon? Every level? Yet that same novel has connected with, stirred, and shaped the minds of huge numbers of readers since the novel was first introduced. An impartial observer would suspect the book, as literature, must be doing something right.
Part of what the critics react to is Rand’s take-no-prisoners politics, her in-your-face defense of Capitalism. But they also react to the way she presents her ideas, which is with boldness, outlining her thesis on a very large scale. These critics are trained by the academy to be genteel and cautious—Mallon is a product of Harvard, Brown, and Radcliffe—and are made uncomfortable by those who break their stiff codes of behavior and style.
In other words, it’s about more than politics. Ayn Rand after all wrote in the 19th century tradition of popular novelists like Dickens, Hugo, and Dumas. These novelists painted with bold colors, embraced large themes, sought to encompass entire societies in their view, and didn’t flinch from melodrama. The American novelist who best carried on this tradition was Frank Norris— anything but an apologist for Big Business.
Ayn Rand’s novels are filled with giant failings. They contain swaths of bad writing. Her characters aren’t realistic. The speeches her heroes engage in go on very long. Rand breaks tons of writing rules. Yet she gets away with it through the power of her voice, and the momentum of the narratives which carry readers along with her, crackpot or not. It’s the essence of literature.
Rand knows how to construct a narrative. Plot threads? There have been few plot threads more effective than “Who is John Galt?”
Ayn Rand had a giant ego but she also had a giant imagination: Galt’s Gulch; the mysteriously efficient motor found in an abandoned factory; the rail line—Rand creates enough myth and mystery to ensure the reader is captured by the book. Throughout is the story—the driving onward movement of plot, best expressed by the thrilling train ride that dominates a large part of the book. But, always, there’s the plot hook: “Who is John Galt?” What’s going on? Rand hangs her wealth of ideas upon this simple plot hook.
Rand isn’t writing anything which looks like an acceptable novel, but she does create an entire aesthetic, an expression of a unique viewpoint. We visualize the happenings of the story. She’s painting as much as writing. Atlas Shrugged evokes post-World War II American modernism, capturing the feeling of hyper-power, hyper-success-- monumental buildings, machines, and ideas representative of the most powerful and successful civilization that ever was. Most writers flinch from the very notion. Yet we live in that civilization. Maybe Ayn Rand is a more realistic writer than we thought.
Her characters, in their way, are equally as monumental. They’re stylized drawings. They’re meant to be ideals. Rand scorned religion but created her own, with its own gods—and asked the readers to be gods. Galt’s Gulch has echoes to H.G. Wells’ giant new humans in “Food of the Gods” escaping to a valley to create their own world. The novel is an obvious metaphor for technological progress.
Beyond this, Ayn Rand celebrates the artist. Curious that she didn’t believe in God. No author more celebrated creation. One of her heroes is a symphonic composer. One can almost hear the notes of his work. The book is filled with such evocative suggestions. The world Rand creates is created inside our heads.
Atlas Shrugged is a monumental, social realism-style painting, but it’s also theater, which is what the long speeches are about. Rand didn’t flinch from using every possible tool in the writer’s toolbox. Yes, she hit you over the head with them—but you stay to the end regardless.
By the end the plot gets a little ridiculous. The representation of ideas is taken too far. But while it lasts, the story is an exciting ride. The philosophy is part of the presentation: the all-encompassing aesthetic contained within the book. It’s all painting. It’s all theater. The book is gestures and clothes and looks and postures. It’s all style—which means nothing more than that Ayn Rand was an artist.
Monday, April 11, 2011
What made F. Scott Fitzgerald’s writing unique?
Two factors. One is that, unlike today’s literary writers, he didn’t craft every sentence to be sparkling, a la John Updike. Much of his work consists of simple declarative sentences intended to advance the narrative, hook the reader, and set up the beautiful passages which stand out in our memories afterward. To use a baseball analogy, Scott Fitzgerald didn’t throw a fastball on every pitch.
Second, because as a youth he read a great deal of literary “pop,” pure unpretentious genre stuff, Fitzgerald was able to meld a pop sensibility with literary craft. This is notable about The Great Gatsby, which contains elements of romance and mystery which could’ve come out of a low-brow detective story. Fitzgerald understood the magic of pop lit, of how to create atmosphere and plot. Gatsby is one of the best-plotted works of fiction ever created.
Instead of writers today trying to duplicate Fitzgerald’s ability, we see instead a polarization of styles of writing. On one hand, purely commercial fiction with no depth of thought, and scant intelligence—no sense of intentionally creating significant fiction or crafting art. On the other extreme are workshopped literary writers who scorn narrative ability, whose focus is not on the reader, but who drop instead into egoistic lands of overwrought sentences about worlds existing inside their heads. What the two poles have in common is a retreat from the world.
Blend the pop and the literary like Fitzgerald did and you’ll resurrect the literary art.
To understand Scott Fitzgerald’s genius, read one of his Basil and Josephine popular stories, “The Captured Shadow.” Because he wasn’t intentionally creating “Literature,” he was freer with this kind of story to entertain himself. His natural ability flows freely. He ends up saying more about art, the mystery and magic of the creation of art—art’s ineffable qualities—than do other writers’ entire novels. Scott Fitzgerald had a pure naive wonder about the world and was able to convey this in his work.
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 even in the same ballpark.
John O'Hara remains highly placed on the lists. I'm actually something of 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 a lot of 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 way 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 good American novelists to consider. Over a hundred who could potentially be chosen. My 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, striking, or dynamic novel. I aim to punish mediocrity and reward ambition.
Friday, April 8, 2011
B.) Ayn Rand. The literary world for sixty years has refused to acknowledge this person, but it's like trying to ignore the sun or the moon. Her influence on America is bigger than what has become quite a tiny literary world. Her ideas and analysis are the world we live in now. America, with its oversized strengths and flaws, its egoism and materialism, is a Randian world. If we as advocates of literature ask literature to be a living part of the civilization, a necessary part of the argument, then Ayn Rand, more than any American writer, past or present, fulfills that role. The Reagan era took its ideas from her. The Tea Party today is part Jefferson, part Jesus, and part Ayn Rand. Atlas Shrugged alone sold a million copies last year. With a movie version due out, that number will only go up. Added note for the p.c. crowd: Ayn Rand was a feminist before there was feminism.
But, the writing? What about the writing? Despite the ostensible logic she claimed to express, Ayn Rand's novels-- even their ideas-- are illusion. Her books are very much works of art. I'll address this next week in a separate post.
C.) Toni Morrison. Morrison allows us to bring American literature to its varied present while at the same time strengthening its tie to the past. Morrison has a unique voice-- a big, loud, American voice-- which at the same time is tied inextricably to founding American authors like Herman Melville and Harriet Beecher Stowe. If Ayn Rand's viewpoint is part of the contemporary American argument, then so is Morrison's. Besides, Toni Morrison isn't just a renowned novelist. She's also a dominating essayist, and has even written the libretto for an opera-- "Margaret Garner"-- which I saw presented in Detroit in 2008. I was blown away by it.
D.) Jack Kerouac. As dynamic a persona, as mythic a person, and as American a voice as anyone. On the Road, his most influential book, is quintessentially American. As much as any work of literature, it captures and defines this country, which has always, always, been about the open road-- the impulse toward freedom, the need to travel ever farther. Where, we're not always sure. Fitzgerald called it a green light. Kerouac expressed the driving and striving on a more visceral level.
Thursday, April 7, 2011
A REPORT FROM THE VENUE
There's a palpable buzz in town today. People suspect something big may occur. I figure they've heard the loud voices coming from the Selection Committee room. But there've been other happenings. Among them:
-Several mysterious writer figures have booked into the Grand Hotel.
-The Poetry community, practitioners of the art who've taken up residence in the area, have undergone a change in mood. Initially euphoric that one of their number was the second name chosen, they've now dropped, as is their nature, to the other extreme. Speculation exists that it'll be many seeds before another poet makes the brackets. I've heard grumbling. "Where's Eliot?" they've asked. "At least Eliot! Or Poe? How can you leave out Poe?" I don't tell them that Poe's entry, when it occurs, will have more to do with his fabulous stories than his poetry.
-At the same time, a coffeeshop is poised to open at the end of the main street. Poetry advocates have been seen inside, directing workmen. There've been arguments about where to place the tables. Poets, as is their nature, seldom agree about anything. The poets must see the coffeeshop as a way to lobby for their kind. Poets have been known to host impromptu readings at such places.
-The Big Four have been conveniently sent out of town to scout for pine trees. Good American pine will be needed to construct the outdoor arena in which the matches will take place. Before they left, Herman Melville was seen to duck quickly back into the Grand Hotel, possibly to see one of the new visitors. All is speculation! Then the four left. Hemingway was grinning, impossibly happy to be with his new compatriots. They're supposed to locate tracts of pine, but word in town is that instead they've gone hunting and fishing.
-Some of the writers-- Joyce Carol Oates among them-- have located an exercise room in the basement of the old hotel. I dropped in to take a look. It's not at all like a modern gym, but instead has equipment last used in the 19th century-- dumbbells and boxing gloves. When I glanced around I saw Mary McCarthy, or someone who looked like Mary McCarthy, using the heavy gloves to punch out a silhouette of Lillian Hellman. Oates watched, egging the burgundy-haired woman on. "Bunny" Wilson the lit critic-- an extreme longshot to make the event-- stood by as well.
-Emily D, overwhelmed by the excitement of past days, has taken to her room. She's assured me through her new friend, Sylvia Plath, that she'll be back as guest commentator as soon as she's able.
-In the meantime I've been forced to take on as Emily's temporary replacement, Norman Mailer. He must sense that he'll not be chosen in the next few brackets, and so has time on his hands, is eager for any way to gain the spotlight. Or, as he explained to me,
"I reluctantly concluded that with the inevitable reaction against maleness, of which I'm of course the embodiment, as well as being the essentially pre-eminent literary figure of his time, I, Mailer, caught in this really predictable and shitty existential crisis of identity, this primordial mentality truly American, American-ness sense of existential angst-- dread, dread!-- the mountains of critical response to this figure Mailer who's always stood independently for this instinctively pure essence of writer, I say essence because it's so anally basic, this maw of warm shit excreting itself from the corpus of the art, the community, expressing itself against this symbol of male willness, I, Mailer. . . ."
This isn't what he said exactly. I'm giving a shortened facsimile. If I were to post his full explanation for why he's signed on as a substitute commentator, I wouldn't have enough space.
Even Mailer senses the electricity in the streets. That something, as early as tonight, is about to break. I hope to be able to give a report, as well as an announcement of the #2 seeds, within the next couple days.
Wednesday, April 6, 2011
The other two #1 seeds:
3.) 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." 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.
4.) Mark Twain. I 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 heard from.
THE PRESS CONFERENCE
As I prepare to introduce the four bigs-- #1 seeds-- to the expectant crowd, I look around for my newly booked commentator, Emily Dickinson ("Emily D"). I notice she's been cornered by Mailer, who while clenching and unclenching his fists and talking nonstop is explaining to Emily why he should've been a top seed and up on that stage. I think, Emily! Emily D is very talented and very cute, but she's not very worldly.
The Four are invited to step to the microphone to make a few remarks.
Hemingway: "It was an honor. It was a surprise but it was also an honor. It was not a surprise at all but he said it was because he didn't want people thinking he wasn't humble. It was easier to be humble. He didn't want to think about not being humble."
Whitman: "You who celebrate bygones! I, habitan of a cemetary in Camden, treating of himself as he is in his cups, Chanter of verse, I project the history of this contest, the great pride of this man in himself, Cheerful-- knowing this man Walt Whitman will win."
Melville: (Melville declines the opportunity to speak, but instead remains in his chair on stage, puffing on a pipe and observing the proceedings like a bemused sea captain surprised to be on land.)
Twain: "I had a lurking suspicion that Ernie Hemingway was a myth, that there never was such a fantastic personage. I asked old Wheeler about him, and he said it reminded him of the infamous Jim Hemingway last seen flexing his neck muscles around the barroom stove in Algonac due south and over a bridge from here. Big-bearded big-headed Jim backed Wheeler into a corner then sat him down and reeled off a monotonous narrative about flyfishing in a river not ten miles from this very spot. A fishing story, we used to call it. The one that got away. But no fishing story like the one Herm Melville on this stage has been known to tell." (Twain takes a puff from his own pipe.) "Fishing stories! You propose to defeat this old riverboat captain with fishing stories. Good luck."
In this town's local barroom afterward, three of the Big Four stand around a stove telling yarns. Across from me, Emily D sips from sherry in a glass, the sherry the color of her eyes. "I taste a liquor never brewed," she confides.
I've known many poets and they're a strange bunch.
"What do you think of this event so far?" I ask, gesturing toward where Mark Twain holds court, where even Melville stands listening, four giant men in the small wood room-- Mailer trying to butt into the conversation rises barely to the others' shoulders. Emily gazes around the little tavern.
"Such a delirious whirl!" she says.
Tuesday, April 5, 2011
Two American writers were so gigantic in standing and influence, even on the world stage, that they're automatic #1 seeds. Both of them, in ways good and bad, helped define what it is to be American.
1.) Ernest Hemingway. Possibly the biggest writer persona ever. In his day he was a bigger figure than movie stars and pop singers. Instantly recognizable. Larger than life. A giant part of the culture. He destroyed the effete image of literature. He had popular best-sellers but was also a critical darling. He defined, at least for a while, the American voice-- and in many ways transformed the English language. Even the Brits weren't the same after Hemingway. In America, the hard-boiled detective genre sprang from a single Hemingway short story. ("The Killers.") Hemingway began as an underground writer, the artistic creation of Sherwood Anderson, Gertrude Stein, and Ezra Pound. He took from his mentors, synthesized their ideas and made them accessible to the world. It's impossible for us today to understand how revolutionary was the early Hemingway sound. Though much of his work today is dated, his best stuff holds up-- his "Macomber" story one of the most exciting tales ever written; his top novels, "Sun" and "Farewell" striking reads also.
2.) Walt Whitman. More than any other single writer, Walt Whitman created the American voice and justified a distinctive American literature very different from its Old World models. Beyond that, he transformed the art of poetry on a world scale. Many consider him the father of free verse. Not just his art, but his persona was distinctively American. "Leaves of Grass" was every bit as revolutionary an artistic happening as anything Hemingway wrote. Or, for that matter, Allen Ginsberg and the Beats, who would've been impossible without Whitman blazing the trail before them. Whitman was the first hippie. He lived during a time when poetry was popular, and he was the most popular poet. The American character is a mix of several influences. Whitman is surely one of them.
Those are the two automatics. This leaves us with two more slots to fill. Who else is on their lofty level? There are several candidates. The literary establishment surely wants Henry James up there-- but he has a couple strikes against him. Other names seem to fit more comfortably as #2 or #3 seeds. Then there are the Nobel Prize winners, but some of the winners have been quite mediocre. I have a rough idea of who else belongs at the top of the seeding, but am willing first to hear remarks. (After all four top seeds are determined, there will be a news conference, at our venue site, at which I hope to get a few remarks from the big four.)
Monday, April 4, 2011
Who are other “bad guys”? Everyone hates Joyce Carol Oates, so I have her penciled in to the bad guy role also. Then there are some obvious “Boo! Hiss!” characters such as Ezra Pound and his tag-team partner, T.S. “The Fop” Eliot. As Ayn Rand seems to be heavily disliked, and carries the egomania of an effective bad guy, we’ll have her play that part as well. She used to stampede around in real life wearing a cape and using a cigarette holder, so she’d gladly play the part in the tournament.
“Good guys” by definition are a bland lot. In literature we have Emily D, John Steinbeck, Pearl Buck, Harriet Beecher Stowe of course, and possibly social conscience guys like Arthur Miller and Carl Sandburg. Miller, anyway, will have a female manager who was a bit of a celebrity herself. That will add some melodrama.
Anti-heroes? Jack Kerouac for sure, and likely Stephen Crane and Walt Whitman.
Then we have the Divas, which is where I put Allen Ginsberg, “Glamor Boy” Scott Fitzgerald, Sylvia Plath, and J.D. Salinger. The hard part will be getting Salinger into the ring. One can see a sneering Hemingway waiting for him, accusing him of cowardice and such—though if Salinger avoids disqualification and enters the ring he might do fairly well.
(Please check previous posts for more on what the tournament’s about.)
Friday, April 1, 2011
Sinclair Lewis? Anne Sexton? Pearl Buck? David Mamet? Zora Neale Hurston? Fanny Hurst? Maya Angelou? John "The Mummy" Updike? Charlie Bukowski? Ezra Pound? Carl Sandburg? Gertrude Stein? Sherwood Anderson? Truman Capote? Zane Grey? Herman Wouk? James Jones? Ray Bradbury? James Cain? James Fenimore Cooper? Harriet Beecher Stowe? Isaac Asimov? Ayn Rand? Mario Puzo? John Berryman? Bernard Malamud? Richard Wright? Ray Carver? Raymond Chandler? Lillian Hellman? Mary McCarthy? Katherine Anne Porter? Any contemporary poets? Any fantasy writers? Let's have some names!
In the meantime, we'll start on the easy part-- the #1 seeds. Coming next.
Tuesday, March 29, 2011
To celebrate the “Final Four” in college basketball, I’ve decided to put together my own tournament—this one to decide the all-time top American writer. It’s a big project. I’ll need help.
How it will work: 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. I’ll 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.
I haven’t decided 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. Probably not 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 no great impact at all.
Which brings us to the question of what places a writer above another. I’ve sketched out what I 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 and parcel of the writer’s impact. I 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?
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.
In this discussion, what am I leaving out?
Next: Will be a discussion of what makes a “1” seed, and whether there are any automatic #1’s, as, say, Tolstoy would presumably be an automatic #1 in an all-time Russian writer tournament.
Monday, March 28, 2011
Okay, here we go. After much deliberation, these are the Prize Winners of the First Pop Lit Story Opening Contest:
FIRST PRIZE: Anthony Jones for “The Diadem.”
First Prize is the Elvis 3-dvd set.
SECOND PRIZE: XXXXXXXX for “Glas.”
Second Prize is the cd reading of J.D. Salinger’s “Teddy” from http://frankmarcopolos.com
THIRD PRIZE: Tom Hendricks for “3.”
Third Prize is a copy of the very rare "Pop Literary Gazette,” which came out in 1998.
All three winning entries fit the contest requirement of being a good opening to a story—the hook, the lead-in, is all.
The typo in “3” was enough to bump it to third, in my estimation.
That left the tiebreaker between the other two. For me, “The Diadem” was just a tad tighter in execution. But I could’ve flipped a coin and not done wrong.
(I have a rough idea who “XXXXXXXX” is. If he’s not tracked down, then awards will be adjusted accordingly—Len Kuntz will move up to Third.)
I’d like the thank the three judges for doing a fine job—and all the entrants as well. There was much very good from which to choose.
JUDGES SELECTIONS AND REMARKS
Hello, Everyone. Glad to participate with you guys in this fun contest. I am glad to see some familiar faces in the entries!
I am not sure if I am supposed to send my top three to all, but here we go:
1. Tom Hendricks (my favorite)
2. David Biddle
3. Wred Fright
Now I asked if we should include comments or explanations, and I am willing to discuss/debate my reasons if anyone is interested.
-I think that these three entries had a minimal amount of spelling/grammar mistakes, they were pretty clean.
-I could actually see these three entries as "openers", as a launching point, a foundation on which to build a longer work.
-In general, the openers were diverse, and interesting. Some just did not suck me in at all. But for the most part, good effort.
-Tom Hendricks' entry was simple, but had an element of poetry, it was broad and gave me the sense of a panoramic about to close in soon on characters and settings about to unfold. I think he got it, and delivered.
He did not feel the need to rush into details, the way some others did. His opening was easing, coaxing, prodding.
Some of the others felt like a rush to throw shit, like an eviction... not welcoming, not establishing a zone at all.
David Biddle's entry had an element of quirkiness that gave me the sense that a longer work could expand on the setting he established, and the suggestion of sex to come was a good hook.
It was a bit of a yawn yuppie read, with some of the trademarks of the chick-lit so many are going for.. but that IS an important market right now. And this is "pop lit" so I let go of my distaste for the style and on the merit of an opener, I ranked it second.
Wred Fright is obviously a friend of the crowd, and I did not want to give him more sway- but his entry was funny. The reason that I ranked it third is because I don't think the tone and gimmick is sustainable.
I could see Wred Fright doing a collection of similar stories, in which this would be one. But I don't see a long work coming from it without some re-thinks.
Glas by XXXXXX -- this was so well done that I found myself writing multiple continuation storylines in my head to this opener. I could see it as a TV show script, a movie, or a good book.
Storm Lake by Len Kuntz -- Smoothly and professionally written as though he plucked a book off his shelf and typed out the first paragraph. Tons of depth, background, emotion, and struggle. This is the kind of book that would be in Oprah's Book Club.
Bob's Escape by msandidge -- A true starter: it sucks the reader right into the scene, it creates tension, sets up a plot, and makes the reader wonder what the escape is and what the hell the place is. Nicely done for under 200 words.
There were others that I enjoyed, but were more self-contained shorts than starters as required by contest rules. A couple of the scifi oriented ones had promise, but were not as well written.
Thanks so much for the inclusion. I had fun reading these. I always love Lynn's perspective and her comments made me go back and take a second look at several of them. If for any reason the above picks don't qualify due to anonymity, let me know and I'll nominate another.
1.) The Diadem by Anthony Jones
2.) Untitled by John Bobst
3.) Storm Lake by Len Kuntz
My only criterion was: does this opening make me care about the story and want to read more? My 3 picks did that the best, in my opinion, obviously.
I know that the criterion is somewhat vague, but I believe that in this deconstructionist culture, the creation of literature should still have some sense of the mysterious to it.
Winners, please contact me via this blog’s email! I need mailing addresses to mail out your prizes. (I have Tom Hendricks email—not the other two.)
Thanks! And thanks again to all who participated.
Friday, March 25, 2011
Those tied, in alphabetical order, are
(I may not have gotten the right number of x's! If Mr. x isn't tracked down after the tiebreaker, his prize will go to Mr. Kuntz.)
It's a sign of the variety and quality of the entries that the selections were diverse. We didn't get a huge number of entries. Those received were very very good.
I'll announce the tie on a couple blogs, in a few forums, then ask for input from the audience, and from the other contestants themselves.
The contest is thus held open until next Monday or Tuesday, at which time I'll weigh in and decide who gets what prize. Judges selections and remarks will also be posted at that time.
I make no promise as to final result between the three. If it were up to me, I would've chosen Emerson Dameron's entry! It was attention getting, and he has the best author name of any entrant-- no small consideration, in a world where gaining notice-- if you're a writer in a crowded field-- is so important. :) (Lady Gaga didn't enter the contest.)
(Post your suggestions et.al. on this thread.)