Tuesday, March 29, 2011

All-Time American Writer Tournament

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.


  1. Love your idea! But what about this mixing of genres? Is it akin to pitting a hockey team against a basketball team in the NCAA tournament? Hemingway v. Vonnegut would be hard enough to call, even if they went head-to-head on novels only. Also, since I'm more a fan of the Frozen Four than the Final Four, I'm intrigued by the possibility that a writer could be called for some illegal (possibly unsportsmanlike moves). And I'd LOVE to see Updike ejected. Barr Bielinski--not anonymous, I only have a disqus profile--need to set up one of these.

  2. The possibilities are endless, as you outline. I expect to explore them in the filling in of the brackets, then in the competition itself, where I'll have a random selection of individuals like yourself decide the head-to-head contests. Yes, DQ's will be allowed!
    Updike will first have to make the tournament. As far as I'm concerned that's not a gimme-- but we'll see.