Monday, April 25, 2011


I'll be taking a break from the Tournament for the rest of the week-- but please stay tuned.

Thursday, April 21, 2011




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

More Tournament Seeding

At this stage, the order in which I put these writers is arbitrary. Nearly all need to be in the tournament someplace. The hard choices have yet to be made.

#5 Seeds:

A.) T.S. Eliot.
B.) Gore Vidal.
C.) Susan Sontag.
D.) Allen Ginsberg.

#6 Seeds:

A.) Harriet Beecher Stowe.
B.) Nathaniel Hawthorne.
C.) William Faulkner.
D.) Robert Frost.

#7 Seeds:

A.) Stephen Crane.
B.) Carl Sandburg.
C.) J.D. Salinger.
D.) Arthur Miller.

#8 Seeds:

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

#3 and #4 Seeds


#3 Seeds:

A.) Tennessee Williams.

B.) Jack London.

C.) Henry James.

D.) Emily Dickinson.

#4 Seeds:

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

Tournament Update


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

The Ayn Rand Problem

The complete dismissal of Ayn Rand’s novels by contemporary literary critics like Thomas Mallon says more about the narrow intellectual world in which these critics live, than it does about Rand’s work.

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

Fitzgerald’s Writing

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.  

The Novelists

When creating a tournament like this, one has to deal with a critical consensus that has decided which are the great works and great authors. Look at their selections, and you'll see that while a few undeniable masterpieces are included, the overall judgement is purely arbitrary. The resulting lists are badly skewed, and have more to do with academic and media trends and biases in place when the works were written. Once on the "list," the work never gets off.

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

The #2 Seeds

A.) F. Scott Fitzgerald. With Fitzgerald the case to be made is why he isn't a #1 seed. For two reasons. First, he didn't influence and express the American voice to the same extent as the four. Nobody talks like Fitzgerald or writes like him. Being the best means being unique-- and I think he's the best American writer, if not the most important. Second, Fitzgerald has never been as big on a world scale as the others. Other cultures have never quite "gotten" him-- a sign of how truly American he is. Still, he's never been more appreciated than now-- another Gatsby movie upcoming-- and his work can become more influential, if writers understand exactly what he did and how he did it. I'll address his writing in another post.

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

Latest Tournament News



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

First Press Conference


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.

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

The #1 Seeds


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

Good Guys and Bad Guys

Yes, I’m supposed to start discussing the #1 seeds for the All-Time American Writer Tournament. But as I was thinking about Ernest Hemingway—a likely #1 seed—I pondered whether he would be a good guy or a bad guy, if, say, the tournament were similar to Wrestlemania. I believe Hem would relish being a villain.

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.

Other ideas?
(Please check previous posts for more on what the tournament’s about.)

Friday, April 1, 2011

Who's Good Enough?

Who's good enough to make the tournament? Certain writers are gimmes-- but 64 spots, when you start listing writers, isn't a lot. The American Pop Lit Competition Committee hasn't decided if there will be a play-in game. Who should we start thinking about?

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.