Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The #12 Seeds


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

Public Intellectuals

There used to be a term for independent writers like Susan Sontag. They were known as "public intellectuals." The term, I suppose, could be used to refer to writers of ideas as diverse as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Gore Vidal.

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

The Problem of Now

The difficulty in choosing contemporary writers for the All-Time American Writer Tournament is the way writing has become the academic "literary" art, on one hand, and the crassly commercial on the other. Nowhere is this divide better seen than in the realm of poetry.

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

The Brackets

The list of the seedings to date can be found on the right of this page, under "The Seedings."

How do they look so far? Is any period overrepresented? Do we need more contemporary writers?

The next groups of names will be difficult.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The #10 Seeds

Are there giants left out there who aren't yet in the tournament?

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

Play-In Matches

Some proposed matches between similar writers as a way to winnow down the pack:

-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

David Foster Wallace or Chuck Palahniuk?


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

The #9 Seeds


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

Reinventing the Canon

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?