Thursday, March 3, 2011

The 100 Greatest Writers Of All Time! 100!

Alex Carnevale, at his website This Recording, makes no bones about his likes and dislikes in the cultural stew. His posts, all with Thackeray-style headlines beginning "In Which ..." (a tip-off, that one: as in, "In Which The Beat Generation Was A Good Thing If Nothing Else Was Happening") mostly find targets and tangents in popular culture he finds increasingly not to his liking. A sample from Carnevale's beat generation entry noted above, more bluntly subtitled "The Jew and The Goy":

The cultish obsession over Jack Kerouac, and to a lesser extent, Allen Ginsberg, has always been somewhat repulsive to me. Along with their revolting friend William Burroughs, the two shared an undeniable talent for writing, however unshapen and malodorous it was at times. Although Burroughs was the most talented of the three, they all wrote important but flawed works that undeniably captivated a great number of people. ...

Carnevale and co-editor Will Hubbard have plenty of help viewing culture in the fogged rear-view mirror: "I'm always mystified how rubber-faced Tim Robbins became the leading man of early '90s satires" (that's Karina Wolf, writing about Altman's 1992 film The Player), for example. On Woody Allen: "Woody is obsessed with rich people, but his obsession is still one of petty jealousy mixed with hostile admiration." That's Molly Lambert, who goes on in her review of Allen's Cassandra's Dream (2007) to write "it was really much better than I expected, perhaps because I expected so little."

The hunting of the snark -- on and on it goes. So I was interested to come across Alex's 2009 list -- to put it in its proper context, "In Which These Are The 100 Greatest Writers Of All Time." Anyone who proposes a ranking greatest list of writers (of all time!) is asking for it, whatever it may be. The guilty-pleasure-meter was high as I waded into the ranks. I won't spoil your anticipation by revealing surprises; you can read the entire ranking here. Be prepared: the jostle at the top is fierce, and may cause nervous hiccups. Yes, it was published in 2009 ... most of these greats are no longer here to throw drinks, still, and who are we to argue?

But in fairness, there are pockets of the site filled with less hyperbole and more interesting reading, as in This Recording's recent series on advice from writers to writers, mostly from interview source material. Here for example, is an excerpt of William Faulkner answering questions of students in a writing class at the University of Mississippi in 1947. The instructor of the class was not allowed in the room for the hour, so students could ask more freely.

Faulkner and Eudora Welty

... Q: Are we degenerating?

WF: No. Reading is something that is in a way necessary like heaven or a clean collar, but not important. We want culture but don't want to go to any trouble to get it. We prefer reading condensations.

Q: That sounds like a slam on our way of living.

WF: Our way of living needs slamming. Everybody's aim is to help people, turn them to heaven. You write to help people. The existence of this class in creative writing is good in that you take time off to learn to write and you are in a period where time is your most valuable possession.

Q: What is the best age for writing?

WF: For fiction the best age is from 35-45. Your fire is not all used up and you know more. Fiction is slower. For poetry the best age is from 17 to 26. Poetry writing is more like a skyrocket with all your fire condensed in one rocket.

Q: How about Shakespeare?

WF: There are exceptions. ....

Faulkner, finding time to write

Q: How do you find time to write?

WF: You can always find time to write. Anybody who says he can't is living under false pretenses. To that extent depend on inspiration. Don't wait. When you have an inspiration put it down. Don't wait until later and when you have more time and then try to recapture the mood and add flourishes. You can never recapture the mood with the vividness of its first impression.

Q: How long does it take you to write a book?

WF: A hack writer can tell. As I Lay Dying took six weeks. The Sound and The Fury took three years. ...

Q: Whom do you consider the five most important contemporary writers?

WF: 1. Thomas Wolfe. 2. Dos Passos. 3. Ernest Hemingway. 4. Willa Cather. 5. John Steinbeck.

Q: If you don't think it too personal, how do you rank yourself with contemporary writers?

WF: 1. Thomas Wolfe: he had much courage and wrote as if he didn't have long to live; 2. William Faulkner; 3. Dos Passos; 4. Ernest Hemingway: he has no courage, has never crawled out on a limb. He has never been known to use a word that might cause a reader to check with a dictionary to see if it is properly used. 5. John Steinbeck: at one time I had great hopes for him - now I don't know.

For more interviews and writing advice from James Baldwin to Anton Chekov to Gertrude Stein to Don DeLillo, the multi-part series is found
here. It's worth a browse, if just for the photo of V. Nabokov afield with his butterfly net. (Photos from This Recording.)

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