Which Living Writers Are Sure-Thing Hall of Famers?
Last Thursday, I must’ve sent two dozen people a variation on that question above, usually in the form “Name me ten living ‘Hall of Fame’ writers.” No explanation, no context, nothing. I was curious as to who people would name, what biases would come through, which authors would start debates.
And I figured I could get a post—and a decent number of Survey Monkey responses—to this very simple idea. Which living authors would make a Writers Hall of Fame ?
There are a lot of interesting ways to analyze this, which I will totally do below, including an incredibly well-articulated set of standards from one of the people who responded, but first, some context might be in order.
As you probably know, this is New York Review Books month at Three Percent. Which typically means that every week I read a different book from the featured region/publisher/author/whatever, and write a post that sort of hinges on that book, but mostly goes off the rails.
With NYRB, my initial plan was to write a post this week about all the “original” titles that they’ve done in translation, and then focus on the retranslations next week, after I finish reading the first volume of Anniversaries. And to supplement those shambolic posts, I’ll be running interviews with Nick During, Edwin Frank, and Damion Searls. (And possibly Sara Kramer? Ambitious month!)
In thinking through how to frame this week’s post—and the upcoming interview with Edwin—I spent some time thinking about how I think about NYRB. Like, what makes a book an NYRB book in my mind?
One criteria that came to mind is the one that Dalkey Archive always touted, that Archipelago repeats, and that most presses that value quality over immediate sales success tend to turn to: Books that will still be read and discussed a hundred years from now.
Which, in fairness, is really good grant copy.
But, in not so fairness, is sort of specious.
Given how crap the publishing industry is at predicting successes (if you could control for budget, publisher influence, and other external influences, I’ll bet the randomness of what takes off and what doesn’t would really stand out), how can any of us know what the trends will be like one century from now? (When there are no more clouds, will books even matter?)
And yet, and yet. I look at NYRB’s list—of books in translation, and ones written in English—and I get the sense that as long as there are English Departments, a certain set of readers will fall in love with some of these books. Because, a lot of the authors they publish (Walser, Adler, Henry Green, Machette, Uwe Johnson, Stoner) are “Hall of Fame” writers.
Yes, there is an American Writers Museum (and “writers museums” in other parts of the world), and there are canons (I guess? These are basically the books you read in generic high schools, right? Like the “traditional canon” is the “Replacement Level Classic” that modern and postmodern classics outpace in “Value Above Replacement”? HELLO SABERMETRIC NERDS), but neither of those things are a Hall of Fame in the way that the Baseball Hall of Fame is, or the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame is. (Or the Rochester Music Hall of Fame, which, yes, is a thing, whereas an International Writers Hall of Fame is not.)
What would such a thing look like? NO IDEA. Except that I hope it wouldn’t be in Cleveland.
But can I envision a space populated by plaques and collectables by authors that a board of “experts” helps vote into the Hall of Writers? SURE, WHY NOT.
For all of these HoFs, one of the main criteria is that the player/author/rock band has already made their mark and their career is more or less done. Sure, a baseball player could be inducted, then go on to become an amazing manager; and maybe Pearl Jam will be relevant again? (More of column A than B in this case?) Point being: It’s easy to say that James Baldwin and Virginia Woolf and XYZ deserve to be in the Hall. It’s much, much harder to predict who’s writing today who will finish their career and be “hall-worthy”—on the first ballot.
(Speaking of ballots, if you’re sick of all these words, just go vote here.)
I am going to share with you all of the names that were proposed from the one thousand four hundred and seventeen people (approximately) who I messaged last week. But, as interesting as those names might be, I think the process of thinking through what criteria the IWHOF (International Writers Hall of Fame) voters should employ is much more interesting.
First, one more thing: Why only 10 living writers?
Answers: A) Because picking only 10 is HARD; B) Because I sort of think I heard once that there are 10 sure-fire HOFs playing in MLB at any given moment. There may be as many as 40, but the majority of those are building their case, getting in on their last year of eligibility, etc. I wanted to focus on the guaranteed writers who would make it. Could Richard Powers be elected to the IWHOF? FOR SURE. But has he done enough already? Maybe? Maybe he would get in on his third year of eligibility, or on his last. (Assuming the IWHOF ran in a format similar to the Baseball Hall of Fame.)
[Sorry, but one more digression: I have no idea how other Hall of Fames work. I feel like there’s a book about this, but you know what? I haven’t read it, so D’Agata is not on my personal IWHOF list. Also, it’s more fun to just speculate about how shit works. If there’s one upside to living in a post-fact world, that’s probably it. Sure, I could look that up, or I could ignorantly make some mostly-believable points, which will be good enough for 55% of readers. SOLD.]
Obviously, this whole post is building up to a survey through which I can get the temperature of Three Percent readers (THE SMARTEST READERS) and share all the results with all of you. (For those keeping track at home, that’s two posts coming from one question, which is a total win, given that I write all of these late at night when I should be doing that Netflix + chill thing.) But first, I want to pose a few questions and then present you with the most interesting breakdown of criteria that I received.
Should the IWHOF be a large hall, or a small hall?
In other words, how many inductees should there be per year? Let’s say that you elect 10 authors per year. It’ll take 10 years to get to 100 authors. Out of how many thousands of worthy writers?
Would there be a mechanism for inducting obvious, “old,” writers?
AKA, “Do we need to vote in Shakespeare?” Is there a baseline of . . . 100? . . . 50? . . . authors we can just slide in there? That seems like a logical first step, except how it impacts the next point.
Should the voting committee measure the authors they’re voting on to standards of the past, or the trends of today?
This is the fundamental problem with the Baseball HOF. Every position, every era has it’s own set of standards. A catcher in 2019 is not the same as a catcher in 1950. And not just because we now have the technological resources to evaluate the catcher’s impact on the game via framing. (And someday via pitch calling.) Life was different in 1950. This opens up a PC/Woke quandary of how to treat authors who were racist/misogynistic/classist/etc. and yet were very important, or influential, authors of their time period.
Personally, I’d advocate for a “large” hall that inducted 10 new authors and 20 legacy authors every year, and that included assholes, but made reference to their assholery in some way shape or form, while also articulating the reasons that they advanced the art of the written word. I know it’s controversial to say this, but those who speak the cock’s language can sometimes come up with literary forms/structures/techniques that others can then employ. It’s not all about content; it’s also about craft.
The only people I’m going to name publicly here are Rhea Lyons and David Pomerico. Rhea is a former student turned long-time friend, who works at Hannigan, Salky, and Getzler now, and has previously worked at Random House, Rodale, and Franklin and Siegal Associates. Her husband, David, is very into baseball (which, YES, YES, LET’S DO A BILL JAMES BIOGRAPHY), and works at Harper Voyager and has shitty ass takes about Twin Peaks. (Sorry. Not actually sorry.)
Since David is baseball nerd cum book nerd, they tried to apply the JAWS system to writers to determine their ten living shoe-in writers. Here is what they sent me:
- Consistency of Output: every single thing they write is anticipated and a bestseller—we don’t have GRRM [Chad Note: I assume this acronym means “dragons”] on this list because we think he had an early career ending injury with his writers block;
- Length of Career;
- Peak: at one point they were the #1 but then they never fully dropped off, like we don’t have Erik Larson on this list because we think he had an MVP season with Devil in the White City and never fully recovered like the other writers on this list;
- Sales: “We” hate that we are putting James Patterson on this list and I know it will piss you off but David says he’s Eddie Murray [Chad Note: Well, I would prefer George Carlin];
- Name Recognition;
- Volume AKA Consistent Performance: certain writers like Donna Tartt, Rushdie, Eugenides, didn’t quite make this list because they have only published a few books, even though they may be brilliant, they aren’t as consistent as the ones on our list;
- and to be clear we are naming people who are still at Hall of Fame level right this minute.
Here’s my only complaint about this set of criteria: It values sales above internal impact. If a book changes your life, does it get bonus points in terms of “sales”? A person named Waxman told me “when I think of the books that have changed how I thought, they’re not really by authors I think are the best. Which is weird.”
Which, to make this too complicated, indicates that there are 1) authors who IWHOF because sales; 2) those who change lives; and 3) those who do something that’s neither but who mean a lot in the long run.
Let’s share some names!
First off, here are Rhea and David’s nominations—of LIVING WORKING IWHOF WRITERS—using their criteria:
Very Western! Almost totally white!
But if you think they’re alone, here’s a compilation of all the other names that I was sent, which, because there’s a very small percentage of people in the world who would put up with me and be my friend, there was a lot of overlap.
In order of how I’m finding these names in my texts:
Antonio Lobo Antunes
“Why are you asking me this question?”
Karl Ove Knausgaard
“I am now thinking of others”
“I thought you were asking me a sports question and I was very angry”
I’m certain I missed a DM in there but whatever. Here’s a very Western, rather Male list to spark your voting. So go for it! You’re on the inaugural IWHOF committee and need to name ten living authors who should be elected to the first class . . .
In other words, you should fill this out!