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Help Me Write: What Constitutes Literary Importance?

Author Kevin J. Hayes has been very busy writing American Literature: A Very Short Introduction, but he needs your help. Find out what you can do below.

Last week I boasted to friends that I had written my first blog. Longtime bloggers may find my sense of accomplishment overblown, but last week’s blog did mark my entry to this innovative world of communication. Being new to the blogosphere, I was unsure what kind of responses I would receive. As things turned out, the comments were quite useful. They point to a major problem facing American Literature: A Very Short Introduction. This little book about a big topic requires me to make some tough choices. Who should I include? Who can I exclude? Where should I discuss each author?

Responding to my query about American travel writers, James suggested I include Hunter S. Thompson. Though a great Thompson fan, I am excluding him from the travels chapter. Instead, I’ll put him with novels. The sixties took the postmodern novel to a dead end, but it gave rise to an exciting literary movement: New Journalism. For a time, journalists exceeded novelists in terms of literary virtuosity. As a digression in my novels chapter, I will discuss the work of such writers as Truman Capote, Peter Maas, Tom Wolfe, and Hunter S. Thompson.

Ideally, I would like to discuss every author only once. But what should I do about authors who wrote in different genres? Pick their most important genre and ignore the others? Only major figures who excelled in multiple genres can justify separate discussions. Take Henry James for instance. Best known as a novelist, James was also a fine travel writer and memoirist. I can justify discussing James in two or three different places, but I do not have room to discuss every genre of every author.

So, here are my questions. Which American authors excelled in more than one literary genre? Where should I discuss them? Are they important enough to deserve discussion in more than one chapter? Boy, that’s a loaded question. Here’s a more fundamental one: what constitutes literary importance?

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Recent Comments

  1. Kirsty

    I don’t know about literary importance, but how about some of the wonderful American female writers like Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, and Kate Chopin? Chopin for one seemed equally at home writing novels and short stories… are those genres different enough?

  2. Kevin J. Hayes

    Kirsty, I agree that Cather, Chopin, and Wharton are important authors worthy of inclusion. I have already put Wharton in my novels chapter. I am saving Chopin’s “The Awakening” for my conclusion, which will look at famous endings in American literature. The example of Cather illustrates the difficulties I outlined in this blog. Besides being a novelist, she was a fine essayist and travel writer, too. She also ghosted S.S. McClure’s autobiography. Right now I plan to discuss the McClure book in my autobiography chapter, but that hardly seems to do justice to Cather. I may have to put “Death Comes for the Archbishop” in my conclusion. Suddenly it seems I am already saving too many works for my conclusion.

  3. Daren Young

    What is it about the American literary scene in the 20th c. (it seems that’s where your problem rests) that has encouraged multi-generic authors, i.e., authors who not only felt permitted to write in multiple genres, but whose diverse contributions were welcomed by publishers? Was this a function of the rise of writers qua celebrities? Or the maturing of the mass-market press? Or some factor I’ve yet to think of? If you can establish this as a trend with some correlative coherence, perhaps it’s worth its own chapter: The Triple-Threat Author, wherein you can give the due you seem to feel is owed those who have excelled in this measure. Of course, this may fly in the face of your stated desire for a “Very Short” approach.

  4. [...] question. Last time he was looking for tips on travel writers (glad I could be somewhat useful); this time he’s hunting for authors who’ve mastered multiple genres: “Take Henry James for [...]

  5. Kevin J. Hayes

    I like Daren’s idea of doing a multi-generic author chapter. I had not thought about that before. I don’t think the phenomenon is restricted to the twentieth century, however. Poe wrote verse, short story, and literary criticism. Melville’s travel writing morphed into novels, and he is now known as one of the finest poets of the nineteenth century, too(see my “Cambridge Introduction to Herman Melville”).

    In a way, I am kind of addressing the multi-generic author phenomenon in my novels chapter. Mark Athitakis’s example of Maxine Hong Kingston is a case in point. (You have to click over to Mark’s blog to read his response, but it’s worth it.) Kingston established her reputation by writing challenging works that combined many genres — memoir, short story, legend — into one, but people still said, “Well, she has not written a novel.” Then she published “Tripmaster Monkey” to disprove her critics, but that book does not even come close to her earlier, more innovative work.

    Jack London, another of Mark’s suggestions, I will probably put in the short story chapter, but he, too, wrote novels, memoirs, and travels.

  6. Nigel Beale

    “Importance” is of course a loaded word. Important to who? I suppose if enough respected scholars have argued persuasively enough in favor of a particular title, then is assumes importance. As for you determining what constitutes importance, especially in fiction: I’d go with the Nabokovian tingle…whatever makes the hair on your neck stand up…for me it’s whatever makes me shake my head in awe…the sheer beauty of the words, or their cleverness, humor; their ability to transport me to various heights or depths, or levels of immersion, to introduce me to new ideas, elicit new emotions.

  7. Kevin J. Hayes

    Nigel’s comments are eloquent. I agree with his criteria, but (there’s always a but) they are subjective. To determine literary importance perhaps we need to identify a shared Nabokovian tingle. This is not so difficult as it sounds. Herman Melville has this effect on many readers. Describing the first time he read “Moby-Dick,” H. M. Tomlinson said, “It was an immense experience.” I felt the same way the first time I read it.

  8. Kristen

    The first answer that popped into my head regarding how we define importance was — those writers who did something no else had and then influenced those who came after them.

    However, I like Nigel’s answer better :)

  9. Sanjay

    What constitutes literary importance? One answer:literary influence. The continuing worth of an author’s work can be judged by the amount of influence he or she has had on those who come later — be it stylistically or thematically. Or both.

  10. Kelly Parisi Castro

    Did you consider Carson McCullers?

  11. Karen Resta

    One American author not well-heralded enough outside the genre she has generally been described as working within (in my opinion) is M.F.K. Fisher.

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