Literature
March 29, 2012 11:42 PM   Subscribe

The top 25 American writers, as determined by the amount of scholarship on them. Literary flowchart by Jimmy Chen.
posted by stbalbach (72 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

 
Why do I look at that list and hear Casey Kasem's voice saying "Up 5 with a bullet, at number 5, it's Vladimir Nabokov!"
posted by oneswellfoop at 11:57 PM on March 29, 2012 [5 favorites]


This is fascinating. As someone who doesn't read much, what are some accessible resources to learn about the field of literature, i.e. critical analysis and interpretation of major works?
posted by polymodus at 11:58 PM on March 29, 2012


Interesting, though I'd love to see charts broken down by time period (e.g. most scholarship on each writer from 1980-2000 or something), because obviously James and Faulkner would stay high on this list due to inertia, even if people stopped writing about them altogether.
posted by Infinite Jest at 12:06 AM on March 30, 2012


Apparently I am a philistine except in the area of CYNICISM where I am an incredibly well read expert.

Ok, I do alright under WAR as well.
posted by Artw at 12:22 AM on March 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm surprised Poe made the list. Surprised, but pleased.
posted by jsturgill at 12:23 AM on March 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


What substance or concept is supposed to be represented as 'flowing' on this chart?

It seems to be a completely random graph, with both directed and un-directed edges, as well as having venn-diagram like 'regions' such as 'language' and 'irony', but which don't overlap. And then it has blocks like "War", "Self" and "Class" (further divided into North, South, and Black)

It's bad enough when people say "flowchart" when they mean "Ontology" but this thing seems to defy categorization. It's not an ontology, it's not a directed graph, or even an un-directed graph.

Tolstoy is connected to "War" through melville? Dostoyevky is connected to "Self" by both "Kafka" and "existentialism"?

"Self" is connected to "Post Structure" by [Houellebeque, Eduard Leve, Bolano]?

There is a completely separate 'class' of items not connected to anything else comprising "Television", "Internet" and "Dissonance"

Too weird.
posted by delmoi at 12:30 AM on March 30, 2012 [15 favorites]


Much of the chart, hopefully, is self-explanatory

Oh ho ho, I do not think so, but it is charming that the creator thinks so.
posted by the young rope-rider at 12:38 AM on March 30, 2012 [4 favorites]


I don't read novels. I prefer good literary criticism. That way you get both the novelists' ideas as well as the critics' thinking. With fiction I can never forget that none of it really happened, that it's all just made up by the author.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 12:45 AM on March 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


Much of the chart, hopefully, is self-explanatory

Oh ho ho, I do not think so, but it is charming that the creator thinks so.


Yes indeed: but then again I quite enjoy being alternately puzzled and scandalised by this kind of thing. I think this one is beyond untangling, you just have to sort of contermplate it in astonishment.
posted by Segundus at 12:55 AM on March 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


That way you get both the novelists' ideas...

Not always, I'm afraid.
posted by Segundus at 12:57 AM on March 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


I am saddened that my bb Hawthorne dropped four points. And also surprised (and delighted) there's so much Morrison criticism-- there were only one or two courses on her during my four years in my English program, and when I did a research prospectus on her I had a hard time finding articles in my topic area. The only time I ever heard anyone even mention her it was a grad student who said she was "overrated" or something. But I thought Beloved was gorgeous and horrifying.

Bunny Ultramod, it's funny that you say that-- I love reading novels as well as criticism, but I always think of lit crit as like, on the level of indulging my innate desire to watch every The Simpson's episode commentary. It's just so fun to hear smart people talk about well-realized craft. Even if it rapidly becomes "bogus." It's an art in itself.
posted by stoneandstar at 1:09 AM on March 30, 2012


Bunny Ultramod is quoting Metropolitan, btw.
posted by Omon Ra at 1:18 AM on March 30, 2012


I just looked up Metropolitan (I have never seen it) and I'm kind of laughing at the Brook Farm quotes, but maybe I'm just literally dying of Transcendentalist poisoning right now while doing early American research. I think pretty much every kid I know with an interest in literature goes through the "it's all made up" phase, pretty spot on. Actually, I remember reading once a novel where a maid(?) screamed at the author-protagonist for staying in his room writing "lies" all day, or something along those lines, and I've tried several times to no avail to remember where it's from? For a long time I thought Proust, but maybe Nabokov.

Also just looked at the flowchart and the guy who made it comes off as kind of a dick in the comments, though I actually think the chart does an OK job of representing women, and representing boring untalented irony-hacks also, a tragically maligned contingency.

Despite my interest in a bunch of the authors on his chart, I'm not really sure what he's getting at, especially with Emerson/Thoreau. I'm interested in hearing more about that. And I puke at the idea that Franzen is that competent of a class critic. At least after reading Freedom my eyes were permanently rolled back into my head. The Corrections was better but still nothing to write to St. Jude about-- maybe I should read it again to get the taste of Freedom out of my mouth. (Blegh, freedom.)
posted by stoneandstar at 1:26 AM on March 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Henry James: leaves America to live in England: American writer.

Vladimir Nabokov: leaves Russia to live in America: American writer.

I see.
posted by dgaicun at 1:28 AM on March 30, 2012 [4 favorites]


Henry James: leaves America to live in England: American writer.

Vladimir Nabokov: leaves Russia to live in America: American writer.


While we're at it, T.S. Elliot was born American but became a British citizen.
posted by rhymer at 1:35 AM on March 30, 2012 [2 favorites]




I don't read novels. I prefer good literary criticism. That way you get both the novelists' ideas as well as the critics' thinking. With fiction I can never forget that none of it really happened, that it's all just made up by the author.

Hah. Just like criticism.
posted by chavenet at 2:15 AM on March 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Bunny Ultramod is quoting Metropolitan, btw.

How postmodern.
posted by karathrace at 2:25 AM on March 30, 2012


There's also a list of the top 25 in 1929 compiled by two psychologists who polled critics and published in English Journal: o American literary importance, how so very fleeting.
posted by chavenet at 2:28 AM on March 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


Go Team Steinbeck!
posted by THAT William Mize at 2:33 AM on March 30, 2012


I don't read novels. I prefer good literary criticism. That way you get both the novelists' ideas as well as the critics' thinking

Complete time-waster, my good friend. A historical review of literary criticism would be better - providing all of the novelists' ideas, the critics thinking AND metacommentary on the criticisms in one handy pamphlet.

But even MORE efficient is my method, which involves eating a large bowl of alphabetti spaghetti. Consuming every letter means you become one with every single idea that can be written in standard English, which means every story, every criticism of that story, and every history of criticism. You basically imbibe the entire written corpus of human knowledge.

And then you poo out Dan Brown novels! It's amazing. Like that Borges story, you know, where he's trapped in that infinitely large toilet and he realises he's doing an infinitely long poo and he can see the entire universe in that poo, and then the poo says "I am Borges from the distant past! Wooo!" and then the poo starts branching off in an infinite number of forking paths. I think it's called, "Tlon, Uqbar, Plop poo bum-bum wee-wee bottom fart big-jobby smelly plop".
posted by the quidnunc kid at 2:35 AM on March 30, 2012 [24 favorites]


Omon Ra: "Bunny Ultramod is quoting Metropolitan, btw"

question:
Did you ever read the mentions of this above?

Answer:
You never did, the quidnunc kid.
posted by Red Loop at 2:43 AM on March 30, 2012 [4 favorites]


Actually I believe my position is quite clear: Borges smelly bum wee poo fart poo-poo.
posted by the quidnunc kid at 2:53 AM on March 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm surprised Poe made the list. Surprised, but pleased.

Fear not! Poe scholarship is alive and well.
posted by New England Cultist at 2:58 AM on March 30, 2012


According to this chart, the three Great American Social Classes are North, South, and Black.
posted by HeroZero at 3:02 AM on March 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


(Sorry, everyone. I am just being very stupid and childish and annoying. No more metafilter for quidnunc.)
posted by the quidnunc kid at 3:03 AM on March 30, 2012


The MLA list is an interesting use of that statistic, though the results are mostly unsurprising. However, this line in the article:
Has the literary scholars’ 25-year worship at the holy shrine of race, class, and gender brought about major changes in the canon? You be the judge.
...seems to me to have a subtext of, "The answer is no! Only one white writer replaced by a writer of color in the top 25. Suck it, Liberals!" There is of course the inertia problem as described by Infinite Jest above, but I also wonder if maybe the top 50 tell a different, more radical story.
posted by HeroZero at 3:09 AM on March 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Apparently I am a philistine except in the area of CYNICISM where I am an incredibly well read expert.

Ok, I do alright under WAR as well.


I'm afraid that your second field of expertise is good for absolutely nothing.
posted by ersatz at 3:59 AM on March 30, 2012 [4 favorites]


Fear not! Poe scholarship is alive and well.

Wherever a goth is looking for a career in academia, a Poe Scholar will be there. Wherever Longfellow penetration is less than total, a Poe Scholar will be there. Wherever a small literary publication is not quite full in October, a Poe Scholar will be there.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 4:33 AM on March 30, 2012 [7 favorites]


But even MORE efficient is my method, which involves eating a large bowl of alphabetti spaghetti.
This worked well for Martha, too.
posted by Wolfdog at 4:36 AM on March 30, 2012


Has the literary scholars’ 25-year worship at the holy shrine of race, class, and gender brought about major changes in the canon?

Not if fucking Henry James is the top of the list.
posted by shakespeherian at 5:12 AM on March 30, 2012


While we're at it, T.S. Elliot was born American but became a British citizen.

It's actually far more hilarious than that. He adopted a faux British accent and went around self-consciously referring to cops as 'bobbies' and making all sorts of cultural faux pas because he thought they were British-isms when they were really things he'd made up. He toned it down around his British friends but whenever an American came to visit him he'd crank it up to eleven.
posted by shakespeherian at 5:19 AM on March 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


Has the literary scholars’ 25-year worship at the holy shrine of race, class, and gender brought about major changes in the canon?

Not if fucking Henry James is the top of the list.


Yeah, but look at the risers and fallers.

RISERS: James, Eliot, Nabokov, Morrison, Dickenson, Cather, Wharton, O'Connor, Steinbeck, Bellow, Wright.

FALLERS/NO MOVEMENT: Faulkner, Melville, Hemingway, Poe, Hawthorne, Whitman, Pound, Emerson, Stevens, Thoreau, Fitzgerald, Twain, Williams, Frost.

The risers list includes all of the women and black folks on the list, and writers more attuned to class, like Bellow and Steinbeck. The fallers list is a very solid representation of "Dead White Guys, American Edition."

So "Has the literary scholars’ 25-year worship at the holy shrine of race, class, and gender brought about major changes in the canon?" I wouldn't call it "major," but yeah. you can certainly see it.
posted by Harvey Jerkwater at 5:23 AM on March 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Anne Tyler should be on any list of great American writers. She is superb.
posted by h00py at 5:34 AM on March 30, 2012


(I'll admit you have to be in the right mood for her).
posted by h00py at 5:37 AM on March 30, 2012


"Top" is a pretty nebulous term. Mostly we're talking authors whom English professors can teach, either because of innate complexity or obscurity of age. Like frogs in biology, they make for good specimens. Doesn't necessarily mean they're good. Or that being off the list means a given author is worse than those who are on.

I sometimes wonder how quickly some of the greats of American literature would fade into obscurity without the artificial respiration of the academy.

Henry James gives you a lot to dissect. Myself, I wonder if he wasn't slightly autism spectrum. He can structure a novel, but his understanding of people, well, it sometimes leaves a bit to be desired. (What did brother William think about him, I wonder?)

Re: T.S. Eliot's faux Britishisms - sure he wasn't just pulling your leg? He had that side to him.
posted by IndigoJones at 5:52 AM on March 30, 2012


Has the literary scholars’ 25-year worship at the holy shrine of race, class, and gender brought about major changes in the canon?

I'm not sure how you interpret the changes in the canon as anything but diminishing devotion and worship towards (a specific) race, class, and gender.
posted by Casuistry at 6:03 AM on March 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm pretty sure if we restrict the input set to high school lit classes, John Knowles would shoot to the top.
posted by kmz at 6:29 AM on March 30, 2012


He adopted a faux British accent and went around self-consciously referring to cops as 'bobbies' and making all sorts of cultural faux pas because he thought they were British-isms when they were really things he'd made up. He toned it down around his British friends but whenever an American came to visit him he'd crank it up to eleven.

Yeah, well, if I may be permitted an anglicism, T.S. Eliot was a right cunt.


Henry James gives you a lot to dissect. Myself, I wonder if he wasn't slightly autism spectrum. He can structure a novel, but his understanding of people, well, it sometimes leaves a bit to be desired. (What did brother William think about him, I wonder?)


That's a really intriguing criticism. Could you explain what you mean more? James is usually regarded as a writer so attuned to and in love with exploring social subtleties that his meaning becomes obscured, his sentences a briar patch. I'll confess I've gotten lost in more than a few, so it'd be interesting to find another way to look at him.
posted by Diablevert at 6:55 AM on March 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


his sentences a briar patch

James's inordinately long sentences really are easy to get lost in, aren't they? But they're always perfect in grammatical terms-- you could, if you were the sort to do such a thing, chart his sentences and not come up with any loose ends. But they can be confusing as hell. I think that's interesting when compared to someone like Bolaño who can sometimes have ridiculously long sentences with very little regard for strict grammar but the resultant confusion (where did this clause come from?) is an intentional effect.
posted by shakespeherian at 7:19 AM on March 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


the quidnunc kid: "Actually I believe my position is quite clear: Borges smelly bum wee poo fart poo-poo."

Cooking with Poo. (not to be confused with Cooking with Poe).
posted by stbalbach at 8:05 AM on March 30, 2012


Any list of top American writers that doesn't include Ray Bradbury is not worth considering.
posted by elendil71 at 8:31 AM on March 30, 2012


Any list of top American writers that doesn't include Ray Bradbury is not worth considering.

Maybe you should just burn it then.
posted by Sys Rq at 9:15 AM on March 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


The 'flow chart' reminded me a bit of The Great Bear. I spent a long time looking at that thinking "What reasons can I come up with for Bertrand Russell to represent the intersection of 'Philosophers'(OK), 'Explorers'(How metaphorical are we being, here?) and 'Louis'(huh?)? Why is Titian a painter and an engineer, while Leonardo da Vinci is only a painter? What does it all mean?"

Then there came a point when I realised that I had spent far, far longer thinking about how to make the diagram make sense than its creator ever had.
posted by Acheman at 9:20 AM on March 30, 2012


The four main writers merely act as barriers between which a lot of exciting stuff happened and do not serve to preclude, only maintain, discourse — though rather auspiciously placed, as both pairings represent their respective vastly different approaches in writing, however within the same social contexts and under similar preoccupations

Ugh. How can people who spend so much time reading great books write so shabbily?
posted by bumpkin at 9:22 AM on March 30, 2012


I have to say one of the pleasures of Metafilter is that I can just drop in a quote from Metropolitan and feel confident that it will almost instantly be recognized and identified.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 9:25 AM on March 30, 2012


Not impressed with that flowchart at all, except as an illustration of canon construction and the systematic erasure of (parts of) literary history.
posted by jokeefe at 9:31 AM on March 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


I could not get past that second "flowchart" without nodding in agreement with the first commenter "Left out feminist" and adding a barb of my own: Who the fuck is "Woolfe"?
posted by mistersquid at 9:39 AM on March 30, 2012


I wonder to what extent Emerson's drop reflects the spillover of a drop of interest in Emerson among philosophers due to the shifting styles of Anglo-American philosophy since the 1940s.
posted by Jahaza at 10:23 AM on March 30, 2012


H.P. Lovecraft is criminally absent from the list, I see.
posted by Renoroc at 10:33 AM on March 30, 2012


The list is actually just the toe of a larger list, which is compossed of a massive pile of S.T. Joshi essays.
posted by Artw at 10:36 AM on March 30, 2012


H. P. Lovecraft's omission is a feature, not a bug.
posted by mistersquid at 10:58 AM on March 30, 2012


Nabokov is American now?
posted by deathpanels at 11:04 AM on March 30, 2012


I don't read novels. I prefer good literary criticism. That way you get both the novelists' ideas as well as the critics' thinking. With fiction I can never forget that none of it really happened, that it's all just made up by the author.
You sound like you'd be a lot of fun to hang out with.
posted by deathpanels at 11:20 AM on March 30, 2012


delmoi, you're absolutely correct that this isn't a flowchart; it is a map.

An interesting one, if inadequate (although that argument could be leveled at any that isn't obnoxious in detail).

AFAICT there's only one female novelist, and the comments get hilariously high-schoolish over this lack. I'm guessing the commenters know each other offline, from the way the harshest critics seem to know the author's work already. Could be wrong.
posted by IAmBroom at 11:20 AM on March 30, 2012


There are ten female writers on that chart.

Wherever Longfellow penetration is less than total

tee hee

posted by twirlip at 12:31 PM on March 30, 2012


Renoroc: "H.P. Lovecraft is criminally absent from the list, I see."

This is a list of top American authors, not terrible writers who manage to squeeze a few interesting ideas and images now and then.

IndigoJones: "Re: T.S. Eliot's faux Britishisms - sure he wasn't just pulling your leg? He had that side to him."

No, Eliot was a notorious Anglophile. If he had been born in the 80s he would have been the kind of anime fan who desperately wishes he were Japanese and drops random Japanese words into his conversation. The Waste Land would have featured many more giant robots fighting space dragons.
posted by Sangermaine at 12:35 PM on March 30, 2012 [5 favorites]


Or a fucking Steampunk. Grrr...
posted by Artw at 12:37 PM on March 30, 2012


The 'flowchart' presents an interesting set of coordinates. I like the Dostoyevsky/Tolstoy split. Also the Language and Dystopia pools. For me though, its weaknesses are not faults of inclusion but structural. I have no familiarity with Chen but it seems he could benefit from a Klein Group diagram, even more so in the case of his entry On tone.
posted by xod at 12:54 PM on March 30, 2012


This is a list of top American authors, not terrible writers who manage to squeeze a few interesting ideas and images now and then.

He's interesting, HP --- Daniel Handler had a perceptive review of his work some time ago, in the NYTimes, I think --- where he made a point I agree with, that the imperial majesty, the utter wine-soaked over the top purple-ocity of Lovecraft's prose twists after a while and starts to work for him. What comes off in the beginning as merely silly piles up and piles up until it begins to generate a creepy, peculiar fascination of its own, like having a subway nutter whispering in your ear. In a way it's the same with his virulent racism -- in quite a literal way, his fears of miscegenation are literally unfathomable to a modern reader, yet their visceral authenticity comes through, and makes the stories seem uncanny and compelling...
posted by Diablevert at 12:54 PM on March 30, 2012


The Waste Land would have featured many more giant robots fighting space dragons. I am intrigued by your ideas and would like to subscribe to your newsletter. (Either that, or I may go out and writing try a parody myself.)

I'm wondering now about top authors weighted by volume. If author A has written 20 books*, and author B has written 10 books, but they've both been cited 100 times, then author B actually has a higher ranking. Which I'm sure would be a PITA to calculate, but seems like it might be meaningful.

* Where books is a uniform metric; you'd probably have to use words instead to account for Emily Dickinson, etc.
posted by epersonae at 1:05 PM on March 30, 2012


He adopted a faux British accent and went around self-consciously referring to cops as 'bobbies' and making all sorts of cultural faux pas because he thought they were British-isms when they were really things he'd made up. He toned it down around his British friends but whenever an American came to visit him he'd crank it up to eleven.

For those interested, here is a recording of Eliot reading "Prufrock." I'd say the accent is set at about an 8 at this reading.
posted by alexoscar at 2:15 PM on March 30, 2012


For those interested, here is a recording of Eliot reading "Prufrock." I'd say the accent is set at about an 8 at this reading.

Eliot came to England by way of Boston by way of St. Louis. While I have certainly read that he assumed his Englishman persona with much gusto, I'm not yet convinced that he didn't come by his accent honestly, if you will. I'm also not sure that I would expect any recording of a poet from the first half of the twentieth century to be entirely free of affectation.

Here is a reading by E.E. Cummings, a contemporary of T.S. Eliot's.
posted by cobra libre at 3:02 PM on March 30, 2012


The significant work done on James and Forester in the last few years has been queer.
posted by PinkMoose at 7:37 PM on March 30, 2012


He can structure a novel, but his understanding of people, well, it sometimes leaves a bit to be desired.

To be sure, James' people are 19th century people of a fairly narrow class and ethnicity (in modern terms), but subject to those limits, James' insight into the motivations and emotions of his characters has always struck me as pretty penetrating.

The significant work done on James and Forester in the last few years has been queer.

Yeah, keep in mind that the rankings are rankings by amount of work generated by each author, not by their quality in some absolute sense (even though Commentary goes out of their way to conflate the two). James, like Shakespeare, generates a lot of work in part just by how big he is. But James has also generated a lot of work in the last 25 years in queer circles. Also, major editions of James' correspondence (Dearly Beloved Friends: Henry James's Letters to Younger Men (2001) and Beloved Boy: Letters to Hendrik C. Andersen, 1899–1915 (2004) are notable here, as well as Walker and Zacharias' continuing editon of the Complete Letters) have been published in last 25 years and maybe a dozen or so biographical works about the James family where Henry plays a starring role (it isn't clear how that affects these rankings).

Cooper is the author I'm a little surprised not to see on the list. I'd have thought his large body of work would still be a reliable resource for academic publications.
posted by octobersurprise at 10:06 AM on March 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


As someone who doesn't read much, what are some accessible resources to learn about the field of literature, i.e. critical analysis and interpretation of major works?

Masterplots and the DLB?

More seriously, if you want to read what writers wrote, instead of what other writers said about them, you're better off with the The Library of America series. They're well-produced, well-designed books that feel nice your hand and are probably available at your local library. 200 have been published so far, so you're sure to find something you'll like.
posted by octobersurprise at 10:19 AM on March 31, 2012


what are some accessible resources to learn about the field of literature, i.e. critical analysis and interpretation of major works?

To actually answer your question (!) I recommend the series Novels for Students. It sounds boring and pedantic but it's actually really good and is up to like 40 volumes now with new ones every year.

Again, doesn't sound too exciting (like Cliff Notes) but it's really the best thing going if you just want an accessible but smart and not too long introduction to major novels and authors. Well written and produced. Usually sold to libraries but there are some pirate copies floating around in digital format or at your library or used copies on Amazon not terribly expensive, pick up a volume to check it out.
posted by stbalbach at 11:13 AM on April 1, 2012


By my own preference Ernest Hemingway should be No. 1 in this list.
posted by hsogorop at 10:54 PM on April 1, 2012


There are ten female writers on that chart.

Thanks for the correction, twirlip.
posted by IAmBroom at 11:33 AM on April 2, 2012


By my own preference Ernest Hemingway should be No. 1 in this list.

hsogorop, personal preference is what this graphic attempts to circumvent.
posted by IAmBroom at 11:36 AM on April 2, 2012


By my own preference Ernest Hemingway should be No. 1 in this list.

Ten minutes after writing this, hsogorop wrote his last Metafilter comment. Then, nada. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude.
posted by octobersurprise at 11:48 AM on April 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


octobersurprise, I think I love you.
posted by shakespeherian at 11:51 AM on April 2, 2012


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