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Friday, September 13, 2013

Great writers and underdogs

The other day, I admitted on Twitter that I've never gotten around to trying any Pynchon, that it was a "hole" in my reading record, and Roman Tsivkin teased, "Jesus, Tom, that ain't no "hole" in your reading, it's a black hole! Quick, read some Pynchon before you destroy us all :)"

Of course, it is embarrassing. But I wanted to say, "But I am reading someone I'm supposed to read, right now! I'm reading Mumbo Jumbo by Ishmael Read."

The whole business of reading writers that one is "supposed" to read fascinates me. I asked a friend of mine a few years ago if he had read anything by Don DeLillo. He answered, "No, and don't tell  anyone." I loved that answer. I didn't tell  anyone. I haven't read DeLillo, either. But I've read a lot of Richard Powers; does that count for anything?

Also, although I know I need to try writers that are new to me, and I do, my instinct is to keep exploring the authors I love. I have a Vladimir Nabokov at the house I haven't gotten around to reading yet! (Ada.)

For me, it's not just a matter of Great Writers, it's sticking up for writers who are maybe great and definitely in danger of being forgotten. I love underdogs. I view Robert Anton Wilson as a kind of underdog, someone who never seems to have gotten  his due from literary critics. Illuminatus! does have an audience, but not as large as I would like. But at least people mention it. How come nobody but RAW fans talk about The Widow's Son?

I count RAW as a favorite writer, but it's not like he's the only writer I like. But many of my other favorites don't need any help from me. Neal Stephenson, Iain M. Banks, Vladimir Nabokov ... they don't need a blogger sticking up for them.

I did a fan page for George Alec Effinger a few years ago. He was a really good writer, quite an original one, and I'll bet most of you have never heard of him. Maybe instead of Roman  Tsivkin trying to get me to read Pynchon, I should be trying to get Roman to read George Alec Effinger.

Who is  your favorite "underdog" writer?


michael said...

I applaud your championing of Effinger, who you mentioned here a while back and I checked him out. I don't...I can't think of anyone as properly and unfairly obscure as Effinger (although no doubt some SF wonk is saying, "How can this asshole NOT KNOW about Effinger!?), so I feel tempted to make up someone.

There's a bunch of writers who "had their day" and now seem unduly forgotten, or at least that's my impression when I talk with the Learned. (RAW once cited the Irish heterodox Marxist James T. Farrell as unfairly neglected.)

I'll go with two guys who were related by marriage: Nathanael West and SJ Perelman. Perelman married West's sister.

West wrote four short novels, all of them little gems, in my opinion. If anyone knows him they usually cite Day of the Locust, which, as a native Angeleno, I count as one of the most morbid and funny depictions of LA by East Coasters. His The Dream Life of Balso Snell is NOT TO BE MISSED for sheer surreal audacity. He takes off from the Trojan Horse story. In A Cool Million he shreds Horatio Alger myths. Miss Lonelyhearts was once quasi-famous. He was bilious, a very well-read satirist, and his humor was surreal. He died when he ran a red light in the horrible hot town of El Centro, CA. I think he was 36.

SJ Perelman wrote for the Marx Bros, but his short pieces for The New Yorker (and a few others) are dazzling satires of the everyday, advertising, and things that are true to every Good American's heart. His vocabulary is stunning. Perelman was a big infl on Woody Allen. Pick up The Most of SJ Perelman and just open at random to a piece. He's oddly psychedelic to me. He once said Edmund Wilson and Aldous Huxley were the most intelligent writers he'd ever known.

Speaking of Woody Allen, in one of the biographies (probably Eric Lax's) he and his friends, as kids, are completely over the moon listening to jazz, and especially Sidney Bechet. And one kid had never heard any of this stuff and Woody recalls how much envy he had for this kid who now gets to experience Bechet for the first time!

That's sorta how I feel about you and Pynchon. Maybe go for The Crying of Lot 49 first...

Eric Wagner said...

Interesting post. I would consider Rafi Zabor my favorite underdog writer.

I've contemplated after I finish my current book next year writing a book called Remedial Reading in the Post-Literate World where I chronicle my attempts to fill in void suits in my own reading (including Nabokov).

Jesse said...

THE WOLVES OF MEMORY is a great novel, and some of Effinger's short stories are just perfect.

Roman said...

Writers No One Reads, a blog I've been following (, though not SF-focused, is pretty good at reminding me of forgotten writers and whether they're worth reading.

We all have embarrassing holes in our reading (Proust, anyone? Non, merci) and of course I was kidding about Pynchon and the black hole, but I do think he has enormous appeal for RAW fan. In fact, RAW said that there are some Gravity's Rainbow refs in Illuminatus!:

JW: Do you have influences? People whose work you follow, or at least regard as important?

RAW: Thomas Pynchon, William Burroughs. Bohm, Sheldrake, Nick Herbert, Fred Wolfe, Alan Ginsberg, Terry Southern if he'd only write something again.

JW: How do you regard Pynchon as important? Obviously he's a conspiracy theorist...

RAW: We have a lot in common. It's one of those things, like Darwin and Wallace, when the time is right a couple of people are going to be saying pretty much the same thing. There are enough differences between Pynchon and me that I think I'm a little more than just an echo of Pynchon. At least I like to believe that. Shea and I were finished with Illuminatus! when we read Gravity's Rainbow and then on the rewrite we deliberately threw in a couple of references to it, but we had worked out the structure on our own, mostly on the basis of the nut mail that Playboy gets. (

(And I think I *have* read Effinger's Schrödinger's Kitten as well as some short stories that appeared in Asimov's and F&SF in the '80s and '90s, but will revisit this writer per your suggestion.)

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

Jesse is exactly right -- THE WOLVES OF MEMORY by Effinger is a fine book. GEORGE ALEC EFFINGER: LIVE FROM PLANET EARTH collects much of his best fiction. THE NICK OF TIME and THE BIRD OF TIME are charming and show off many of his best qualities.

Crawshaw said...

Maybe it is currently the best time to read pynchon, seen as one of his books is being adpated to film by PT Anderson. I think delillo has great style very unique, but sometimes quite abstract, with strange metaphores that seem like he is from another planet.

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

@Michael: I promise to try both of the writers you recommend....Real Soon Now. They both sound interesting. Working on Ishmael Reed right now, and I have other self-imposed "homework assignments" on my plate.

Effinger is kind of a sad story. He got a lot of books into print, so he's there to be discovered, but I think his health problems keep him from reaching many readers.

Jesse said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jesse said...

Effinger is kind of a sad story. He got a lot of books into print, so he's there to be discovered, but I think his health problems keep him from reaching many readers.

Isn't he dead now?

His Marîd Audran books were pretty popular when they were coming out, probably because they caught the cyberpunk wave. What I read of the series was decent enough, but it didn't strike me as being either as good as Effinger's earlier work or as good as the major cyberpunk novels. It's a shame if those were his most widely read texts.