50 Better

Okay, I just can’t shake this off. It’s really bothering me.

Here are 50 writers who I think deserve the MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant more than Jonathan Lethem:

1. Nicholson Baker
2. Rick Moody
3. Paul Auster
4. Ann Beattie
5. John Irving
6. Lorrie Moore
7. Don DeLillo
8. Kurt Vonnegut
9. Joyce Carol Oates
10. Dennis Cooper
11. Miguel Algarin
12. William Vollman
13. Lynne Sharon Schwartz
14. Chuck Pahlaniuk
15. Herschel Silverman
16. Edward Albee
17. Mary Gaitskill
18. Stephen Millhauser
19. Augusten Burroughs
20. Bob Holman
21. Gary Snyder
22. Caleb Carr
23. Vikram Seth
24. Jane Smiley
25. Tom Robbins
26. Louise Erdrich
27. Douglas Coupland
28. Alice Hoffman
29. Alice McDermott
30., 31., 32. three more damn writers named Alice
33. Jonathan Franzen
34. Robert Pirsig
35. Art Spiegelman
36. Cynthia Ozick
37. William Kotzwinkle
38. Alice Walker
39. Robert Bly
40. William Gibson
41. Andre Dubus
42. William Kennedy
43. Li Young-Lee
44. Richard P. Brickner
45. Jim Harrison
46. Joan Didion
47. E. L. Doctorow
48. Tom Wolfe
49. Denis Johnson
50. Robert Coover

I could go on and on. Stephen King. Jadakiss. Lemony Snicket. Maud Newton. Bret Easton Ellis.

Look, I don’t want to begrudge Jonathan Lethem his moment in the sun. But I find his stuff oblique and obvious. A narrator with Tourette’s Syndrome? Gimme a break. Mark Haddon pulled something like this off in a better postmodern mystery, but Motherless Brooklyn didn’t deliver the strong vision or conviction that would put the act over. I say there’s just a little bit of Forrest Gump in Lionel Essrog.

I also don’t get Lethem’s website. “The Ego is happy in the glove compartment.” Thanks, Jonathan. Did I dial jennyholzer.org by accident? What does it all mean? Can I buy a hot dog here?

I guess I’ll have to pick up another Lethem book or two before I make a final call on this guy. But first impressions mean a lot, and so far I’m not seeing a genius.

Let me know if you think I missed any major names on the list.

24 Responses

  1. AhemWell, there’s me for

    Well, there’s me for one… heh. Oh wait, I’m not named Alice. Dammit.

    Also, I know a lot of people love Lethem. (Not to be confused with Raymond, because everybody loves him.) However, even before dogboy Haddon, Gwyn Hyman Rubio played out the whole Tourette’s Syndrome narrator in the (eek) once-upon-a-time Oprah pick Icy Sparks.

  2. Dave Eggers, Dude!A
    Dave Eggers, Dude!

    A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and They Shall Know Our Velocity. What a pleasure Dave Eggers is to read. It’s special when I find a book or author that delights me like the first time I read On The Road and stirs my emotions like when Lenny had to die in Of Mice and Men.

  3. Thanks FC, I didn’t even know
    Thanks FC, I didn’t even know that. Actually, I never heard of the book but I just Amazon’d it and it looks like this author takes the Tourette’s concept seriously, whereas after reading Motherless Brooklyn I was quite sure Jonathan Lethem had never met anyone with Tourette’s. Maybe he listened to the Nirvana song about it or something.

    Just further proof that Oprah is always one step ahead of the highbrow lit scene.

  4. You’re right, Bill. I didn’t
    You’re right, Bill. I didn’t even think of Eggers, and if I had I’d probably dump somebody else off the list and give him a slot. I don’t always love Eggers but he does meet the qualification of deserving a MacArthur Genius grant more than Jonathan Lethem.

    A few more names hit me while driving to work this morning: Anne Waldman, Charles Frazier. I think I better just stop.

  5. Random musingsI don’t even
    Random musings

    I don’t even know how to begin to attack this list or jonathan lethem, so here are some random thoughts —

    1. you read a lot of books.

    2. auster is a trip. do you think even auster knows what the hell went on towards the end in city of glass?

    3. i’m fairly well read but i don’t know who a lot of people are on that list.

    4. why you gotta be all negative to lethem? I never read his stuff, but how bad can he be?

    5. I think stephen king is underrated.

    6. I think denis johnson is overrated.

    7. how does vonnegut only clock in at 7?

    8. you drive to work? don’t you live in NYC? I thought people in the big apple (“don’t mind the maggots” — mick jagger) don’t even own cars.

    thanks. i’ll hang up and listen to your answer.

  6. Not to talk about Eggers,
    Not to talk about Eggers, because I’m in Eggers-joke-making retirement, but about your other point — the one about the word “genius” not meaning anything anymore — I think you’re right. But then, I think the power of many words have been diluted over time with overuse. Genius, painfullystupididiot (yes that’s one word), love, hate. And hot. Let’s not forget hot. What does it all mean? Where am I? Have you seen my shoes?


    Is Dave Eggers a bigger genius than Jonathan Lethem? Is the bottle of Aquafina sitting on my desk a bigger genius than Jonathan Lethem? Who knows? Oh yeah. The MacArthur Foundation.

  7. HmmmmSteve Aylett. Especially

    Steve Aylett. Especially for ‘Shamanspace’.

    Richard Powers if he ain’t already got one (hazy on that).

    Ann Quinn. Though she’s dead.

    Bruce Robinson. Have you read ‘The Peculiar Memories Of Thomas Penman’? Holy *shit* it’s good.

    Arno Schmidt. Though he’s done right? If not dead.

    Hunter Thompson. If only for the letter to Lono in ‘Songs Of The Doomed’. Dead though.

    Alex Trocchi. Why not? Though also dead.

    Zukofsky. For the flowers. Dead squared though.

    Obviously, being dead they conflict a bit with the award’s rules. But hey.

  8. Well, I agree that it’s all a
    Well, I agree that it’s all a bunch of subjective opinions on who should get an award, and who is a “genius.” One man’s read, another man’s screed, whatnot. Who knows how they come up with these things? Having said that, I’m pretty sure Jamelah is a genius, and if she ever wins an award, I will consider the entire process valid after all.

  9. > 1. you read a lot of
    > 1. you read a lot of books.


    > 2. auster is a trip. do you think even auster knows what the hell went on towards the end in city of glass?

    The end was my favorite part — a descent into complete illogic. Not many writers have the skill to carry a reader so deep into that kind of ontological mess.

    > 3. i’m fairly well read but i don’t know who a lot of people are on that list.

    Well, I did toss in a couple of lesser-knowns … I also left off a few better-knowns like John Updike and Philip Roth because, let’s face it, what the hell do they even care about a MacArthur Genius grant?

    > 4. why you gotta be all negative to lethem? I never read his stuff, but how bad can he be?

    He’s not bad — I got all the way to the end of Motherless Brooklyn which is further than I get with 3 out of 4 books I start. He’s certainly a competent writer and probably a good guy. I guess he just represents to me the cool, fashionable side of postmodernism, and that’s not what I go for. I want emotion. I want transformation. I want big messages. I think he’s a talented writer but I don’t think his books mean a damn thing in the world (and neither do the flashy messages on his website).

    > 5. I think stephen king is underrated.

    King sure can write. I picked up a few tricks from him.

    > 6. I think denis johnson is overrated.

    He’s pretty good. He was one of the ones I would have bumped from the list if I’d thought of Charles Frazier or Anne Waldman last night, though.

    > 7. how does vonnegut only clock in at 7?

    Good point. Okay, Paul Auster just got demoted (for the offense of repeating himself in every book since 1991). Auster can be #7 and Vonnegut can be #3 — in the virtual, mutable version of the list that exists only in my mind and perhaps in yours.

    > 8. you drive to work? don’t you live in NYC? I thought people in the big apple (“don’t mind the maggots” — mick jagger) don’t even own cars.

    Lately, the day job has been taking me down the Van Wyck and the Belt Parkway into Nassau County, Long Island. I usually do work in the city, but I’m a mobile kind of guy.

    Thanks Malt — good questions.

  10. I don’t think Italians can
    I don’t think Italians can win. I’m pretty sure it’s USA only. That’s why William Trevor isn’t on my list (and a few others).

  11. Oh, and … yeah, I do
    Oh, and … yeah, I do realize that a few of my names are probably not USA either. I’m not sure about Vikram Seth, and I know one of the writers named Alice is from Australia. I should have spent more time on this.

  12. Then I only have three.:)OK
    Then I only have three.:)

    OK so. If it’s live ones you want I add:

    Iain Banks
    Ray Federman
    Alastair Gray
    Bernard Maclaverty
    Ben Marcus
    David Markson
    Martin Millar
    Alan Warner
    Bill Watterson (*huge* potential if say he switched media)
    Curt White


    Wait.—Only five of those are USA. & Federman & Markson are fairly classic by now.—Hell *I* didn’t know we were doing it *right*.:)

  13. Interesting that genius only
    Interesting that genius only springs from the overflowing well called the USA, or so the MacArthur group says. I must say they sound vaguely Scottish…

    That being said, and ruling out most of the genius in the world.

    Gilbert Sorrentino
    Tim O’Brien
    John Barth
    Mark Helprin
    Ken Kesey
    Yann Martel (Canucks?)

  14. Fair enough, Rubiao — BTW
    Fair enough, Rubiao — BTW while I wish this were not the case, Ken Kesey is dead …

  15. Worst news I’ve heard in a
    Worst news I’ve heard in a while. Must say I suspected it though. It must have been while I was out of the country.

    Is Nicholson Baker really your number 1 or was that just an arbitrary list?

  16. Rubiao — I put Nicholson
    Rubiao — I put Nicholson Baker as #1 because of his particular devotion to some unique literary pursuits involving preservation of archival publications — his new book “The World On Sunday” is an example of this, as is his work with libraries to preserve analog card catalogs. I’d love to see what he’d do with major funding from a source like the MacArthur foundation.

  17. Hey brooklyn … Vikram Seth
    Hey brooklyn … Vikram Seth is from India.

    Lots of Indian writers are writing in english these days. There are also a lot of good Indian writers writing in Hindi — don’t know whether anyone has translated most of them or not, but many are good.

    I think Irvine Welsh deserves to be on that list (although hes Scottish) — are you familiar with his work?

  18. Hmmm, yeah, I was wondering
    Hmmm, yeah, I was wondering about Vikram Seth. I know he was born in India, but he writes about America (e.g. Golden Gate) so I thought maybe he switched over.

    Yeah, I like Irvine Welsh’s stuff, though I’ve only sampled a bit of it.

  19. I liked itI like the book
    I liked it

    I like the book Motherless Brooklyn.

    As for who is better, well, that is just stupid isn’t it?

  20. Levi’s Top 50!Any list of 50
    Levi’s Top 50!

    Any list of 50 living authors with the good taste to exclude Robert Olen Butler gets the Diag seal of approval…however…hrumph…

    Albee at #16?

    I could understand leaving Pat Conroy off the list if it also ignored Tom Robbins. Conroy’s overall body of work may fall somewhat shy of “genius” but if there were a highlight reel of modern lit it would certainly include several Conroy passages and who among us would decline the opportunity to include The Great Santini as our own?

    Sam Shepard? Wanna talk about a scary, on target perspective on the dysfunctional state of the American family?

    Jerzy Kosinski? Dead Polish guy…nevermind.

    If you could bump just one author from your list please tell me, it would be Robert Bly.

    (” You from the Polack wars, and you from England, Are here arrived”)

  21. Diag –Albee must stay,
    Diag —

    Albee must stay, Robert Bly must stay, but I’ll let you exchange Tom Robbins for Sam Shepard. Fair trade. I also need to knock somebody off for Donna Tartt.

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