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Criticism, Fiction, Publishing

In Praise of Future Masters

Last week I wrote about the thrill of reading long-ago writers I would consider masters of their craft, and in the ensuing discussion, a couple of people intimated I ought to name some current writers who might go on to “master” status in the future. Predicting the future has always been a challenge for me, as evidenced by my record in the stock market, but I agreed to try.

The first part of this test is trying to guess the criteria by which writers will be judged a few decades from now. Tastes, as well as academic and critical standards, change. For example, H.G. Wells was considered a great writer in his day, but today he’s a minor name (although still remembered, which is a feat in itself). Many writers whom we consider great today never achieved big success or notoriety in their time.

But in looking at the history of great writing and great writers, I see some constants:

  • Relevance: writing about universal themes that matter to readers in more than one generation
  • Innovation: introducing new techniques that change the writing paradigm
  • Consistency: always maintaining the highest level of prose
  • Recognition: not necessarily popularity in their day, but critical acclaim is, well, critical, whether it comes in their lifetimes or after
  • Productivity: great writers are almost always prolific

It would be easy to list writers with those attributes who are already highly regarded, like noting great ballplayers whom consensus has destined for the Hall of Fame. Among those would be people like Philip Roth, Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie and scores more who’ve already been identified by major critics.

infant-baby-using-laptop--007More challenging, and more intriguing, is trying to guess (and I do mean guess) which relatively unknown writers might eventually break through to master status. But before I go further, let me note how pretentious I feel in just approaching this exercise. There is simply no way to anticipate the outcome of something so judgmental, and so far in the future, and I’m hardly the person to do it. If you really want a list, maybe start with the New Yorker’s infamous 20 Under 40 writers. If you want a more esoteric list, try The National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” Fiction, 2012, or The Guardian’s Twelve of the Best New Novelists or even Starcherone Books’ 30 Under 30: An Anthology of Innovative Fiction by Younger Authors. The lists, and the writers, are everywhere. I’m currently reading the latest issue of the literary journal Granta, which features stories by the best Brazilian novelists of our day—many of these stories indicate great talent.

Me? I’ve thought about this all week, and every time I come up with some writers I could add to these lists, I also come up with reasons why they may not achieve greatness (mostly having to do with the fact that they’re not already on one of these lists). So, essentially, I’m going to cop out and leave it at the guidelines and lists above. My point in mentioning great writers of the past in last week’s blog was not to say they were necessarily better than today’s writers, but to note that they still have value and should not be ignored. Clearly there are dozens, make that hundreds of excellent writers today, who may be considered among the greats in the future and deserve to be read now.


About Joe Ponepinto

Co-publisher, with Kelly Davio, of Tahoma Literary Review. Author of "Curtain Calls," a featured Kirkus Review. Married to Dona. Dad to Henry, the coffee-drinkin' dog.


15 thoughts on “In Praise of Future Masters

  1. Good morning, Joe. Guessing future greats is like betting the ponies at the Fairgrounds, so you were wise to leave it to the list makers. I’m reading one of today’s greats right now: Louise Edrich. I am immersed in her latest (and possibly best novel) The Round House. Also love Joyce Carol Oates, Annie Proulx, Anne Tyler, Anne Enright, Tom Franklin, and (my friend) Sonny Brewer. I could go on and on, but I just woke up. Need caffeine. Great post!

    Posted by Darrelyn Saloom | December 1, 2012, 2:56 PM
    • Funny, Erdrich’s name occurred to me several times this week and I almost listed her in the already greats, but then I figured I’d have to list several dozen others, and I’d never be done.

      Posted by jpon | December 1, 2012, 4:57 PM
  2. Oh Joe, you really did cop out……. we know some masters and potential masters but the problem is that if you list them, other potential masters might get left out. Oh dear. Got it. Now I know why you copped out… kaye

    Posted by prasanga | December 1, 2012, 3:01 PM
    • Yes I did. When it comes down to it, it’s really just a matter of personal taste, no matter what the critics say.

      Posted by jpon | December 1, 2012, 4:59 PM
  3. Joe–you could never win with your response! No harm, no foul! :-]

    Posted by fpdorchak | December 1, 2012, 3:18 PM
    • Yeah. One of my biggest concerns was listing some writers who haven’t been tabbed as future greats, and then have people write in and tell me how wrong I am. Who can say what will make a writer great, especially 30+ years from now. For example, an acquaintance of mine, Jacob M. Appel, is an excellent author and has been published in more than 200 journals, including some of the biggest names out there. He is almost never mentioned among the literary stars, and yet I find his fiction far more interesting and entertaining than many of the writers listed. Considering his quality and his output, maybe we’ll remember him in the future and not many of the others.

      Posted by jpon | December 1, 2012, 5:03 PM
    • No harm, no foul . . . no genre?

      Posted by Averil Dean | December 1, 2012, 6:45 PM
  4. Hi, Joe. What I want to know (as a writer who’s definitely over the 30, 40 demarcation line for some of the lists you’ve mentioned) is why isn’t greatness a quality which has nothing to do with what age you were when you achieved it? I.e., why does our young century in particular (as did the 20th century too) put so much emphasis on how old one is when the kudos finally come!?!? Signed, Still Hoping

    Posted by shadowoperator | December 1, 2012, 3:47 PM
    • You and I are in the same boat when it comes to that. I didn’t even start writing serious fiction until well past the age most people get started (for a variety of reasons). Does that mean I’ll never be mentioned among the good writers? Perhaps. But I know how good my writing is, and I believe in how good it might still become. I just keep writing, submitting (and pontificating :-), and try not to worry about the rest. If it comes, wonderful. If it doesn’t, I’ll know I gave it my best shot (and that the literary gatekeepers missed out).

      Posted by jpon | December 1, 2012, 5:07 PM
  5. I am glad you “copped out.” Really, what a relief! By not naming names, we leave the doors and windows open for everyone and recognize the vagaries of time and taste. I have my favorites just like everyone else, but who knows what will happen.

    Posted by girl in the hat | December 1, 2012, 4:44 PM
    • Yeah, me too. I didn’t want to spend too much time debating my choices, when really, I could have listed almost any 10 writers I know and like, and they stand just as much chance of future fame as anyone on those lists.

      Posted by jpon | December 1, 2012, 5:09 PM
  6. Good call, Joe. When we spoke about this last week it seemed like a reasonable thing to do. But no, and your reasons are completely valid. You began by dealing with how the Masters stood the test of time. There can be no such test now–we can only list our current favorites. And guiding us to the anothologies of young writers was as much a statement as could be made. One thing though: I’m still looking for a list entitled, Best New Writers:65 over 65.

    Posted by Jon Zech | December 1, 2012, 6:32 PM
  7. It’s painfully hard to guess. The most basic fact being that having one incredible book, or even two or four, may or may not be enough to mark a writer for greatness. When I think of Munro and Proulx and Atwood, etc…. it’s the quality of their entire body of work. Hard to predict who can keep that up over the decades. What commitment and talent and sacrifice and work and (ahem) luck it must take to produce that kind of quality AND quantity.

    P.S. And I’m all for having a 50 over 50 list. :-)

    Posted by Teri | December 1, 2012, 11:22 PM

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