What I hear about pro basketball scouts is that they always draft raw athleticism over any single athletic achievement. So that's what I'm going to do: I'm going to pick the best athletes out of the couple of dozen 20th-century writers who, at one time or another, have been my beacons.
Here are my picks — five starters, plus a few for the bench.
gets this one. Saul Bellow
is the alternate. Bellow's prose is of unrivaled energy (see Augie March
), but I've always felt that if you gave every writer in recent history the same 100 words, it's Cheever who would make them into the best paragraph.
Position: Story Structure
I'll have to give this one to Alice Munro
. You read her earlier work — "The Moons of Jupiter," for example — and you see that she knows how to write a perfectly brilliant traditional short story — rising action, climax, all the rest — the way Picasso in his childhood used to paint like Vermeer. Then you take a look at Munro's later work and you see that she somehow made the leap from traditional logic into dream logic, which has changed the game for all of us since. My alternate for story structure is E. L. Doctorow
. I'll never forget reading Ragtime
in a high school history class and completely missing the line, "warn the duke" — a line that changes the entire novel. One of my classmates had to point it out to me, but when I discovered what Doctorow had done to the structure with that single line, I shivered.
Position: Scene Dynamics
I'll take Evan Connell
or Tobias Wolff
on this one. If you want to learn how to write a scene, read Mr. Bridge
or Back in the World
. These guys are old-school. A hundred free-throws before you can leave the gym.
is my pick here. American Pastoral
is an agonizing journey into the mind of a father (something Mr. Roth has never been, by the way). My alternate is William Trevor
, whose abundant opus never fails to stun me with its breadth of empathy.
It's easier these days to write ambitious novels, now that the internet brings everything to your desk. But not that long ago, writers had to either look things up in books or actually experience them. For the Ambition spot I'd have to go with Barry Unsworth
, whom I once met at a party not long after I'd read his monumental novel, Sacred Hunger
, about an 18th-century slave ship that runs a Triangle Trade route across the Atlantic. At the party, I took the chance to tell Unsworth how much his book had meant to me and mentioned that he must have been quite a sailor to have written so authoritatively about tall-masted ships and the sea. He told me he'd never set foot on a sailboat. Tied with Unsworth is Robertson Davies
, whose equally monumental Deptford Trilogy
stunned me when I read it and stuns me to this day.
÷ ÷ ÷
is the author of seven books, including the story collections Emperor of the Air
and The Palace Thief
and the novels For Kings and Planets
, Carry Me Across the Water
, America America
, and A Doubter's Almanac
. He is on the faculty of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and divides his time between Iowa and northern Michigan.