Who is on Your Writing Rushmore?

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

A few reflections on the recent Super Bowl.

First of all, what more can be said of Tom Brady? I mean, it’s astounding. It’s not just that he has won seven Super Bowls—more than any other franchise in league history—it’s that he won the latest at the age of 43! And with a full head of hair! And a new team! And he’s going to come back and play at least another year! Exclamation points are required for all this!

More on Mr. Brady in a moment.

I want to say a word about young Patrick Mahomes, the Chiefs quarterback. He is an incredible talent, fun to watch, and no doubt will be back in the big game more than once. I’m just as impressed with him off the field. After the game he said, “Obviously, I didn’t play like I wanted to play. What else can you say? All you can do is leave everything you have on the field, and I felt like the guys did that. They were the better team today. They beat us pretty good, the worst I think I’ve been beaten in a long time, but I’m proud of the guys and how they fought to the very end of the game.”

That’s called leadership. Mahomes (whose father was a major league baseball pitcher) also said something that applies to all of us as we face the challenges of the writing life:

“My dad lost in the World Series in his career. He continued to battle and continued to be who he was. Obviously it hurts right now. It hurts a lot. But we’re going to continue to get better. We have a young group of guys that have had a lot of success and have learned from that. We’ve had a few failures, and we have to learn from that. We can’t let this define us. We have to continue to get better, going into next year and being even better and preparing ourselves to hopefully be in this game again.”

That’s how you handle a setback.

Now, back to Brady. He has long been considered to be the GOAT (Greatest of All Time) at the quarterback position. You really can’t argue with that. The question after this Super Bowl has changed to: Is Tom Brady the greatest team athlete of all time? The only other contenders, in my opinion, are Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky. (I’m not counting individual athletics, where you have numerous contenders to argue about, e.g., Serena Williams, Usain Bolt, Tiger Woods, etc.)

Brady, in my view, is now at the top of the list. There was always a contention by Brady doubters that he benefitted from being coached in New England all those years by Bill Belichick, a supposed football genius. Well, guess what? Brady leaves the Patriots to go to a team that had finished 7-9 the year before. He takes them to the Super Bowl and wins. Maybe it was Brady who made his former coach a “genius.” (The Patriots went 7-9 and failed to make the playoffs.)

Now, to turn this to writing, I got to thinking about the GOAT of literature. It’s probably an impossible discussion because there are so many variables, including personal taste. So to make it easier, let’s go to another metaphor that’s often used in sports. Who would you put on your Rushmore of writers? That means you get four names. To narrow it down, let’s make it from the nineteenth century on, so we’re not arguing Shakespeare, Homer, Cervantes, Chaucer, etc. My criteria would be an author who wrote at least two novels we still talk about and study today; and who exerted a palpable influence on other writers. With that in mind, here is my Rushmore:

Fyodor Dostoevsky
My choice for the GOAT if I had to pick one. Best novel ever written? The Brothers Karamazov.

Mark Twain
Hemingway said, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.”

Ernest Hemingway
His style was envied and copied, but never duplicated.

Raymond Chandler
I select him over Dickens because of the influence he had on an entire genre.

Now it’s your turn. Who is on your Rushmore of writers? Do you have a GOAT?

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58 thoughts on “Who is on Your Writing Rushmore?

  1. Interesting. My own GOAT, genre aside and for sheer storytelling skill, is hands-down Stephen King. Hemingway is a close second, then Twain and Chandler. My primary criterion? Those writers seldom or never provide me with an excuse to stop reading. Having pulled me into the story, they seldom or never allow me to surface.

  2. Jim, your post on the latest Superbowl and the two quarterbacks involved should be taught going forward in schools at all levels. I’m not engaging in hyperbole here.

    It’s hard to quarrel with your GOAT or with Harvey’s. I would go with Hemingway, Twain, William Faulkner, and Cormac McCarthy. It will be fun to read the different submissions as the day unwinds.

    Thanks for an extremely thought-provoking post.

  3. So nice to see someone appreciate my home-town team. Patrick is a class-act. Go Chiefs!!

    Still working on my Rushmore of Writers. Brain hasn’t fully awakened.

  4. Joseph Conrad, Edgar A.Poe, Anton Chekhov, Charles Dickens are my Rushmore Candidates. Each of these authors produced a body of work that is read with enjoyment and studied by writers even today.

  5. Ummmm…..I have to say that Johnny Unitas is the GOAT. Without him, the NFL would never have become as popular as it is today. (I cannot put into words how much I loved watching him play.)

    As for writers whose works are still talked about….not an easy choice. Faulkner, Orwell, du Maurier, Steinbeck….come to mind.

  6. Ouch. My beloved Pats will rebound without Brady (and the five other players he brought with him to Tampa). Yes, I agree, he’s the GOAT, and it’s exciting to watch him grow and thrive. As for New England, I’m hoping we can scoop up Trevor Lawrence. *fingers crossed* I also enjoyed watching Josh Allen grow into a darn fine quarterback. What a difference a year makes…

    I agree with your list of writers. I’ll add Edgar Allan Poe, Dan Brown, and Thomas Harris.

  7. My personal list is Mary O’Hara, Diana Wynne Jones, Albert Payson Terhune, and Ray Bradbury. They may not be studied much, but they *should* be. All of them taught me so much about language and characterization. And Diana Wynne Jones does symbolism in an amazing way (Fire and Hemlock is the pinnacle of this). I doubt you’ll find Albert Payson Terhune on any book lists, since he wrote primarily stories about heroic collies. But his use of language and wry humor is simply unbeatable. I’ve gotten my kids hooked on his books now.

      • I am not thinking in socio-political terms either. Many women writers, as have been pointed out in these comments, certainly qualify as the GOAT. Unfortunately they are automatically written off or considered “fifth,” not quite good enough. Not trying to argue, only to suggest a broader perspective, so I’ll conclude my comments now.

  8. Thanks, Jim. I’m not a football fan but the sports analogy is excellent.

    GOAT is an ironic acronym since the word often has a negative connotation (except for baby goat yoga!).

    Mt. Rushmore:

    Chandler, of course!
    Sue Grafton
    James Crumley

    And an outlier: Mildred Benson. You ask, who’s that? The ghost-author who wrote early Nancy Drew books under the name Carolyn Keene. Not b/c those books are timeless prose–they aren’t. But b/c of her lasting influence. She attracted kids to read as well as inspired many kids (including myself) who later became authors.

    • For me it was Leslie McFarlane, one of many “Franklin W. Dixon” authors of The Hardy Boys. Definitely both the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew got many a child interested in writing fiction.

  9. 1. Dickens
    2. Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot)
    3. George Orwell
    4. Jack London

    The Brits invented the language and, for my taste, peaked in the 19th century. (Then there’s Orwell, as Nineteen Eighty-Four plays out in real time.) Other close contenders for GOAT include Anthony Trollope and Thomas Hardy.

    Other favorites include Balzac, Zola, Hugo, Tolstoy (War and Peace is mind-boggling) and the aforementioned Dostoevsky. But I’ve only read them in translation, so I’m hesitant to raise them to GOAT status (in spite of a Russian-reading friend who assured me Dostoevsky is the greatest writer who ever lived, at least in Russian).

    London not just because he’s a personal favorite, but because he wrote more than dog stories for children (and is highly respected outside the U.S., where he was shunned him for his ardent socialism). Another U.S. contender is Ken Kesey (Sometimes a Great Notion gets my vote for Great American Novel). Looking north, there’s Alice Munro…

    Note to Mr. Bell: Per your suggestion, I just started reading A Child of the Century by Ben Hecht. He may make it to a later GOAT list.

    • Hi, Joe. Ben Hecht would definitely be on the Rushmore of screenwriters. You’ll enjoy the book!

      Glad you dropped in a Kesey reference. It’s too bad he decided to go “Further” rather than write more books.

  10. Tough mountain for me to climb and hack into something recognizable, Jim. I can’t speak for others, but I will say writers who’ve influenced me – not that they’re necessarily GOATs by anyone else’s standards. Agatha Christie for longevity. Stephen King for ingenuity. Elmore Leonard for dialogue. And Frederick Forsyth for storytelling. Go ahead and throw rocks at me if you disagree. 🙂

  11. This is a thought-provoking post, Jim. I like that you framed this as a personal “Mount Rushmore.” Even so, it’s a tough one for me. I like a lot of the suggestions already offered. Here’s my own, very personal list:

    J.R.R. Tolkien (as already noted by several previous commenters), who had a huge impact on fantasy, but also on me personally.
    H.G. Wells, specifically for his classic novel War of the Worlds, which I’ve read many, many times. The Time Machine is also brilliant.
    C.J. (Carolyn) Cherryh, a Grandmaster of Science Fiction, who has written a great many novels, including her still running Foreigner series, which is a big like “Manor House, the Space Opera,” filled with intrigue, and deep dive into the power of relationships.
    Dame Agatha Christie, for her many engaging mysteries, brilliant plotting, and wry sense of humor. Her little Belgian detective remains one of my all-time favorite sleuths.
    Stephen King, who I maintain may be seen as a kind of American Charles Dickens in the future, for his ability to connect the fantastical, the horrific, and the suspenseful with everyday life, and for his stylistic abilities.

    Honorable mentions go to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle for Sherlock Holmes, and Jules Verne for his imagination and sense of wonder.

    • Dale, I too have long compared King to Dickens, and the reason for me is his characters. He brings disparate people to vivid life on the page. Indeed, without that, his plots would not be as potent as they are.

  12. Asking that question to someone with literature degrees who is professionally neck deep into popular genre fiction is kinda cruel. Okay, my parameters for my literary hall of fame would be earlier American authors who changed everything.

    Nathaniel Hawthorne put American fiction on the international map and proved that, even without a long history, American history and Americans had depth worthy of novels and authors who could plumb those depths. THE SCARLET LETTER, for example, was about the trauma of a horrible religion and its despots on a region’s psyche. THE HOUSE OF SEVEN GABLES was about his own guilt from an ancestor who had a huge part in the Salem Witch Trials.

    Edgar Allan Poe created not only beautiful and haunting poetry but the first detective stories and puzzle mysteries. His criticism defined the arts-for-art’s-sake movement that bridged the American Romantic Period and Realism Period. He is also one of the few American authors who has endured as a person and an icon beyond his writing.

    Harriet Beecher Stowe wasn’t a particularly talented or ground-breaking author, but her novels, particularly UNCLE TOM’S CABIN, were the fuel that ignited the anti-slavery movement in the mainstream and made slavery a topic in polite society and church sermons.

    Mark Twain because of his sheer awesomeness as an author and celebrity. HUCKLEBERRY FINN is the Great American Novel with its examination of the American psyche with the guilt of slavery and land expansion, and his earliest expression of his contempt for humanity.

  13. I’m an Eagles fan, so there’s a jealousy factor, but you have to admit Brady is the GOAT. Winning in Tampa removed all doubt and I think there’s collateral damage to Belichick’s legacy.

    Writing Rushmore:

    1. Hemingway. As you said, the man’s style is copied everywhere from literary fiction to bestsellers. The Old Man and the Sea is my favorite book and made me want to be a writer when I was a kid.

    2. Poe. A master of many forms and genres. Great poet. Great short story writer. Gothic, horror, fantasy… he invented the modern detective story. He’s also the first great American author. He put us on the map.

    3. Twain. The second great American author. A rare author in that he wrote great shorts and novels. Also was the first to write in the American voice whereas even Poe wrote in a European prose style. Twain made plain English okay. And aren’t we glad he did?

    4. Lester Dent. I had to put a pulp guy in here and I chose Dent not just for his prolific career but the fact that he invented Doc Savage, the proto super hero. There’d be no comic books without him (though, I wish there weren’t so many comic book movies).

  14. I’m not a fan of older authors, but I definitely have to say that Laura Ingalls Wilder tops my mt rushmore. Every time I go back to read a passage, like how they used to make cheese, I find myself reading to the end of the select book. Her stories are deceptively simple, but she has a way with words that won’t let you go.

    Another would be Suzanne Collins (I think by now everyone knows that about me).

    Third would be Rick Riordan. His books aren’t for everyone, but you can’t deny they changed the genre.

    And I simply can’t come up with a fourth. There’s a lot of authors I love, but they don’t meet the criteria of groundbreaking. Quite a few have amazing single series, but their other work are just blah. Leigh Bardugo is one of those, and Garth Nix another. And the others are great, but again, no groundbreaking.

    Maybe I’ll put James Scott Bell up there for his groundbreaking craft books 🙂

    • Several kids’ book authors and a trashy and proud of it, sexy one. Nice! I love Rick Riordan’s novels, particularly those set in the Percy Jackson universe. Apollo’s voice in his current “Trials of Apollo” series is really, really funny, too. I’m not sure I’d call Riordan innovative, but he’s certainly the best of the best of the post-Harry Potter magic in schools genre.

      • Thumbs-up. I call riordan the master of plot twists. The Percy Jackson universe is definitely the best of his universes.

  15. I don’t disagree with any of the choices above, all are major influences. My list is likely more subjective – studied Fine Art/History rather than Lit. (If playwrights qualified I would have added Edward Albee to the list!)

    Margaret Atwood
    Philip Roth
    Barbara Kingsolver
    Ken Kesey

  16. And, I think, on any literary Rushmore some room should be made to squueze in a likeness of Maxwell Perkins—without whom……

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