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Wednesday, October 31, 2007 10:44 am
George Plimpton: Merely “Pretty Good”?
Posted by: Keir Graff

I guess the mourning is officially over. George Plimpton, who died in 2003, is taking some lumps this week.

On Slate (“Was George Plimpton a Literary Giant?“), Timothy Noah writes that “the late sportswriter and fireworks enthusiast” isn’t nearly as good as Philip Roth’s Nathan Zuckerman (and therefore, Roth) seems to think he is:

He was a guy who wrote pretty good magazine stories, some of which he expanded into pretty good books…If one were to compile a list of the 20th century’s finest journalists, it’s doubtful he’d make the top 50.

Well, some people might put Plimpton in the top 50, but fair enough. One person’s paper lion is another person’s, um, well, Plimpton’s own self-effacement makes it difficult to complete the cliche. But is Noah’s piece even necessary? Claims Noah:

The question becomes unavoidable. Is Zuckerman’s dewy assessment really Roth’s?

No question is unavoidable. I know Roth is a planet whose gravity causes much of the literary world to bend to his orbit, but when it comes to debating whether or not his opinion of Plimpton is inflated, well, maybe Roth just likes him. This stuff is subjective, after all. Until we have a formula by which we can prove the relative worth of major writers, l think it’s a question best debated over a beer. Or, perhaps, a martini.

And in the New York Observer (“The Bicycle Thief“), Doree Shafrir profiles Philip Gourevitch (We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families, 1998), now the editor of The Paris Review, who feels that perhaps Plimpton was a bit out of touch when he was running things:

"You could pick up many issues without knowing what year they were from," he said. "I mean, you could guess by certain kinds of aesthetic things – probably by the illustrations more than anything, and some texture of the prose – but you wouldn’t know that there was a civil rights movement or a Vietnam War or a decolonization of the world."

Apparently Gourevitch is knitting his own mantle of greatness.

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