Tom Eblen: Who is Kentucky's greatest living writer?

teblen@herald-leader.comJuly 5, 2014 

Neil Chethik of the Carnegie Center for Literacy welcomes debate on live authors.

TOM EBLEN

The Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning has a new message as it seeks public nominations for its third class of inductees into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame: We're not just for dead folks anymore.

In January, the center plans to add four more Kentucky writers who are no longer living to the 13 already in the Hall of Fame, plus its first living writer. So here is the question: Who is Kentucky's greatest living writer?

"We are ready to show that great Kentucky writing is being created now," said Neil Chethik, the Carnegie Center's director. "It just doesn't exist in the past."

The criteria for all nominations is that a writer, living or dead, must be published; must have lived in Kentucky for a significant period or have a significant connection to the state; and must have produced writing of "enduring stature."

Since he became director in 2011, Chethik has expanded the Carnegie Center's mission of promoting literacy education, reading and writing to celebrating Kentucky's literary heritage. One way has been by creating the Hall of Fame.

"People like lists," he said. "They like awards."

Nominations to the Hall of Fame are vetted by the Carnegie Center staff and inductees are chosen by a committee of writers and readers headed by Lori Meadows, director of the Kentucky Arts Council.

The first 13 inductees have reflected a diverse group of great writers spanning two centuries: Harriette Arnow, William Wells Brown, Harry Caudill, Rebecca Caudill, Thomas D. Clark, Janice Holt Giles, James Baker Hall, Etheridge Knight, Thomas Merton, Elizabeth Madox Roberts, James Still, Jesse Stuart and Robert Penn Warren.

"People have a lot of passion about who gets named to the Hall of Fame," Chethik said. "We've even had some protests."

For example, fans of two popular novelists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, James Lane Allen and John Fox Jr., have lobbied for their inclusion. So have fans of the late "gonzo" journalist Hunter S. Thompson.

They and others will be considered in the future, Chethik said, along with perhaps one living writer each year.

"I think we've got five-to-10 who are truly great writers working right now who are nationally known," he said. "You can start making a list, but as soon as you start ... well, I'll leave it to you and others to make the list."

I can think of several Kentucky writers who have produced impressive bodies of work over several decades, including Barbara Kingsolver, Bobbie Ann Mason, Ed McClanahan, Sena Jeter Naslund, Nikky Finney, Gurney Norman and Gloria Jean Watkins, whose pen name is bell hooks.

Kim Edwards of Lexington has won many awards for her short stories and best-selling novel, The Memory Keeper's Daughter. Louisville native Sue Grafton has attracted a national following with her detective novels.

There are many fine up-and-coming Kentucky writers, such as Frank X. Walker, Silas House, C.E. Morgan, Erik Reece, Crystal Wilkinson, Maurice Manning and Bianca Spriggs.

You probably can think of others worthy of consideration, too. But for me, this competition comes down to a search for Wendell Berry. No other Kentucky writer can match the quality, breadth and impact of his work over the past half-century.

Berry, who turns 80 on Aug. 5, has written dozens of novels, poems, short stories and influential essays and non-fiction books. A fellow in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, he won the National Humanities Medal and gave the prestigious Jefferson Lecture in 2012.

The Henry County native and resident is revered internationally for elegant, no-nonsense writing that helped inspire the environmental, local food and sustainable agriculture movements.

Berry's 1977 book, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, has become a classic. The Unforeseen Wilderness in 1971 helped rally public opposition to flooding the Red River Gorge. In recent years, he has been an eloquent voice against destructive strip-mining practices in Appalachia. That's my nomination for Kentucky's greatest living writer. What's yours? Email your suggestion, plus your reasoning and any supporting material, before July 15 to Chethik at: neil@carnegiecenterlex.org.

"We figure that when you're arguing about who the best writers are, you're in the right conversation," Chethik said. "We want to spark conversations that will get more people to read more."

Tom Eblen: (859) 231-1415. Email: teblen@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @tomeblen. Blog: tomeblen.bloginky.com

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