Where does Bukowski stand among 20th century writers? (1 Viewer)

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i am not that well read. so to the people on this forum who are well read, where do you think bukowski stands among 20th century writers? is he one of the most important?

i asked this on another forum and they said andre gide (whom i havent read)and william burroughs (i've only read one of his novels) were greater than bukowski.

what do you all think?
 
You are asking where Bukowski stands with other 20th Century writers on Bukowski.net? I truly have no idea what the responses will be. He was/is one of a kind, if that helps. Forgive any sarcastic tone, beerbelly666, enjoy reading your postings here.
 
No matter where you ask, all you'll ever get are opinions, so in some respect, there's not much point in asking.

That said, clearly I put Bukowski near the top of all writers, and there are a few main reasons why:

1. His words are a brutally clear, yet complex reflection of who he was;
2. His humor is spot on and well-placed;
3. His facility with the poem, the short story and the novel cannot be overlooked in any assessment of prowess; and
4. His best poems rank up there with the best works ever put to paper.

So how do I even go about comparing Buk to other writers I like - writers that are generally considered to be among the more popular "classic" writers, if not among the best? Let's consider Kafka, Solzhenitsyn, Steinbeck and Camus from the 20th century and even throw in Dosto(y)evsky for good measure. Where to begin? I get next nothing of Bukowski from these other writers, except for some broad similarity between Buk's sense of alienation from society and Kafka's portrayal of The System, Camus' portrayal of isolation, and Dos' underground. But these relationships are very tenuous, if they exist at all. If anything, I get more of Kafka, Solzhenitsyn, Steinbeck, Dos and Camus from Buk, but then again, I don't get much there either.

So Buk belongs with the best for me because he is a singular voice, not just prolific but often brilliant, and more than anything else, he speaks to me.
 
Very well put dear Purple Stickpin. Certainly there are still many around who dislike Buk for his brutal honesty because I think that's what they are offended by. They'd like to hear and read sentences that are nicely put but never gonna arrive. They are grey-like persons but with Buk you're either black or white, love it or hate it. But then again, for someone who really likes and knows literature, how come not like Buk?! He is definetly near the top of the best ones. Also near Hamsun. And you're right that he is the best of all the ones whose lit concerned with alienation.
 
ok here is my criticism of bukowski's writing:

1) bukowski does not challenge the reader : i'm not talking about his writing style per se. but most bukowski novels are easy reads. i personally have no problems with this.
but look at this quote by norman mailer: "Great writers are not easy to read, and shouldn't be."
i think bukowski's themes are repetitive. bukowski doesnt make the reader work hard. for example, in FACTOTUM nearly every chapter is the same with chinaski finding a new job. in women, every chapter finds chinaski with a new woman.it is the same thing repeated over and over again but its fun to read because of his craftsmanship and humor.

2) bukowski was not an ambitious writer: you could argue that he knew what he knew and wrote only that. but bukowski is not someone who seemed to be interested in social inquiry (remember what he wrote about immigrants in HOLLYWOOD? - yes it was very honest but he didn't bother to find out why they were like that.) or who would go to great lengths to study history or a new profession to add variety to his repertoire. does anybody think he was pretty one dimensional?

more later.

i don't really have a problem with the two points i mentioned in my post above. bukowski is my favorite writer. but i just put those arguments out there to find out what other people think.
So how do I even go about comparing Buk to other writers I like - writers that are generally considered to be among the more popular "classic" writers, if not among the best? Let's consider Kafka, Solzhenitsyn, Steinbeck and Camus from the 20th century and even throw in Dosto(y)evsky for good measure. Where to begin? I get next nothing of Bukowski from these other writers, except for some broad similarity between Buk's sense of alienation from society and Kafka's portrayal of The System, Camus' portrayal of isolation, and Dos' underground. But these relationships are very tenuous, if they exist at all. If anything, I get more of Kafka, Solzhenitsyn, Steinbeck, Dos and Camus from Buk, but then again, I don't get much there either.

So Buk belongs with the best for me because he is a singular voice, not just prolific but often brilliant, and more than anything else, he speaks to me.
purplestickpin, i have only read camus, steinbeck and dostoevsky among the writers you mentioned. do you think you like bukowski more than those writers because his descriptions of alienation and anomie and sloth are easier to digest?

i would say bukowski, despite his seeming carelessness and air of detachment, was a very clever craftsman. he mixed scenes of depression and helplessness with a lot of machismo, humor and sharp social commentary.

somehow that makes him easier to read compared to the writers you mentioned. camus's THE OUTSIDER is incredibly depressing - it was hard for me to identify with meursault. or raskolnikov in CRIME AND PUNISHMENT. though i understood certain aspects of those characters. steinbeck - a far more ambitious novelist than bukowski.

i think those writers gave less to the reader than bukowski. they were too concerned with serving literature.

bukowski/chinaski - well he was alienated but all the drinking and womanizing made him easier to digest. even bukowski wrote about a tough life but the alcohol, the women and the humor made him more attractive.
You are asking where Bukowski stands with other 20th Century writers on Bukowski.net? I truly have no idea what the responses will be. He was/is one of a kind, if that helps. Forgive any sarcastic tone, beerbelly666, enjoy reading your postings here.
cheers. i agree, he was one of a kind. i think of bukowski as this boxer. a boxer with a pot belly and bad technique. he walked into a ring full of other great boxers (hemingway, mailer, burroughs, updike, steinbeck etc). and he sneered at them all. he out boxed them all. he landed punches which the other boxers took years to perfect. he did not work as hard as they did. but boy, when he nailed it he nailed it like no other. he hated boxing. but when he landed those punches of his, they rang true. somehow, they rang truer than the other boxers punches.

what he did not have in terms of curiosity, knowledge and experience, he made up with audacity, guts and heart.

a truly unique writer. almost like a people's writer. a writer for the people. calling it like it was without any of the pompous bullshit.
 
I'd pictured more like the fighter who who was down couple of times, and was pressed against ropes hardly trowing any punches back - but mocking an opponent who's wondering 'why this guys isn't going down already?!' Referee was about to stop the one sided slaughter - when that one punch came from nowhere: BANG! And turned the tide...
 

Hosh

hoshomccreesh.com
Wait, so to be a great writer your prose has to be hard to read? Is that so readers will skip to the last page, put it down, and go talk about the brilliant ending at cocktail parties?

I'm not claiming to be well read or sophisticated...but if I am reading something that I'm not enjoying, I stop. I see no point in trudging through something unless it entertains me, makes me feel something, or says something profound about being human.

And writing a book, any book, much less one like that is pretty damn hard to do.
 

bospress.net

www.bospress.net
Yes, that kind of goes to the academic poets theory. Write a poem that only other academics will understand and at the same time show your frustrated readers how intelligent you are by writing poems that they do not understand.

You can write poetry with deep metaphors that challenge the reader without intentionally making it impossible for all but those with a doctorate in English to understand.

And the academics look down their nose on those that write in a way that their audience can understand.

FTW.
 

esart

esart.com
Founding member
ok here is my criticism of bukowski's writing:

1) bukowski does not challenge the reader : i'm not talking about his writing style per se. but most bukowski novels are easy reads. i personally have no problems with this.
but look at this quote by norman mailer: "Great writers are not easy to read, and shouldn't be."
i think bukowski's themes are repetitive. bukowski doesnt make the reader work hard. for example, in FACTOTUM nearly every chapter is the same with chinaski finding a new job. in women, every chapter finds chinaski with a new woman.it is the same thing repeated over and over again but its fun to read because of his craftsmanship and humor.

2) bukowski was not an ambitious writer: you could argue that he knew what he knew and wrote only that. but bukowski is not someone who seemed to be interested in social inquiry (remember what he wrote about immigrants in HOLLYWOOD? - yes it was very honest but he didn't bother to find out why they were like that.) or who would go to great lengths to study history or a new profession to add variety to his repertoire. does anybody think he was pretty one dimensional?
cheers. i agree, he was one of a kind. i think of bukowski as this boxer. a boxer with a pot belly and bad technique. he walked into a ring full of other great boxers (hemingway, mailer, burroughs, updike, steinbeck etc). and he sneered at them all. he out boxed them all. he landed punches which the other boxers took years to perfect. he did not work as hard as they did. but boy, when he nailed it he nailed it like no other. he hated boxing. but when he landed those punches of his, they rang true. somehow, they rang truer than the other boxers punches...

You can say the same for Hemingway and he won the Nobel Prize. While I like him, he was all but redundant with endless metaphors and romantic descriptions that go on for pages and pages that nearly take you away from the story at hand, but nonetheless, an easy read. As a matter of fact, I find that annoying at times because I think HE lacked ambition in his writing for using the metaphor as a crutch instead of revealing himself as a writer as Bukowski did. Buk gave you HIMSELF, which is rare in what most of what these great writers have done throughout the centuries and that is the difference. Using plain language is not easy when crafting it together from a writers perspective. It might wind up an easy read for the reader, but it is not easy to pull off in actuality. Why don't you give it a try sometime?

Ambition? Ha! Why don't you compare. Pile up the works side by side to Steinbeck, or anyone who won the Pulitzer and you will find Bukowski wrote just as many volumes if not more. This is about recognition and just because Bukowski did not receive the same recognition as Grapes of Wrath or Of Mice and Men doesn't mean he wasn't a great American writer. He was just an underdog. We here like to root for the genius underdog, so your argument won't sit well with some of us and you're going to get a counter argument, from me at least.

You have to understand that Buk could have written in a way that was difficult for you to read if he wanted to because he was smart enough to do that, but he was anti-academia. That was one of his stances in all of this - don't you get that? He thought about doing that on many occasions, but refused to do it because it rubbed him so wrong. He could have gone that route, but he stood firm and stuck to his style and knew all about what got attention, yet he stayed poor for many years as to not knock off EASY prose like that. I don't think you get how difficult it is to write in a way that appears effortless.
 
I remember coming across an obituary in The Independent (UK) and I think he sums it up himself the best..

'Poetry has always bothered me, right through the ages. I look at it and think, 'This isn't right, it's a fraud. It doesn't express things the way they are.' I want to open it up, make it clear. That doesn't mean it has to be nonsense, or not 'intelligent' - just more readable.'

It isn't clear whether that is a quote from an interview they had with him, and I'm not very good at remembering quotes, but i think in the context of the discussion going on here, it fits. One quote which they state was from the interview is...

'It may sound egotistical, but I think I'll be a 'late discovery'. I think people will see the clarity and simplicity in my work, and appreciate it for those qualities.'

Again, quite befitting of the argument here.

the link is here http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/obituary-charles-bukowski-1429003.html

Personally, I never put things in lists. My girlfriend does all that. If she didn't we'd have two metric tons of toilet roll, 50 liters of water, two bags of prawn crackers, and nothing to feed the baby. However, I will say that it is a crying shame that film critics keep overlooking Speed 2: Cruise Control in favour of that silly Russian film Battleship Pokemon (that is it, isn't it?) when compiling the 100 greatest films.
 

Hosh

hoshomccreesh.com
I loved Battleship Pokemon. The editing was revolutionary...for the time. Good ol' Serge Eisenstein...or was it Einstein? But I do have to admit, it was no Speed 2: Cruise Control...

At best, I think those BEST OF lists earnestly attempt to point out some high points. At worst, they are some kind of corporate pap geared towards shaping the argument, or shilling for a few favorite artists. I honestly don't think too many people (or places) that publish BEST OF lists would include Buk--right or wrong. I mean, we can't even devise a way to accurately measure and compare sentence style...so until there's a scientific calibration by which to begin the conversation--the whole damn thing just remains 100% subjective.

We all dig Buk's work, so for us--he'd be high on our lists. Which just goes to show you that we don't know what we're talking about either. Besides, a scientific measure of art is its death knell...so, as always, we're each left to our own to decide what moves us. For me--he's as committed to his kind of writing as anyone, and his aesthetic is a whole lot more approachable than a Faulkner, or a Fitzgerald, or even a Hemingway. For me it's the humor that comes through--there's a great deal of humanity in that humor. That's style, baby.
 
Where does Bukowski stand among writers of the previous century?

Bukowski fares badly in terms of sales, a long way behind Chairman Mao, J. R. R. Tolkien and late-to-the-party J. K. Rowling.

He's omitted from most lists where critics try to compile the century's greatest writers, too. I often wonder why that's so.

Joseph Conrad, Katherine Mansfield, Franz Kafka, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Vladimir Nabokov, Graham Greene, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, George Orwell, Henry Miller, Christopher Isherwood, Jean-Paul Sartre, Raymond Chandler, Flannery O'Connor, Philip Larkin, Raymond Carver, Haruki Murakami, Cormac McCarthy, Paul Auster. I love all these writers, and they're all more likely to find critical acceptance than Bukowski.

Even Jim Thompson, William S. Burroughs and Hunter S. Thompson are often more likely to find critical acceptance than Bukowski (I love them all too). That said, he's a firm favourite of academics and critics who place these kinds of writers above, say, Evelyn Waugh, which is more than you can claim for J. K. Rowling or Ayn Rand. He does often turn up in alternative versions of the literary canon.

Writers' work is sometimes dismissed as genre fiction. Bukowski's problem is obviously something else. People can overlook Lester Bangs' stuff because they think of it as specialist (yep, love Bangs too), and Bukowski's work is sometimes damned as "just for drunks". He's dangerous and deceptively simple. You can say that about people more likely to get on the big critic lists, though.

Your criticism, Mr beerbelly666, addresses some of the reasons his work struggles to find serious recognition. It struggles to challenge the reader, or rather the lazy reader. The repetitive nature of his work is positive, though. That's how I see it personally and the themes of plenty of "officially great" writers are repetitive.

The lack of ambition expressed as lack of social enquiry is a problem. That's a fault of some writers who appear in the literary cannon, though.

His peculiar combination of dangerous and deceptively simple is the biggest factor in the imbalance between his reputation and his work. Critics too often see him as facile, a misogynist etc. More important, they assume this defines his readership and that this combination of simple form and dangerous content is what most people will see.

Even if they like him, they'll keep quiet because they know others see him only as an idiotic misogynist or whatever.

What other writers give is indispensible. Bukowski is indispensible too, and he's also my favourite.
 
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"Chairman Mao" was the biggest mass murderer in history. Why do u have a picture of him on your profile, Rayson?
Are u some kind of sociopathic person or are u doing it just for a laugh?

Anyway, my two cents is that Bukowski wrote his novels and most of his short stories in a autobiographical way or semi autobiographical. Not to say that all he wrote actually happened to him, but he wrote from his own perspective most of the time. Unlike big writers of the 20th Century, he didn't have much characterization, plot, or other elements of the modern novel. Compare a novel like Huxley's "Point counter Points" or Jack London's "The Star Rover" to say "Women" and you will understand what I mean. I don't think he can be compared to Huxley, Orwell, Joyce, Lawrence, Ballard etc. Alot of his work overlaps from one book to the next and while he is very entertaining, he is very repetitive.
 
I don't think those traits explain why his literary standing is unequal to other writers of the twentieth century. Henry Miller, Christopher Isherwood and others I mention wrote first-person autobiographical stuff. I'd say plot and characterisation tend to be elements found in novels of any time, not just in the modern novel, but exceptions turn up in my list, again including Isherwood (in terms of plot). You do seem to think he's facile in comparison to writers typically found in the literary canon, though, which I think is a common belief.

I haven't read either novel you mention. I wonder why the reputations of Brave New World and Call Of The Wild are greater. It's similar to the question of why Kafka has a greater reputation than Bukowski, although I value both and even prefer Bukowski. It's a fun game.

The Mao is a Warhol painting. Warhol was no more an advocate of Mao than he was of car crashes, which he also painted. Warhol commented on the twentieth century's commercialisation and commodification of the world by means of mass production and mass media, the benefits brought as well as the damage caused. Mao as pop art cheapens rather than elevates the iconic status Mao had. I grabbed it as an avatar for those reasons but it's whatever you want it to be, of course, so if you find it only tasteless and suggestive of a sociopath then it's that too. I might well be a sociopath: only now I think about it do I understand your assumption would probably be a popular one. I get confused when boys put up pictures of hot women for their avatars until I remember it's no direct representation. I'll change it.
 

Erik

If u don't know the poetry u don't know Bukowski
Founding member
What about the poetry boys? What about the poetry?
Or should we say aphorisms...
 
Yeah the poetry is more difficult to defend, as poetry, but it's often great in its own right whatever you want to call it. I think all but the kindest would admit to quite a quality control issue, anyway. (A defence would be that too much Poetry capital P fails because it adheres to notions of what that should be.) His worst writing was his short stories, I'd say. Too often not successful as short stories or anything else. Sorry, I haven't been able to concentrate on this answer enough. The neighbours are going fucking mental. Have to go.
 
His poetry I think is his prose in pithy form. I read a lot of it a long time ago. He wrote some beautiful stuff. It is difficult to compare him because he is so unconventional. One poem I still remember is "a spark"....at the end, something like -- "it only takes a spark to light up a forest"....
 

Erik

If u don't know the poetry u don't know Bukowski
Founding member
hmmm.
Bukowski is first and foremost a poet.
That is where he excels.

Go read "Burning in Water, Drowning in Flame", "Mockingbird Wish me Luck" and "The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over the Hills" and then maybe we can continue the discussion.

If you don't know the poetry you don't know Bukowski.
 

hoochmonkey9

Art should be its own hammer.
Moderator
Founding member
welcome Robbie, great to have you here, but this is bananas:

but his poetry is not distinguishable from his prose.

Bukowski was a game-changer when it came to poetry. of course, we are now stuck with thousands of bad Buk imitators, but that's not his fault.

the landscape, for better or worse, totally changed after Bukowski established his voice.
 
Thanks hoochmonkey9, but i'm not the first one to say that...by buk's own admission, he writes poetry in free verse, which is effectively prose writing as it eschews metre and other aspects of prosody. This is why you won't find him in the same canon as Pound, Thomas, Yeats, etc. And that's not even weighing up the "salacious" content.
 

Erik

If u don't know the poetry u don't know Bukowski
Founding member
Here's one for ya then Robbie: Is Homer's Illiad poetry or prose?
 

hoochmonkey9

Art should be its own hammer.
Moderator
Founding member
free verse is a type of poetry, it's not prose. free verse is not broken up prose. the line breaks are there to convey a rhythm. if you think poetry needs a scheme, metre, whatever, you belong in a period pre 1950. there's nothing wrong with pre 1950, believe me, I love pre 1950, I love many of those poets you mentioned, but don't base poetry on rules that aren't really rules anymore. poetry no longer needs rules. if it did, it would stagnate. painting evolved when photography came along, evolution is necessary. poetry will always evolve, because it is one of the first arts (Erik mentioned Homer), it's there to convey the truth of the time.
 
See, I'm not sure about this argument that Bukowski is primarily a poet. That's where much of his best writing is but the novels are underrated, especially Factotum. Its form is amazing. It isn't quite a novel, actually, isn't quite a story cycle. It's a mishmash of short stories that works where the short stories can fail. (I was a bit too tough on the stories as well. He brought worth to every form, but overall I'd place them beneath the poetry or whatever you want to call it, beneath the novels and letters.) That's the thing with the poems, I'd say. So many are amazing, but to many people they aren't quite poems. It's a semantic argument, really. The name in my original post known primarily as a poet is Larkin. Even he said that he considered his own work not really poetry. Even in terms of free verse, Bukowski's stuff is so far removed from the usual ideas of what poetry is that he's either redefined it or it isn't poetry. It means the same thing ultimately, and I'm not bothered which idea people choose. I'd say Bukowski is primarily a writer, though.
 
"...his poetry is not distinguishable from his prose..." First, Bukowski wrote poetry in LOTS of different styles. Read a book or two from his beginning, middle and late periods and you'll see. Take a look particularly at his very last poems. And also take a look at Walt Whitman: "A child came to me and said what is the grass..." Whitman breaks from European expectatations of rhyme, meter a century before Bukowski. Bukowski is a continuation of a tradition as well as an original.
 

Erik

If u don't know the poetry u don't know Bukowski
Founding member
Robbie wrote:
Ah come on now :p
It's a poem, of course.

OK, but when you read the Illiad you read it like a novel don't you?
Thing is the Illiad wasn't originally written down, it was transfered orally.
The rhymes help the memory.

Rayson wrote:
Bukowski's stuff is so far removed from the usual ideas of what poetry is that he's either redefined it or it isn't poetry

The usual ideas? Now there's an argument I can't refute.
If you have problems with the word poetry just call Buk's free verse for aphorisms, flash fiction, musings og whatever. Thing is: These "poems" are where he execels and where his main commitment lies.

If you ask me that is...
 
OK, but when you read the Illiad you read it like a novel don't you?

Erik, I never read the whole thing. I had a nibble on it alright.
I did read Paradise Lost though, many times. Now there's a poem...
Bukowski is a poet, not in the strictest sense of the word though. As you know he was never accepted by the academia, not that it rankled him too much.

I used to have most of his poetry, Betting on the Muse, Open all night, etc... My favorite collection, though, has to be The Last Night Of The Earth Poems. It resonated a lot with my younger, angrier, misanthropic self. And it made me laugh. My ex has most of my old books now, sadly.
 
What is a poet "in the strictest sense of the word"? You cite Pound, Thomas and Yeats earlier. They are all "canonical" poets, perhaps, but they are completely different. If you were to ask twenty well-read people how they would "rank" them, I bet you would get different answers. Some people hate Pound because he was an anti-Semitic fascist so he would immediately be disqualified. Even with these three, you would probably get severe disagreement. When I was a child, Robert Frost was considered among the "greatest" American poets. But something happened. Suddenly in the Sixties, everyone was saying Wallace Stevens was in the first rank. Why? Because Harold Bloom at Yale said so? Who decides these things exactly? Just wondering what your "strict definition" of "poet" is....
 
Well how good they are is subjective. Fact is, though, he is not recognized by the literary establishment, he is not taught in universities, and his work is not generally in poetry anthologies. Why not? Your use of inverted commas is suggesting some undercurrent of argument. I merely said he is not in the same canon as the aforementioned poets. I am not saying he is not a poet. If he is judged by standards of the literary establishment, the guy doesn't figure....why is that?

It's as much to do with his content as his style, maybe even more so. A lot of his stuff reads like an open wound. He hits too close to the bone for most people. This is why I like him though. But if someone says he is the greatest writer who ever lived, I would ask them if they were having a laugh?
 

mjp

Founding member
Your use of a question mark is suggesting that you are not sure of your last statement. Yet you appear so confident in your portrait picture there. What a cruel dichotomy.

We should ask some professors somewhere what they think about your uncertainty. I only trust the opinions of professors and other limp geldings.
 
I'm asking a deeper question about canon formation. Who decides who gets to be in the canon? How do you define the "literary establishment"? In America--I don't know about Ireland--it has been White, East Coast, generally genteel University Folk who have decided these things. And if the decisions are supposedly "for all time"--for example my citing of Robert Frost as one of the "great" American poets when I was a kid in the Fifties--why do the people considered "great" change every twenty years? Same thing with Hemingway. He was considered #1 and then Faulkner displaced him. And what about women, Black, Native American writers? They weren't even in the "canon" at all. So the same mechanism was in operation for "working class" writers like Bukowski. He was kept out of the "canon" I would argue for largely extra-literary reasons. By the way, his work IS entering the anthologies. David Lehman includes five of his poems in the Oxford Book of American Poetry....And he is slowly making his way into anthologies in the college book market as well.
 

jordan

lothario speedwagon
it's such a ridiculous, facile argument to say that bukowski is "too real" for the academic literary canon. the reason he's not part of the poetry canon is that his poetry doesn't benefit from academic criticism. in general, books discussing his writing are really boring, because they don't tell you anything you couldn't figure out on your own. moreover, bukowski was an iconoclast, and not being representative of a particular movement, there's no reason to teach him in a survey class either. you'll find him on university reading lists for courses on labor movements, because he makes sense there.

i think it's absurd to say that bukowski is the greatest writer who ever lived, but i think it is equally absurd to say that anyone else is, either. i think he's one of the great writers of the 20th century, but trying to pick one great writer of all time is a fool's game. would you perhaps stop posting if everyone acknowledged the incredibly non-controversial point you seem to be hammering at that bukowski was a very good writer but not the greatest writer in history?
 
MJP -- I am very sure of my last statement, it's a rhetorical question. A gelding by definition is limp btw.

David -- You are clearing your throat a bit now on this point. I am talking about what is, u are speculating on what ought to be. Let's keep it at what is (for the time being anyway)...he is not regarded highly in the context of these other poets. Joyce was working class, London was a tramp for most of his life, Patrick Kavanagh was a vagabond. These writers are in the canon. It's not all black and white.
 
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