Thinking more on my remarks, from yesterday, about Cranks and Hacks as the predominant terms descriptive of American authors . . . and in part responding to Andrew Shields' comment about "mellowing" cranks becoming hacks...
I think my idea goes back in part to my blog on Malcolm Cowley's Exile's Return and his sense of "bohemia" as, in some sense, composed of cranks -- which translated in his terms into the distinction between those who eschewed the mainstream in favor of their idiosyncratic aesthetic avenues -- as against the mainstream of "hacks," which is to say those who made their living through the accepted organs of discourse. This seems to me to not have changed much, except, as I mentioned in my blog, that the academy also became a site of "hackwork," but that it also is a forum for cranky self-fashionings that provoke response.
My point about the handful of "greats" I mentioned is that they seemed to me, by and large, to maintain their crankdom, though of course that can be gainsaid by Faulkner's later novels, by Fitzgerald in Hollywood, by Hemingway's desperate effort to repeat early Hemingway, and certainly by whatever relation post-80s Pynchon bears to pre-80s Pynchon, etc. So is it simply a truism that even our best, most gifted cranks end up by becoming mainstream hacks? This could be, except that it's never so easy to write-off the work of a thorough-going crank (which is why I don't write-off post-80s Pynchon).
And indeed there are those who see the career as a learning curve: from a position on the outside (as a crank) to a position where that very idiosyncrasy inspires its readers and followers to adopt the crank as a new ideal or wonder, to the point where the crank him or herself, now lionized and praised, has a hard time determining where the work should go next. Preaching always to the converted doesn't exactly keep one sharp.
En academe, it's even easier to fall into a mainstream acceptance of what everyone agrees upon, because, in a sense, the point of view of the classroom is based on consensus, on the state of affairs as determined by the best commentators or scholars. If to uphold "the crank's outlook" isn't easy, neither is it easy to accommodate the crank's creations. Sometimes it works (the way so many modernists have become the basis of their own academic industries), but sometimes it's best "to keep the dog far hence," so to speak. One of the reasons for the "avant-garde" argument is that it justifies including certain outsiders as ahead of the mainstream, rather than as failing to achieve the mainstream.
In the end, what are the criteria for these different levels? mainstream: having major resources of promotion and distribution at one's disposal, as well as the good will, more or less, of major reviewers and commentators, who pick the winners of major prizes; avant-garde: having a dedicated coterie following of those who eschew the mainstream in favor of "innovation" (generally in its aesthetic form); alternative: having a dedicated subcultural following who have strong identifications with the content of the work (generally depicts a "marginalized" group or region); hacks: those driven by, and succeeding in terms of, what the mainstream permits and provides, usually with no particular allegiance to any cause, group, aesthetic, except "what sells"; cranks: those who couldn't be mainstream if they tried, and who also, for their own idiosyncratic reasons, find it hard to adjust to coterie logics of "l'art pour l'art" or "Us against Them," or "the personal is political," etc, in other words, those whom it is hard for a coterie or subculture to rally 'round, though that's not to say it won't happen.
As usual with such categories: no one's work really falls only or always into one. Well, maybe there are "pure hacks," but everyone else flounders around in the playing field, now hot, now not, now a complete unknown, now a cause célèbre, now trying to do what's already been done, now trying to do something that can't be done.