Thursday, June 28, 2012

Populism or Postmodernism?

Here’s the opinion of philosopher Georg Lukacs, writing mid-20th century:

“Great realism, therefore, perishes in the era of decay. And besides the overtly apologetic anti-realism and pseudo-realism of the literature promoted by the reactionary bourgeoisie, we have a long train of tendencies that try in a very ‘radical’ and ‘avant-garde’ fashion to liquidate the very foundations of realism.”

Lukacs was for “the unity of democratic tradition in social life and realist tradition in art; the consequence of this unity being a constant striving to give art a popular character, and an unseparable connection with the great problems of national life.”

He could’ve been talking about the situation of American literature today.

What Happened to the Epoch Times?

Why is the Chinese dissident newspaper Epoch Times no longer available in Philadelphia? It seems to have been replaced on the streets of the city by ChinaDaily, a creature of the Chinese government. This bears some looking into.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Emily Temple’s Other List


As we’ve seen at a previous post, Flavorwire’s books person has rejected most of the giants of American and world literature. What remains? What’s approved?

We get more than a clue in Temple’s 12/30/11 list of “Most Anticipated Books of 2012.” The contents of the list are, for the most part, sadly predictable, encompassing the standard narrow New York hipster world view:

Not an accident that the first book listed is the execrably dull novel The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus. Columbia University prof Marcus, married to a Believer magazine editor, is one of the best-connected writers on the U.S. literary scene. Do we have a clue where Flavorwire, they of the roomy and amply furnished Manhattan office, is coming from? Do we now know why Emily Temple trampled ereaders and ebook writers?

The clincher on the list is the inclusion of Marilynne Robinson, who not only is the director of the University of Iowa writing program, she’s authored a stultifying essay collection oriented toward the bureaucratic writer mindset. One of the essays in the book practically screams, “Keep the funding coming!” These are people whose total existence depends on the system, and their place within it. Connections are all. They have to be, because the writing of these literary apparatchiks enthralls no one.

Others selected to be hyped by Flavorwire include MFAer Amelia Gray, MFAer Adam Levin, MFAer extraordinaire Michael Chabon, and Nell Freudenberger, who was first published in The New Yorker at age 25 and has been further hyped by same as a leading up-and-comer. The safe and approved.

Oh, there might be a ringer or two on the list, notably Roberto Bolano, who was adopted by the U.S. literary establishment once he was safely dead! Cachet for the literary gentry by appropriation and association.

Think France 1789, with a salon full of well-dressed aristocrats celebrating the irrelevance of their exclusive little realm. The new world of ebooks is the approaching deluge.

The Pop Lit Era?

See my post at another blog, here:

Monday, June 25, 2012

A Bizarre Not-Reading List

Check out this strange list by Emily Temple of Flavorwire of books and/or authors which make a person "undateable":

Several of the authors listed are among my all-time favorites. (Uh, not Tao Lin.) The reasoning for eliminating them is often skewed. (Liking Ayn Rand, then discovering her politics aren't acceptable-- as if that has anything to do with the quality of the writing. Can we say, "Closed mind"?) Not only that, but try to envision the personality of the individual who would NOT like the books of the authors on the list. Not masculine, not serious, not open to other viewpoints, no nostalgia, no quirks, etc. etc. etc. Would the person have any personality at all? Or not be a mannequin? Is that what Emily Temple and friends want? I suspect she and they are just a tad uptight, and so the question then becomes: Who would want to date them? (Those of such a restrictive and narrow viewpoint would likely create bloodless and uninteresting writing themselves. No risk involved.)

Just my inflation-adjusted 0.8 cents worth.

(For balls-to-the-wall, not-uptight, over-the-top fiction read THE TOWER by King Wenclas, available via Nook or Kindle. Likely too strong for the Flavorpill crowd.)

Book Critic Alert

To all book critics out there, a new book review site is looking for qualified reviewers. See

I've obtained the secret password to the site, and am passing it on here, per request: "discover_books"

It looks like an informative site, so whether you're a book critic or not, check it out.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Power and Cover-Ups

If the Jerry Sandusky case tells us anything, it’s about the nature of institutions to close ranks around corrupt individuals or uncomfortable topics. Can’t this be said about the literary world, where those who uncover corruption, not those who perpetuate it, are the ones tarred and feathered?

Friday, June 22, 2012

Is Publishing Rigged?

Here’s an interesting website which explores some of the same themes I have over the years:

Big Publishing can be attacked on three counts:

1.) The Economic Argument, which Amazon and cheap ebooks are making in devastating fashion.

2.) The Artistic Argument—the idea that the literature the Big Six promote isn’t in fact very good.

3.) The Moral Argument—the argument that the current literary system is irredeemably corrupt.

The Divide

I’ve been mulling over a recent quote from trendy writer George Saunders, which I saw on the Guernica magazine web site.

George Saunders, talking about fiction writers: “The essential thing is having a talent for having talent.”

Saunders seems to be saying that what’s important isn’t being genuine, but being as un-genuine as possible. This sums up the entire postmodern literary philosophy. For such writers, writing is a con, a game. Which leads us to the ultimate expression of the philosophy: John Hodgman.

It’s a decayed, insular, and corrupt scene. No wonder those inside the scene fear those who seek to change it. They know they’re Potemkin writers operating on borrowed time.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

New Political Blog


Read my new blog novel, Election Follies 2012, available right here:

Chapters up include "John Edwards Discovers Honesty," "Panic in Camp Obama," and "Humanizing Mitt," with much more to follow. Only the best coverage of the absurdity of our political system!

Implications of the Philly Phanatic Lawsuit

Journalists covering the Phanatic swimming pool scandal (the famed mascot’s penchant for tossing people into swimming pools)--

have yet to fully address the implications and possible outcomes of the suit. If alleged victim Suzanne Pierce (spelled Peirce in some accounts) wins the lawsuit, she could potentially take possession of the out-of-control creature. What would result?

I have visions of Ms. Pierce keeping the Phanatic chained in her basement, brought out for menial tasks such as serving guests, while wearing an apron, at cocktail parties in the Pierce/Peirce residence.

Possibly the Phanatic will be forced to perform at Little League games of the Pierce/Peirce son, if she has a son. Maybe the Phanatic would be put to work landscaping the Pierce/Peirce lawns. If so, there are dangers involved. Spurred by a nostalgic memory of his days in Citizens Bank park, the creature might use the opportunity to turn the Pierce/Peirce backyard into a small-scale baseball diamond! Ms. Pierce/Peirce would presumably not be happy with such an antic.

There is, then, the ultimate possibility that Ms. Pierce/Peirce would kick the dumb animal into the street to fend for himself. He’d end up in Center City Philadelphia along with the legions of other homeless. What skills, after all, does the Phillie/Philly Phanatic have other than being a goofball? Visualize the poor creature panhandling on street corners, faded red upturned Phillies baseball cap set on the sidewalk in front of him, waving his arms around wildly as he pleads for any change tossed into the hat. If the team still isn’t winning games, the donations to the fuzzy green guy might be few in number. This is a fate that everyone in the Philadelphia area should seek to avoid.


Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Big Publishing as Moral Icon?

This is how establishment commentators are presenting things, in the wake of Amazon and cheap ebooks. But it's not credible. The Big Six have been cranking out garbage for decades, from top to bottom. From unreadable irrational postmodern nonsense at the top, to very readable irrational nonsensical fantasy at the bottom. There's no middle. What's been lost is American literature itself. With no populist lit, connected to the real lives of the common people, there's no relevant literature. It's why the scorning of the Underground Literary Alliance, and what it represented, was in the long run a bad move. Those in power cut off a way for American literature to renew itself.

Monday, June 18, 2012

"Are Cheap Ebooks Bad for Readers?"

So asks The New Yorker in their promo for the Ken Auletta piece--

Are inexpensive products ever bad for consumers? Or do they not offer greater choice and an expanded market?

The days of gatekeepers manning a top-heavy, hyperexpensive publishing establishment are over.

(My new The Tower e-novel is a faster, more explosive and more relevant reading experience than anything put out by ICM's precious literary authors. Read it and find out.)

More Lit Establishment Panic

The New Yorker has posted an excerpt from a Ken Auletta essay deploring the rise of indy ebooks, with Amazon playing role of bad guy in his scenario.

It should be noted that Auletta's wife is Amanda "Binky" Urban of ICM, an agency whiuch makes a fortune as middle-man for big publishing. He's not exactly objective. But then, no one in that world is.

No Opposition

The chief problem with the established literary scene is that it’s like a country with only one political party. There’s no opposition. No one to investigate and speak up about corruption, cronyism, monopoly, and other abuses. Coverage of establishment writers by establishment organs of publicity end up being puff pieces. No one ever—ever—looks behind the curtain.

The Underground Literary Alliance provided such opposition for a few years, before it was shut out and shut down. Other attempts to oppose the status quo mindset are required—for the health of literature itself. This involves breaking the “I’m okay, you’re okay,” “Everything is wonderful” mentality about current lit.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Pleasing the Client

Why have I belabored the point about the changes to Tom Bissell’s essay on the ULA? Because the changes give the game away about how the literary system in this country actually operates. Rather than being “one of our finest essayists,” as commentators have called him, in reality Bissell is a propagandist for the system. For the status quo. For whoever’s employing him—in this case for The Believer, for both original essay and essay collection. The task becomes giving the client what the client wants. In this instance and in other instances Tom Bissell did this, and he did it well.

This is an area seldom talked about, which in itself is curious. Writers are voluble, but they’re not voluble about that. Yet system writers well know how the game works. They’re masters at playing the game; at finessing the bureaucracy.

I have limited knowledge in this area, but I have some. I wrote a review in 2000 of a book by J.T. Leroy for a major publication because no one else would give the editors at the time what they wanted—which was, a positive piece; seeing as Leroy was a protege of one of the individuals involved. I liked the gritty subject of Leroy’s book, but even I hedged in my piece—so that small changes to my review by the editors had to be made. This is a minor, minor instance. For me it was telling. It exemplifies more than it tells.

The entire literary system operates like a bureaucracy. Literary agents and editors behave like bureaucrats. The system has an overarching mentality. The job of bureaucrats is to enforce the mentality; the will of the system. Those who make it into the system become obsessively loyal to the system, as Bissell and others of his kind are loyal to it. They’re ambitious writers. Those who gave Bissell’s book puff piece reviews no doubt believed what they said. Their job is to convince readers. This involves first convincing themselves. Their job also, whether they’re writing a review for the New York Times or for a system oriented literary web site, is to “please the client.”

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Winning Ideas

I mention in my interview with Dr. Wred Fright (see below) that the Underground Literary Alliance had winning ideas. That was certainly the case. It's why Tom Bissell made changes to his republished essay on us, changes to make it appear that Dave Eggers was once a zinester. But only in the most limited sense was he. From the start he was, as he remains, a rich guy buying himself into a scene. He never had the street cred of other west coast writers of the same time like Aaron Cometbus, or Doug Holland of "Pathetic Life." There's no way to change this. The Believer crowd does a lot of hipster posing. They'll have more credibility when they stop trying to wipe out genuine DIY writers, and instead accept them as legitimate participants in today's literary scene.

(The term "DIY" has been much abused of late. I'm reminded of the failed in-house project of the Murdoch publishing conglomerate HarperCollins, the one called HarperStudio. The clueless publishing pods part of the project were advertising themselves as "DIY." Which seems to have been stretching inauthenticity as far as it can be stretched, putting even The Dave to shame.)

Monday, June 11, 2012

Frightful Interview

An interview I did with underground personality Wred Fright, who is an entertaining writer but also something of a heartland scholar, is now up here:

Check it out!

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Speaking Up

Time demonstrates again and again the relevance and importance of the history of the Underground Literary Alliance. But it means nothing if former ULAers don't speak up about that terrific legacy. We had and still have winning populist arguments. We showed a true and authentic path for American literature. We were right on the issues. Let's not forget any of this.

Friday, June 08, 2012

Ahead of the Curve


I note the Joel Whitney article in regarding the CIA/Paris Review connection. His article has been further addressed by the likes of Jennifer Schuessler at the New York Times Arts Beat blog, by Alex Halperin on twitter, and others. Golly gee, where was this kind of coverage when the Underground Literary Alliance addressed the issue in 2005 and 2007?? We took a lot of heat over the matter, were supported by no one in the established literary world, and were effectively blackballed. Yet, as with our populist protests, precursors to both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street, we were far ahead of the zeitgeist.

This once again shows that more important than what's said in American culture, is who's saying it-- whether or not you're one of the Approved. Truth is a secondary concern.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Franzen's Farther Away

In browsing through Jonathan Franzen's new book of essays, Farther Away, it's occurred to me how different my way of thinking is from his. Utterly different ways of viewing literature. Different world views, even though we're from the same generation and even, roughly, the same part of the country.

Franzen's view is extremely interior. Which is why he enjoys writers of the personal and the interior like Alice Munro and David Foster Wallace. I find both of them virtually unreadable. Franzen will discuss society and the world, as he does-- not too well in my opinion-- in Freedom. But he views the outer world through the prism of the domestic and the interior.
This is the same way he views himself as a writer, and by extension other writers. I see Jonathan Franzen and other system writers as hamsters kept in a cage. They never question the cage itself. I'm not sure they see it. They don't see themselves as writers within the context of society. Everything for them is a given.

An example of this is the attitude toward David Foster Wallace. He's not seen as a product of our mad postmodern society. It's accepted that he was depressed, just because he was, and he didn't take his meds and if we have problems we should all take our meds and we never for a minute look at society; we don't glimpse at the cage. But DFW was mentally stressed and maybe we could possibly perhaps very gently ask why he was mentally stressed. Could it possibly have anything to do with how far he plunged himself into mass electronic media? His television viewing, as evidenced by some of his early essays, was so mammoth and intense it could be called legendary. He not only watched the nonstop stream of video garbage, he studied the garbage minutely. Hundreds and thousands of hours of it. All of that went into his brain. At the same time he was creating massive amounts of intense self-absorbed writing. Try reading one of his endless instant-by-instant novels and think about the hyper-aware brain creating it. A brain on fire. Can we think his writer lifestyle had no effect? I recently completed a much smaller novel, one not consumed in self and minutia, and yet found myself at night unable to sleep as the pieces of narrative and sentences circulated again and again through my brain. Why have so many writers self-medicated? David Foster Wallace was a creature of society and can be understood only within the context of society and lifestyle and within postmodern philosophy-- which I consider unsatisfying madness-- and through the postmodern style of thinking and writing. From Jonathan Franzen we get none of this.

The larger question is whether Franzen's own style of thinking and writing-- or Alice Munro's-- is the path down which contemporary American literature should be heading.

Friday, June 01, 2012

Other Thoughts


I finally listened to the Bat Segundo interview with Tom Bissell. I have to give Ed Champion a grudging nod for pressing that cut-rate Eggers wannabe on the ULA and the current stagnant literary scene, which the Underground Literary Alliance unsuccessfully sought to change. The interview was interesting to me for a couple of reasons.

I noted Bissell’s innate superiority complex. He actually believes he was doing us a favor by trashing us in the essay—and maybe he was, because the prevalent view was to give us no notice whatsoever. Most of that crowd would rather have kicked us into the gutter. Tom Bissell by contrast threw us a few pennies-- “here, you peasants”—and thought he was being generous. Forget all the distortions in the essay, Tom. “Classocide.” We should be thanking you. Do I exaggerate? Slightly—but notice that the tone is to treat us as the Other-- “from that social milieu”—and not in any way approaching equals. His phrasing accepts, contrary to his misleading essay, the hierarchical power relationships that do exist in the literary world, of which Ed seeks to give his audience a glimpse. Tom Bissell states that I’d be impossible “to negotiate with,” because I’d “never be satisfied,” whatever that means. That I’d expect to be treated not as a hat-in-hand beggar, but an equal? That’s not how that world operates. “Negotiate.”

Bissell goes on to claim that one could “negotiate” with others of “that” milieu. Yet no one negotiated with the ULA after I broke with the team. An alternative outsiders group was created by former ULAers expecting to be accepted by the lit scene with open arms, once they were free of evil me. Boy, were they disappointed. They’re still waiting for their negotiation, I think. At least four individual ULA writers left the ULA in hopes of cutting a deal. There’s no point in naming them. They’re quite sad stories. Their rewards/payoffs were ridiculously minor. One of them was allowed to place a fawning essay on an insider website. Another is the token poor guy someplace. That kind of thing.

Tom Bissell and Ed Champion at least implicitly recognize that the world consists of leverage and power, where terms do need to be negotiated. The premise of the ULA recognized this—that only by creating leverage, by applying pressure, would we be allowed any kind of a voice. It’s the way of the world. The altruistic empathy of characters like the Dave and his various low-priced Bissell knockoffs is a pose for the gullible, nothing else.

p.s. A small correction to the interview. George Plimpton didn’t invite the ULA to an event. We invited him—to debate us at CBGB’s in New York City. To his credit, the establishment literary warrior showed up. Unlike all others of his breed, George Plimpton was fearless. He and his preppy staff were badly out of their depth, of course. Like throwing well-groomed poodles in with pit bulls. The Underground Literary Alliance then was the most exciting lit group on the planet. After the debate George and I, as respective leaders of our teams, had a polite chat over beers, while the old dog’s eyes popped-out at the see-through dress of our at-the-time zeen babe. George and I had an interesting talk, in which he probed my commitment to the ULA’s ideas. Not quite the way it’s portrayed. There were other dynamics going on. The real story is more interesting than a third-hand hearsay version. 

Have a good day!

ULA Return?

Anytime the Underground Literary Alliance becomes a topic of conversation anyplace, thoughts of restoring the outfit begin among remnants of the membership. The question is what any new version  would look like; how much it would hew to the original version, and how far it would be a break from the past. As for myself, at this moment in time there's only one aspect of the ULA campaign I'd be interested in keeping, namely hanging out in bars. (An appropriate thought this first day of Philly Beer Week. I don't drink like I used to, but I sometimes still like thinking about it.)