Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Stunted Literary Minds Part I

Standard system “literary” writers don’t believe there’s an established monolith or machine for producing literature because they don’t feel like they’re part of a machine. They don’t see it. If they have their MFA degrees, they’re still on their own. The writing life, unless they get a university teaching gig, remains for them, as for all writers, an uncertain, struggling life.

They don’t see the machine because they’ve been trained as writers to focus on the personal and the particular. On “the well-written sentence.” They’re incapable of stepping back and taking a larger view of society, and the interworking pieces of society. It’s a subject, anyway, seldom covered in their art.

But established literature is manufactured by a machine, just as all things in society are manufactured, on any large scale, by machines. For established lit, it’s an interworking system of various institutions and bureaucracies. From university writing programs, to mediating layers of literary agents or other screeners, to the “Big Six” publishing companies which are in turn owned by a handful of monopolistic media giants, to outlets for publicity: from leading loyal literary sites and blogs, to cultural sites like Salon.com,  to the big glossy magazines like Vanity Fair, or the few remaining large circulation newspapers like the New York Times. This is a system. Writers gain entrance to the system at various points.

What’s noteworthy about the history of the founding of McSweeney’s, is not how “indie” it was, but how quickly and assiduously Dave Eggers worked to embed his fledgling enterprise within the operating literary machine. He did this in various ways—one by cutting deals with the various book giants, which he continues to do. Perhaps his first deal was his Simon & Schuster advance for his memoir. Another thing Eggers did was to use care in who he published—unknowns mixed with a few of the trendiest, most connected names in the literary game, individuals like Susan Minot and Rick Moody, which gave his publication credibility with key outlets like The New Yorker. One could research the entire story and write a book on it, I’m sure, but it’s the nature of the lit game, and its timidity toward figures of power, that such history won’t soon be written—unless as a propaganda piece by an ally or part of the McSweeney’s empire itself. (Tom Bissell quickly volunteering.)

Those operating within any part of the overall literary machine, whether as agent, reviewer, author, or critic, have an unspoken loyalty to the machine. It stems from the very nature of being part of a beehive—even if it’s a beehive they refuse to see. Whatever their little personal disagreements among one another, they all carry the same premises, assumptions, and prejudices about literature and what constitutes literature—premises that conform with the machine. This is how such diverse individuals as Katie Ryder, Garth Risk Hallberg, Maria Bustillos, and Heather Schroder could read Tom Bissell’s ULA essay and not see a single thing wrong with it. Bissell wrote what they already believed, conforming to the assumptions about writers, and nontraditional writers, that they brought with them to the essay. Every part of that essay, from start to finish—from “we’re all outsiders” to “our critics are genocidal maniacs” to “don’t pick on the poor university professor” to “zinesters are bad writers” to “witness my empathy” was what they wanted to hear. He didn’t match ULA thinking—not in any way—but he sure matched the mindset of his literary system audience.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Silent Tom

Tom Bissell and Dave Eggers initiated a fight with the remnants of the Underground Literary Alliance, and now are nowhere in sight. Where are they? They're good at beating up a straw man they think won't fight back-- but now the straw man is fighting back. Bissell and Eggers are fleeing.

What kind of "great" writer (per Hillary Frey's designation) perpetuates distortions and malicious slurs against a defunct writers group, then when someone calls him on it is unwilling to enter the arena of debate?

It's a sign of the corrupt and phony condition of today's literary scene.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Our Natural Allies?

MOST DISAPPOINTING about the gushy coverage of Tom Bissell’s book Magic Hours, and his hatchet-job essay on the Underground Literary Alliance, is that some of the writers and journalists lauding it should be on our side. Katie Ryder of Guernica Daily, for instance, was active with Occupy Wall Street. One would think she’d be sympathetic toward a group of activist writers.

Would Katie Ryder allow the Occupy movement to be similarly smeared? Would she stand silent to it linked to the worst crimes of the Bolsheviks? To claims that OWS would lead to “lots and lots of tombstones”? To assertions that those at the bottom of society, absolutely powerless, are “authoritarian” merely for raising their voices?

We in the ULA were doing Occupy ten years before Occupy. In one of our more notorious actions, at Housing Works in Manhattan in 2003, we asked for a discussion of the looming invasion of Iraq—and were asked to leave. Days from a national mistake—and the trendy elite writers were reading cutesy pieces about candy bars and a tree! They were outraged that we sought to bring the real world into literature and their reading.

If Katie Ryder had been there, what side would she have been on?

Add to this the fact that we were the only lit group to take on the all-powerful “New White Guys” millionaire boys club of Franzen, Moody, Eggers and Company—whose corruption the ULA had been exposing and which Bissell’s essay was intended to protect and cover-up, as will be shown.

An activist writer like Ryder should celebrate the ULA—not cooperate in the celebration of our smearing!

American Apartheid

I don't know how well you can see this photo. It was taken by Harf Zimmermann, and appeared as a full page in the 9/16/12 New York Times Magazine as part of an article by Andrew Rice, "How Not to Fire a President." The photo, as far as I know, has been little remarked upon by the liberal readers of the New York Times. It shows incoming freshmen students at the elite University of Virginia. Among many white students, and a substantial number of Asians, I count five, or possibly six, African-Americans. This, in one of the top schools of the south. Whatever the liberal education system is doing to bridge the enormous divides in this nation, those steps are clearly failing.

What we have here is a snapshot of the future liberal intelligentsia-- which, as we can see, is as racially isolated as any group or institution in the country. According to studies by Charles Murray and others, the intellectual community is as isolated by class as race.

Here's an interesting quote from Andrew Rice in the same article about the same university, about "a letter signed by about 450 faculty members. It complained that, after years without raises, Virginia's faculty salaries-- around $141,000 for full professors-- were lagging far behind competitors'. 'What was once worry about getting through economic hard times is now crystallizing into hopelessness, cynicism, resentment and anger,' the letter stated, demanding 'urgent and immediate action.'" This description by Rice is not intended to be comical.

Conservative commentators like Dennis Prager insist that the (so-called) Left is interested chiefly in equality. This is false. They're interested chiefly in bureaucracy and power.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Comment to Katie Ryder

I've submitted a comment to a post by Katie Ryder at the literary site Guernica Magazine, here:

My comment awaits moderation. I'm giving it here, in case it's not posted:
I just noticed this. Quite a lot of contradiction in this piece. Whether there are truly banned books today, there are certainly banned writers– such as the populists and zinesters who made up the Underground Literary Alliance. The centerpiece of the reactionary attack on the ULA was the Tom Bissell essay in The Believer, republished this year in his collection of essays. You, Katie, did two interviews with Mr. Bissell and seemed to agree with everything he said, asking him not one hard question. Such as, “Was your ‘classocide’ slur against the ULA exaggeration? What about the ‘lots and lots of tombstones’ line?” Amazing to me how the purported defense of the lower classes– including writers– by the literary and media elite is in fact very sketchy.
Banned books indeed!
Have a good day.
(The Bissell essay taken apart at http://www.kingwenclas.blogspot.com)

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Fake Empathy

Many of the reviewers of Tom Bissell’s book Magic Hours commented on his renowned empathy, including regarding the Underground Literary Alliance. A typical schizophrenic example is this comment by blogger Ron Hogan at Beatrice.com:

“I was struck by his willingness to approach them with empathy, even when he was unrelenting in his analysis of their deluded assholery.”

Quite an example of irrational malice toward the ULA on Ron Hogan’s part, though we had no encounter with him in our heyday, and we’ve further been inactive for a number of years. It shows which side actually carries hatred toward the other.

Beyond this, how is Tom Bissell able to get reviewers like Ron Hogan to believe two things at once; that Bissell was being empathetic at the same time he eviscerated us?

The site www.diffen.com defines empathy as follows: “the ability to mutually experience the thoughts, emotions, and direct experience of others.”

In his essay on the ULA, Tom Bissell fell far short of this goal. As I point out in parts I and III in my examination of his Believer essay, Bissell made little attempt to understand us, or the very different background we came from as writers. His essay throughout shows ignorance of the DIY zine scene and its different codes and standards. He had no understanding of zine mentality, as revealed in such things as his cheap shot at the writing of Urban Hermitt, to his misunderstanding of zine nicknames. He never met a one of us. How could he possibly show empathy toward us, when he had no understanding of us and how we thought; when we were separated from his kind of system writer by an aesthetic and cultural gulf?

Bissell’s thoughts and feelings toward writers are filtered through his own experience as a writer—not ours. He’s empathetic to writers who think as he does; who follow his own assumptions, goals, aesthetic rules, and institutional framework.

Tom Bissell plays the “empathy” game well, but it’s a questionable—and arrogant—assumption for a journalist in any circumstance, the claim reeking not of objectivity or reality but a snow job.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Intent to Smear

It’s easy enough to show that with his Believer essay on the Underground Literary Alliance, Tom Bissell was acting not as a journalist, but a propagandist. The question remains: Why was the essay republished?

Here’s what Bissell had to say about his decision-making process, in an interview done this year with Owen King for The Rumpus:

“When I was putting this thing together I looked over those essays and asked myself, bloodlessly, ‘Do I even want this out there again?’”

Since the ULA essay was included, we can only conclude that Tom Bissell wanted that essay out there again, with all its smears and distortions—even though the ULA was inactive and disbanded. We might conclude that Dave Eggers himself wanted the essay out there. Additions were made to the essay inaccurately portraying Eggers as a zinester—changes that had to have been approved by him.

What did Bissell and Eggers think when they reread the extensive middle portion of the essay linking the ULA to the worst crimes of the Bolsheviks—a comparison which couldn’t have been more inapt? Could they fail to notice this was one of the most malicious slurs ever made against a writers group? What was their agenda? Do they truly fear the ULA’s indie message that much, that they had to keep kicking us even when we were no longer around?

Forgive me for finding it reprehensible.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Can They Defend the Essay?


Essayist Tom Bissell and the folks at The Believer are like manufacturers who put out a product, and after the product is discovered to be defective they’re nowhere to be found. No response to criticism. Survey Believer headquarters—lights off, nobody home.

If they have knowledge of the Tylenol strategy they don’t show it. No readiness to withdraw the product from shelves or make amends to the consumer. (In this case, though, the consumers are elitist literary people who may enjoy seeing underground writers unfairly kicked around. See Maria Bustillos and others.)

The questions are: The integrity of Tom Bissell as a writer, and the credibility of McSweeney’s as an organization. McSweeney’s and Dave Eggers have invested a great deal of energy in establishing themselves as advocates for the downtrodden. Everything in Tom Bissell’s Believer essay runs counter to this carefully manufactured image. One would think they’d be eager to resolve the dispute.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Literary Enablers


You've likely been asking yourself: "If Tom Bissell wrote malicious slurs against the Underground Literary Alliance-- if The Believer Magazine, then later Believer Books, published these slurs-- why has nobody seen them?"

That's the $64,000 question. Why indeed? Are the slurs not there?

Yet you can go yourself to the original essay, here, and find them:

A huge chunk at the middle of the essay is devoted to likening us to mad, genocidal Bolsheviks. Did the reviewers and readers of his book, and the essay on the ULA, feel comfortable with those remarks? Can they possibly regard any of them as true? Did they pass over the "lots and lots of tombstones" analogy without the slightest shiver of a thought? (That they accept the fake empathy which opens and closes the essay is a given, but it shouldn't have blinded them to the rest.)

Here's a partial list of the established literary intellectuals who passed over the malicious parts without comment. Or maybe swallowed them whole:

-Garth Risk Hallberg (New York Times)
-David Ulin (L.A. Times)
-Daniel B. Roberts (Fortune)
-Katie Ryder (Salon.com and Guernica Mag)
-Brooke Gladstone (NPR)
-Maria Bustillos (L.A. Review of Books)
-Jason Boog (Media Bistro)
-Morten Hoi Jensen (Bookforum)
-Alex Gallo-Brown (therumpus.net)
-Owen King (therumpus.net)
-Maria Popova (Brainpickings)
-Ron Hogan (Beatrice.com)
-Blake Butler (HTML Giant)
-Brian Wolowitz (Spectrum Culture)
-Ed Champion (Bat Segundo Show)

Every one of these journalists and literary spokespersons seems to have missed the smears. It's as if their brains were programmed not to see them. They read them ("lots and lots of tombstones"), but nothing registered with them. They didn't ask themselves: "Can this be accurate?" They accepted the statements blindly.

Part of it is that Tom Bissell set them up to trust the narrator, with his apparent empathy toward writers, and therefore, us. (The ULA.) Part of it is they've previously bought the false narrative about the Underground Literary Alliance. They believed the statements because at some point they've already heard them, or a variation of them. Or were predisposed to believe them because of their own hostility to us (see Ron Hogan). Part of it is simply the behavior that comes with a herd outlook. It's a classic example, in fact, of absolute loyalty to a herd, with the questioning part of the brain shut off.

Scarier, as far as ULA writers are concerned, is that these writers are all positioned to further spread the false narrative about us-- and many of them have spread that falseness. It shows the enormity of our task. It's why I'm taking apart every part of that harmful piece of writing, examining its falseness.

No one else will!

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Gaming the System

There's a curious part of one of Tom Bissell's recent Yahoo News agitprop pieces on the upcoming election, wherein Bissell, in a discussion of one of his trademark either-or choices, discusses gaming the system.

Why is this curious?

It's curious because in his Believer essay on the ULA, reprinted this year in Bissell's Magic Hours, Tom Bissell defends wealthy writers who have gamed the literary system-- Bissell's own field, and therefore one he should be most concerned about. He notably defends and/or overlooks the activities of Rick Moody, who's gamed literary nonprofit foundations for years. One of the more blatant examples is Moody's relationship with Joel Conarroe, who first defended Moody over an ill-advised Guggenheim grant, then was later appointed President of PEN America Center due to Moody's recommendation and influence. One quick example of many, all of them amply documented.

Which leads us to ask: Does Tom Bissell really care about those who "game the system"? Or does his always-distorted stance not depend on who's paying him?

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Winner Is. . . .

The Most Egregious Smear or Blatant Distortion in "Mr. Empathy" Tom Bissell's essay on the Underground Literary Alliance is choice D. Here's the entire passage:

"There are good, needed, and necessary revolutions, and then there are revolutions that upon successful completion require a new flag and lots and lots of tombstones. There is little doubt which type of revolution the Underground Literary Alliance has in mind. . . ."

Bissell then gives a lengthy history of the Soviet Union's treatment of writers under Stalin, hammering in a point about the ULA that has no connection to reality. Note, incidentally, a common trick of Bissell's: to set up a false and exclusive choice to lead the reader toward his preferred conclusion. In this case, two types of revolution; a good-bad, either-or proposition. I'd argue, incidentally, that the ULA's was a good and needed revolution, in that literature has lost its preeminent place in American culture, in large part due to its insularity and irrelevance. The literary establishment is collapsing and will collapse regardless; we wanted to help things along, and in so doing, direct the outcome toward a positive solution. But given our marginal position and lack of resources, our actual objectives were extremely modest: Getting a minimal attention toward the ideas and plight of populist writers. We did hope, sure, for truly sympathetic commentators, and found very few.

Tom Bissell's analogies in this essay go beyond any I've seen from any commentator in unfair exaggeration used to discredit change agents. For instance, the cries of President Obama as extremist or socialist haven't used images of "lots and lots of tombstones." Tom Bissell's statements about the ULA go beyond hyperbole into the reprehensible.

Can you believe that Tom Bissell signed the Occupy Writers petition? He did. Which only shows his utter phoniness.

Tom Bissell to Ed Champion: "I don't think that's a particularly mean essay at all."

Monday, October 15, 2012

Choose One

Name the most egregious smear or most blatant distortion in the Tom Bissell Believer essay on the Underground Literary Alliance.

A.) The quote of the ULA as "the ghastliest group of no-talent whiners to have ever walked the earth."

B.) Calling the ULA "thuggish, cruel, and petty."

C.) Saying that writers felt "seriously threatened" and "terrorized" by us; that we achieved "true menace."

D.) Implying that the ULA's literary revolution would lead to "lots and lots of tombstones."

E.) Turning an afterthought mention of a university professor receiving a second grant, into the centerpiece of Bissell's discussion about our grants protests-- while ignoring the actual centerpiece of that report, Jonathan Franzen. To say we singled out the professor is an utter falsehood.

F.) Extensively comparing us to Bolsheviks.

G.) Comparing us to bureaucrats. (We're the opposite.)

H.) The statement: "I am not suggesting that the ULA wants to exterminate writers in a Stalinist burst of classocide."

I.) Calling our zine-style nicknames "a gesture of both concealment and aggression."

J.) Implying that the ULA wanted to determine "who could or could not write"-- when all we wanted was a seat at the table.

K.) Calling the exposure of arts grants corruption "player hating."

L.) Comparing one of the most highly placed writers in America to Victor Hugo's Jean Valjean.

M.) Taking unnecessary cheap shots at ULA writers while having read only excerpts of their work.

N.) Mistaking his biased preference for elitist over populist writing as "good" writing over "bad."

O.) Completely misrepresenting or misunderstanding a David Berman fake challenge to the ULA.

P.) This quote: "I have a high tolerance for people who regard things that offend them as 'injustice.'"
The most clueless sentence in the essay.

Q.) Implying at the end, after all the talk of the ULA as dangerous Bolsheviks ready to kill everything around us, that all we really wanted to do was sell out.

Tom Bissell can play at Mr. Empathy all he wants, but it doesn't change the fact that his essay on the ULA was a thorough hatchet job, and that its unnecessary republication smeared many writers.

Deconstructing Falsehood


Does the truth matter?

What can you do with a journalist, as in my recent exchange, who's helped smear a populist writers group, who refuses to examine the truth of the matter, and instead blindly clings to a distorted version?

"Don't bother me with the truth" is the attitude.

There's a point at which a false narrative becomes truth, simply due to the narrative's widespread acceptance.

It may be that Tom Bissell himself has accepted his own distortions, and the rationalizations for the distortions.

Listen to this interview, to the section referring to the Underground Literary Alliance (begins minute 26 or so). The discussion between Tom Bissell and Ed Champion, on Champions "Bat Segundo" show, is a contest to see how many lies can be crammed into a five minute time period.


Tom Bissell speaks of his "attempt to take them seriously"; "to extend them some empathy when no one would."

These statements are untrue on a number of fronts.

First, Tom Bissell wrote his essay when the ULA was being covered by media across the nation and in other parts of the world. There'd been the numerous write-ups in "Page Six"; countless on-line stories in places like MobyLives and the Alternet; feature articles in alternative papers like the Boston Phoenix and Philadelphia Weekly, including a big article in Village Voice written by Bissell's current boss, Hillary Frey. (Mainstream media is a small world.) Also major write-ups in Soma and the Brown Daily Herald. At the same time The Believer essay came out, the ULA was the subject of feature articles in Black Book magazine (by Bruno Maddox) and the Glasgow Herald (by Aaron Hicklin).

But today, Tom says only he dared cover us! Only he cared, I guess.

Tom Bissell, then, is lying, not just to Ed Champion and the Bat Segundo audience. He's also lying to himself.

Second, Bissell's statements in the interview about his "empathy" ignore the context within which his essay was written. It was commisioned by The Believer, a Dave Eggers flagship, at a time Eggers was engulfed in an intense feud with the Underground Literary Alliance. How can this context be ignored? Bissell acts like he brought forth his essay out of the blue, purely from good intentions, and presented it, all by himself, to the world.

In the Bat Segundo interview, Bissell claims that he wanted to "entertain the possibility that some of the complaints were true." Yet he never looked into our major complaints, in which we documented instances of corruption in the literary world. In the Believer essay, Bissell finessed these matters. He surely didn't address them head-on or take them seriously.

On his part, Ed Champion's questions to Bissell border on the slanderous. I see what he's doing-- trying to be agreeable to his subject to get him to talk-- but in so doing, Ed throws the ULA completely under the bus, while also showing he doesn't know what he's talking about. (Or, his source is the widespread false narrative about us.)

For instance, Ed says, "George Plimpton of course makes this effort to invite them in, and of course they behave boorishly. . . ."

"Of course." Really, Ed? What's your source? You weren't there, unless you were hiding under a table.

The truth is that we invited George Plimpton to debate us. It was our event, not his. We had a contentiously exciting debate, then both teams sat down and had beers together. We parted amicably.

This is the TRUTH of what happened, not any after-the-fact distorted false narrative.

Ed Champion talks of "a duty to invite them in," "to go through the pain of an insulting boor," "even if they shit in our face." He says "go ahead and spit in our face," as if we ever did this. Many of his listeners will believe we did this. This is how false narratives are created. (The added irony is that Ed has often attacked me publicly on-line, while I've attempted to be civil in my dealings with him.)

No one, incidentally, ever invited us in! What a falsehood. All attention we received, from a closed and cronyistic literary world, we worked for. We did, yes, crash a few events on our own, with bought tickets some times but no gilt-edged invites. We asked embarrassing questions-- all that was ever required to get us thrown out.

Bissell, for his part, plays the injured party, and tells Ed Champion in aggrieved fashion, "you can't negotiate with someone who's going to crap in the room."

What does he mean by this? That I've stood up for myself when no one would? That the ULA's writers asked to be treated as equals?

Since what angered the literary establishment, including Dave Eggers, most of all were our exposes of corruption involving some of the biggest names in the lit-biz-- why doesn't Bissell say this? It's highly misleading to attribute the hostility we generated simply to "boorishness" or "bad behavior." Though I guess speaking about things one ought not to speak about is considered bad behavior by the In crowd.

In the Bat Segundo interview, as in his reprinted Believer essay, we still see Tom Bissell pitching his false narrative about the Underground Literary Alliance.

(Feedback from the parties involved is welcomed.)

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Which Side Are You On?

THE GLARING CONTRADICTION is how establishment writers, like a Maria Bustillos but so many more, are able to publicly oppose greed, plutocracy, and corruption everyplace but in their own realm of literature—the one place they could change but which for them is untouchable. It’s the epitome of hypocrisy.

Bustillos has written for The New York Times and The New Yorker and has made her own accommodation with power, a relationship which is inviolate. She cautions me to “get back to your writing” and says, “Your obsession with the ULA’s ‘activism’ comes at a cost.” In other words, Don’t Make Waves! But it’s too late for that.

That she can laud truth-telling in her essays yet seem to oppose it in the literary world shows a conflicted mind.

The dual personality anyway is shown in this one of her essays, which appeared in The Awl:


A writer who can participate in this kind of childishness need not be snarky and superior about the ULA’s writers! What exactly is she and her friend talking about? They seem to have one foot in a mentality which utterly disdains what they call “luxury writing,” and at the same time they seem to admire and revel in the decadence. They’re tainted by the decadence, yet can’t pull back from it.

Pull back, Maria. Follow your better instincts. Give up a decadent literary scene which is slowly dying. It’s withering in and of itself, kept going solely by institutions that are museums of dusty art. Give up establishment literature’s dead art. Abandon the corrupting accommodations to literary power. Those who seek to dismantle and rebuild American literature need your voice and other voices like yours on our side.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Response to Maria Bustillos

(This post is a continuation of a discussion with journalist Maria Bustillos in the Comments section of a previous post, "Was Tom Bissell's Essay Malicious?" I'm bringing the discussion here so I can post a link, but also because I think the issues discussed are important. Maria's review of Bissell's book is visible here: http://lareviewofbooks.org/article.php?id=572&fulltext=1  Yes, the essay on the ULA is only one of fourteen essays in Bissell's book-- but it's prominently mentioned and applauded in Bustillos' review, as in many others.)

(In her most recent comment, Maria gives a variation of the standard "Be quiet and just write" motif, but also says this: "Your obsession with the ULA's 'activism' comes at a cost. Take this assertion in your reply, about my 'public stance'-- I deny having such a thing at all--.")

First, Maria, everyone who writes for public consumption, as you do, has a public stance. But I was referring specifically to you having signed the very public Occupy Writers petition. You also wrote an essay for them in support of the Occupy movement and the 99%, visible here:


I'm trying to square your review-- clearly scornful of the Underground Literary Alliance-- and your further comments in support of Bissell's essay, including your dismissal of the ULA's activism, with this part of your essay:

"Most of all, the movement is a public demonstration of ethics. It is making a new class of people with whom we can identify politically: one that offers sympathy rather than scorn to those who are suffering in this economic climate; that castigates the culture of greed, rather than championing it; that vilifies rather than admires those who want to grab everything that isn’t nailed down; that demands that wealth be shared fairly; that seeks to give everyone a voice, rather than trying to persuade us that there are important people who are to be listened to, as opposed to the many, who don’t count."

Is this not a public stance from you on the side of the underdog?

I agree with your statement about ethics. Those of the ULA's protests which gained us the most animus from the establishment literary world were those which exposed unethical behavior in the clubby halls of the literary world, particularly involving the arts grants process, when we found some of the richest and most successful writers in America receiving taxpayer or tax sheltered funds, in some cases awarded by cronies or friends. We can discuss the specific instances if you like. In his essay on the ULA, Tom Bissell treated that activism in a distorted manner, portraying us, bizarrely, as some kind of authority harassing a "Jean Valjean" who'd abused the system on numerous occasions, an individual who instead of being found on America's impoverished streets-- like some ULAers in recent years-- was more usually discovered at the center of swanky galas at $10,000 tables or at yacht parties, all of the affairs-- all of it-- paid for by tax-sheltered monies from some of the richest individuals in America.

We documented all of this, Maria. I can bring forth the documentation and details if you like. The connection between arts foundations and their plutocratic benefactors remains a scandal. Indeed it's contrary to every professed principle of the Occupy movement.

Our exposes were of course only part of our activism. We also engaged in some literary theater, such as popping a balloon at a staid Vanity Fair reading (heavens!) or speaking up in Beat fashion (no potato salad thrown!) at a phony "Howl" celebration, to draw attention to our cause. Everything we did seems minor today compared to Occupy actions. Our crime was to espouse Occupy ideals ten years too soon.

I'm amazed, Maria, that you could read Tom Bissell's essay on us and not see through its distortions, the way in the essay he turns reality on its head, making into the powerful the powerless (the ULA), giving us power we could never have. As well as the bizarrely inaccurate connections to Lenin and Stalin. As well as  the "class war" "don't look at wealth or background, or those tax shelters" accusations more expected of a Mitt Romney staffer, and not from another signer of the Occupy Writers petition like Tom Bissell.

Regarding the establishment lit world, which you defend. Yes, it's a tiny, tiny part of the market. Why is that, Maria, when it dominates media attention, getting the choice review slots in places like the New York Times and The New Yorker, and write-ups in mainstream mags like Esquire, People, and Vanity Fair? (See, for instance, the lavish attention given to a novel by "We're all MFAs now" author Chad Harbach.) Could it be that the public just doesn't want the establishment's precious/elitist/postmodernist style of writing, so self-involved and out-of-touch with the real concerns of the American populace? Sorry, but when I pick up a novel by a Ben Marcus, then look at the hard Detroit streets around me right now, I see no connection. Only irrelevance-- a talking to a very tiny privileged clique. Yet his is the kind of American literature which is approved and applauded by reviewers like you, Maria Bustillos, and represented in the academies as what American literature is about. The ULA message was and remains a call for a return to content over craft, substance over style, good old American literary populism, and its populist values, which happen also to be in many ways Occupy values.

As to why I don't just work on my own writing. Oh, I do. I have four ebooks for sale now, Maria, which in various ways look at the realities of America now. They're available under my King Wenclas moniker at Nook Books and Amazon's Kindle Store. I invite you to review them.

Needless to say, though, it's difficult to gain traction as a writer when reviews are circulated high and low, far and wide, that refer to a great populist literary group one is closely associated with as a collection of "untalented" "unpublishable" writers. It's a distortion. It's a blanket smear. I have no choice but to fight it, in every way possible. Thank you.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

How to Construct a False Narrative


We can see a demonstration of how Tom Bissell has ably ingratiated himself with the mainstream media in his recent piece for Yahoo News on the Obama-Romney debate,


Note how Tom Bissell arbitrarily pulls three questions out of the air, then insists that these are the necessary questions that must be answered. Why these and not three others?

Through these three questions, Bissell is establishing the terms of the discussion. He’s setting the parameters of how we’re to think about the two political parties. In front of our eyes, he’s constructing the narrative. The Republicans are the party of business and the Democrats the party of government. It’s an either-or choice—as Tom Bissell presents it. Government or business. He assures us that claiming to be Independent is a nonexistent stance. Bissell then takes the narrative one step further by showing us the real choice as caring or not caring about your fellow man. He’s set up the choice—a very stark choice, with visions of people thrown suddenly into the brutal streets. (Never mind that in every city, hundreds of homeless are already visible on the streets. Maybe including a few writers.)

How true is the Tom Bissell narrative in this instance?

The narrative avoids the uncomfortable truth that both major political parties are financed by big business. Both are also inextricably tied into the perpetuation of big government; the various gigantic federal bureaucracies. Sure, one party will lean a trifle more toward social and regulatory bureaucracies; the other towards the military-industrial complex. But these are marginal differences. Under Mitt Romney, not one federal agency or department will be abolished. He may, as Ronald Reagan did, slow the growth of the massive social-welfare bureaucracies. That’s it. Just as “radical” Barack Obama has maintained the entire network of the national security system, drones and Guantanamo included.

Tom Bissell either has a distorted view of who Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are, or he’s deliberately presenting a distorted view. Both Obama and Romney are technocratic caretakers of the system, whose function is first to maintain the system, not radically alter it. There are marginal differences between them, and they’ll make marginal changes, but nothing approaching, in even an infinitesimal way, the extreme portraits of both men painted by their supporters and opponents.

That it’s an extreme choice is the game whereby the two parties maintain themselves. It gets people to the polls and justifies the two-party monopoly on power.

We saw this in the debate. Get beyond the pyrotechnics of Romney’s grin and Obama’s grimace and look at what the two actually said. They bent over backward to agree with each other. Romney assured us he supports regulation. The reality is, he does, and he will, though he’s likely to pull back on it enough to get the economy moving. On the most contentious issue of Obama’s term in office, Obamacare, Mitt Romney said he wanted not to remove it, but replace it with something similar. He’d retain many of its components. Aside from the rhetoric, how do we know this? Because the model for Obamacare was Romneycare in Massachusetts. As Obama has said himself many times, the fundamental ideas behind Obamacare originally came from Republicans. The differences between the parties are cosmetic. Their concern isn’t to change the corporate-government money machine, but to make the machine operate more efficiently. They differ not on strategy, but tactics.

The election presents the electorate with a false narrative. A stereotyped yes-no good-bad black-white presentation which is a caricature of reality. Tom Bissell emphasizes, and further exaggerates, this false narrative in his Yahoo News article. We note Tom Bissell’s ability at creating caricatures. We see again Bissell’s function as able mouthpiece for a status quo, which was exemplified in his essay on the Underground Literary Alliance.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Was Tom Bissell’s Essay Malicious?

Was Tom Bissell’s Believer essay about the Underground Literary Alliance, reprinted this year in Magic Hours by McSweeney’s Books, of malicious intent?

One way to judge is to look at reactions to the essay from recent reviewers.

The very influential Kirkus Reviews said this:

“Bissell can tear into his subjects with a ferocity and brutal wit that recalls Dwight MacDonald, as when he writes about the would-be literary provocateurs of the Underground Literary Alliance.”

In her review of Bissell’s Magic Hours in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Maria Bustillos calls the ULA “a bunch of noisy, not-too-talented zinesters who tried to form a literary movement.” Maria Bustillos goes on to applaud a Tom Bissell cheap shot against one of the best zine writers around, Urban Hermitt. I’m sure Bustillos has never read Hermitt’s work. Tom Bissell read only an excerpt.

By the way, Tom Bissell is listed on the L.A. Review of Books masthead as a Contributing Editor.

Lesser lights, taking their cues from the Bissell essay, also took their shots. For instance, video gamer Matthew Rickart, while applauding Bissell’s book, called ULAers “bitter children” and “hackneyed.”

Brian Wolowitz, at the site Spectrum Culture, first notes Bissell’s “ambivalent” attitude toward the ULA, then claims “he often attempts to understand or defend easily dismissible figures like the clownishly clueless ULA members. . . .”

If Brian concludes we’re merely clownish, then what kind of defense of us has Bissell made?

The answer is given in a Tom Scocca Bookforum piece on Tom Bissell, in which Scocca calls Bissell’s ULA essay “a masterpiece of tactics.” It’s exactly that, if the essay was able to convince some writers that Bissell was being even-handed at the same time he eviscerated us.

Part of the problem is that the natural sympathies of most of these reviewers is with Bissell, in that he’s placed himself where they seek to place themselves, within the approved literary hierarchy, accepting and defending the status quo. The other part of the problem is that their view of the Underground Literary Alliance is filtered through the prism of Tom Bissell’s biased and distorted essay. They accept his premises as a given.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

My Belated Take on the Debate


I caught the Presidential debate between Romney and Obama on radio. Several things struck me.
1.) It was almost unbearably boring.
2.) It was very wonky-- a debate between two technocrats.
3.) Neither man struck me as a leader. These are the kind of guys a leader will hire.
4.) Both operate within narrow parameters. There was surprising agreement between them.
5.) Neither is in any way an extremist or change agent.

What else to expect from a race between two Harvard grads, I guess?

Two further observations:
-The visual must've been important. I didn't "see" Romney as having the clear edge that everyone claimed. In this sense, it mirrored the famous 1960 Nixon-Kennedy contest.
-The experts say Obama's mistake was addressing the audience, while Romney addressed his opponent. Curiously, this is the opposite of the reason given by "experts" for why Kennedy won: that he addressed the audience, while Nixon addressed him. So much for the experts.

Or, there's no sure way of doing things.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

What’s Literary Rebellion?

Literary Rebellion is first a state of mind, not a physical entity. Vehicles have been used for the Literary Rebellion in the past, and they likely will again. But they’re not the Rebellion itself.

Literary Rebellion is nothing more than the ability to think independently. To question current literary dogma, structures, and authority. To stand as an independent writer outside the literary herd. To exhibit the freedom of thought and action which marks the truly free writer—knowing that the true writer can only be free.