Protesting All Fiction Writers
“I suppose you want to become a success or something equally vile.”
—John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces
Literature is always written by outsiders. Even lousy literature is written by outsiders. Everything from the artiest bildungsroman to the most boldly ludicrous spy rhapsody to the Styrofoam drama of the lower science fiction was written by a person inclined not toward connecting with those around him or her but retreating into a world of nerdily private dream. But even within the outsider’s own imagination, things do not much improve. The overwhelming majority of a writer’s time is spent wondering why this world is not as vivid as he or she once—agonizingly, deludedly—believed. To write is to fail, more or less, constantly. Most writers are not garrulous people; those few who are can fall prey to substance abuse (in the most notorious cases), or behave in the uniquely alienating way of people who think they are celebrities but are not, actually, celebrated. There are reasons for this. Very little in our culture goes out of its way to reward good writing; as a profession, writing seems to interest people in the same exotic manner that professional whaling interests people. It is hard psychic work to feel professionally estranged. One explanation for why writers enjoy hanging around other writers is because writers often instantly forgive one another for being difficult or weird. In this way New York City is, for writers, a kind of literary sanatorium. I mean to imply in that equation some strong theoretical reservations about the sanatorium.
All the animals in Orwell’s Animal Farm are equal, remember, but some are more equal than others. So, too, then, are some outsiders more outside than others. A few writers, such as Thoreau, seem for the sake of vanity or affectation to will upon themselves outsider status. Thoreau’s friendship with Emerson, probably the most prominent writer of the day, indicates that he was something less than a solitary literary soul. There is the Clown Outsider, such as Whitman, who was not taken seriously until most of the insiders who despised him were dead. There is the Spurned Outsider, such as Melville, whose early success with Typee led him to believe that his skeleton key would forever provide entrance to the inside literary world; by the time Pierre appeared the locks had all been discreetly changed. There is the Outsider From Mars, such as Dickinson. There is the Outsider by Temperament, such as Jack London, who, however magnificent a man, was not actually a very good writer. There is the Square Outsider, such as Willa Cather, loved by readers but secretly loathed as a hopeless square by those on the inside. There is the Outsider Who Unexpectedly Finds Himself Inside, such as Kerouac. There is the Nutcase Outsider, such as Hunter S. Thompson. There is the Geographical Outsider, such as the novelist Jim Harrison. (I once made the mistake of admiringly telling Harrison that I regarded him as the dean of Midwestern literature. His long career of being belittled by urban critics had acclimated him to regard that statement as a scatologically vivid insult. I am still apologizing.) There is the Outsider Mistakenly Regarded As an Insider, such as John Updike, who is in fact so outside he does not even have an agent.
And then there is the True Outsider, the writer who believes, as he believes nothing else, that he has no hope of ever accessing the inner literary world. This conviction often sadly fulfills itself; people, artists especially, tend to internalize their fates. Nevertheless, not a few True Outsiders have met with literary success, though in many cases only when it was far too late to have any earthly benefit. The suicide John Kennedy Toole is probably the most famous True Outsider, though it pains me to admit that I regard A Confederacy of Dunces as one of the most overrated novels ever published. I am glad, all the same, that it was published, if only for the moments of reflection it caused those who rejected it to suffer.
Literature tends to maltreat outsiders more frequently than do the worlds of music and film. Or so it is commonly supposed. Compared to the world’s literal millions of unpublished novels, one hears relatively little of the numerous wrapped independent films that never see release. The logistical difficulties of mounting a film production surely have something to do with this, as does economics. Since movies made beyond the clutches of studios have been proven, at least in concept, financially viable, independent film has for the last decade been growing steadily less independent. The music industry, on the other hand, tends to mainline the energy of anarchic independence to such an extent that it packages even its grossly mainstream outfits in the roguishly tattered robes of the True Outsider. Given the considerable seductions of both industries, the successful True Outsider does not, as a rule, tend to stay True or Outside within them for very long.
The publishing industry, on the other hand, has little faith in and less regard for the True Outsider because it is difficult enough to make money on sure-thing insiders. It is a real challenge to come up with more than a tiny handful of self-printed novels of serious artistic intent published in the last hundred years that achieved even the mildest sort of cult status. (James Joyce’s Ulysses, though not exactly self-printed, was a deeply homegrown publishing endeavor. A more modern example might be Arthur Nersesian’s underground hit The Fuck-Up, though one could hardly claim it is well known.) In a weird quirk all but unique to publishing, even literary movements that furiously reject the mainstream—the Beats are the prime example—tend to be more or less gratefully published by traditional, mainstream houses. This is because traditional houses offer what are essentially the only means of widely dispensing one’s work. This is also because the literary world is not usually regarded as spinelessly money-hungry as the worlds of film and music. In short, a different, less rapacious sort of person is attracted to the literary world, and the typical literary novel sells, if it is lucky, 5,000 to 10,000 copies. This is quite a bit less than one tenth of one percent of the American populace. The conglomerates could board up and soap the windows of literary publishing in a day, if they chose. People would complain, certainly. But would most Americans care?
Hence the problem the True Outsider has in the publishing world. The peddling of literature is itself a plangently outside industry. So few literary movements have sought to destroy this fragile creature because without it, what on earth would they do? There is, however, one literary movement today that seeks to save the publishing industry by smashing it into a million genteel smithereens. They call themselves the Underground Literary Alliance. They also call themselves “the most exciting literary movement in America.” They might well be, as I cannot really think of any other existing literary movement in America. This, they would say, is the problem. The system, as it currently exists, does not welcome movements or true independence, only perversely canny individuals who have figured out how to work that system as though it were an uncommonly prodigal slot machine. Here, perhaps, I should share another appellation the ULA has earned, this from a New York editor acquaintance: “The ghastliest group of no-talent whiners to have ever walked the earth.”
The ULA’s founding members first connected during the early to mid-1990s in what they themselves refer to as the “zine world.” These writers read one another’s zines and dispatched fan letters to the authors of the work they admired. Many of these letters were filled with complaints and jeremiads about what was currently being published, which makes them the least unusual writers in the history of American literature. (A quick scan of the letters of William Faulkner or Virginia Woolf will find them, too, railing against the perceived mediocrity of their contemporaries: in Faulkner’s case, John O’Hara and James Gould Cozzens; in Woolf’s far less happy case, James Joyce.) Nevertheless, in the summer of 2000 these writers decided to band officially together. Not to mention officiously together: Theirs was a literary movement based not so much on some shared aesthetic or philosophy of generational, God That Failed–type focus but on the premise that just about every contemporary writer’s work sucked.
The ULA has no apparent geographic center, and many of its members hail from faded industrial capitals such as Detroit and Philadelphia. If the ULA’s own mythology is to be believed, Hoboken, New Jersey, became Bethlehem to its literary messiah. (This was followed, of course, by a three-day pub crawl.) Shortly after the group’s launch, Michael Jackman, today the ULA’s executive director, wrote the group’s manifesto. Like most manifestos, it is neither punctilious nor especially logic-ridden, and it reads like the wail of True Outsider grief that it almost certainly is.
Why was the ULA founded? “Because writing is being professionalized.” (Yes, depressingly.) “Because professionalization initiatives push aspirants away from thinking in their own ways.” (Probably yes.) “Because professionalization enforces a priori prejudices of what ‘good writing’ is.” (Possibly yes, but when has it ever been different?) “Because great writers must never be frightened that their ‘credentials’ may be revoked.” (Absolutely yes.) “Because literature is elitist.” (Yes—and it should be elitist, though creatively elitist rather than politically or socially elitist.) “Because literature is completely out of touch with the reality of contemporary life.” (Whose literature? Which writers?) “Because literature has become just a tax deduction, mired in the upper class, written for readers isolated in their wonderful homes, who wish to believe that the world is filled with wonderful things.” (Well, sort of, maybe, but mostly: huh?) “Because the literary lights of big publishing have nothing to be contentious about—they’re sitting on top of the world.” (God no.) “Because the literary establishment does indeed have an agenda, and the first point on that brief is that nobody criticize the agenda.” (One whole agenda for everyone? A slightly Protocols of the Elders of Zionish notion.) “Because literature must confront the evil and corrupt system of class, greed and exclusion that this country has been based upon from it’s inception.” (Sigh. And, guys: It’s its.) “Because writers should see something wrong and denounce it, no matter how many friends it costs them.” (OK.) “Because style has become convoluted.” (Dude. Whose?) “Because the literary establishment is corrupt to the core.” (No.) “Because corruption, cronyism, nepotism, and cowardice are mixed into a toxic potation that poisons the soul of all who drink from it.” (Come on.) “Because writers have become addicted to big words and stuffy syntax that puts the reader into a torpor, to the point where words clog up the pipes of the mind and produce a deadly sewer gas.” (That’s… that’s just rich.) “THEREFORE, we renounce the professionalization of literary craft that has become part and parcel of the literary world.” Well, they certainly renounced craft while writing this manifesto.
The ULA is the kind of group that boasts on its website not of any achievements but of its protests. Thus one learns, in a long, exhaustive register, of the ULA’s protestation of “millionaire socialite” Rick Moody’s Guggenheim Award; of a purported victory at a debate between the ULA and The Paris Review, when, in fact, The Paris Review’s editor, George Plimpton, had gone into the debate with high hopes and fellow feeling but grew swiftly disgusted by the ULA’s infantile antics; of its crashing of “an effete, boring reading” given by the novelist Elissa Schappell at KGB, where the ULA was thrown out after clapping inappropriately, and for which ejection the ULA’s explanation is cast in the weaselly passive voice (“Alcohol was involved”); of its “Big Underground Invasion Reading in Detroit,” the ULA’s “first stop on its National Breakout Tour,” where “Underground heroes read, rocked and revved up the crowd,” which for all one knows they did; and of its “letters of challenge” sent “to many NYC publishers and writing programs,” about which good luck.
With all this in mind, it will come as no surprise that occasionally—actually, way more than occasionally—the ULA is thuggish, cruel, and petty. Writers on the receiving end of ULA vitriol have felt seriously threatened, and indeed, nearly terrorized—so much so that they’ve even reportedly cancelled book tours. Many of these writers, including Dave Eggers (who at one time was sent poorly written mail from the ULA), were against the publication of this piece; their concern was that anything that might fuel the ULA’s anger was a bad idea, as it might result in new eruptions and cause distress to fellow writers.
But the ULA seems worth examining, for the fact that they manage to achieve true menace, despite their raggedy, underground presence; also because their antics prove especially testing when their complaints mingle with something approaching truth. In January of this year, the ULA turned up at a reading held at Housing Works, one of New York’s most venerable used bookstores. The reading was intended to celebrate the alternative publishing community, embodied by the literary magazines Open City, McSweeney’s, and Fence. By all accounts, including their own, the ULA made a thoroughgoing mess of the evening. In a report ominously titled “The Incident at Housing Works,” which is posted on the ULA’s website, ULA founder (now publicity director) King Wenclas notes that the “crowd of several hundred was upscale and nearly all white.” (I would be very curious to learn of the racial makeup of the average ULA reading.) Wenclas regards the event’s audience as “pod persons with plastic smiles.… The ULA was among a cultural aristocracy that evening, an aristocracy filled with smugness about their meaningless art.” With the requisite ULA name-calling out of the way, Wenclas’s more substantial gripe quickly surfaces:
Many things are happening outside the doors; a widening gap between America’s classes; an approaching war. There was scarcely a vibration of any of this among the trust funders. Can our nation’s most nurtured writers be so out of touch with their own country (or even their own city)?
The readings that evening were given by Ben Greenman, a McSweeney’s contributor and formidably clever, very funny satirist; Tina Brown Célona, a Fence poet; and Sam Lipsyte, an Open City fixture whose willfully slight but, again, extremely funny novel The Subject Steve had the unluck to be published on September 11, 2001. Whether these writers or their audience are “trust funders” is a little beside the point; my own experience with the youth demographic of New York City publishing leads me to suspect that most of them, in all likelihood, are not. (A quick résumé check of my closest publishing friends, admittedly not the most comprehensive portrait, reveals a young publishing world hardly born on velvet. One friend hails from a hardscrabble Mississippi background, another from upper-middle-class Brooklyn, another from rural middle-class Virginia, another from middle-class New Jersey. I myself hail from a lovely speck of a town in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I suspect our accumulated savings could probably cover a down payment on a nice apartment in the heart of Appleton, Wisconsin.) The only legitimate question, then, concerns the work the Housing Works readers shared. As Wenclas tells it, that night’s offerings consisted of stories and poems about a “tree [Greenman], a cunt [Célona], and a candy bar [Lipsyte].” Wenclas wants to know, “Where were the current Balzacs, Zolas, Tolstoys?” (Maybe in France and Russia?) “We were accused,” Wenclas notes of the hostile Housing Works crowd, “of wanting to inject politics into literature, because we asked for literature to be relevant.”
Now, I have nothing at all against the writers who read at Housing Works that night, but I have been to enough such readings to have felt, from time to time, something of Wenclas’s frustration myself. Many young writers today do seem more inclined toward performance art–type hijinks than any kind of serious literary accomplishment. (I write this as the author of a pranky, intentionally bad novel entitled The Bellybutton Fiasco.) As for today’s politically minded younger fiction writers and poets… Jesus, it is a little depressing. Wenclas is not wrong to want a stronger, more serious literature, especially during these sorrowed times, but his anger is more than slightly disingenuous if he expected to find an artist of Tolstoyan wingspan at a reading featuring the author of Superbad. If Greenman, the writer responsible for Superbad (which, let me say, is a pretty terrific book), had somehow fallen from the fold of serious fiction and embraced apolitical tomfoolery, then one could at least understand Wenclas’s puzzlement. But Greenman is primarily a satirist, and Lipsyte is a comic writer. That Greenman read a story about a tree and Lipsyte a candy bar is not surprising. Wenclas, surely, knows this. (I also imagine Greenman’s tree story was a lot funnier than Wenclas lets on. I have seen Lipsyte read his “candy bar” story, and it is one of the funniest, most underwear-soiling things I have ever heard.) To find fault with either for the reasons the ULA gives is a little like criticizing The Producers for not being more like The Sorrow and the Pity. Why are these writers not allowed to write what they want? There are, after all, other writers doing different things. And why, for that matter, should Tolstoy be the writer under whom we all fall into lockstep emulation? Tolstoy was a great writer, obviously, but if every published novel were Tolstoyan, I, for one, would be forced to kill myself. Most likely, Wenclas objects to the high-profile venue these writers were given. But as any writer who has given a reading knows, most readings are the precise opposite of high profile. They are almost exclusively attended by the assorted roommates, former roommates, girl- and boyfriends, former girl- and boyfriends, close friends, family members, and acquaintances of whomever happens to be reading. This leads to a certain insularity, but surely the ULA’s readings are no less insular. Furthermore, in terms of the expected fun to be had at a reading, most place up there with trips to the Laundromat. People simply do not go to readings because they want to; they go because they have to. (“Ah, I can’t tonight. I have this fucking reading I gotta go to.”) I suspect that many of those who witnessed the ULA’s Housing Works rampage—at one point, the fiction writer Thomas Beller and Wenclas nearly came to blows—found the disruption to be the evening’s inarguable highlight.
The Underground Literary Alliance takes as its stated revolutionary mission the search for “America’s great writers! If we don’t do it, no one will.” 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: “The goal is to overthrow the literary establishment and get access for real writers. The public wants writing that’s worth reading!” The sentiment behind the lattermost position is genuinely touching, even inspiring, and it saddens me to note that, in fact, the public does not want writing that is worth reading. By all available evidence, the public wants one novel after another starring Good-Hearted Lawyers Fighting the System, Good-Hearted Christians Battling the Antichrist, and Good-Hearted Heroines Humped Silly by Manly Strangers Who Will Ultimately Leave Them but Damn, That Was Some Orgasm, Was It Not?
The ULA’s other, less dismissible beefs amount to the following: “Put Populists on funding panels. Publish about real life. Support our starving real writers. Admit that today’s system ruins art.” Insofar as grants go, the ULA is probably correct to maintain that the grant system, particularly that which is overseen by the National Endowment for the Arts, is if not corrupt outright then at least hopelessly back-scratchy. The argument can be made, though, that the very nature of any funding scheme based on the decisions of self-interested judges, Populist or not, is itself corrupting. Is it not completely unrealistic to hope that the NEA behaves any less cravenly than, say, the Department of Defense when it dispenses its contracts? A truly revolutionary argument would be to oppose any and all government funding of individual artists. It is hard to seem rebellious, after all, while whining about who got daddy’s money. Alas, complaining about grants has led the ULA to some fairly appalling arguments, such as when they fingered fiction writer and “university professor” Josip Novakovich for receiving an NEA grant in 2002. It was, the ULA pointed out, his second NEA award in a decade: “Out of the many thousands of writers in America, should one of them receive TWO NEA awards? Is Professor Novakovich that outstanding a writer, or in that need of help? We think not.”
I think so. Novakovich is a wonderful writer who would probably eat a bicycle to be published by a major house; I know, because I tried and failed to publish him when I was an assistant editor at W. W. Norton & Company. Novakovich (I do not think he would mind me saying this) also has a family; “university professors” do not, by and large, roll around in piles of money, and they typically see their writing time vacuumed up by teaching. The money was probably crucial manna for him and his writing life. That the ULA can take a fine, unsung writer such as Novakovich—a writer, moreover, hitherto neglected by the larger publishing world—and single him out for opprobrium is nauseating. He is exactly the type of writer whom the ULA should be championing, especially when Wenclas has claimed that the ULA is “a kind of advocacy group to stand up for writers.” (Jackman has explained that the ULA does not stand up for writers who wish to work through the traditional publishing world simply because “we are not interested in trying to hype writers who doff their caps and meekly enter the offices of a major publisher.… Let them try their way; we’ll try ours.” Which would be fair enough if the ULA behaved with such fair-minded quietude in how they regard these meek, cap-doffing souls.)
“Publish about real life,” the ULA demands. William Goldman once wrote, with some rue, that the problem with novels is that they are written by novelists, all of whom necessarily share a basic similarity of foundational experience: bookishness, self-absorption, perceived alienation. Oftentimes, this can lead to shrunkenly personal work, something of which even Leo Nikolayevich Tolstoy was eye-crossingly capable. Recently, in The Spooky Art, Norman Mailer made a point parallel to Goldman’s. Not once in the twentieth century, Mailer noted, has a single politician, actor, athlete, or surgeon emerged as a first-rate novelist, despite the dismayingly huge breadth of experience each profession affords. For better or worse, and I am prepared to admit worse, writers are writers are writers. This explains why so many mediocre fiction writers sound the same, why there exist so many books about writers, and why many talented fiction writers seem to think that their best option to distinguish themselves is to flee the quotidian to explore more fanciful subject matter. The resulting work (novels about talking dogs, alternate-world fiction) can indeed grow wearying for those of us who read a lot of contemporary literature. Once again, the ULA is not wrong in finding a large number of American fiction writers culturally remiss. The ULA solution is less appealing.
What the ULA is asking for is, in its own words, “writing… done in plain English about subjects that matter.” What would such work look like? Steinbeck or, more likely, the interior of a Hallmark “Special Moments” card? The “plain English”/“subjects that matter” position reveals two things: (1) a perfect ignorance of the numerous novels—some would say too numerous—being written today that fulfill such a homely mandate; and (2) a stolid refusal to accept anyone who goes about his or her artistic life differently than the ULA. The ULA’s habitual concern with “real writers” is abundant proof of this. Who are the “real writers”? “Real writers” are those who starve. Those who do not starve, it then follows, and who have managed some level of professional success as writers, are not real writers. Success ruins art. The system ruins art. If this heartless dialectic makes it seem as though no one but the ULA could possibly win this argument, that is because no one but the ULA can possibly win this argument.
To anyone with a passing knowledge of Soviet history, such histrionics for Realism! Relevance! and Politics! may seem strangely familiar. In 1917 the Bolsheviks picked up their power from the shattered streets of St. Petersburg and set out instantly to crush those journalists and writers in opposition to the new and shaky Soviet regime. Despite a long, pervasive, and decidedly un-European tradition of censorship in Russia, in 1906 the tsar freed Russia’s newspapers to write what they pleased. This was to the short-lived relief of Russia’s small intellectual class, as V. I. Lenin’s very first public decree called for the suppression of all newspapers that did not recognize Bolshevik legitimacy. Lenin’s edict met such widely felt derision that he had to abandon it until power—at least in St. Petersburg and Moscow—was fully consolidated, in 1918. Russia’s hundreds of independent newspapers, some founded in the 1700s, were crushed over a period of mere days. Books, which enjoyed a comparatively smaller audience, were treated more leniently by the Bolsheviks, as they were by the tsars, but by 1922 all manuscripts were forced to go through the Main Administration for Literary Affairs and Publishing, otherwise known as Glavlit. Not surprisingly, the literary writers the Bolsheviks courted either rejected them outright or soon grew disillusioned with the regime’s metastasizing totalitarianism. The poet laureate of the Bolsheviks, Vladimir Mayakovsky, a quasi-fascist Futurist whom Lenin privately despised for his “arrant stupidity,” wrote gleefully of smashing the bourgeoisie. In one poem he speaks with chilling approval of killing the old men and using their skulls as ashtrays, and in another maintains that “he who sings not with us today / is against / us!” Mayakovsky’s mono- and dipsomania grew as terribly as the Bolsheviks’ power: his first volume of verse was titled I!, his autobiography I Myself. When Stalin tired of Mayakovsky in 1930, the poet did the world a favor and killed himself. The other notable Soviet poetaster was Demian Bedny, a true literary butcher whom Trotsky commended for his “hatred.” Bedny poems such as “No Mercy” and “Everything Comes to an End” were even worse than Mayakovsky’s. Stalin tired of Bedny, too, though in an atypical show of mercy only forbade him from ever publishing again. But what of the truly significant literary artists living beneath the nascent yoke of the Soviet regime? What of Anna Akhmatova and Aleksandr Blok and Osip Mandelstam and Isaac Babel and Boris Pasternak? They were thought “corrupt,” “fraudulent,” “impure.” They were not real writers. In a typically monstrous Soviet formulation, they were, to the one, tarred as members of “individual nobility.” That is, they had fancy educations. They did not write about the correct subject matter. They did not address what mattered. Soon Akhmatova was reduced to cleaning floors for a living. Blok, after publishing a few poems in praise of the Bolsheviks, gave up poetry altogether and died of tormented guilt in 1921. Mandelstam and Babel perished in the Gulag. Pasternak survived but, in the words of the historian Richard Pipes, “had to bear humiliation… that [a] less stalwart soul… would not have endured.”
I am not suggesting that the ULA wants to exterminate writers in a Stalinist burst of classocide. (Although who would know it when they say things such as: “These pretenders are in fact members of the cognoscenti: literary-bureaucrats-in-waiting. At best, they’re Gorbachev-like reformers. But to the ULA, the mass media can’t be reformed, only overthrown, destroyed, and replaced.” Even the history in that statement is, in the politest possible terms, completely fucked. The putatively hapless reforms of Gorbachev restructured the Soviet Union right out of existence.) The point here is to call attention to the ramifications of the ULA’s argumentatively reckless style. The Bolsheviks changed their names to reflect their personas (“Lenin” derived from the Lena River; “Stalin” derived from steel; “Molotov”: hammer; “Bedny”: poor), and many ULA members, such as “King” Wenclas, Wild Bill Blackolive, Urban Hermitt, Crazy Carl Robinson, and Will Ratblood, seem to have indulged in similar nomenclatural baptisms. To rename oneself in such a way is a gesture of both concealment and aggression. The rhetoric one employs both fills out one’s new persona and solidifies the always hazy world into hatefully clear antipodes. In short, one simply cannot toss around such words as “destroy” and “overthrow” without their nasty energy bleeding right down into one’s mental topsoil. It is playing with fire while denying that fire is hot.
“One must avoid ambition in order to write,” Cynthia Ozick once said. “Otherwise something else is the goal: some kind of power beyond the power of language. And the power of language, it seems to me, is the only kind of power a writer is entitled to.” I suspect that the Underground Literary Alliance would vomit on that statement. And I suspect, too, that very few writers would want to live in a world in which the Underground Literary Alliance determined who could and could not write.
Reading through ULA agitprop, one is left with a persistent residue of the group’s general cluelessness as to how the literary world actually functions. (For one, it assumes that the literary world does, in fact, function.) Yes, many literary people in New York go to too many parties. Yes, many have unfair social advantages. (Though just as many do not.) Yes, personal connections account for a lot. (I am writing for this review due to—aha!—a personal connection with an articles editor.) But personal connections account for just about everything in any adult’s professional life. Connections in this sense are, after all, just another way to describe luck. When someone within the industry likes one’s work as a writer, it becomes a connection. When someone within the industry dislikes one’s work (which is just as likely), it becomes another connection—a negative connection. This process is neither sinister nor corrupt. It is human and, for most editors, it is permeable and subject to unpredictable point mutation, not the least of which is when someone writes something someone else believes to be good. Connections are also rather defiantly not the final word. When I was an intern at Harper’s Magazine in 1997—a position I lucked into with no connection whatsoever—I sat in on editorial meetings and watched in quiet awe as one Famous Writer’s short story after another went down like Japanese Zeros over Midway. I would need several pairs of hands to count the writers, many of them excellent, wired for every connection one could dream of, whose novels and story collections continue to go unsold.
But it is while attacking specific literary figures and organs that the ULA gets most woefully lost. The ULA speaks of the magazine Open City as a “well-hyped trendy NYC lit journal,” and imagines its readers as “Binky” and “Bret.” Open City is a fine journal, but well-hyped it is not, and I would be willing to wager my iBook that neither Amanda Urban nor Bret Easton Ellis has cracked open a single issue. Similarly, the admirable, small circulation review Bookforum is called a “mouthpiece” of “the literary establishment,” which I imagine Bookforum longs were true for the sake of the ad dollars alone. The ULA impugns well-known fiction writers as merry Vichy collaborators when, in fact, many of them would cross the street to avoid one another. Other times, the ULA simply does not make sense at all. When the ULA challenged the Yale English department to debate the future of American literature, a professor named Nigel Alderman kindly agreed, provided that the ULA read some books of his designation. “[I]n other words,” Wenclas fulminated, “that we accept his premises; that we receive his indoctrination; that we THINK in roughly the same way he thinks—which would defeat the entire point.” No, actually. The point is that Professor Alderman wanted to have a debate.
Finally, the ULA seems wholly ignorant of the Gissinglike toil faced even by “successful” writers with dozens of “connections.” The ULA routinely refers to “cushy” university and editorial positions, when in reality these jobs are tenuous, difficult, and roughly as cushy as a six-foot-tall cactus. Many of the writers I know who work as college instructors or editors do it for the money, health insurance, and stability—realities that the ULA’s studied blue-collar sympathies might be expected to accommodate. Working as a professional book editor today can be especially trying—it is certainly not financially rewarding—and not a few in my acquaintance belong on suicide watch. Being a writer, published or unpublished, is a life of frustration and rejection, which is why the dismayingly vast majority of writers who publish one book never go on to publish another.
Of the many words and phrases hip-hop culture has injected into the lexical bloodstream of America, few equal the brilliant definitional succinctness of “player hater.” There is something almost German about how perfectly the phrase captures a complex phenomenon that has existed so namelessly for so long. Player hating is not the same thing as jealousy, exactly, though jealousy obviously forms a keystone of the average player hater’s emotional architecture. Player hating is less rational—not to mention less melancholy—than jealousy. This is not Shakespeare’s “green-eyed monster” but a merciless, fire-breathing Godzilla. And the ULA takes player hating to a plane of Iagoan proportions. They are player haters who hate so purely and reflexively that they have run through all the players. Thus they constantly elevate non-players to player status, just so they can hate them, too.
One senses something of the ULA’s transparent hunger for celebrity from the kind of the writer they consistently assail. All are young, thought to be wealthy, usually male, usually live in New York City or environs, and possess to the utmost that highly qualified species of fame known as literary fame (which is usually nothing more than the shallowest name recognition). Rick Moody has been pursued by the ULA so ferociously, he is probably checking his shirts for a stenciled-on “Valjean” by now. Jonathan Franzen is another target often fired upon, as is Jeffrey Eugenides. The ULA has virtually nothing to say about the actual work of the writers it hates, other than to point out that it is “much-hyped” or some similar approximation. The ULA’s hatred of Moody appears largely centered on the fact that they believe Moody is independently wealthy (or that his family is—the ULA seems to believe this is the same thing, which maybe it is, but it is hard to see how this is the business of anyone whose last name is not Moody, or relevant to whether or not his work is any good) and that he accepted a grant. Franzen’s doctrinal breach seems relatively minor: He accepted a grant after becoming unbelievably famous (though it was applied for before that crime). One of the more realish pieces of literary criticism to be found in the available ULA oeuvre concerns Eugenides’ novel Middlesex. The review, written by Michael Jackman, concerns itself almost entirely with demolishing Eugenides’s vision of “white flight” from Detroit, though it saves a little room to attack the use of “imagination” in writing. “Perhaps,” Jackman writes bitterly, “I don’t have the precious imagination that Eugenides seems to be blessed with.… Yes, writing can reach inside and find out what’s within us. It certainly can cover what’s happening inside the mind and below the belt. All I ask is that we turn that same scrutiny on the world around us, on the injustices and great crimes.” Although it is nice to see a writer responding to a novel with something more potent than the typical book-report musings that afflict much of what is published in our national book reviews, it would be hard to imagine a more ax-grindingly butt-headed reading of Middlesex. Envy appears to be the unfortunate root of many of the ULA’s complaints. ULA contributor Steve Kostecke all but admits as much in the microessay about a McSweeney’s event: “After [the reading] came a short play and, at a local bar, music performed by a band.… These things in combo I myself had envisioned years ago [emphasis most certainly mine].… What they need… is an injection of substance, of the writing that now only exists in the raw authenticity of the zine scene.”
Perhaps now is the time to examine some of that raw authenticity.
It should immediately be said that the ULA has yet to find and develop its Jack Kerouac. Or its Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Or even its Ed Sanders. Nonetheless, though most of the work available on its website is bad, it is always bad in an interesting way. “Before You Know It,” an essay by Emerson Dameron, contains several florid avalanches of prose that in some writers’ hands are known as paragraphs:
It’s dangerous to play it safe. America is a powder keg of free-floating hostility. The upper class micromanages its chokehold on economic power, filling its media with vaccinations against the peons’ sizzling discontent and pitting neighbor against neighbor like battling scorpions. It makes its lettuce sacrificing pawns such as you. And yet, among the plebes
and I have to stop, though Dameron doesn’t. (Incidentally: Emerson Dameron. Anyone blessed with a name like that has no call writing so poorly.) Another essay, “Style vs Substance” by Chris Zee, argues against the workshop:
How would people with the leisurely disposition to study “the craft of writing” explain their own privilege? If these writers held a mirror up to themselves and the world they enjoy, they might squirm a little at what they see.… It is no wonder that I’ve met more than one workshop writer who confided to me that they feel they have mastered the “craft” but they struggle in generating relevant subjects to write about.
Good points all, and these are points I have heard numberless editors and agents make. These are also points I have heard writers make. These are also points I have heard people who teach in workshops make. These are also points I have heard in workshops.
Prose that has passed through not a few of these ULA writers’ minds does not always survive its transit. What does survive is usually trembling, starved, and weak. It subsists on a thin broth of cliché. Thus, any dash is a “mad dash.” The past is inevitably the “not-too-distant past.” We have “the daily grind,” “the unwritten law,” stories occurring in “a sterile laboratory.” Things “cross the mind,” get “stamped out,” and are kept “under hats.” One essay, its author an evident cruiserweight of cliché, ends with this left-hook, right-jab combo: “Because you only get so many chances. It’ll be over before you know it.”
One of the few pieces of fiction posted on the ULA’s website is an excerpt from Michael Jackman’s The Corridor. Jackman’s is one of the more angrily eloquent voices within the ULA, and his pleas for honest, socially relevant fiction appear the most heartfelt. Thus, I read his fiction with great interest. What I found, though, was an artless ramble. I do not mean artless in the positive sense of seeming unforced or natural. I mean it in the sense of having no art. “I have always been a procrastinator,” is how Jackman’s narrator introduces himself to us, “and at the very last minute I had to get serious about finding a new place to live—I had told Henry I would be out of his apartment by the end of November, which was two days away. I needed cheap digs in a hurry.” When Jackman’s narrator suspenselessly opens the newspaper to find an apartment—its $200-a-month rent serves the same grandstandingly sociological purpose here as a Thomas Pink tie does in the work of Bret Easton Ellis—he decides to go have a look. (“I had no choice!”) The apartment is in a bad neighborhood (barking dogs, trash, chain-link fences), details Jackman does not insert so much as rivet into his work. At least the apartment is not in the suburbs. All the same,
“This place is a nightmare!” I thought. Still, I had to get out of Henry’s hotel room, so I handed Stan [the landlord, who smells bad] the first and last months’ rent. He wrote out a receipt on the back of an envelope, folding the keys inside. I drove downtown and requested juice at the utility office. They told me to expect to be on the grid within 24 hours. I drove to the record shop to go to work.
The excerpt staggers on, as though trying to defibrillate the suburban heart from its living bourgeois death: “When I had tossed the last of my boxes on
the living room floor, I checked the power in the bathroom, but it wasn’t on yet. I checked the stove. No gas hissed to life. I couldn’t even boil a cup of tea!” Here we have fiction of negative perfection: so boringly real it cannot be read. Why? Because writing needs vivid imagination, especially writing about the quote-unquote mundane, as the masterly genius of Nicholson Baker will attest.
I held out greater hope for the work published in the ULA’s zine, Slush Pile. One of the writers the ULA hypes most sincerely in Slush Pile is a young woman—I am guessing she is young—named Urban Hermitt. A Hermitt story (or something) entitled “‘I Don’t Know’” is about a young woman named Urban Hermitt and her crazy adventures:
When people say, “I don’t know,” i growl. “Whatta ya mean you don’t know?” i retort. ’Cuz i always thought that people secretly knew why they did the things they did. Like you drink beer ’cuz you secretly can’t handle reality and you wanna fuck. Like you avoid eye contact with a cutie ’cuz you secretly can’t handle reality and wanna fuck.
Well, i couldn’t handle reality either and boy did i wanna fuck.
It is not that Ms. Hermitt is not able to write, or is not, often, sort of amusing. Or her crazy adventures in Mexico, she notes, “‘Only eat food served to you in hotels,’ the travel book on Baja Mexico says. ‘And if you eat food from a street vendor, make sure you take pepto-bismol.’ These travel books make all street vendors seem EVIL. And then they expect you to down this ‘pink’ liquid called pepto-bismol which is full of all this chemicalized crap!” Hermitt’s problem is that she, like Jackman, has mistaken emotion and purity of intent for art. Wenclas has defended Hermitt’s work by saying, “There can be no rewrites.… Attempts to impose order—grammar, spelling, and logic—would cause the fragile bursts of immediacy to fall apart.” To that, one is tempted to argue that poiaurna fopiuay bnvmnnab.
Another story, “Weddings in Purgatory,” by Cullen Carter (whose bio says, winningly, that he “likes beer”), has any number of paragraphs filled with writing like this:
But then Sofia took off her coat and introduced herself. There was a small spark of life in me when I noticed those firm breasts hidden underneath that tight black sweater of hers. I hadn’t had any in awhile, and I was feeling sex-starved. We ended up hooking up, and I was happy for a couple days, thinking I could maybe build a fire with that spark, thinking that maybe I could finally get on with my life.
And yet ULA members do not always write badly. One of the group’s more prominent writers is Jack Saunders, a Santa Claus–ishly lovable sort who for years has been fruitlessly pestering the publishing world. I received a letter from Saunders in 2000, shortly after I published an essay in The Boston Review about the historical obtuseness of the publishing world’s judgment (for instance, its rejections of Melville and Whitman). Saunders’s letter—angry but cheerful—contained excerpts of the many brush-offs he has received from editors, not all of them unkind. (It also, somewhat alarmingly, included a photo of him and a topless woman.) Saunders all but dared me to put my money where my essay was and publish him at Henry Holt and Company, where I then worked. I enjoyed what I read, but since I regarded—and regard—Saunders’s work roughly as salable as a Hefty bag filled with used hypos, I was too depressed even to write him back. I also suspected that, if I did, I was going to get an extremely loquacious pen pal (and perhaps even increasingly nude photos). In an excerpted essay about the novel’s future, Saunders writes:
Anybody can become a writer if he ditches a perfectly good wife to marry one with a rich uncle, leaves the kids with nannies—or puts them in boarding school—and goes off on safaris, stabs people who have helped him in the back.… And most of our writers have done things like that. Even the ones I admire. If you’re married and have kids, you have to do your part. To be a good father to your family. Only then can you write. In the time remaining. No great novels are going to be written that way. But you can become a better human being that way.
Which may be dippy, and which may glisten with more than a little old coot–type treacle, but it is also pretty hard to argue and pretty bravely unfashionable to say. Especially for an author like Saunders, who has boasted of writing nine novels in six months. At the very least, one senses a real human heart within this sentiment rather than the sort of sense-deadened literary adept whom Borges once criticized as writing as though it were “a trick they had learned.… They know that when they have to write, then, well, they have to suddenly become rather sad and ironic.”
A 1997 essay by King Wenclas, “Living in the Real America,” is equally worth considering. “Currently I work as a release clerk/truck dispatcher for a customshouse broker at Detroit’s Ambassador Bridge,” the essay begins, “the great commercial NAFTA gateway of North America.” The point here is thankfully not trade-and-tariff politics but the plight of many Americans to make what is sometimes cruelly known as a living. “When it rains,” Wenclas notes of his workspace,
the ceiling leaks. We have no place to hang our coats, we have no lunch room, we grab food when we can in-between processing the unceasing paperwork and dealing with the multiplying regulations of numerous government empires.… Phones constantly ring. “The container hasn’t arrived.” It’s sitting in a railyard in Detroit.
What sort of people work these jobs? Well, Wenclas tells us:
Young Latino girls, eastside ghetto blacks, downriver white trash, and broke losers like myself. The pay ranges between minimum wage and ten dollars an hour. We endure working conditions worse than those that caused Bartleby to go insane. How many hours do you want? 60? 70? 16-hour shifts? We work hard.… We have no rights, we have no unions, we have no time, money, or energy with which to enjoy any but the barest existence. We are the new American worker.… Amid the madness, on the dock[,] observing the activity[,] sits a four-month-old white baby strapped into a plastic seat. He’s one of Tabitha’s [a co-worker], who can’t afford sitters. “Tabitha!” I yell. “You left your kid on the dock.” “My mother’s picking him up,” she yells back. “I got drivers! Could you keep an eye on him?” The baby waves his arms. I wait with him, past and future[,] wondering what the world has in store for us.
It would be easy to assume that Wenclas is doing a lot of alienated socioeconomic posturing here. I think it would be far too easy to assume this. The piece’s early publication date and simpler, less hysterical tone suggests a writer whose voice has not yet been calcified by rejection and outside indifference, a writer who still had faith that the power of his human outrage, stated well, might allow him a way out of his desperation, that might make others awake. And yet, in his title, Wenclas has one thing wrong. The “real” America is not poor and desperate, just as the real America is not young and wealthy and hip. They are both America, and both can be written about in revelatory ways. Wenclas is living in Wenclas’s America. It is his duty as a writer to convey that America to his reader, and here, at least, he does so extremely well. I wonder how much work Wenclas has in this voice. I wonder if it is all as good. And I wonder also if it would even matter, knowing too well the likely fate of even a superbly conceived piece of work dealing with the realities of our American underclass: regretful rejection and cheerful good wishes, followed, of course, by a completely understandable authorial despair. I then find myself thinking about the ULA’s arguments even more, and I wonder if the fact that I am so surprised by how riled their arguments make me might not suggest that many of them have, in fact, an unpleasant tincture of truth.
Several people told me that any remotely personal dealings with members of the ULA uncovers not some secret cabal of literary anarchists but folk who are basically polite and, indeed, almost shy. One-on-one, I was told, ULA members come off less as fearless statue-topplers than as maladjusted adolescents who have decided that the best way to get a pretty girl’s attention is to snap her bra. It is when they gather that the problems begin (also like adolescents). The Open City poet (and lead singer and songwriter for the Silver Jews) David Berman learned as much when he sent a lacerating letter to Wenclas, challenging the ULA to a “relevance read-off.” Upon receiving Wenclas’s sharp though polite reply, Berman shot back, “Look King, if you’re going to be so civil about this then disregard my first letter. I thought you were hot-headed assholes looking for a fight.… Obviously I’m talking to the wrong guy. Who’s the head asshole over there? Tell him to call me.” During an interview conducted over email, I asked Michael Jackman about this occasional severance between the ULA’s spiteful tactics and the personalities of its individual members. He responded, “I think I know what you’re getting at with this question. I can probably sit down and have a civil conversation with you. I can pass. I can even make my voice sound just like those voices on NPR.… In any event, sure, we’re caring and decent people. I’d say that the most caring and decent people are belligerent when faced with injustice.”
Although I can hardly claim to know him, I like Jackman. Possibly this is because I have a high tolerance for people who regard things that offend them as “injustice.” I posed a series of fairly pointed questions, and Jackman answered them quickly, intelligently, and well. When I asked if the ULA can appreciate how blatantly jealous it appears by attacking the writers it does, Jackman said my question reminded him of high school, in particular the timeless propensity of popular kids to look upon the actions of unpopular kids, no matter how innocuous, as an attempt to get the popular kids’ attention. “How self-satisfied does somebody have to be to look at the opposition and simply see envy!” Jackman fired back. “What blind arrogance!” That his mind instantly retreated to the bivouacs of phys ed and prom is probably more revealing than he intended to be, but his point stands that fiercely opposing another person does not necessarily mean that all opposition is birthed in envy. “The ‘big brainy writers’ club’ simply presents us with an appropriate target,” Jackman went on. “They do an excellent job of representing everything we regard as foul. They are a smarmy, back-slapping network of people who have very little experience out there in the world.” When I asked which writers Jackman admires, he mentioned Charles Bukowski. It is perhaps worth pointing out that Bukowski’s experience with the world was largely consigned to seeing it through the bottom of a shot glass when he was not delivering people’s mail. This does not make him a bad writer; nor does it make him a good writer.
I realized about here that Jackman was not actually criticizing these big-brained writers themselves, as writers. My secret suspicion is that he has probably read carefully the writers he professes to loathe and, somewhere within him, found at least something to admire. Otherwise they would not make him so angry. He was criticizing, instead, the image of these writers. In Jackman’s mind, these writers have “very little experience out there in the world”—a ridiculous position in itself; everyone has experience out there in the world, seeing that everyone actually lives in the world—because, for him, these writers are only images. Images do not have experience. They are images. And this is the problem. It is an old problem, but it is still a problem. I would argue that only the least honest, most trifling writers have gone about consciously cultivating an image. Image, like age, pretty much accumulates upon a writer whether he or she likes it or not. Ask Charles Bukowski. If serious reading is in peril, and I believe it is (though I also believe that in peril may well be the default condition of serious reading), maybe it is because, for many, serious reading is increasingly revolving around nothing but image. Writers become brands or poses—the ULA did not invent the notion of a Big Brainy Writers’ Club—not individuals trying to communicate something human to their readers, as I would estimate that every single member of the Big Brainy Writers’ Club is desperately attempting to do. What is particularly horrifying about all this is the fact that the writers themselves are not to blame. To talk about books with many in the publishing industry, and God knows I have been as guilty of this as anyone, becomes less an occasion to discuss books than to conjure up some unreally pixilated quasi-world of byzantine intrigue and thrillingly naked literary Darwinism: Who is up. Who is down. Whose book sold. Whose book did not. How success has ruined A. How B is no longer in. How C never wrote anything good after the divorce. It is little wonder that the manner in which this gossipy system publishes many writers’ work appalls those it excludes. I often find it appalling myself, and I used to do it for a living and might well, someday, do it again.
Literature is sacred. It is as sacred to me as anything I know. I suspect that most editors and agents feel the same way, if only during the quiet, kept hours of the night. But there is always the issue of how one goes about selling the sacred without defiling it. There is the issue of how one goes about superintending the sacred when tens of thousands of fellow brethren, some of them abundantly insane but many of the truest sort of heart, want to add to its flame. What does one tell them? That they are not holy enough? However one personally and professionally elects to handle these troubling issues, a tiny piece of the sacred is ruined. For me, at least, all of this inevitably leads to a small, quiet grief. We would all like for our worlds to be bigger.
For Jackman and the ULA, however, it leads somewhere else. When I asked why the ULA does not attempt to call attention to the numerous published novels that disappear from public view so completely it is as though they were never published, he replied that the ULA is “not on a level playing field. We are engaged in a kind of cultural warfare here, and we’re a small bunch of guerrillas taking on a large opponent with vast resources.… If you’re small and your opponent is large, attack—then the opponent has to devote resources to its defenses.” He went on, “It’s shocking to me how the ULA apparently believes in writers and believes in literature more than the people who control the industry.” I countered that the people who control the industry know horrendously well how poorly most books sell—even those that are “hyped.” “I can’t think of any other business that operates with that catastrophic lack of vision!” Jackman responded. “Every business in this country tries to court success aggressively, it would seem, with the exception of literature.”
It is sentiment such as this that makes me admire Jackman, even as I recognize that he does not always know what he is talking about, even as I suspect that, if The Corridor is any indication, he could not write his way out of an issue of Ranger Rick, and even as I believe his literary judgment to be basically not so good. He is a nobly unreasonable person leading an unreasonable group seeking to unreasonably alter the terms of a fundamentally unreasonable debate. Not only that of commerce versus art but art as it is enriched by ethics and ethics as they are challenged by social injustice. He is far from the only writer concerned with such matters, but he clearly believes he is. This strange, bug-eyed moral certainty is what is interesting about the ULA and what is repellent about the ULA. But it is usually more interesting than repellent. It is also more moving, especially when the ULA sucks the venom from its voice and speaks more to its very human concerns.
I wrote earlier of the sacred. Indeed, literary movements have a typical development not unlike that of religion. They begin in revelation, grow in consolidation, mature in strength, decay into complacent necrosis, suffer schism and partial inner destruction, and then are born anew. If the ULA follows this traditional arc, one of two things will happen. They will either grow frustrated, stop writing, surrender their faith, and disappear; or one of them, or two of them, possibly three of them, but no more, will publish or self-publish something that finds an audience large enough to move the traditional publishing houses and larger magazines to swing their censer before the ULA’s eyes. Any such success will, no doubt, be a moment of some philosophical difficulty. The money will in all likelihood be convincing enough to allow these lucky ULA writers to swallow their rancor toward the system that shunned them, and with weighty hearts they will step into the bloody crossroads where art and commerce meet. Perhaps, then, the ULA will become the literary equivalent of, say, Episcopalianism. Suddenly, they will be the ones turning away expectant apostles. Theirs will be the door to which many will nail their bad-tempered theses. I personally hope for the latter, both because I believe that the ULA’s movement is fundamentally one of hope and because I suspect that only success will convince the ULA that art, like death, is life’s great leveler. We all grieve of it equally, and at no point can any of us expect to be treated fairly.