Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Octopus by Frank Norris


(Here’s the text of a short review I posted today at Goodreads of the 1901 Frank Norris classic, The Octopus. I could say much more about the novel—have elsewhere, and possibly will do so at this blog.)

Not just a great American novel-- this book is THE great American novel, in its scope, its understanding of the American character and of the forces which have shaped the American civilization. The leading figures of the narrative, on both sides of the dispute, are risk-takers. Most of them are quite ruthless-- Presley the poet and Vanamee the mystic the chief exceptions. It's Frank Norris's genius that he makes us care about a man like Annixter despite his hardness and ruthlessness. Annixter and the other members of the League become heroic because they stand up for their work, their land and their principles, against what turn out to be irresistible forces.

I see that some reviewers have a problem getting past Norris's style of writing. His "purple prose." Frank Norris was a naturalist and wrote in that mode-- which means the narrative is heavily detailed. It means that the author makes his points again and again-- he hammers them into you-- which is admittedly a different style from what most readers today are used to, but it also gives the book its unusual power. When conflict comes, it has reverberations beyond the incidents themselves, because Norris makes the conflicts part of his larger themes.

Norris overstates his descriptions because he wants the reader to SEE the setting and the characters; really see them. Few novels are so closely tied to the land and nature. (Tolstoy's Anna Karenina comes to mind.) No novel I've read has so well conveyed the special qualities of California; its landscape and sunlit beauty. Norris emphasizes the wheat as a force of nature because he wants us to see the railroad, and the people of the novel, as natural forces as well.

For all the care Norris put into the novel's construction, few novels carry as much excitement. The shooting at the barn dance; the chase of Dyke; and finally, the sudden showdown between ranchers and railroad men are as tense and exciting-- and ultimately as tragic-- as any scenes ever written.

Scope, power, love, tragedy, compassion, meaning-- no American novel puts every aspect of a great novel together as well as this one. Indeed, it remains topical, in that monopolies, corruption, and cronyism are with us today-- and there remain people who fight against these forces, whether their vehicle to do so be the Tea Party or Occupy. Since 1901, when The Octopus was first published, has all that much really changed?

Friday, April 24, 2015

Still Out There


(Photo: Dirty Franks in Philadelphia.)

Yes, I’m still around, still writing. Still In Detroit—despite a recent visit to the City of Brotherly Love.

I’ve been busy setting up the appearance of NEW POP LIT at the big Allied Media Conference in Detroit June 19-21. We may even debut the print version of our publication there, if all goes well. The journal will include fantastic work from amazing writers and artists.

Stay tuned!

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Back in Philly

I’ll be back in my second home town, Philadelphia, for several days, including this weekend. While I’m there I may look at some of the writings I have in storage. I once did a newsletter called New Philistine which contained uninhibited literary criticism. Much more striking than anything ever published in the New York Times! Best lit criticism of the 1990’s. Curious whether I still have a few copies. (Did 45 issues.) I’m getting to the point of life, former underground colleagues dropping away, where I worry about saving a smidgen of my writing. Not for posterity so much as for any future open minds.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Oates and Bureaucracy



I found it interesting but not surprising to see esteemed establishment novelist Joyce Carol Oates come out strongly in favor of so-called Net Neutrality. She well represents the mindset of the system writer.

What’s a system writer? One who’s operated inside established bureaucracies since university days. In a sense Oates—like so many established authors—has never left the university. (She teaches there now, at Princeton.) These are writers who operate within the present system. Trained in the proper modes at college. If they’re “good” enough they move on to publication at one of the publishing giants. They write within the system as beribboned pets. Given plenty of treats to be compensated for having no control over their art. At all times they are inferior, within the pyramid of publishing, to the publishers, agents, editors; corporate execs and marketing experts, who decide what the final product will look like and how it will be presented. The writer is merely along for the ride.

It’s a stress-free environment, full of security, BECAUSE the writer has abdicated final responsibility and say over the artwork.

The alternative to this is the Do It Yourself writer—who controls every aspect of the process. Including what the publication will look like and how it will be marketed. It’s a tough path—but it allows said writer to maintain integrity.

For the DIY writer, Amazon is merely a necessary vehicle for distribution of the art. Before ebooks came around I published and sold my own zines. I know that the success of much-scorned Amazon is likely temporary. There were vehicles available for the DIY writer before Amazon. There will be vehicles available after it. (We at NEW POP LIT are in the early stages of creating one.) The world is in constant flux and change.

How does this apply to “Net Neutrality”? The system writer is never herself directly subject to regulation. That’s out of her domain. Remain obedient; crank out proper product—properly politically correct—and such issues are handled by the big guys.

Anyone who’s faced government regulators up close is not so complacent. Those who know what it’s like to deal with a gigantic government bureaucracy.

I did so for a portion of the 1990’s, when I worked as a middleman at the Detroit-Canada border; conduit between shippers bringing goods into the country, and the Customs officials whose job it is to ensure that all rules are properly followed. I eventually obtained a Customshouse Brokers license after taking a five-hour exam ensuring I well knew those regulations.

The problem with government bureaucracy as I witnessed it is that it never stops growing. Expanding. Multiplying. More laws passed. More federal regulations designed to enforce those laws added. Every year, the book of regs (CFR) kept getting thicker. The amount of rules one was required to be familiar with always increasing. You try to keep up—to present all paperwork properly—but eventually your mind feels about to explode.

The NAFTA act was sold as “free trade”—yet an entire volume of regulations was added to regulate this “free” trade. I left the business in 1999. I can only imagine what things are like now.

Net Neutrality, by classifying the Internet as a public utility, allows federal regulators in the form of the FCC to put a giant foot into the door of the Internet, all in the name of “freedom.” (See Orwell: Slavery is Freedom.) The Internet of course is enormous. How many bureaucrats will now need to be hired to police it? How many volumes of regulations added to clarify this action or that action? It’s the path toward bureaucratic nightmare.

The saying goes, if it’s not broken, don’t fix it. Yes, the largest service providers might do this and might do that. I’d prefer a self-policing situation.

Not to worry. Our officially-designated intellectuals—Joyce Carol Oates only one of them—have decided within their carefully-controlled bubble world that all is okay. They’ve never operated outside an institution—are likely more comfortable within one. House cats for whom the system takes care of every need. Well fed and pampered—and naturally scornful of alley cats outside the well-built house, running free and wild on the streets.

The only good news is that the house of publishing at least is in a state of decay, and may at any time collapse.


Has any American novelist dared to credibly write about THE story of latter-day American civilization: the rise of gigantic bureaucracy? The only one I can think of is James Gould Cozzens, who handled the subject in his World War II novel Guard of Honor. Cozzens was a defender of American Empire. His novel is a picture of its very creation. As much as he defends the growing military complex, he shows at the same time its built-in corruptions, incompetence, and inefficiencies. Afflictions part of any bureaucracy—including the publishing/literary system of today.

Would that we had such novelists now willing to look with unflinching eyes at the hives within which so many of us live and work—the bureaucratic beasts.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Big Bluff

What does the Brian Williams fiasco tell us?

The public is gradually discovering that the authority of establishment media’s authority figures is largely bluff. The figures presented to us are no smarter, have no more character and integrity, than the rest of us. They may have less.

This realization applies not just to the world of network news, but also to the critical establishment. For instance, establishment film critics raved about David Fincher’s 2014 flick Gone Girl. Never mind that every character is an unlikable sociopath; that the movie is often incoherent; the cinematography and score are sullenly dark; the acting is robotic; there are plot holes one could drive a freight train through—the movie has not one redeeming quality that I could discover. Something about its technical accomplishment (?) caused the esteemed critics to laud it. One even found it a comedy—which itself is comedic.

The fault is in the critics themselves. When they praise garbage, then garbage is what we’ll continue to be handed as substitute for art.

The situation is no better in the literary field. Jonathan Franzen is the best novelist this great civilization can produce? Really?

Something smells. Something’s rotten—not in the walls of Denmark but more probably in the city of New York.

Monday, January 26, 2015

What Pop Writing Looks Like

At NEW POP LIT we’re on an ongoing search for models of Pop Lit—the story, poem, or novel which combines the attributes of pop with relevance and meaning.

At our web site we have three examples of these attempts.

First is an essay by my co-editor, Andrea Nolen, titled “How to Tell Stories to Children.” Andrea looks at the reading experience, and why understanding it is important if we’re to renew literature.

Then we have our current story, “Talkin Muhlenberg County Blues,” whose author, “Fishspit,” demonstrates how to create a narrative line.

Last we have my own very different pop story, “Press Conference,” an excerpt from my e-novel The Tower. In the book I aimed first for readability, while at the same time trying to capture the moment. It’s about an NFL press conference.

We want others to tell us what Pop Lit should look like. Or send us examples!

Friday, January 23, 2015

Death of an Underground Writer

Lisa Falour

I just received word yesterday about the death of underground writer and artist Lisa B. Falour. She was famed as “Bikini Girl” of the 1980’s. Later was a member of the Underground Literary Alliance in its heyday. Lisa had problems with a small press publisher taking advantage of her. Changing her work without her permission and not paying her. One of the ULA’s successes was obtaining a payment from said publisher for her, after some lobbying. I’d been invited several times to visit her and her husband in Paris, but never raised the money or time off for such a journey.

Lisa’s work defined edgy writing. By all accounts she was an edgy personality. RIP, Lisa.