In 1999 there appeared on slick magazine pages a big splashy deal about the special magical day the "Top Hat" NEW YORKER rag unveiled a new generation of Approved Puppets, relying on its waning cultural authority to put them across. "THE NEW YORKER Twenty"-- supposed to represent, according to then-Fiction Editor Bill Buford, the best young writers in America. Names included David Foster Wallace, George Saunders, William Vollmann, A.M. Homes, Rick Moody, Donald Antrim, Jonathan Franzen, Jeffrey Eugenides, Matthew Klam, Jhumpu Lahiri, and others. Though the writers came overwhelmingly from a well-tamed well-bred sliver of American society, Buford had the arrogance to announce them as the best this nation had to offer.
Rows of pages of photographs of the posed creations appeared in the issue, accompanied by glowing reports not matching the obviously bland character of the individuals shown. (The only emotion energy or quirk that could be discerned from the photos was not intelligence but complacent smugness; the blank stares of cattle. One after all can do only so much with the faces of puppets!) THE NEW YORKER saw the writers as the hope of American literature, and believed snapping its fingers would make it so.
Well-staffed publicity departments-- at much corporate expense-- endeavored to make it so, with mixed results. All-in-all, the attempt fizzled-- the reason being the mandarins' flawed premise that one can manufacture, to conforming specifications, genius. But they're still trying to make it so.
By congregating together on cue and call, the Twenty Puppets acknowledged their subservience. Our next great writers!-- and not one independent mind among them. What's wrong with this picture? It's a glaring contradiction. (Will one ever find a great writer among a line-up of puppets?) The editors could've scattered dollar bills across the sidewalk, and asked the writers to scurry after them, on all fours, and obtained more interesting and truthful photographs.
More than a contradiction it's a puppet show. The stage appears impressively large when you stare directly at it, but it's actually quite small. The world of American letters reduced to the illusion of a puppet box. The puppets themselves arrived special delivery from the factory-- "M.F.A." stamped in block letters on the crate (the letters must stand for a cheap Hong Kong trading company). Strings already attached. All one need do is make them dance.
And so-- we arrive this week at the 2004 NEW YORKER Festival Puppet Show. The well-tamed names-- look, there's one with red hair-- will patter like marionettes across the stage, making the audience gleeful that the world is okay-- no, nothing has changed! they say-- because there the Puppets still perform in front of them, blank-faced, glass-eyed, and harmless; silly voices emitting not one disturbing dissenting thought, and the aristocracy which Puppet and audience alike are part of goes on.
BUT 1999 marked not only the end of the millennium, but the beginning of the end of cultural aristocracy. No longer can nor should American society be dictated to; told from above what constitutes acceptable literature. THE NEW YORKER set the standard for decades and the one thing that can be said for sure is that it has failed. The short story has become a decayed obsolete specimen fit for a museum. Writers and readers have forgotten when the form LIVED-- when O. Henry's populist tales reigned, in both Manhattan and the nation. When F. Scott Fitzgerald's jazz age stories in the POST lit up the sky, and Hemingway's created an ethos which influenced an entire generation, high and low.
What remains today are mannerisms.
For its happy part the ULA contains writers who are defiantly NOT puppets-- great personalities like Bill Blackolive, Jack Saunders, Steve Kostecke, Wred Fright, and many others creating a different kind of literary art more real, immediate, and vibrant. We're creating an organization that will carry forward our principles. THIS century is ours.
(Much more to follow.)