Thursday, October 14, 2004

NEW CRITERION: Relevant or Dead?

I received an interesting e-mail recently from Stefan Beck, an editor at the noted snob journal NEW CRITERION, in which he assures me that "these dinosaurs aren't going extinct any time in the near future."

I applaud Beck's confidence, but still have to point out the striking difference between NC and the Underground Literary Alliance.

Beck says they've been fighting the arts status quo for over twenty years. Then where is the result? Where's the progress? NEW CRITERION seems settled into a safe niche with a comfortably safe and circumscribed readership. With guaranteed life support through their tax shelter status, they have no incentive to progress.

The ULA by contrast was founded not by established (albeit disgruntled) members of the cultural elite, but by underground writers with no resources, aside from stray bucks obtained from working shitty jobs. We receive no institutional government corporate university help-- nor do we want it. We said from the start we have to keep moving forward or fold. We disdain ANY niche. You won't see us become a once-radical now safely marginal "Poetry Project." Our rebellion is for real.

Second, NEW CRITERION's rebellion comes from inside the walls of the arts castle. They don't want to tear the hierarchical castle down, only modify it. (Tastier crumpets, I guess.) They're aristocratic reformists, like a Lafayette who thought he could maintain the system of privilege in France, only tinker with it a bit; or a Gorbachev who believed one could have a better operating Soviet Union. As such, NC's arguments lack edge. They don't want real change at all. (And it better retain cocktail parties with ample hors d'oeuvres!)

NC's problems with liberal magazines are more about political matters that stand outside questions of aesthetics and art. I can't see much difference between their stand on literature and that of the NEW YORKER or NY REVIEW OF BOOKS. Don't they worship the same creaky snob gods of Updike, Ozick, Roth, and Bellow? Isn't, to them, Henry James the towering genius of the past (along with T.S. Eliot); the same Henry James whose soggy influence has done more to retard interest in literature than that of any other author (with the possible exception of David Foster Wallace)?

Doesn't NEW CRITERION represent a nostalgic and impossible yearning for an idealized literary past? What do they display that's different and new?

Their philosophy is a rewarmed modernism that's even more exclusive and exclusionary than what the liberal snobs offer.

The ULA Difference is that we seek to change the entire process of literature from top to bottom; from how writers are discovered to how their words are delivered. We say the Machine of Literature isn't working. We've begun taking it apart, putting it back together so that literature can serve the people-- not just elitists conservative or liberal. Our ideas are in line with this society's technological changes, which will bring democracy to literature whether we wish it or not.

The ULA is quickening the advent of that democracy to literature; closing the gap, as zeensters have traditionally done, between writer and reader. We're taking writers off their dusty pedestals and putting them among the people. The best way to do that is to draw writers FROM the people, so that "Writer" isn't spelled with a capital letter, the person not a certified degreed technocrat, a specialist-- no, but instead, one of us. US: the people we want to begin reading, who ARE reading, in their own unapproved unregulated manner. This is the only way to rescue literature from the closet into which the cultural mandarins have shoved it.

Maybe I'm wrong about NEW CRITERION. Maybe I've misjudged them. But I've looked through their journal and there encountered no plan or program; no sense they're moving anywhere; no regard of the future, nor lofty and compelling goals.

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