Thursday, January 13, 2005

Clueless: A Sven Birkerts Update

(Also a Bissellgate Update.)

Rather than jump into on-line battles in which he'd be slaughtered, establishment lit-critic and apologist Sven Birkerts can be found hiding out at the moribund literary journal Agni, issue #60.

In his usual constipated way Birkerts ponders the supposed disappearance of reading in the culture, and wonders, puzzled, at what could be the cause. The guy is so out of it he'd never consider for a moment that his own dead publication and others like it might be a factor.

As Birkerts worries, he lauds the unreadable junk he puts into Agni, including a ridiculous essay by Katherine Jackson. "A visual field of proliferating incidents at a variety of scales draws the eye into all sorts of un-verbalizing interstices. . . ."
Say what?

These Agni people who drive a sputtering Volvo named "literature" are stopped at a roadblock, yellow lights flashing on top of a large sign that says, "ROAD CLOSED." They wait patiently in the car for the road to magically open as hours go by and the sun sets behind them.

Also in the issue is a bizarre essay by Birkerts/Moody/Eggers/Franzen-brownnosing friend Tom Bissell entitled, "Truth or Oxiana." The noted Harper's plagiarist seems to be rationalizing his own misdeeds when he says,

"In much magazine writing, on the other hand, a fair amount of what many consider factual disingenuousness wends its way into just about every nonfiction piece. This is more or less a trade secret of magazine writing. . . . What is unacceptable in newspaper writing is common practice for magazine writing. This is because we read a newspaper differently from a magazine, and we read a magazine differently from a book. Our anticipation of the truth, and the many forms it takes, alters in regard to the conduit through which it reaches us."

This is elevated doubletalk, and it's bullshit. Bissell tries to give the impression that all he did was compress his "transcribing" of a speaker's words-- when he transcribed from a text, from another writer's written words which were clearly in front of Bissell while he was doing it.

Bissell, in discussing a work by Lord Byron, goes on to discuss what is or isn't a "serious breach of readerly trust." (He also calls Jayson Blair a plagiarist.) There's something skin-crawling about Bissell's exhibition of his fraudulence-- like Richard Nixon giving a talk about ethics and determining what is or isn't permitted, using examples of others' failings to excuse his; ultimately arriving at the implied conclusion that anything's okay because he, Nixon-- or Bissell-- is the one doing it; what might be wrong for anyone else is allowable for an establishment lit writer or a President.

His sophistry is distasteful. Bissell shows himself once again to be a person without integrity or character; a charlatan of charlatans, successful as a result, enabled by ethically-absent mentally-challenged editors like Lewis Lapham and Sven Birkerts.

Rather than accept the kind of naked shit Tom Bissell emits about magazines, Harper's should print a simple note in their pages of what happened, with an apology, and a statement of determination that it won't happen again.


King said...

(RR-- please catch also the remark about Birkerts I put as a comment on that previous "Abdicate" thread.)

Jeff Potter said...

The ideas are swirling fast in ULA-country these days. Check out the latest ULA Monday Report at There's good crossover with this latest King post. Then there's all that arguing about class going on down below somewhere. Whew! Where to start?

As King says, Bissell does a shocking job of trashing nonfiction magazine writing by way of rationalizing what he does in mags. Still, both he and King are right about one thing: it's what everyone does in mag-land. They crib and cut'n'paste.

I have two notions to add.

Bissell puts newspapers and books in a separate category of expectation; and in the latest MR the writer Vltchek, and A. Roy also, say that nonfiction has been spared the recent scourge of irrelevancy. I think they're all wrong: I say that newspapers and books alike are equally being trashed by totally compromised expectations by everyone---readers and producers. I've read that 60-80% of newspaper content comes directly from press releases. And books are as much a mad dash by underlings to slap something together as any magazine article. Nonfiction especially. I've seen this strange exception made for nonfiction several times now in reports I've read on the recent state of literary affairs. This is more BS. It only APPEARS to be strong. In nonfiction a writer today is allowed to segregate his subject, to pretend it exists apart from the rest of life---this is successful because that's how winners work in today's projects: by chopping things up. But nonfiction hasn't always been allowed this poisonously false position. Nonfiction writers, like any, are obliged to tie their work as often as possible into every part of the real fabric of life. It's called set and setting. It's either like Sinclair Lewis did it or it's contributing to the problem. OK, that was one idea. : )

The other is this class thing. I've noticed quite often these days that polished, "brainy" independent music is getting airplay in the corpo grocery store. That must be because the corpo feels no threat from it. Do they play "Take this job and shove it"? Do they play "Give peace a chance"? A song doesn't have to be small and indy to be a threat. It's spirit will be indy, but its label might not be. Or didn't used to have to be. There's an MFA aspect to indy music, or maybe it's an MFA wing of corpo music. I heard a slick MFA type of song in the grocery store the other day that had the chorus "Dolores was her middle name" by Freedy Johnston. It's from a hip, intellectual, artistic musician. Another similar angsty singer is also getting airplay for her catchy 'smart,' poetic tunes that are so atmospheric they have no meaning. Something about a coat in the hall is one line I vaguely recall from a Sarah Harmer song. The music is vague. It's ear-candy. It's appealing. But it's a siren song. Coz it also plays well on NPR. It playss well in any corporate grocery store. The MFAers are providing the new muzak. Take the 'naughty' scenes out of MFA novels and set them to music and you get the same muzak.

Ask a working person to read some winning nonfiction: why do they need to know about the amazingness of some whole other scene that has no bearing on them? They won't read it. Ask a worker to listen to MFA music. Huh? There's no there there. They'd rather listen to Nashville crap. Nostalgia about good old dad is more escape than reality but it's more real than songs about coats and middle names. Give normal people something worth reading, that connects to their lives, and they'll grab it. Sure, it might not be a landslide at first. Everyone---rich and poor alike---are drugged/zombied out of the natural stress and fear reaction to how they're living. But something inside a few folks would wake up to relevant art, then more would. It would quickly do better than the shrinking MFA ghetto, at any rate. It would give a toehold that could be built on, stood up for. There's nothing worth fighting for with the rest of it. Who can defend smugness and irony for irony's sake? People want something worth living for, fighting for, but the wittiness of the rich won't do, neither will workers fight for long for the right to buy tickets to NSCAR and WWF.

Anonymous said...

Bissell recycles his material so much he deserves a lifetime achievement award from Greenpeace.

He started with an essay in Harper's about how POD and self-publishing were destroying literature ("whatever remains of a genuine literary culture in this country" or some garbage). Then, as if to "prove" his point, he and his partner write an "intentionally bad" novel and print it via POD. Then he goes on to crow to idjits at Salon and other places about what a great meta-publishing enfent terrible hell-raiser he is. Then he continues his assault on real writers, real publishers, and reality in general with a wandering, factually-challenged piece attacking the ULA in The Believer--and Tom "ich bin ein Outsider" Bissell (any relation to the vacuum cleaner fortune? Cause he sure sucks hard enough) sniffs that there's no difference between an Urban Hermitt and a Rick Moody, none at all....


Part 2 of the story: Bissell goes to eastern europe with the peace corps. Sees things. Poverty. Corruption. Sad People. Strong People. Noble People. He has an "experience." Comes back changed. Returns to the land that haunts him. Has an "angle" for an article. Plagiarizes in order to write it. Turns article in book. Turns book into more articles. Turns articles into book. Rinse. Repeat. Recycle.

Bissell is a type of character I skewer in my book, Half Empty, like one of those hateful "photojournalists" who snap pictures of toothless poor people in 3rd-world countries with their Hasselblads and Yashicas, and then come back to their totally rad pad in the East Village and sell oversize prints in the local cafe.

Bissell's from Michigan, as is the Bissell vacuum cleaner family. It would be really, really funny if he was part of that fortune. Wouldn't surprise me one bit.

Tim Hall

Noah Cicero said...

This concerns Potter's comment on MFA music. In Youngstown, I don't know about the rest of America. I've noticed that young people who had non college educated parents hate MFA music or EMO as it is called here. Because EMO fans are usually richer kids who spend all their time smoking weed and making art projects with broken up computers, random car parts, and rubber bands. Then they tell you that piece of art is about how reality TV is destroying people's lives.
Another thing is that emo writing sounds very depressing but how bad could life be if you can find time and the money to make art projects out of rubber bands and hamsandwiches, have college paid for and have your parents give you 150 dollars a week so you don't have to have a job while going to college. They are loathed by a lot of people. One of the EMO kids told me a month ago in conversation in a Youngstown Bar in a very poor neighborhood quote, "The masses are happy."
Potter is right, people deserve better literature, media, sitcoms, all of it. The people deserve and have earned something better than nashville crap and Nascar. The most revolutionary thing about the ULA to me is that it is saying, "Hey republican, hey democrat, hey union worker, hey preppy, hey punk, hey trailer trash, hey ghetto trash, here's a Slush Pile, read it, you might enbjoy it." The fact that the ULA does not enjoy division and segregation is very threatening to a lot of people but to most that message is welcomed.
Wenclas and Potter: Thank you for being so courageous.

Anonymous said...

BTW, Karl, it's lines like "These Agni people who drive a sputtering Volvo named "literature" are stopped at a roadblock, yellow lights flashing on top of a large sign that says, "ROAD CLOSED." They wait patiently in the car for the road to magically open as hours go by and the sun sets behind them" that make me love your blog and your writing, whatever the naysayers and haters say....and a big reason (no, THE reason) why I joined the ULA.

You are truly the "zine Elvis". Here's to a year of kicking holy ass in 2005. You've got my support, voice, and money. And yes, we're going to win.

Tim Hall

King said...

Meanwhile, at the same time we're writing all this on Thursday, Maud Newton on her blog is going down on Mr. Bissell big-time. Lessons in Fawning-- fawning yet over the biggest fawner over big names of them all. Her favorite Believer essayist. Doesn't care if it's all either stolen or inaccurate! I don't think Tom BSsell is evil-- but he's certainly the laziest journalist I've encountered; no doubt he plagiarized out of sheer laziness. But does any of this matter to the demi-puppets? Of course not! Do we inhabit separate universes from them? Or are they truly brain dead? If such people who have no concept of ethics (though they pose politically whenever it's trendy-- whenever they're given proper signals from on high: "It is now hip to be against the war")-- if these expediency-driven fashion radicals are going to be the future of lit, then lit is in big trouble.

Btw, Tim, I've started reading your novel-- like the way it opens with the yelling neighbors anyway; true-to-life!; but will probably wait until Noah gets the ULA Review Blog going (soon!) before I review it. (AND I have about 40,000 other writers to get to after your book also.)

Anonymous said...

Jeff Potter: "Bissell puts newspapers and books in a separate category of expectation; and in the latest MR the writer Vltchek, and A. Roy also, say that nonfiction has been spared the recent scourge of irrelevancy. I think they're all wrong: I say that newspapers and books alike are equally being trashed by totally compromised expectations by everyone---readers and producers. I've read that 60-80% of newspaper content comes directly from press releases. And books are as much a mad dash by underlings to slap something together as any magazine article."

Tony Christini: Roy and Vltchek would no doubt agree largely with your assessment of mainstream (that is, corporate) newspapers and magazines and books, but that was not what they were referring to. They were referring to the many good non-fiction books that largely come from progressive independent presses such as South End, Black Rose, Pluto, AK, Soft Skull, Common Courage, Seven Stories and so on, much of which is first rate, and needed.

Some of these presses don't publish any fiction, others publish a little, a very little compared to their non-fiction offerings. It may likely be that the fiction doesn't sell as well as the non-fiction and so the presses--already under incredible financial pressures--simply can't afford to devote many resources to fiction. Also, there is probably a relative lack of progressive political fiction being written in the first place.

Jeff Potter said...

Hi Tony... I stand by what I wrote. I say the problem indeed does extend to nonfiction. In a big way. Sure, some indy presses do some good work. But I still include them in my critique and then take the questioning farther out, go bigger. I give nothing to any frigging nonfiction. "Nonfiction" is a label: a fiction! In the end the worthy impacts of our cherished, set aside nonfiction are tiny. It's cool that Soft Skull did the Bush's cool that Kunstler launched his New Urbanism: a couple things have been changed in a few small places. It's still weak. I question the segregation of fiction/nonfiction. It's BS. It's convenient. It's passe'! Zeening moved past it long ago. ...And it's a far cry from the old Sinclair Lewis days. I think the canards, justifications, rationalizations fly thick. Financial pressures, sales levels, progressive political fiction: all excuses and labels. The next big new thing will ignore them all and wipe them all away. It will care not for any of these passe' ideas, labels, concerns---it will surpass what we can imagine. That's the difference between true newness and novelty. By what we know now it HAS to have no financial merit, no obvious sales value, etc. It's going bigger. It always does.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jeff, The only distinction that I made--that Roy and Vltchek were appreciative of the good (non-fiction) books put out by independent presses--you make a point of agreeing with here in your post, saying it's "cool." So, no disagreement there. Whether it makes sense to call it still "weak" that standard we would have to call ULA the same thing, at least. Sure, the efforts of the independent presses and ULA are marginal in reach compared to the massive corporate houses, and thus "weak" in that respect, but strong in ways otherwise.

As far as use of genre definitions like non-fiction and fiction. I find them useful at times, though not always. In centuries gone by apparently little or no distinction was made between the two.

Anything that poses a serious challenge to power is going to be made to struggle, of course. Sometimes just being new is enough to be thwarted.

As far as progressive political fiction that is overt and really challenging of power, I wish I knew where to find it beyond a few rare examples--meaning, it's not much in book form, though art that directly and explicitly challenges power can be found more and more on the web, and of course in some independent newspapers, zines, journals....


Jeff Potter said...

We can't take comfort in the successes of nonfiction. They're an illusion, a smugness.

Sure, the ULA is small in ways right now, but we've made a strong impact from what we've done.

We're looking, working, ahead to something bigger than the scale and quality that publishing has accepted today.

There's no social change going to come from today's nonfiction or the small doses of poli-fic and good indy tabloids that keep popping up. There's no bigger potential there. At best it's tiny brushfires. We work to focus the flame.

Our approach points the way to getting a literature that the general public responds to once again.

Sure the new has to struggle. It's risky and by definition has to run afoul of all current emporer's clothes taboos in pursuit of truth, justice, beauty (the big 3). And how strong are those taboos? Stronger than ever. We burn our bridges and show it's worth the price. We show how to make the struggle have impact. We aim big.

Anonymous said...

Who is "taking comfort"--whatever that means--in the "successes" of non-fiction? There is nothing "illusory" or "smug" about the accomplishments of these progressive, socially conscious, independent presses that produce this useful badly needed work that is widely and effectively used by activists to help right many social wrongs.

Tony Christini

King said...

I want to add that we're in the 21st century. We don't HAVE to compete straight-up with the congloms in putting out books and newspapers. We can outdo them on-line. And I think the litrev site does that already (more exciting than the New Yorker's and a score of establishment sites). If we get the site where it should be, it'll be much better. Believe me, there's a method to ULA madness. I'm not going to post our entire plan here, but one exists (which I find even few ULAers are able to grasp). NOTHING we've attained to date has happened by accident. . . .

Anonymous said...

Don't get this. At this point, this discussion is not about conglomerates--furthest thing from it--but indepedent presses, some of them collectives, who have been active in social change struggles far longer than ULA has been around. ULA is unique in that it is focusing its energies in literary realms. These other organizations have been working in other social, cultural, and political arenas very effectively, some for decades. And though they have produced some great writing along the way, the writing itself is not the focus. The impact and affect of the writing is the point of it all.

Tony Christini

Jeff Potter said...

Social activism today is fragmented in ways that the nonfiction paradigm worsens.

We tend to not appreciate just how badly we need a new literature. When we get it, it'll be one that includes the current benefits of nonfiction.

Sure, the good work of indy nonfiction today helps right wrongs. It exposes things that need exposing. --In small ways, for small groups.

But the topical focus and group orientation of nonfiction tends to further an us-them mentality instead of bringing people together, if only by sending people out to some topical part of a bookstore that all the rest of the people are supposed to maybe not be interested in.

The grassroots are great and essential but there's a bigger game out there.

I do indeed see independent media taking comfort in the quality of recent nonfiction. That MR essay by Vltchek expresses a sense of confidence and comfort in nonfiction. I saw it in comments on the National Book Awards this year. To me it represents a certain taking the eye off the ball, a not seeing how big the problem is.

If you step out farther then the approach that makes gains in niche areas, in specialty topics, in nonfiction is not offering a way out. It may even be part of the problem. It ends up with people settling for less.

For instance, New Urbanism---again, it just comes to mind---got some of its strength from a a timely bit of nonfiction. It gives people hope---when there's a far bigger steamroller out there trashing NU and taking it for a ride. I suggest that due in part to its nonfiction aspect that things like NU end up being co-opted and used as career tools.

Nonfiction questions PARTS of the paradigm, but it's the paradigm that's in trouble. Nonfiction is part of the PARTS mentality that contributes to the trouble---even when it's brilliant, even when it's doing good work in specific areas. Literature is the only way to focus a lens far enough out on a culture. to meet its real needs.

Jeff Potter said...

PS: My ranting and questioning is due to working in publishing and bookselling since the early 80's, mostly on the nonfiction side. I've seen changes and periods of comfort sweep thru publishing and the ways that bookstores are set up structurally (what they promote, what they ignore, what they think works for them, and why). Basically anything that can be *systematized* works great on all sides: production, distribution and consumption. It gets backing, even in indy media. I also saw the rise of zining and got a sense of both its strongpoints and limitations---and of how the strengths could be improved and the limitations turned into assets. I question today's domination by the niche-mentality, and both nonfiction and indy media are strong parts of niche reality for better AND worse. When they're successful *as they are run now* they tend to strengthen the niche paradigm which itself is something I question. Of course it's a complex issue but really hardly anyone is questioning it. I see successful indy media enjoying their niche victories. Which is fine. But I urge a caution.