(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. . . ."
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.