Saturday, January 22, 2005

The Embrace of Mediocrity

"A born writer, because he was spontaneous and impulsive. . . ."
-Regis Debray

Daniel Radosh's points about the Bissell plagiarism case (link given on a recent post's Comments below) are not only the worst kind of convoluted excuse for the corruption of his profession, they're also unbearably dull. They show the mindset of an apparatchik, practicioner of an enfeebled art.

Some ULAers may sometimes fail. At some point maybe we all do. But we're always original, impulsive, different, new, noisy and rabble-rousing, doing everything in our power to keep from being "caught" within aesthetic stylistic or intellectual boundaries like caged zoo animals. We don't want to sound like everyone else, and we don't.

In the Bissell affair Radosh is the other lawyer-- the colorless law partner sitting quietly at the defense table like a figurehead, having written a 500-page summary of the case none of the other defense counsel have bothered to read, but they humor him anyway while he sits smugly watching their antics botch the case (having Bissell arrive in the courtroom dressed like a clown was a bad idea), and says to himself, knowingly, "I could've won it!" If only he could've read his 500-page summary to the courtroom it would've dazzled everybody. Fortunately for him he didn't, which keeps intact his illusions.

To those who want the ULA to bring in MFAers, I point to the journalistic mindset as represented by Daniel Radosh and say, "This is what happens when you professionalize an art." You get not the natural talents-- not the Zolas shouting with impassioned polemics, "I Accuse!"-- but instead the time-markers and ticket-punchers, the credentialed crowd who got their credentials by sitting on hard asses long enough within constricted temples of dullness. In Radosh's thoughts one sees consternation and smugness, but no life; no passion.

These kind of demi-puppets (not all are so bad) are advocates of Bissell because they so well understand him; the person for whom literature is a career, the works themselves the inconvenience necessary to justify progress up the career ladder, along with other necessary evils such as brown-nosing. (Everything else is secondary-- even one's integrity-- to this goal.) For Bissell, writing an essay is not a joy or compulsion but a task; a duty he hopes to get over with as quickly as possible (like the ten minutes spent investigating the ULA for his Believer article), by finding shortcuts wherever he can. His essays aren't meant to present original writing (but isn't this what Harper's subscribers pay for?), but to obtain another credit for his career file.

Can you imagine Victor Hugo or Emile Zola having to borrow language from another's book! The idea is ludicrous. They valued their OWN words.

But these men were real essayists, natural writers, spigots of flowing talent, not apparatchiks.


Anonymous said...

Karl said: 'To those who want the ULA to bring in MFAers, I point to the journalistic mindset as represented by Daniel Radosh and say, "This is what happens when you professionalize an art."'

Absolutely. I met many MFAs at the small press fair, all of whom had supped from the Luxury Consumer Education Complex, then felt angry and disillusioned when their babies got rejected by the system. While I feel sad for anybody who has gotten suckered out of a hundred grand for a bullshit MFA degree, the fact that they went into such a program only shows that they lacked the originality and integrity to make it on their own, and expected the literary nanny state to take care of them. They were wrong, and yes, I still feel sympathy for them, because of the lack of transparency on the part of MFA programs, but are they ULA material? Hardly.

Tim Hall

Noah Cicero said...

Noah Cicero

I want to say what I've learned from BissleGate.
1. The MFA/Eggers/Moody circle jerk is full humans that have no dignity. They were confronted with solid facts and then negated them so they could maintain power and their identity.
2. They have three pat responses: First: say something in defense that is absurd or don't answer at all. If that doesn't work they accuse The ULA of accusing them of being conspirators. The ULA is not saying there is a conspiracy, they are saying you write crappy literature, are classist, help your friends a bit too much, and are generally out of touch, and unread etc. You are not a bunch of conspirators; you are a bunch of meaningless turds that maintain your meaning just like Christian Republicans not with concrete legitimacy in reality but with money. As Max Weber and history shows all illegitimate rulers fall. And their third and last pat response is to call us "assholes." Which is about as childish as one can get.
3. They have no desire for real literature; I'm not talking about bad or good literature. I wouldn't say Eggers is a bad writer, no, he's not a writer at all. He views writing no different than a mechanic views changing a transmission or a spark plug. it is just formula, the MFA programs supply a set of directions so the writer does not have to think about writing, they can just do it like changing a spark plug.
4. They do not enjoy thinking, because thinking leads to only one conclusion; they are horrible classists who spend their lives protecting bourgeoisie notions that maintain the hell we the bulk of America is living in. You can see that in their political articles that appear on their sites. Their politics are in the fashion of, "Give a haircut to a cancer patient politics." They know they can't seriously attack an issue because if they did they would find out they are the issue that needs to be attacked. Concerning MFAers and professors if they were so intelligent and such good people why are we living in a fascist, bankrupt, serialized, and backward country. (It is obvious if you walk among normal people they want something different, not religion, that their lives are hard and need something new and better than this shit, but all you want to do is write stories about dogs that see god and rich people break up stories. It is easy to see that the old bourgeoisie notions are wearing thin, and that is what you maintain, and you are a bourgeoisie notion, and like all bourgeoisie notions you don’t have the right to exist.) It is either because the guardians of intelligence are either withholding information from the people or they themselves are stupid and allowing it to happen because it benefits their needs.
I know several people sleeping tonight without heat in fifteen degree Ohio weather. I know a kid who will die if he doesn’t get his medication but he makes a thousand dollars a month and the govt. took away his Medicaid card. I know a girl who has to suck dick in a parking lot everyday to feed her coke habit and eat. I know a kid who is schizophrenic but can’t afford medication so he is totally nuts and gets kicked out of every place he goes and will probably kill himself soon. And I don’t know one fucking person that makes over thirty thousand dollars a year under the age of fifty-five and those two people only make forty thousand a year, college grads included. And all you fucks care about is stopping the war, fuck the war, the war is right here fucking here, and The ULA are the only mother fuckers who have the balls and intelligence and the fearlessness in this whole damned country who are trying to give these voiceless unheard fucks a voice. When you call us assholes, you also call all those people assholes!
How’s that for polemics! Your own internal contradictions are destroying you, that’s the dialectic baby, and the dialectic has been around long before us. The ULA is going to negate this negation no problem because you are negating yourselves with own contradictions!

Adam Hardin said...

I think any person who wants to be apart of all of this should be welcome regardless of whether or not they have an MFA degree.

Hey, they got ripped off, and they may be as angry and as focused on the problem as anyone else and they have information about how the system works from the inside.

Its easy to get ripped off. There are 300+ programs, many of which don't require GRE scores or even a high grade point average. They write some bad prose or bad poetry in the style of the MFA Profs, and they are accepted, somewhere. If its not Iowa or Columbia, they are generally screwed.

If they want to prove themselves as true writers against the professionalization of the art, give them the chance.

King said...

Some MFAers have actually become zeensters! (Not many, but a couple.) But understandably the burden is on them to show their disagreement with the status quo. . . .

Anonymous said...

That's a very good point that the war is, in fact, here. The "Sorry everybody" website is a good example of why "The Future Dictionary of America" is not going to bring down this administration. The left in this country is composed of hipsters who sit around worrying about what "the world" (i.e other hipsters with similar incomes and educations in France, New Zealand,Canada, etc) thinks of them. Dissent has been reduced to a matter of social anxiety and etiquette. They only want to look good. That's how I feel about Bissell's writing in general, it always has this wishy-washy tone of
"I think I agree with this idea, person, cause, but..."
In every article he writes, he is constantly trying to buffer himself in case the tide turns later.

Anonymous said...

A lot of folks who get MFA degrees do not get ripped off, often because the schools pay them to get the degrees, in exchange for work or perceived talent. I would not have entered an MFA program if some school had not offered to pay me to get the degree (by a teaching assistantship, in my case). I applied to I think seven schools, got accepted into two, was offered an assistantship at one. That's the one I took--about $7,500 the first year, then $9,500 each of the next two (nine months per year to teach two courses per semester). At my school there were fifteen or twenty of us with these jobs that sort of paid our way (I wound up taking out a loan eventually to finish). It was a better job offer than I had anywhere else; plus it gained me training and experience that allowed me to get hired and to teach thereafter at high schools and a community college. And some MFA programs offer fellowships where no teaching, nothing is required. So yearly thousands of students are being paid to attend these programs--and virtually every other graduate program. These slots are competitive to get into, but once in, thousands of MFAers come out of the programs with employable skills and experience and relatively limited or no debt. So the MFA scene is not a monolith and should not be stereotyped any more than the zine scene and zine writers should or could be stereotyped.

Successful social change movements use guerrillas and guerrilla-type action--and simply independent actions--both covert and overt, wherever possible--both within and without traditional institutions, drawing on reservoirs of real support, to the extent that this is possible. Of course, such opportunities and reservoirs may not amount to much and are not worth pursuing for everyone. As Karl notes exceptions exist among folks with MFAs. They are not all alike, their experience, goals, etc., are not all alike--though they are very much overtly depoliticized in their writings (somewhat less so in other actions). There is some political work and writing. Though the zine movement may have a more political sense of itself than MFA programs do officially, a lot of zine writers and writings are also depoliticized—some part of which Stephen Duncombe explores in his detailed and thoughtful work, Notes from the Underground: Zines and the Politics of Alternative Culture. It hardly needs be pointed out that not all zine writers have flocked to ULA.

One weakness of my MFA program was that “outsiders” were not allowed to take writing workshops. You had to be accepted into the whole program and be working to meet all the requirements. The program told us that “it would not be fair” to us if others could take the workshops and not be required to take other regular lit classes, and do reading lists and take oral and written exams, etc…. What a huge loss to us “regular” students this was, in my view, this blocking out of workshops folks who did not have the time, money, interest, tolerance, or need for the full program. It also carried with it the implicit acknowledgement that some parts of the program were far more desired than other parts, and probably far more worthwhile and far more appropriate—more free and meaningful. If ULA were to block out MFAers willing to work for social/political change, I think it would be making the same self-undermining mistake of cutting off additional knowledge, experiences, numbers, power, perspectives….

In my view it makes sense to incorporate such MFA-degreed participants while making sure that large focus remains on gaining access for voices who hail from realms outside of MFA programs--something that is often well worth doing whether these voices are overtly political or not.

[One of my experiences along these lines involved producing and subsidy publishing through Iuniverse a couple short books (with a third to come) of such voices and views, the writings of mainly first generation community college students from the relative hinterlands of south Texas and northern Mexico--valuable and wonderful writing in my view, much of it not overtly political.]

I think I’ve mentioned before in this weblog that the MFA program I attended at Southwest Texas State/Texas State held an annual reading/fundraiser for alleviating hunger, and has been continuously involved with literacy and educational programs for disadvantaged youth in the local school district--where in the years I was there the dropout rate at the high school averaged, I kid not, about 60 percent. I was fortunate to be involved in one of these projects, a service that employed other MFA students along with myself and was set up by my MFA program in conjunction with the local school district. The ULA rightly exposes MFA decadence, oversight, omission, and injustice--as it does especially regarding stars and the elite--but should be careful of stereotyping all “MFAers”--students, professors and even programs--since the reality is complex, varied. I know that some of the MFA professors and students were personally involved in alleviating various other kinds of problems, sufferings, and inequalities both at home and abroad--sometimes simply but importantly with their pocketbooks.

Nevertheless, some exceptions aside, the writing work of both students and professors alike tends in many ways to be depoliticized in MFA programs in general, which is reflective of institutional America, and the opposite of health, life, and consciousness, let alone conscience, in my opinion. And it seems to me that this is part of what the ULA at its best works to replace. In doing so, the ULA in my view could benefit from cooperation with as many groups and people as possible who are similarly concerned and driven, if variously focused.

Tony Christini

Jeff Potter said...

Hi Tony, As one long-winded poster to another... : ) King says the ULA is open to anyone---provided they kick some butt and let us know they're game and on the scene. A few insiders are bound to show up. And I'm sure that plenty do sympathize with the cause. But so far I think the MFA shows how monolithic it is in that we've heard from very few. For all its supposed diversity, only a couple have bothered to say Cool to a populist movement in lit.

About thousands of MFAers coming out of subsidized programs with employable skills...I say fine, but the degree title needs to be changed or distinguished from the idea that they come out as *writers*. As I've ranted before, they come out as teachers or copyeditors. MFA is mostly a voc-tech program and needs to be upfront about that. One of the ways that culture has been derailed in the US is in the debasement of education into voc-tech. That's no slam on voc-tech: it's saying that the potential for leadership and art has been hurt that much more due to changes in academics in the past 30 years. The head has been cut off---on purpose---in accessible academia. Leadership potential is given away to a few elite schools: a bad idea which has yielded plenty of bad fruit already.

...If underlings have missed out on the workshop classes that MFAers prize, then that's their good fortune!

...But darn I gotta get down to the basement and start packing book orders to ship. Then I have to get hustling on getting out my first national catalog. That's the way to cure postliteracy among the underprivileged: kick butt one step at a time to get the word out on the street. Don't got no time for classrooms. There's kids out there fearing class for good reason, but with no book in the back pocket! : )

Anonymous said...

Noah Cicero-

Your post was the most inspiring and moving thing you've written since your poem "The Shattered": "She was a tired girl/Her breast were young and firm/Her face was lovely". But please, if you're going to throw around words you barely half-understand, please use the correct grammatical form: we are *members* of the bourgeoisie (a noun), and our unexamined, corrupt, capitalistic complaceny is what is bourgeois (adj).

Actually I'm not bourgeois at all--I and my 5 siblings were raised by a single mom in a lower-middle-class family in a poor Southern town. I work for a literary magazine in New York City that barely pays me enough to live here. I hate cocktail parties. But I do have a sense of what is good writing and what is bad writing and I--unlike you and the ULA, apparently--don't think it has anything to do with class, a notion that I thought disappeared with the former Soviet Union.

If you guys are really concerned about Big Issues, why do you spend so much time harping about one sentence in one book, written by one author (who, oh yeah, just happened to embarass you in an article several years ago)? If you're so contemptuous of the "bourgeoise" publishing world, why do you so desperately seek its attention? Why do you trumpet the slightest mentions in their house organs on your web site, like you've achieved some publicity coup?

Anonymous said...

Hey, Jeff, Yes the vast majority of MFA programs are not very diverse in ways--race and class--come to mind, including the one I attended. Though it was good to mix with people from all over the country, which the program attracted and provided.

There is definitely the useful vo-tech side to the programs but there are also quality writers that these programs help foster. Given the limited background information I'm aware of regarding some ULAers, I would be surprised if, say, Michael Jackman would not appreciate Don DeGrazia's novel American Skin (excerpted in The Outlaw Bible of American Literature, or if Steve Kostecke would not appreciate Steve Almond's collection of stories, My Life in Heavy Metal, or if Karl would not appreciate Denis Johnson's stories in Jesus' Son. These folks (authors) all were trained in MFA programs and teach in such (in addition to being shaped by additional writing and life experiences of course). I'm not saying that these authors are typical and entirely representative of MFA writers, and I don't know that they would support ULA and its goals but their writing in these examples is largely energized and accomplished and deals a good bit with the nitty gritty of "the streets" and working folk, plenty of for real reality. These works are largely apolitical, so not my main preferance, but I don't think the quality and accomplishment can be much denied. And I know that these writers (at least 2 of the 3) speak well, at least in part, of their MFA experiences.

Maybe I should re-emphasize that I do think there are serious problems with MFA programs, more problems than I've seen detailed even by the ULA, to this point. But the programs also help engender some good writing in certain ways too, in my view, which in part is based on the evidence of the books I just mentioned.

Of course not everyone is going to come out of these programs as an exceptional artist/writer. Who would be foolish enough not to know that? And who would be naive enough to think that attending an MFA program somehow guarantees publication, prominent or otherwise--given the highly competitive arenas of publication that exist? If there really is this misconception, then sure MFA programs should do their best to break prospective applicants of any such illusions.

And the more organizations like ULA, providing independent forms and forums for publication and discussion, the better, in my opinion.


King said...

I plan to address the question of universities and MFA programs on this blog.
But lets keep in mind that MFAers already have hundreds of outlets. Undergrounders have, mainly, US.
We're growing and have a waiting list of people to get onto this team. We can only grow so fast. How we grow will depend upon where we are on our time-line OF growth. One thing we can't do is water down our essential edge and image, or destroy that which makes us unique. We're not going anyplace, but as in a chess game, the moves made depend upon where you are on the game board, and how early or late it is in the game.
We're still at a very early stage of this, believe me.

To the person asking about our use of press. The answer to this should be obvious. We're a lit group which started out with no connections, no credentials, and virtually no resources. Our first goal has been to establish a profile and a name. The ONLY way to do that has been through, yes, free publicity.
This is one reason why we HAVE to remain truly different from the rest of the 400,000-strong MFA pack and we HAVE to keep our kick-ass edge. This movement will become just another moderate organization soon enough, probably-- but it WON'T happen until after my influence on this team is superceded. This campaign was started by balls-to-the-wall radicals. What the lit-bloggers who got my recent e-mail about Bissell's NINE instances of plagiarism and saw the address for the fansite didn't realize is that when we say "literary revolution" we mean what we say.
(More on this shortly.)

King said...

I enjoy occasional scraps like the one over the egregious Mr. Bissell. They remind ULAers that we're literary revolutionaries-- we're out to change literature from top to bottom. Such battles also tell the "go along to get along" crowd we're unafraid to attack and make noise, and will continue to do so, again and again and again, across the board-- our foes had best reform, get out of the business, or get used to a changed literary environment where controversy and contention becomes normal. The days of quiet professorial complacency are OVER. Our mad upsetting quixotic campaign is going to only get louder.

Noah Cicero said...

Mr or Ms. Anonymous

"don't think it has anything to do with class, a notion that I thought disappeared with the former Soviet Union."

I guess it didn't disappear because The ULA wouldn't exist if the class-antagonisms weren't still here. If you grew up poor, and now you work for a New York magazine I guess you’re just an Uncle Tom. White people can be Uncle Toms too.
And I enjoy Marcel Proust, Burroughs, Sartre, and De Beauvoir who grew up wealthy. Proust's first book Swann's Way was self-published, Burroughs obviously left the comfort of his class, and Sartre and De Beauvoir worked their whole lives for equality with the works Anti-Semite and Jew, The Second Sex, and many others. Sartre wrote The Critique of Dialectical Reason which is the most powerful missile of work ever aimed at bourgeoisie institutions of government, science, psychology, anthropology, and Marxism which was never published at a main publisher; he got it published at New Left Books, now Verso. And the academia won't even touch it and like the people Wenclas emailed concerning BissellGate their technique is to ignore it and hope it is forgotten. And all of them except for Proust have been excluded from the canon because of defending the rights or joining the lower classes. And I’ve met several people who have graduated from college with English degrees and do not even know who Proust is, so they must not teach him either. Bukowski is not part of the canon and he is America’s best writer of the last forty years, I wonder why. Eggers and Moody don't resemble those four writers, they make an obvious point in their books that they are of the higher classes and have only one interest, in being hip.

"don't think"

See Bernice Mullins comment on an earlier thread. Ms. Mullins shows that this is how the upper classes worldview, something only needs to be correct if they "think it." They don't need empirical evidence; the only things they need are a certain college's diploma or have a certain amount of money in the bank to know what something is.

The rest of your points have already been debunked so there no point in going over old shit again.

Anonymous said...

This thread is a useful lesson for all the Anonymouses [sic] who come on here to spill pus and toxic hatred:

Tony: great thoughts and ideas. Did you notice how, because you were decent enough to sign your name (and I'm assuming positively that it *is* your name) you were treated with kindness and respect in return, like Jeff's great response?

And to the Anonymous who corrected Noah's grammar: Wonderful! Hilarious! What better proof that your advanced degree could be put to so much better use if you would only adopt some of us undergrounders to help us with our syntactical/spelling errors? I've got plenty of them.

I propose that any MFA'er who wants to roll up his/her sleeves and get involved in the most exciting literary movement since the Beats should offer to adopt a zine/undie writer and form a partnership to help advance the most original, daring, and bold new voices on the literary landscape. You're in literature because you love it and believe in it, like us; most of us are in it because we would literally die without it.

As Aragorn said to the Elven archers who came to Helm's Deep, "You are *most* welcome."


Anonymous said...


I'm always surprised that people pay any attention to anonymous posters, to people who won't personally situate themselves. Probably I shouldn’t be surprised since I learn from rebuttals to the anonymous, and if I were anonymously challenged or attacked in public (which is the weird thing about the internet) I might well find it worth responding to too. On a related note, I always try to avoid using inflammatory language, for a lot of reasons. That doesn’t mean I avoid stating opinions, ideas, or information that some may find to be controversial or outrageous, as some of my earliest posts on this weblog are evidence of. A lot of community college students I’ve taught are instantly turned off by inflammatory language no matter who or what position is being stated, not an uncommon reaction by far.

As to whether my name is a pseudonym, my identity can easily be determined via google or my websites for that matter.

Of course every individual, those with an MFA or otherwise, needs to decide for themselves if and how they can and will try to participate within or alongside the ULA. I do love literature, but it's mainly the popular/political movement part of the ULA that I'm mainly appreciative of. I'm interested in the lit, to a degree, but mainly value the generally left/progressive political orientation of ULA. That's why I participate, and probably wouldn't otherwise. I see the ULA as part of the very broad popular political movement, having taken on a leading and unique literary role.

Because of this, where the ULA is concerned, my main interest in imaginative literature has to do with an overtly political type, as opposed to works that have relatively apolitical content or purpose as the main focus. I like all kinds of literature, but as my websites make clear, when I'm in a political mode, as those sites are, and as I view involvement with ULA, I prefer to focus on literature that I see performing an overt, explicit political function. (Not that the lines between political and apolitical writing are always so clear.)

In addition to overt political writing, ULA fosters and supports some relatively apolitical literature and that's great--some of it is exciting, some is not to my taste--but that’s not my main interest here.


Anonymous said...

When you said you'd be attacking literature from the bottom I had no idea you were talking about quality. what i saw on the ULA poorly done, lads....

The whole grudge against percieved cabal thing though, that's genius.
Fred Flintstone shaking his fist at the Gods.

Anonymous said...

Almost forgot. The courtroom metaphor.
One of the worst paragraphs ever written.
Blindingly bad. prose like scotch and stomach acid.
you are a genius. I must have all your work.