Wednesday, February 02, 2005

The ULA Train Is Moving

The most important moves in the ULA right now are happening behind the scenes. A few more important pieces in the ULA machine will soon be put into place.

One thing we need to do is bring other ULA personalities besides myself to the forefront. If projects underway by Tim Hall, Patrick Simonelli, J.D. Finch, Jeff Potter, and others work out we'll be on the way to doing this.

Come Spring we'll make more noise about Tim Hall's novel Half-Empty, in conjunction with broader ULA activities. Tim may even have another book planned, of mysterious subject (I hope he keeps mum about it), whose working title is "Our Bad Writers"-- whatever that means.

Yesterday I met Philadelphia's best and most overlooked novelist, Lawrence Richette, and discussed lit matters with him. (I've read his first two Xlibris books, available on Amazon. I highly recommend them. He's a traditional novelist-- no hyper James Nowlan!-- but always provides a great read, which ultimately is what literature is about.) No other Philly novelist touches Richette-- few do in the country. He has a far more focused and bullshit-free vision than your typical McSweeney's writer!

Richette handed me his newest book, The Abyss. We discussed ways I can help get out "the word" about it. This post is a start.

What is all this blathering from me about?

When I was very young on a chaotic job I had a frazzle-haired boss named Mitch. Mitch didn't seem to know more than anyone else how the system we were in operated-- he provided hokey maxims in response to our questions. I was a perpetual smartass who was always asking questions. "Why are we doing it this way?" I'd ask. "Why are we doing this at all?"
Mitch would stare at me, exasperated and puzzled, in his world-weary way, put his hands through his frazzled hair, and tell me, "Karl, just do it for the judge."
(What Mitch said didn't make much sense, and didn't have to make sense. His job was to get us into harmony with an illogical unknowable process.)
Another slogan of Mitch's was, "When the word comes down, get on the train."

I'm telling ULAers near and far that the ULA train is leaving the station. We're going to have an exciting year. No reserved tickets-- first come, first served. If you're not on the train when it pulls out you'll be left behind.
p.s. I hope to get the first part of my report on the other Harper's plagiarism matter up either tomorrow or Friday, so stay tuned to this spot on your lit-blog dial.


Anonymous said...

Sorry to cross-post, but I want to return to something Tony said (hi Tony!) in your "Flowers" post, which has now become buried in the avalanche of comments and new posts:

Tony said: "There was an upsurge of class conscious and revolutionary novels in the U.S. in the 1930s. University of Illinois Press has republished a number of these in their Radical Novel Reconsidered series. These (proletarian) novelism are mainly, maybe solely, realistic in style--a style that I think more often works better in non-fiction."

Point taken, Tony, but did you notice? You're talking about old books, dead novelists, and themes that are only now being resurrected by UI press as part of a retrogressive evaluation.

In other words, imho, these are books that were *ignored or overlooked at the time of their publication*, (and correct me if I'm wrong but don't miss my larger point), and only now, when the ideas contained within are safely sanctioned and dead dead dead, are they re-inflated as backlist titles as a possible profit center for a university press.

Gives proof to the old publishing maxim that the only good author is a dead author.

What about the rest of us who are writing current, contemporary, urgent novels that deal with real issues and problems in a language and style that everybody can relate to? My novel is about the desperation of staying sober in a world of SUVs and Wal-Mart and cheap-oil madness, of institutionalized narcissism and romantic obsession in the "me" generation. Is such lit only safe now if it acts as a sopor, a safe retreat from life as we live it?



Anonymous said...

Hi Tim,
As far as I’m aware, what you say is basically accurate. Some of the (so-called) proletarian novels of the thirties received more attention than others, but the movement (literary and otherwise) had to struggle greatly. Eventually, for a time it sort of, in one way or another, pushed to the surface and gained some broad exposure (for example Steinbeck’s epic novel The Grapes of Wrath is sometimes called the greatest of the proletarian novels, published in 1939 and won the Pulitzer prize in 1940). And in the introduction to his book The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (1997), Michael Denning notes:

“At the same time, a new radical culture was taking shape. On 6 January 1935, the audience at New York’s Civic Repertory Theatre, 1,400 strong, chanted ‘Strike! Strike!’ at the end of the first performance of Waiting for Lefty. An unknown one-act play about a taxi strike by an unknown playwright, performed by Group Theatre actors to benefit the left-wing magazine New Theatre, Waiting for Lefty captured the imagination of this movement; theater groups across the country produced it. By the end of the year, Waiting for Lefty was ‘the most widely performed play in America—and the most widely banned.’ America, it seemed, was waiting for lefty.
“The heart of this cultural front was a new generation of plebeian artists and intellectuals who had grown up in the immigrant and black working-class neighborhoods of the modernist metropolis. They were the second generation of the second wave of immigration: ethnic Italians, Jews, Poles, Mexicans, Serbians, Croatians, Slovaks, Japanese, Chinese, and Filipinos along with African Americans who had migrated north. The children of public education, they were caught between the memories and stories of their parents and the realities of urban streets and shops."

More commonly though, even at the time and still today, such novels and writings are often belittled by using the term proletarian novel as a putdown or referring to such works as “boy meets tractor” (and falls in socialist love) stories, and so on. Having the Radical Novel Reconsidered series is better than not having it, in my opinion--(though, again, I tend to agree with Rebecca West whose literary/artistic preference is not realism--she writes in The Strange Necessity that she prefers art be something other than realistic, since “one of the damn thing is enough.” (There’s a fuller quote at She goes back to ancient cave paintings and drawings that use stick figures and other exaggerations, very non-realistic, yet stirring and wonderful in their portrayal of hunts and so on.)

Could be wrong but, just to note in passing, I think the RNR series is now defunct due to lack of funds. These are some generally progressive professors/scholars who got this series going; I’ve mentioned similar folks at Rutgers and maybe Temple, and they are basically political literary historians, which is English departments’ traditional focus--literary history. The creative writing programs (along with “theory”) are the new developments in English departments of course, but they are generally, in my view, depoliticized and obviously socially limited, on class grounds especially, also often race. I have the impression (though don’t know) that your book is less tightly tied to organized social change movements than many proletarian novels and if the scholars’ interests are political, they may well prefer to make available historical works that are more strongly political than contemporary works on the margins today that are less political, in their eyes or otherwise. That’s just a guess, though. Traditional English department training trains people to look back, study back, far more than to look around and seek out.

I mean, I’m sure you’re aware that as far as colleges and universities go, these systems tend to weed out people who don’t have a top-down, elite, corporate or traditional mindset. As for the, call them, progressives who do manage to get in or hang in there, they sometimes get threatened and fired if they speak out or act too much on contemporary issues that threaten or simply cross power. I can cite personal examples and first hand examples and a ton of second hand examples. But of course you’re right to be critical. Far more could be done than is being done, in my opinion. Lots of room for criticism, and better still the sort of action you’ve taken in starting up a press.

Still, I think there’s something else in play. You write “What about...current, contemporary, urgent novels that deal with real issues and problems in a language and style that everybody can relate to? My novel is about the desperation of staying sober in a world of SUVs and Wal-Mart and cheap-oil madness, of institutionalized narcissism and romantic obsession in the "me" generation.” Couldn’t these very words be used to describe a good bit of the writing of, say, Louise Erdrich, Carolyn Chute, Dorothy Allison, Russell Banks, Elmore Leonard, Barry Gifford, Octavia Butler…. A lot of people do “relate” to these authors and much of their working class and politically and socially critical writing about “desparate” individuals, which these books are filled with. I look forward to getting to your novel, and Noah’s hopefully, to see first hand but based on the descriptions I’ve seen of them, they sound like they are novels that should be published not because they are totally unlike or necessarily "better" than some of the works of those I’ve listed but because they may well be underproduced unique relatives of this sort of quality writing. Erdrich’s Love Medecine and Tracks, and Allison’s Trash, and Banks’ Continental Drift, and Butler’s Parable of the Sower are all quite straightforward and often biting stories with a working class focus, and with some sharp things to say about larger social issues. Or maybe your book and Noah’s are more raw and edgy like what is found in the Outlaw Bible of American Literature or Nick Tosches’ novel In the Hand of Dante.

My point is that though not nearly as much overtly didactic fiction gets published as I would like, I do think there’s a substantial amount of straightforward, artful, and at least somewhat culturally critical writing that comes out. I think ULA has access to some good writing and ideas that are not getting published much beyond DIY. And that’s a problem that I see ULA working to correct (among its other goals) by all the efforts to basically expand the DIY operations. Some quality independent and original musicians have been fighting a similar battle for years too, to some impressive results. Obviously it takes a lot of work.


Anonymous said...

Judging by the two posts above, there is some disingenuousness going on. One simple fact, socialist realism novels of the 30's were simply poorly written, in addition to the lower classes not being readers, mainly due to work, and lack of intrest.

Look we have the same situation know, much underground writing is underground for a reason, and for all it's claims of representing the lower classes, the lower classes simply don't read. I am not putting them down, I myself am poor, and disabled due to mental illness, however too expect human nature to be overturned so easily, is a notion that has been debunked in every generation, it did not matter what the movement was, but "communism" is the best example (Yes I study Marxism, so don't derail my post into the "communism never existed realm")

People do not turn on tv, in all classes, to be preached at, it will never work in lit, because it would be easy for it to on Television but it doesn't. Reality TV is about as real as America wants it. You have to appeal to a niche, if you are literary, and if you are genre, to fans of said genre.

I don't want to rant, but the Working class novels of the 30's dated easily, and simply was bad. Stienbeck is just an exception, as with a few others.

Jeff Potter said...

Good point, Tony: "Traditional English department training trains people to look back, study back, far more than to look around and seek out." It's important to look back, to find roots or at least where the current disaster came from. But being able to find merit around you is a very valuable skill. I think MFA programs do look both back and at current work: but they highly filter and limit it: look back to approved post-mod work and look around at current work that's written by the professor's friends. We're working to bust this mode open a bit.

You mention that the ULA may be overlooked by political groups because we're not political enough. I think thoise folks are darn good at explaining that everything is political (and they do cover many things that aren't overtly political). But they don't seem to be able to apply this when it gets close to home. I know a prof who for a course on war has his kids watch "Ordinary People." It works. He connects it and shakes em up with it. (Of course his whole dept is being nuked.)

Hey, don't forget to check out James Nowlan's "Security" at, $8. Gritty, fiesty, fresh, brutal AND humane. (Do you know Charles Willeford's memoirs, Donn Pearce's "Pierhead Jump" about merchant marines? Good work from two VERY lowly genre crossovers.) There's good stuff out there, hiding. We're trashing the lousy, raising up what's been wrongly put down, openning gates, letting in fresh air, getting new blood into the stock. (Genre crossover is a good place to look for off-strain vigor, resistant hybrids: similar to the hope that zeening offers Lit.)

We see a future and an effectiveness in our approach. We can demonstrate the decline in the MFA approach.

The most recent AnonyMouse condemns us for not delivering the world. Sorry. We're not for everyone. We're a movement, but not a mass movement. We're talking about getting a living for a few more good writers. We're talking about finding the Steinbeck or three who are out there today. I won't be upset if it doesn't deliver any big portion of society. Steinbeck wouldn't be published today. Hello? Do you see where we're at? You don't see how bad things are. Your praise of niches and genres is pining for a sinking ship. (They're not all bad, but they're in trouble and need fresh help.) I'm not saying that to get the kind of excitement in Lit that will get us triple the sales of today's MFAers will result in stadiums being packed to see our writers. We deal with readers one bar at a time. And we say that works better than the hushed exclusive MFA readings. I won't sit by and watch Lit closed off, limited and corraled...and lied about and abused. And, ya know, huge things DO happen. We COULD find the Zeen Elvis. We're having a good time and we at least have a CHANCE at more. DIY lives!

King said...

As I've said elsewhere, one of my models for what I think the lit world should be delivering and isn't is The Octopus by Frank Norris, which isn't a working class novel but is polemical.

The idea that the lower classes don't read is simple bullshit.

Anonymous said...

The lower classes don't read--at least as much as upper classes, this is not an elitist notion, the working class however reads more than the poor. Look at the ADJ. "working" if you are slogging 60 hour work weeks, you tend to not have as much leisure time, especially if you have a family. In fact the ULA seems to have the problem that plagues establishment lit, it's writers for writers, writers appealing to writers, there is nothing wrong with this, but ever so often laymen (not writers) rhetoric seeps in, literature will never have mass appeal amongst the lower classes, anymore than television will with the upper classes.

I have yet to see anyone address the escapism issue, I see nothing wrong with the guys down the street who slog away, only earning 8 bucks and hour, then head to the bar, their life is not concentric with art and politics, because they have other responsibilities, you can even see this amongst professionals most evinced with dedicated scientists.

If "underground" lit appealed to the masses it would be eaten up in a second, in order to appeal to the masses, and earn the pub.houses profit, think Hip-hop, punk rock and the 14 billion dollar a year pornography industry. By the way the most conservative cable station in the nation, adelphia, which refused to air even softcore porn for years, now offers XXX, because the Dollar doth speak.

At least one of the sentiments above was somewhat telling "Earning livings" for writers, which is an establishment sentiment.

Anonymous said...

Yes, the ULA is pushing, expanding the literary frontier, and Jeff you point to where your focus is somewhat different than mine, since I am in large part interested in mass/popular movements, appeal, if possible. I agree with your comments about what political lit is (though as I've noted I think it's not always clear). Writing that is more apparently cultural than political does sometimes have profound social and political effects. And I agree that professors and progressive movements tend to overlook some key working class issues, things "close to home," like labor issues and conditions especially, and things that are going on today rather than in the nineteenth century. There's effective work coming from such individuals and organizations, including on working class issues, but there is plenty of neglect and a lot of room for improvement too.

Thanks for pointing out the other books. I intend to look into a bunch of these. If they are on the order of much of the work in the ULA's 2 fanzines and 3 slushpiles then they're quality writing, in my opinion.

About The Octopus by Norris, maybe I got shortchanged some DNA somewhere but like I've said, realism in fiction often doesn't appeal to me. Realism in non-fiction I often do find appealing and appreciate like plenty of work in the five ULA zines I just mentioned. Doesn't mean the realistic fiction is not good writing. The passion and points in Norris are evident and interesting, to me, in spots. Same with Sinclair's The Jungle, and many of the thirties novels, same with Dorothy Allison's novels, or Russell Banks' Continental Drift. These works are well written, entertaining and instructive in places but in general I usually find them to be tedious as fiction. For me there are exceptions, like Allison's stories, Trash. In those, I appreciate the polemic stretches, the passion, and I think because at heart she's a yarn-spinner--there's always a touch of the tall tale lurking about, which to me is naturally exciting and interesting. Same thing goes with Twain's largely realistic Huckleberry Finn, which is often peppered with "stretchers," as Twain would say. Same with Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son. So give me the realism in non-fiction, and make sure there's at least a strong thread of stretchers in realistic fiction. Plus, I often appreciate, and think is valuable, what is essayistic and overtly political in fiction--an art too.

This is just my taste. Uncle Tom's Cabin doesn't much appeal to me either for the same reason, though I do appreciate some of the more adventurous parts of the story and the political digressions. Then the realism just bogs me down, since I feel I'm learning no more than in the other sections, sometimes less, and it's not entertaining or very enlightening. But I know people who really enjoy and are affected by the novel, and other such novels, and that's valuable, and important in its I think such work should be pushed as far as it can go for those it appeals to and affects.


Noah Cicero said...

The Grapes of Wratch was not a proletarian novel. it was a peasant novel. They got money for how much they picked which is peasant/feudalistic labor. Proletariat labor is wage-labor, which means they are paid a certain amount for a span of time, they keep some of what cash they produce and give the rest to the owners.
I don't write working class novels on purpose. It's all I know. I don't know the names of breeds of horses, or what goes in a martini, how to surf, I've never been to Europe, I don't know what kinds of couches rich people buy, I don't like conceptual art or classical music, don't know anything about stocks or bonds or trading. I don't know what a lot of money buys, if I ever got a lot of money I would probably just do what rock stars and athletes do, go to the strip joint, buy a 1983 monte carlo and become a drug addict. If I become angry at an upper class person in one my stories, it is because when that situation occured in my life I was angry then. Or when Tim Hall sees the Fauxletariats in Half Empty, he gets angry when he sees them in real life, because he feels mocked by them, it is what we know.
There is no intention here of making a working class novel, we are just writing about our lives.
I want to say this. A lot of novels, poems, pieces of art work concerning the lower classes are made by the petty-bourgeoisie and the demographic is the petty boutgeoisie to make them feel SORRY for the lower classes. No one from the lower classes wants to read that, they know how poor they are, they don't need to be notified of it. A good working class novel or whatever, its demographic should bethe working class, and the author shouldn't shy away from their ANGER at the upper classes.
My book doesn't show that Tony, so you don't need to read it. it's about how young people are useless, alienated, and how the infomation age has jammed so much information into our brains, we don't our asses form a hole in the ground. I guess the people in the novel are working class, but it was not my intention two years ago to write a working class novel.
About the lower classes not reading, that is bullshit.

Noah Cicero said...

"There's effective work coming from such individuals and organizations, including on working class issues, but there is plenty of neglect and a lot of room for improvement too."

tony, the working class issue is this. There is NEVER GOING TO BE ENOUGH FOR US AGAIN. Let me lay out like this. First people need like ten things to live peacefully
1. Shelter.
2. Clothes.
3. Furniture
4. car
5. stove
6. plates and cups
7. running water
8. a garbage disposal service
9. Cleaning products
10. Medicine
11. Entertainment products like TVs and books.

The only things on that list that required a lot of workers were clothes, stoves, cars, and plates and cups cleaning products, and entertainment products. The world has increased in population and at the same time increased in technology so a very few amount of people can increase their production by millions. Do you understand that, the amount of workers has risen while need for workers has lessoned. THERE IS NEVER GOING TO BE A NEED AGAIN FOR A LOT OF WORKERS AGAIN! We have enough technology to only have people work four hours a day but the rich assholes are so dumb and cruel they won't do it because to have a system of that fashion it would require a complete overhaul of the economic system which would cause a complete overhaul of the culture. Which would negate the necessity of their existences.
There is no working class anymore, there are only shitty little factories and service workers. And they are paid the most minimal pay possible only to keep them alive so they can work again.
There is no room for improvement in this current system, it is technologically impossible.
The rich and the petty-bourgeois academia are making us suffer needlessly so they can keep what they have!
You know who was a great political writer, Marat!

King said...

To clarify a few things:
The ULA certainly aims to be a populist/mass movement! That's why I don't want us chained to any self-limiting categories (like "Leftist" or such).
The lower classes in fact read a lot. A lot of what they read may be trash-- but they read. Tabloids, trash novel paperbacks, Harlequins, you name it.
I've seen working people reading in factories, warehouses, railroad yards-- you name it. And yes, some of this IS escapism. I've BEEN through most of my life that grunt stopping at the bar after work for my burger and Budweiser. Yet I was starved for more-- as most people in this society are. People in this mad corrupt society are seeking for truth and meaning. I think literature is the one place which can provide it-- it's the one place that has provided it for me.
I tell the story often about an office I took over in the import-export business in '98-- a tiny cubbyhole of an office along Detroit's riverfront-- Detroit, that most beaten-down of cities (the NY Times just had a big article Wednesday about how bad things are getting there). The first thing I did is go through the drawers grabbing up the newspapers and magazines to make sure the employees on the off shifts were plowing through the mass of paperwork the office had to catch up on, instead of-- as any sane person would do!-- looking instead for escape. In the drawer was a copy of "A Tale of Two Cities." Who among my white-trash/east side ghetto black workers could possibly be interested in that?
It turned out to be a ghetto girl on the night shift.
LITERATURE HAS MEANING FOR EVERYBODY. I'd say that literature has more meaning for those of us closer to the bottom of society's pyramid, who feel often society's pain, than the comfortable upper-class. Real literature reverberates to our very souls in a way, Overdogs, that it can NEVER DO for you. Dickens, Dumas, Zola, Hugo, Norris, Dostoevsky!, has far more meaning for us than it does for you.
By the way, Tony, Norris wasn't a "realist" and never considered himself one. He was a naturalist, which he said combined realism and romanticism to produce something heightened. Read his essays some time. The Octopus is not at all just a "realistic" novel, but does far more.
Zeens sell very well when they're introduced to people. I sold out almost my entire stock at last summer's Philly Zine Fest. Writers like Hermitt and Cometbus sell all they can make. The main problem underground writers have had in this ultra-noisy society is getting the word out about our art-- getting it introduced to people. We're competing against billion-dollar book companies-- but as this year will show we will be able to compete with and beat them. This campaign is yet in its early stages. Be patient, demi-puppet. When we get going we'll wipe you and your trust fund buddies off the literary map.
(I was thinking about this in fact-- that I wouldn't want to work for the congloms doing p.r. for their writers-- for who? Negative-charisma Jon Franzen? The latest prep school brat with "Prep," or "Stupe" or whatever nonsense they produce? No, the ULA has the most exciting lit personalities around.)

Anonymous said...

We can split hairs about what realism and naturalism are. They read very much the same to me, and to a lot of people. I've read virtually every essay Norris has written and his book The Responsibilities of the Novelist, which is a great book that I value very much. For me, his non-fiction stands head and shoulders above his fiction, but as I said I don't mean that as a putdown of his fiction, which is thoughtfully and carefully done. He's a great writer.