Thursday, June 29, 2006

The Battle of Ideas: Rebellion Against the Status Quo

At its most basic, the ULA campaign is a battle of ideas-- which is why we confront ideologues of the literary status quo like those at n+1. As we've seen, contrary ideas are alien to them.

One would think the mandarins and foot soldiers of literature-- advocates of free expression-- would welcome a test of ideas. Instead, they flee from it, the admirable George Plimpton having been the lone exception.

This is the case for several reasons.

TECHNICIANS
Even the most brilliant of status quo writers, such as Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace, machine-products, are technicians incapable of seeing and questioning the barriers of the tiny intellectual world in which they live.

They're geniuses of Lilliput. Imagine a toy city with a toy castle, and toy figures playing various roles. This is contemporary literature.

Note the toy Franzen figure, wearing its various medals and honors. Best of the Best! And yes, in the toy city, he truly is. There: Move him into the castle. Place him upon the parapet! Put four small other toy figures below to represent his audience. Hear the applause! Well, you can't, not really, but remember we're playing "Let's Pretend."

Can any of the plastic figures (bought on sale at Wal-Mart) question his world? Of course not! At least, none ever does.

In the same way, today's esteemed literary figures never question the premises of their situation. Their arguments take place within the castle, no outsider voices allowed. Jonathan Franzen and James Wood argue over trivialities in the pages of n+1. Plastic toy figures debating nothingness, and all are happy; the toy world remains safe and just.

My letter, on the other hand, could never be published, because it attacks the premises of n+1 itself; the shaky foundation upon which it's placed itself.

I didn't play by the rules! I behaved like a member of the audience who doesn't buy the illusion; a spectator at a puppet show who cries out, "They're only puppets!"

PRIESTS, NOT ENTERTAINERS
This isn't to imply there's anything entertaining about status quo writers. They're inept as entertainers. Today's academy-trained writers aren't entertainers. They're priests for whom writing and reading is a duty accompanied by inscrutable prose layered with footnotes.

MONO-CLASS LITERATURE
Walk through the "Literature" section of a chain bookstore, scan the volumes of essays, and you'll see they're the product of one cute and refined class of persons, giving one perspective on the society of letters. Jonathan Franzen; David Foster Wallace; Sarah Vowell-- all from the top 5% socio-economic level of America, carrying in their heads the same assumptions and view of the world-- the same assumptions about American literature and their privileged place within it. They're spokespersons for written American culture because, well, because they are. It's already been determined by someone-- by whichever hierarchy or institution makes such decisions. Far be it from them to question these happenings, which for them would be like questioning the natural order of the universe.

Within the toy city, they really are the best. They have the paper degrees, honorariums and accolades to prove it! (They even have a toy opposition represented by New Criterion, graduates of Dartmouth rather than Brown, Columbia, or Yale. They're the red figures in the plastic bag, not the blue ones.)

One couldn't ask Jonathan Franzen to leave Lilliput (to debate the ULA) because that would turn his universe on its head. It'd be a step into the unknown, a place establishment writers never go.

THE FAILURE OF THE STATUS QUO
Because they're mere technicians, status quo commentators are incapable of stepping back and considering the position of literature within society as a whole. If they did, they'd see consistent failure. The publishing world has grown only modestly in fifty years-- most of the sales by a handful of lackluster "popular" novelists named Grisham or Albom producing works as lobotomized of intelligence and real passion as are the most hyped of the Iowa-style workshop books and stories. Fifty years ago even the blockbusters like Tobacco Road were real novels; actual literature.

As literature has stagnated, the rest of the culture has exploded exponentially-- sports, TV, movies, music-- so that literature's place in society, by remaining static, has become marginal. It's become Lilliput. It's undergone a fifty-year retreat into the safety of ivy-covered walls.

A few status-quo commentators in stray careless moments acknowledge the retreat ("all" writers are in universities)-- at the same time they turn away from those who fight for literature outside the safety of the walls; whose strategy isn't one of retreat, but of headfirst ATTACK full of clowns, voices, debates, signs, rhetoric, ballyhoo, noise.

The wrong people are in charge of literature. Franzen, Foster-Wallace, James Wood and their ilk aren't strategists. They don't see the depth of the decline, much less know how to reverse it. It's time to relegate them to the corner of irrelevance they love so much and let others move to the forefront.

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