Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Letter to George Steel and Ann Douglas

(The text of a letter I sent on May 1st, as a follow-up to the ULA's Howl event.)

To: George Steel, Miller Theater
To: Ann Douglas

One would HOPE that those who've made a commitment to the truth represented by literature would not readily misrepresent events.

MR. STEEL: You stated to Associated Press that the ULA was given an opportunity to speak at the microphone at your April 17th presentation. You were being disingenuous.

We informed those hosting the event beforehand of our Protest. We challenged beforehand those on stage to read against us. We spoke to one of your assistants the same day when we encountered her while handing out flyers on Columbia's campus.

Where was the invitation you extended to us? Do you have a copy?

The fact is, as you know, that I was taken out of the event by security; later allowed back to my seat. Presumably I might've been allowed to ask a question or two-- a right I should've had regardless.

Mr. Steel, your representation is wrong. The speech we expressed that evening was that which we took on our own. We well know that writers from our segment of the literary world, who don't carry official seals of Approval, would never be invited to share your stage.

As for the notion we had no point to make: This is ludicrous. Our point was written on our flyers; it was in our Protest and our presence. It can be found in the WNYC interview and on our web site-- if you make the slightest effort to look for it.

MS. DOUGLAS: You stated, after we left, that all poets wish to be heard by fellow writers. Are we different? Why do you think we were there! You'll readily celebrate a co-opted underground poem of fifty years ago. When do you notice underground poets of NOW?

Two irrefutable facts:
1.) The excitement and energy present in Miller Theater that evening was brought by us. Curious that with our outbursts the show became interactive. Instead of sitting passively, the audience, those against us and for us, became involved. They became part of the event. The wall was torn down; the well-regulated scheduled agenda knocked askew. People felt free to shout aloud. This is the true meaning of literature and spirit of "Howl." (Our own events are always like this.)
2.) Media attention about the event, beforehand and afterward (WNYC, AP, etc.) was brought by us. We brought your event more notice than you obtained for it yourselves.
You have the opportunity to present the debate you now say you wanted. Given the ULA's demonstrated promotional ability, Columbia, Miller Theater, and literature would only benefit.

Do you have the imagination to respond to this letter and negotiate such an event?

Inviting writers who don't have certifications and standing in the hierarchy is a choice between intellectual aristocracy or cultural democracy.

You have the opportunity to open the culture-- in so doing to bring real excitement to literature and to Columbia.

We look forward to your response.


King Wenclas, Underground Literary Alliance

(I have yet to receive a response from these icons of free expression.)

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Literature for the Rich

I'm sure no one will want to miss this, 7 p.m., Thursday 6/1 at the Philadelphia Central Library, announcement posted on a sign in the lobby:

"McSweeney's co-founder and editor-at-large Sean Wilsey grew up in San Francisco's privileged social scene. His father was a millionaire and womanizer, his mother a ditzy activist . . . their story played out like episodes from Dallas and Falcon Crest across the society pages of the day. Oh the Glory of It All is a searing, ironic, and often funny portrait of Wilsey's life with his rich, disfunctional (sic) family."

"The distinguished writer and New Yorker contributor Francine du Plessix Gray is the daughter of Conde Nast mastermind Alexander Liberman and Tatiana du Plessix Gray, gifted Russian emigres who consorted with Dali and Dietrich at the heights of the New York fashion world. . . ."

An original aristocrat reading with one of the new ones-- a great picture of today's establishment literary world.

How Not to Write a Book Review

Two excerpts from a book review which appeared recently in the New York Sun, written by Elizabeth Spiers:

"Mr. Raines's elegiac prose is sprinkled with short expository digressions that contextualize or otherwise explain the personal significance of lost fish, the behavior and philosophies of people who have influenced the author's life, and the author's own beliefs about fate and one's ability to elude it, or lack thereof."

"The One That Got Away might have been a summary defense masquerading as a fly-fishing memoir rather than a series of damn good fish stories with an obligatory (and possibly publisher-mandated) analysis of the most notorious public event in which Raines was a material participant had Mr. Raines still felt the need to exculpate himself three years after the fact. Neither is optimal, but the latter is certainly preferable."

Say what? The entire review is made up of such marble-mouthed prose. I had to read passages over two or three times to know what she thought she was talking about. Miss Elizabeth still has her head in the academy-- or the academy inside her head.

(The Underground Literary Alliance will be soon featuring book reviews on our site. We'll cover the underground but the establishment as well. No, don't fill the ULA mailbox with unsolicited books! I promise this: No vague fence-straddling. You'll know exactly where the reviewer stands.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Hendrik Hertzberg Refuses to Engage

Nice to see that New Yorker media editor Hendrik Hertzberg believes (5/29) the Iranian President's letter to President Bush "requires . . . a response."

Hertzberg dismisses Bush's dismissal of Ahmadinejad, criticizing the "refusal to negotiate, or in any way to engage, directly with" Iran and its government. Yet where is the willingness of the New Yorker's upper-class staff to engage the cultural insurgency of the Underground Literary Alliance?

We've sent Hertzberg multiple mailings pointing out the vast gulf between the Haves and Have Nots of American literature-- of how the entire structure is an expression of privilege, corruption, and class. This conflict is no less "a battle of ideas" as any other. Nice to criticize others, Hertzberg, but where are you when your own turf-- your own privilege-- is involved?

NY Times Book Review Fiasco

Re "Best" Fiction Poll.

One can't blame the poll-winning embalmed dinosaurs themselves (Morrison, Updike, Roth, McCarthy, DeLillo-- not a one under 70) for this frank evidence of contemporary American literature's irrelevance. The problem lies with the unimaginative play-by-the-rules young establishment critics who voted for five stale icons of the moderately-above average.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Upcoming ULA Changes

In the next several weeks, accompanied hopefully by attendant ULA noise, we'll be announcing at last our selection of new ULA Director.

This will enable me to cease being the perceived head man of an organization which in fact has no head man. I'll be playing a more behind-the-scenes role, which will take enough time as it is.

While Frank Walsh will continue spearheading an activist east coast ULA campaign, the selection of a Director is intended as an extended olive branch to the larger literary community. (I've frankly alienated too many people.) The question will be: Is the lit-world ready to accept our writers and artists as equals?

The ULA is capable of acting very swiftly-- as we've shown recently. At the same time our strategy of building the organization itself has been like chess play: slow and deliberate. We've built a solid position on the game board. All moves we make from here must be consistent with that position, must have a nexus to its strength, can never abandon the foundation of independence and integrity we've put in place-- not for short-term gain, when like all good chess players we look toward victory in the end game.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

On Playing It Safe

The biggest mistake the ULA now or ever could make is to start playing it safe, worrying about offending this person or that one. I'd rather we offended everybody. We were designed to be un-p.c. and in-your-face, upsetting stuffy folks on the Right AND the Left.

This applies to the web site. Toe nails? Miss ULA? In my opinion we need more of that kind of thing. (Besides, cartoons are very cool right now don't ya know.)

People love to be offended. It's called freedom. What's the alternative? McSweeney's? Ever see their site? How godawfully boring-- bland middle-of-the-road pap following the same template from 1999, with the same stale pretentiousness and cutesy fake writing. I don't care how many robotized readers mindlessly click-on to the thing. It's a reflection of the number of non-independent drones on the lit-scene. "Must--click--on--McSweeney's--whirr--click," instructions tell their programmed brains every morning. "Nothing--here. Back--to--work--whirr--click."

Our site too noisy? I'd like it noisier still. I'd like people to be lost in an assault of mad images and noise; the clutter of the personalities images voices of the ULA invasion.

Give people content and we'll have consistent readers-- great Monday Reports like last week's by James Nowlan; or our upcoming book review feature. People will get used to the boobs and the cat and the toenails. Remember the ULA ethos: We adjust to no one. No whiny wimpy second-guess literary handwringing. People will adjust to us. We represent the freedom of doing our own thing.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

On Being Silenced

People miss the point Jelly Boy made at the Miller Theater podium April 17th when he said to Jason Shinder, "I know you'd like to silence me."

Eric Broomfield, like most of the writers and artists in the ULA, has been silenced his entire life-- as most of the population is economically and culturally silenced. That it's done benignly doesn't change the fact that it happens. There's a wide gap between Ivy League elites, who still dominate the print media and literary culture in this country, and the rest of us-- as the gap between rich and poor now exceeds historic gaps throughout history; of Ancient Rome, or France's Ancien Regime. The clown, April 17th, symbolized the forgotten man-- those people the literary Overdogs don't know about and don't want to see.

The bottom line of course is that the April 17th event was the most exciting literary event ever-- and the most meaningful, because it saw the sudden looking-glass meeting between two starkly different segments of American culture.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

So Out They're In

A belated reflection on a ULA compatriot's "Monday Report."

Regarding the photos which Associated Press ran with:
Natalie and Shawn are great talents; attractive persons; charismatic performers. Both would be central casting's idea of hip young poets. I'd love to have both of them in the ULA. That said, for all their appeal, I wouldn't necessarily put them as attractions in front of Eric Broomfield or Frank Walsh.

Beneath the make-up, Eric is like a young Kerouac. As for Frank, "World's Greatest Poet," he's from a different universe-- is pushing the envelope with his colorful poetry and colorful behavior, yet at the same time is completely genuine. The Columbia kids responded enthusiastically to his performance.

Is Frank Walsh the new cool in the lit world?

What I like about characters like Frank, Jack Saunders, and Yul Tolbert is that they're so out they're in-- they respond to no one's voice but their own. To me they're the epitomy of coolness.

One thing I know for certain is that we shouldn't cater to some constipated stale idea of "hip" perpetuated by the conformists of literature-- the most uptight heads-up-their-asses people in America. We should just be ourselves.

Be genuine and we'll win.

Stern Mandarins

Browsing through the current issue of Bookforum, I was struck by the imposing expressions of some of the contributors, particularly two of the youngest, Meghan O'Rourke and Rachel Cohen. They reminded me of old photos I'd seen of my grandfather from the old country, his wife and ten obedient children grouped around him. The man sat with a large moustache and granite expression: the classic patriarch.

It occurred to me that the two young women have turned themselves into literary patriarchs. There's no sense of joy in their faces-- nor indeed in their enclosed words, which are about some godawfully boring high-brow subjects scarcely anyone outside Ivy League grad school cares about; Stefan Zweig or such. Their essays are a duty; are written in that sense, and can only be read in that aspect. Seriousness! These are serious writers who write about serious Literature with a capital L and it's all very serious which is why no one ever reads it. These two young women are Important! IMPORTANT. Let no one ever think otherwise. Joyful? Get real. And so every sentence of theirs expresses not just the fact they're still writing dry papers for some off-stage professor, but that they've gone even further into another realm of the high-brow. They're certified, they've arrived, you'd better know it, and so the icy stiff way they glare at the camera. Connect with the public? They've gone beyond any public, have taken cold positions atop the skyscraper tower, wearing mandarin robes, nuns to the engines of the status quo, and let no thought of any crude barking populace again ever enter their heads.

Such is the condition of establishment literature.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Systems of Status Quo Literature

(A free class in literary reality.)

Enormous expense! Massive investment in literature demonstrated by multitudes of writers enrolled in countless high-priced AWPs around the country. For all the investment, the result is consistent and intentional mediocrity.

Have these programs produced one great writer? The merely interesting ones (Flannery O'Conner) over the course of sixty years can be counted on one hand.

An infinitesimal percentage of MFA grads are meaningfully published-- "meaningfully" meaning backed by the giant machines of mainstream publicity. The best graduates from the most esteemed program of them all, Iowa, are assured of appearances in dusty-shelved university literary periodicals which nobody reads.

Never have so many paid so much for so little.

The real intent of these programs is to create not writers of literary fiction and poetry, but readers of it. The huge investment the hapless suckered individuals make in the sterile academic art ensures they'll be apologists for it; members of the sheep flock.

The writers who ARE meaningfully published have access to the conglomerates through membership in a handful of aristocratic writing programs-- Columbia, Brown, Princeton, the New School, and Bennington. (One way to spot their elite status is to see if Rick Moody and Phillip Lopate are on the faculty.) By the nature of their location and position in the academic hierarchy, many if not most of the teachers and students in these programs are from the upper strata of society.

These schools produce Made Writers-- those couple dozen stars of the literary firmament over the past twenty years who've been heralded by mainstream media as the "hip" and the trendy. (Think Bret Ellis, Jay McInerney, Susan Minot, Tom Beller, Rick Moody, Jon Franzen, up to the Jonathan Safran Foers of the present day.)

The interconnected pieces of the Machine itself-- the towering Manhattan publishing and magazine office buildings-- are staffed by generic Ivy Leaguers (with a smattering of upper-class Brits) who in the fantasy-depths of their stunted imaginations may actually view themselves as writers. In reality they're technocrats. Their minds have been trained to conform to a status-quo reality which every moment weighs upon them. (Think MediaBistro.) Independent thought has been squeezed out of their brains as if by shock therapy. They perpetuate and defend the failing cultural System which pays them. One shouldn't feel sorry for them, anymore than one would feel sorry for the cultural apparatchiks who went along to get along in the Soviet system: The art they produce is no livelier!

The System adopts flimsy subterfuges as facades to pretend it's really not as corrupt and fossilized as it seems. One tactic is to augment the stale bourgeois sameness of mainstream writing with stale writing produced by writers of politically correct colors and names. And so, Zadie Smith is hyped out of all proportion to the strict limits of her ability. (To call White Teeth mediocre is to compliment it-- the novel shows predictable craft; otherwise is a disaster of form, narrative, thought, and believability.)

Upper-class east Indian writers of no talent are the p.c. literary-hip trend of the moment-- which is how pretty but empty-headed Kaavya Viswanathan could receive a half-million dollar advance for her shoemaker construction of borrowings from badly written chick-lit novels.

The status-quo writer is not intent on creating heroic writing or re-creating the heroic deeds of literary history.

Edward Luttwak:
"The Roman soldier of the imperial period was not noted for his elan. He was not a warrior intent on proving his manhood but a long-service professional pursuing a career; his goal and reward was not a hero's death but a severance grant upon retirement . . . The Roman army had a multitude of competent soldiers . . . its strength derived from method, not from fortuitous talent."

Doesn't this wonderfully describe the System writers of now? Today's imperial system of literature fits perfectly with the imperial system of American civilization. As in any imperial system, its benefits serve most the interests of the few-- those in positions of control in the literary machine; highly-placed bureaucrats (some masquerading as writers) at conglomerates, foundations, and universities.

April 17th we encountered a few such folks at Columbia University.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Among the Sheep Flock

Poetry without Context.

I spent some time the other day on a well-known poetry forum. I was struck by how representative the mentality exhibited there is of the damage academia has done to literature. The posters' conception of poetry is that of an art kept in an airless jar, floating in outer space, divorced from the hectic life of the world below.

The poets involved don't seem to believe that poetry should involve the public. The question of how to restore poetry's place in the public sphere has never been asked. They are instead automatons trained to churn out a very dry and stale conception of "poetry," utterly lifeless, which should seldom be read by actual people and never voiced aloud.

Their one goal appears to be "fair contests"-- whatever those are; as if such a thing in the literary world as it is, drowning in conformity, is really possible. (My hero in this regard is Jack Saunders, whose work once received a score of 0 on a scale of 1 to 10 from some kind of arts commission. I thought, "There's a writer thinking outside the box. Let's sign him up!")

The goal of the "poets" is merely to gain some kind of minimal establishment acceptance; winning a token contest, with publication in a literary journal which no one-- NO ONE-- outside the cirlce of contest entrants ever reads. You see, having their poetry READ, having it influence people-- much less the world at large-- isn't a thought. Only official approval from someone somewhere signifying that all the time and expense of their MFA degrees was worth it.

These kind of facsimiles of poets enable the entire corrupt pyramid at the top of which sit the arts dynasts we encountered inside Miller Hall.

Anyway, I have renewed faith in ULAers themselves, after encountering what else is out there. We have, in our modest collection of talent, individuals who believe art should be pushed out to the world-- that literature is important, not in an abstract sense, but important enough to engage the public; that there should be shouting words of poetry on every street corner. What else can save this soulless society from its madness?

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

In Search of Lewis Lapham

Author Larry L. King has some scathing remarks about former Harper's editor Lewis Lapham in King's new book, In Search of Willie Morris, pages 143-149.
It's a story about how young Lapham betrayed his colleagues at the magazine on his way to becoming editor.

Larry L. King says:
"A rich boy-- his father held a seat on the New York Stock Exchange-- Lapham was hard up neither for money nor for a job . . . 'They will never say of you as they said of FDR, that you are a traitor to your class,' I hissed to Lapham. 'You saw the opportunity to cozy up to power and another rich man's spoiled son and zoomed in like a goddamned honing pigeon.'"

Uptight Lit-Bloggers

When ULAers remark among ourselves about lit-bloggers, we do so with amusement, because most of them are extremely uptight and completely transparent. They've never figured out what to make of us!

The outrage they felt when I pointed out Harper's plagiarism transgressions! How dare I! (We now see Viswanathan's book deal cancelled for similar behavior.)

Standard Operating Procedure is for lit-bloggers to ignore us-- even when we're the proverbial elephant in the room. This strategy abandoned of course if they believe they have a chance to embarrass us, as during the recent minor "Nasdiij" scandal.

Radosh suddenly noticing (and attacking) us! Ed Rants challenging the ULA to be interviewed on the topic!

I posted a well-reasoned response on the Radosh blog. (Radosh to himself: "What do I say now?") He replied with nothing more than a quick insult. Meanwhile, Ed vanished, said interview forgotten, my e-mails brushed-off.


Why do i bring this up? Only because I'm amused by the "Ginsberg's House" blogger (link at who wrote a post about our Howl event, of course without naming us. (Even though Phillip Lopate scornfully read out our full name in the hall.) "KD"'s not about to lose her lit-blogger badge!

Funny thing is that I remember KD running up to me wide-eyed during intermission-- after I'd been put back into my seat-- looking very much like a regimented legal type but so excited she was creaming her pants. "Why aren't you attacking plutocrats instead?" she asked in a fake-educated snobby voice.

"There's one onstage," I pointed out. (Expression on her face: "Golly gee-- what do I say now?")

The topic of the event was literature, after all-- not the behavior of the Federal Reserve.

It's amusing the way people like KD and Rachel Aviv embrace the Beats from a fifty-year safe distance-- when if they were around in 1955 they'd have nothing to do with unruly characters like Kerouac, Ginsberg, Neal Cassady and Company.

At least both were in attendance and participated in one of the most exciting literary events ever. It gives them a touch of relevance. If KD wanted to make her blog more relevant she'd be covering the underground writers of NOW.

(p.s. Before scampering back to her seat KD did finally come up with a kind of goofy response about it being better having Moody exploiting the literary world instead of the Third World, which has a kind of very rough but idiotic logic to it. By then I was arguing with other members of the audience. The event was tumultuous.)