Sunday, July 30, 2006

The Problem of Jonathan Franzen

I met a demi-puppet writer at Dirty Frank's several weeks ago. After winning (to his surprise) a bet with him about Ingemar Bergman movies; after listening for two hours to his praise of contemporary establishment novelists, I bet the character five dollars that I could write a better novel than Franzen's The Corrections.

The question is whether I'll ever have nine years, as Franzen did, to do nothing else but write such novel. I'd settle for nine months-- or nine weeks. (It's unlikely I'll have nine days.)

I have to admit I've never read The Corrections in its entirety. I've made half-a-dozen tries. The first several attempts I couldn't get past the detail disease of the first pages; a word-clotted dense mass of uninteresting verbiage.

I've since gotten further, not by much. "Chip," some kind of academy-dwelling 35 year-old adult Baby, is one of the most uninteresting characters ever written. After a few pages about drooling rich people we find stooge Chip at the airport waiting for Mom and Dad, pouting over the prospect like a ten year-old. I flip a few pages ahead. Chip, teaching at a university (what else?) has a crush on one of his arrogant female students. Chip stumbles around, carrying a book by Thorsten Veblen under his arm: his sole touchstone to understanding the world. He can't use experience as a guide; he's had none. He's been in the bubble of the fake programmed "ideas" of the institutional educational system his entire life. Very boring. A slow going slog indeed.

Something is funny about the setting. Franzen, who lived for a decade off grant money, is no long-time resident of universities. Why choose this role for his character? Will it obtain the immediate recognition and sympathy of the bulk of the literary community? Aha! Maybe Franzen is not quite as stupid as he appears. He knows that a mono-class of the overeducated dominates literature now.

Anyway, it's a terrible book. I've read ENOUGH of it to know that. An unending coagulated mass of literary shit. The Corrections is an expulsion of upper-middle class excrement. If it's accurate-- if these are the spineless confused febrile people who run this society-- then this country truly is doomed and one shouldn't feel too bad about the upcoming collapse. If our great America really has morphed into just a great collection of self-absorbed silliness; of decrepit rich old man Alfred and his no less mentally decrepit son, as portrayed by a mentally decrepit novelist, then the sleeper cells of crazed Islamic fanatics we're told about who are nauseated by the vomitry of our civilization should have an easy time of it. Arrogant women; weak men; encroaching academy-caused cultural senility afflicting male and female, young and old alike; people who believe in nothing, not even themselves. This the depressing picture given by the endlessly long endlessly detailed endlessly stultifying endlessly imbecilic first section of the highly-praised novel. Robotic characters dwelling in a robotic world. Stiff, mechanical, insular, with a few simplistic ideas thrown in to satisfy self-important demi-puppets who applaud themselves continually over their expensive educations.

Writing a better novel isn't the question. I could blindfold myself at one of Jelly Boy the Clown's carnival shows with pen and paper in front of me and come up with a better one-- some scrawled inscrutabilities in the resulting text, maybe, but with way more truth, energy, and hope.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Buddy Holly Died for Our Sins

Buddy Holly's death was like a mythic sacrifice, plane dropping from an icy sky into the frozen American heartland, the blood of Holly and his compatriots flowing over the ground, replenishing rock n' roll so that the music didn't die as maybe it should've. Instead it lived another few decades before eventually (after Kurt Cobain's death-- the last great original rock talent) fading away.

The last six months of Buddy Holly's life remain a mystery. He seemed on a hectic pace to cram as much activity as possible into these weeks, as if he knew he hadn't much longer to live: The mystery of Holly's sudden marriage to a woman he scarcely knew one month after Peggy Sue married drummer Jerry Allison. (Allison's drumming is omnipresent on Holly's recordings.) Ostensibly because of a dispute with producer Norman Petty, Holly broke from the Crickets and fled to New York City. (Yet and and new bride Maria Elena invited Peggy Sue and Jerry Allison along on their honeymoon in Mexico City.)

There's the mystery of Buddy Holly's final recordings found as from beyond the grave on his Ampex tape recording machine.

It may be that artistic genius is marked by an ability to feel more deeply than ordinary people. The last recordings show that Buddy Holly felt very deeply indeed. They're imbued with yearning, loneliness, and melancholy. "What to Do," "Crying, Waiting, Hoping," "Learning the Game," and "Peggy Sue Got Married" are not the products of someone who's just happily wed!

"You recall a girl who's been in nearly every song" he reveals in the second recording named after her. He named the first one, "Peggy Sue," after her supposedly only at Jerry Allison's request. Yet the song makes sense with no other name. Any other name would destroy the relentless alliteration: "Pretty pretty pretty pretty Peggy Sue." What other Sue could he have been thinking of, anyway, than the beautiful ubiquitous presence of the band's narrow small town life?

Another strange part of the story is that for Buddy Holly the "music died" before the plane crash. Holly was no longer able to crack the Top 40. He signed on to the shoddy Midwest "Winter Dance Party" because he was barely able to pay the rent on he and his bride's cold Greenwich Village apartment. Elvis was in the army; other stars vanished for other reasons. Rock, at that time still a rinky-dink flash-in-the-pan movement, seemed to many to be over.

Considering it included some of the biggest remaining names in rock n' roll, like Holly, Dion, the Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens, the Winter Dance Party was a pathetically low-budget, marginal affair. How big could rock have been? They played for small sums in gyms and VFW halls for hick teenage residents of cow pasture towns far from any semblance of a real city.

Earlier that cold, cold winter, before Holly departed, he left a handful of last recordings on his Ampex machine. Genius recordings. Who got them after his death? Were Norman Petty and Jerry Allison involved in the later overdubbing? This would have been appropriate.

Rock music didn't die that night. It was resurrected. The plane crash became legendary. A Buddy Holly song went to #1 in Britain, hugely influencing the Beatles, Stones, and most of the rest of the bands who became the British invasion a few years later.

It's a mythic story; unreal. Peggy Sue; Maria Elena. Nothing is logical or certain about any of the tale.

We're left finally with the image of a plane falling out of a frigid night sky.

Where's Wood?

No response from James Wood to the ULA-style rockets lobbed in his direction with this blog's review of his book. He remains hunkered down in shelter.

Of course, as a Protector of Literature, Wood isn't allowed to break down the wall surrounding his kind to respond. To do so would be to break the rules of the literary club. His membership card and entrance pass would be taken from him.

In truth, I went easy on him. I focused on his supposed strength-- religion-- when I examined his review of writer J.F. Powers. In so doing, I quickly realized James Wood is a fraud.

I've yet to address Powers's most renowned story. Wood says there's no spirituality in J.F. Powers's work. Yet when one realizes the indirect influence of Buddhism on Powers, everything falls into place. There's no spirituality in Powers, Wood claims-- yet "Lions, Harts, Leaping Does" is one of the most spiritual stories ever written.

Wood missed this because he's purely a mechanistic writer-- like so many, a manufactured product; a robot. Trained to view writing not as a living thing which vibrates, alive; with a soul (in Frank Walsh's words, "with music"), Wood sees literature only as a crafted object; words sanded smooth then pounded together with a hammer.

Wood the supposed expert on Christianity missed that the religion at its core is a layer of Buddhism atop the foundation of the Old Testament, with a smattering of Greek mystery cultism thrown in. A pacifist who (like Kenneth Rexroth) was a Conscientious Objector during World War II, J.F. Powers saw in his religion mainly the Buddhist part of it. This is reflected in his writings.

J.F. Powers was one of the best American story writers-- yet I can't find a book of his in any monopoly chain store. (There are, however, thousands of ridiculous preppy "Chick Lit" novels, and other junk, cramming the shelves.) The tragedy of literature now.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

New ULA Director

This past Thursday night I met Frank Walsh and Patrick King at the Irish Pub between 11th and 12th on Walnut Street. There we affirmed the upcoming announcement of Pat King as new ULA Director. We've gotten the support-- at least not the objection!-- of the rest of the team to this long-needed long-awaited move.

Also present at the meeting were local photographer Geoff Hall, as well as Scooter the Cat, who seems to be kind of a fixture at the Pub.

Pat outlined his ideas for future ULA progress. He and Frank will be spearheading things on the east coast, Frank acting as lead talent and prime motivator to ensure our new Director remains on track! I'm cutting back my ULA activities the next couple months, but will offer advice and hopefully be available for local ULA meet-ups, especially during visits of ULAers from other parts of the country.

Wred's Cleveland readings generated tremendous excitement within the ULA team. He also obtained some fantastic local press coverage which we should get up on the site asap.

During our discussion I was given an early copy of the upcoming Slush Pile #5-- our Protest issue. It's very well done. Editor Steve Kostecke may be the most talented of all ULAers. Note his recent Monday Report at, or his story "Auslanders Raus!" which is available somewhere. It's our hope, while the Philly chapter pushes the activist campaign forward, that Steve and other behind-the-scenes ULAers can do more to strengthen the foundations and unity of the organization itself.

The only contribution I noticed Scooter make to the discussion was trying to steal our food! (He/she spent most of the time resting comfortably between Frank and Geoff, occasionally reaching a paw up.)

This blog will of course continue on as before.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Overrated James Wood

A Review of The Irresponsible Self.

"James Wood." "James Wood." "James Wood." That names pops up again and again in the journals of the established literary world-- the man behind the name applauded as our culture's top literary critic in place of ultra-constipated scared-to-make-waves demi-puppets like Sven Birkerts.

Read Wood's book of essays and the emotion which comes to the non-brainwashed person is one of disappointment. "Is that all there is?" A dozen or so nicely-written reviews by a nice person who uses a few nice-sounding phrases and after you've finished reading the book you remember nothing.

I recall the topics. The Catholic writer J.F. Powers is one of them. James Wood pretends to understand Powers's quaintly simple Midwestern priests with their quaintly simple Midwestern congregations; an objective observer standing outside the window.

James Wood is a confidently intelligent commentator in a plush armchair in a wood-panelled study, dressed in silk robe and blue slippers, pondering the intricacies of "Literature" while smoking a pipe. His fans note how old-fashioned he sounds. They're right. The sturdy, competent reviewer. There's comfort in reading him. The world has mutated distorted grown loudly insane around us. Inside the book of essays nothing has changed. It could be 1950 or 1850. Wood is completely out of date.

This is his appeal. His reviews are fenced-in by his limitations. The workmanlike reviewer obediently completing his assignment; an essay of prescribed length, strictly devoted to the problem at hand: the book in his lap. For today's moldering lit-crowd, competence is plenty.

Wood writes well enough not to pass as a mediocrity-- yet no other word better describes him. His reviews are smooth enough not to be plodding-- mediocre in their smoothness-- there's no imagination whatsoever about the format. The rules are strictly followed.

For James Wood, J.F. Powers's tales of parishes and priests are devoid of spirituality, "the opposite of an advertisement for the church." For James Wood, Powers's "priestly heroes are ferociously unappealing . . . Powers is very threatening, and ought not to be easily enjoyed by Catholics. . . ." For James Wood, the mundane lives and settings in the novels and stories is all there is. To James Wood, Powers seems only to mock his characters, without joy; secretly he's angry and depressed.

Is this right?

Powers's "Zeal" pokes fun at an enthusiastic young priest on a train who argues against tipping; a priest who ineptly attempts to keep stray young men and women apart. By the end of the narrative this simpleton has become the hero of the story, "on his feet and trying, which was what counted in the sight of God, not success." A jaded Bishop who observes the priest's zealous actions is changed. The aggressive rock-like blockheaded priest is irresistible.

Near the beginning of the story Powers says, from the Bishop's point of view, "To share the command with such a man as Father Early, however, would be impossible. It would be to serve under him. . . ." The Bishop ends by doing exactly that. To him Father Early has become one of Christ's "twelve legions of angels."

What happened? "I'll tell you a secret, Bishop. When I was in seminary, they called me Crazy Early." Early is a type of Holy Fool made fun of only to be raised up. Powers isn't just someone who writes well, "a delicate stylist" as Wood would have it. Powers sets the reader up for a surprise payoff consistent with the threads of the narrative-- a moral surprise as well as one of plot. The esteemed Bishop humbles himself by helping the young priest with his flock-- in so doing rediscovering the humility of his religion's original message. Powers, who was a devout Catholic, depicts modest victories. In Powers's world their modest, human scale increases their importance. They're parables.

This is true of "The Presence of Grace." Powers spends nine-tenths of the story mocking an eccentric dormouse of a pastor. At the end of the tale the man has become "that Solomon," as Powers celebrates his wisdom. "Life was a dark business for everyone in it, but the way for pastors was ever lit by flares of special grace." The pastor's seeming weaknesses have become strengths.

"And great affirmations!" There is nothing equivocal about Powers's meaning. One wonders how James Wood missed it. Maybe he was speed reading.

The pastor described early on: "But he had no power from his priesthood to deny the undeniable, for instance, that he'd spoiled a good chasuble. When he said, 'S not ink,' nothing was changed."

By the end of the story when he says, in response to gossip about a parishioner (a matter of more import than an ink spot) "'S not so,'" the pastor's stubborn illogic is revealed to be right and just.

In this case the pastor is an example to the young priest serving under him. The pastor represents the contradictions of the Church. Through him it redeems itself. To think that Powers's stories are in any way anti-Catholic, as Wood does, is ludicrous. Behind the bureaucratic snafus and trivialities of Powers's priests lies the core of his religion, hidden but able to be revealed at any moment. Finding spirituality amid the banal is the essence of his art. ("But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise." I Cor 1:27.)

Little morals are sprinkled throughout the works-- often, as with Father Burner in "Defection of a Favorite," (aided by a cat!) nothing more than an acceptance of things as they are; a sudden Buddhist-like compassion for his pastor which leads Burner on a slow path toward wisdom. (Those who strive too hard for something, like "The Prince of Darkness," are usually punished.) There is karmic harmony in Powers's universe which underlies the machinery of the Church.

Inside the comedy of Catholicism Powers finds kernels of truth and wisdom-- the message of Christianity from the start, which was founded on failure. ("I believe because it's absurd," said an early Christian.) J.F. Powers is explaining the religion, not mocking it. The well-paid New Yorker book reviewer James Wood wasn't sharp enough to notice.

Why not? Despite his smooth prose, James Wood is an imitation of an old-fashioned book reviewer. His book is a just-built 50's-style malt shop designed for tourists. It's not the genuine article. He's faking it.

(Questions Wood does raise, such as why Powers doesn't portray his priests sex lives, are so beside the point they're goofy. They ignore context, the 1950's Midwestern setting of the writing and the goals of the writer.)
"Harumph!" comes from the armchair. (Maybe the gentleman needs something more in his pipe.) The truth of the famous James Wood analysis doesn't matter as long as it sounds reasonable enough to con his audience.

He keeps the Powers review going just fast enough to keep you reading-- twenty-five miles per hour with no sudden noises, bumps, or detours. When you finish you say, "That's nice," close his book and drop comfortably to sleep.

James Wood is a speed-limit driver. He was respected and esteemed in his early 30's, maybe at age 20, because he sounded like the machine. He always drove the speed limit. Staying within the orange cones, never knocking one over, has earned Wood a teaching job at Yale and regular reviewing job at The New Republic.

Just as Jonathan Franzen the Mechanical Man is put forward as a manufactured facsimile of a great novelist, James Wood stands-in for the role of great critic. The staus quo has to have one! Anybody around? Yes. An ambitious careerist standing to the side with accreditations of conformity wants the part. That's him putting his hand up. He's not very good-- has no outstanding strength of character or courage of voice-- but seems to know the words, at least the poses. More than anything he's eager to please the stuffy rich folks and critics in the boxes. He's sober and predictable. That'll do! His fans feel he's deep, but then, most are robots.

They celebrate his ambition. James Wood takes on writers like Dostoevsky with whom he has nothing in common. The Russian author's unparalled passion, his chasms of yearning, emotion, and soul to Wood are abstract qualities to be analyzed in a jar.

James Wood reviewing Dostoevsky is an ant contemplating a forest fire. He seeks simple explanations of Brothers Karamazov; distilled into a phrase: "Christ is not an idea." There you have it! The mysteries of Karamazov have been solved by Professor Wood. There was no real depth to the book after all. The robots can rest peacefully, unchallenged. Any rumblings of unease brought about by reading the novel have been removed.

Wood tries to explain the unexplainable; to measure and quantify Dostoevsky's huge universe. He misses the humanity of the situations, the characters, and the stories. The true subject of Wood's logical ANALysis shouldn't be Fyodor Karamazov or the underground man-- but the relief they throw on bourgeois society, on "The Clean and the Saved" in the drawing rooms who respond to the characters with horror. What is Dostoevsky's message, really? What is he saying? That we're human beings, outrageous and flawed; the trick in life is to not be embarrassed to be yourself. (Which really IS a simple explanation.) What bursts from every page of Dostoevsky is the sheer gross vibrating humanity of it all; the vast sympathy for the characters; a sympathy, vibration, life missing from the logical analytical writing of James Wood. He's hardly been touched. He sounds like a programmed android whose computer banks inform him this writing is something about which he should be moved-- there's no passion in his response; he remains dry and logical. Upper-crust British, I guess. Cambridge and all that rot. "We laugh," reading Saul Bellow, he assures us. "We delight in the curling power of invention whereby" etc etc., but these are assertions. Wood is unable to transfer these emotions to us; his prose is so crafted it's hard to buy that he believes the assertions himself.

The man in the silk robe and slippers may as well be reading stock quotes from the Wall Street Journal.

It's about assurances, of maintaining everyone's self-image. The uptight audience members at Miller Theater during the "Howl" reading were there to assure themselves that, despite the utter bourgeois conformity of their comfortable money-and-possession-oriented lifestyles, they are very much like the Beats; they really are! The intrusion of the ULA shattered the illusion.

Wood's readers want to know they're as full of life as Augie March, even if they're not. "We laugh," Wood tells them. "We delight." He's done the experiencing of art for them. Affirmations of humanity among automatons. "Self-convincing," Wood would call it.

This is book reviewing for the upper-middle class. James Wood well knows his audience.

The great irony about James Wood is that his criticisms of the priests of J.F. Powers apply to the inhabitants of the established literary order:
-"They are full of ambition-- but only the ambition to go from curate to pastor."
-"too conventional" -"courtiers of compromise"
-"The parochialism and claustrophobia of their minds and conversation, for all the sour prosperity of their businesslike approach, has a naivete, a complacency, a closedness. It is shop-talking with nothing to sell. They may not be worldly enough, in fact. Their worldliness may be that they are too easy inside their own little world." (These quotes from James Wood.)
Of course, for the literati, Wood's failures are redeemed by the "fine artistry" of his prose. Which means, watch for the explosions of "fine artistry" coming as from a man inside a stall at a public washroom:

"the dry ground of their souls is moistened by the author's gentle laughter."

"It is a sad and affecting story, whose placement at the end of this often ebullient and warmly comic book bathes what has gone before in grave twilight."

"At times one wishes that he had hoarded that writerly autumn less jealously, and daubed his characters more generously with his complicating dapple."

"But it grandly exuberates with more diverse elements-- lyricism, comedy, realism, vernacular-- than any other contemporary English prose, and in America it deserves more praise than Bellow's now elderly canonicity perhaps encourages."

One cringes at such artistry, washing hands quickly and hurrying out of the room.

Maddening superior torpor unending smugness and snobbery passing as wisdom; chapters of layers of sentences going through the motions of pretended knowledge from academy ivory towers, plaudits for the man who captures the rhythmns of the stacks.


Savior of the lit'ry pack:
James Wood.
Determined that he's not a hack,
James Wood.
Bags of bluff that others lack!
James Wood.
The man who'll bring our lit-world back
James Wood!

A Coming Big Event.

Establishment icon James Wood has gotten so big on the lit scene it's decided to give him a Big Award bigger than the National Book Sham or other awards he's been a finalist for, excuses for black ties swanky tables rich people but, you know, Big, a BIG award emphasis on BIG wheelbarrow-needed-to-bring-it-on-stage-sized BIG. No hotel ballrooms for this affair. No. A big enough venue to hold Wood's reputation. Carnegie Hall!-- no. Madison Square Garden!-- no. The Hollywood Bowl! Organizers settle on a soccer stadium in Brazil which holds 200,000 people. This, maybe, will be big enough. The day is set! Literary celebrities to be flown in from all corners of the globe. Rushdie with bodyguards. Cynthia Ozick wearing sunglasses. Wood's almost-friend Jonathan Franzen chosen as presenter. The day has come! The gigantic stadium is filled. Usual last-minute problems. Franzen won't make it-- he boarded the wrong flight and has landed in Alaska. No matter! Fossilized novelist John Updike arrives as replacement. Two hundred thousand flashbulbs as night falls; a fanfare of trumpets backed by timpani and symbals of a full orchestra: an original composition, "Tribute to James Wood." The Big Award is placed onto the stage by a monstrously big 80-foot crane. (Meanwhile storm clouds have gathered. Organizers worry it's going to rain.) John Updike propped and positioned at the microphone has started to speak. At a corner of the stage waiting for his big moment is Mr. Wood. From the perspective of the high rows of the stadium he appears tiny. Big screens magnify his image, to Biggie size, almost as big as his reputed ability. Suddenly clouds break last second thunder sounds downpour audience scrambling literary celebrities soaked James Wood crying big missed moment climbs into rented limousine driven away vast stadium drowned empty except for immoveable soggy-suited John Updike forgotten on puddled stage enunciating carefully to nobody to the wet air his precisely written speech.

The most hilarious and sad apart of the James Wood book is that this paint-by-the-numbers reviewer is regarded by the sheep of the literary world to be at the extreme edge of recklessness-- which says a great deal about themselves.

"Sparkling with electric energy"; "the strangest literary critic we have"; "polemical"; "terrific intensity."

These people live in a safe and narrow world. Hand the book to passengers on a bus and they'll soon be sleeping. In the cloistered world of Literature it's the latest thing. "That Mantovani sure does rock." Refined stiffs snapping their fingers to Tony Bennett or Harry Connick.

A "literary eviscerator" mannequin Elissa Schappell calls him. No, Wood is more of a pampered kennelled guard dog hanging around the aristocrats at the chateau. They toss a stray steak his way and watch him bound. "Isn't he just the best?" the ruffled fops affirm. One day the mastiff steps off the grounds, where packs of untamed wolves roam, and is seen no more. "Whatever happened to good old Woodsie?" one of the aristocrats thinks to ask. "He was so true and loyal." Others say tut-tut, as the sky darkens, the air chills, and curious movement rustles the shadows outside the well-trimmed hedges.

The James Wood kind of book reviewer is obsolete, superceded by bloggers able to be more lively, immediate, personal, expansive, and real. I had total freedom as a zeenster in the 90's. I maintain total freedom now. If I care to insert a not-very-good poem into the midst of my random speculations and rants I'll do so. The structure-- this blog has one-- is akin to the structure of Jack Saunders's novels. You can't see it but it's always there.

The Underground Literary Alliance has broken further out of the barriers of the box by introducing literature into the actual world through our living persons. Our criticism of the decayed aristocratic words of a Rick Moody or Elissa Schappell has been very direct! We want literature to live-- the only way it'll attract the general public.

IT WAS ASKED inside the ULA if it was wise to show me, Frank Walsh, and others drinking before our "Howl" crash. Yes! We revel in our humanity as writers. For us there are no hierarchies or walls. We welcome other writers to sit down with us. Literature is the fundamental art and belongs to everyone. This is the ULA message.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The Mystery of Talent Part II: Writers

How to account for Buddy Holly's "Well . . . All Right" and "Learning the Game"?

"Well . . . All Right" destroys the stale myth that early white rock n'rollers did nothing but rip-off black r&b artists. The recording sounds distinctly European, reminding me of Renaissance dances I've heard played on archaic instruments. The melancholy "Learning the Game" is straight ballad-- it could've been played in medieval times.

We can speculate that Buddy Holly, like other country "hillbilly" singers such as the Carter Family, Hank Williams, the Everly Brothers, even Elvis Presley, inherited remnants of a folk tradition brought over from England centuries prior-- just as black blues performers carried remnants of folk sounds from Africa; blended of course in both cases white and black with their reactions to the New World. (Rock n' roll was created when these two traditions collided.)

The biggest mistake so-called "experts" on art make is to underrate the role of instinct in its creation. Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly were instinctive artists who'd been soaking in their regional culture (and popular culture on the radio) their entire lives. By age 20 they'd learned everything they needed to know to become two of the greatest interpreters of popular music this nation has produced.

Should they have been sent to Julliard?

When they met the experts, their art suffered. It's well-known what happened to Elvis when he was cleaned-up and tamed by RCA and the movie studios (and the army). Holly encountered a similar fate when he dropped mentor Norman Petty and band the Crickets to move to New York. His last studio session produced his worst recordings since his first crude rockabilly efforts. Awful junk. Studio strings replaced his masterful guitar! Unbelievable. The experts had no idea what to do with Buddy Holly. (The recordings he made in his apartment on an Ampex tape recorder before his death showed he hadn't lost his talent.)
The biggest mistake this culture makes with artists of all kinds is to overemphasize schooling. We're a machine civilization which stresses order, regulation, and schooling. Too much schooling destroys natural talent. The more I hear about writing workshops, the more convinced I become about how damaging they are. Hit from all sides, the young writer can only become disheartened and confused. Maybe these programs are okay for those with marginal talent. For the phenom they could be disastrous. (And sorry, Jonathan Safran Foer isn't my idea of a phenom.)

Why do we think writers should be different from musicians? Many people, by the time they're 20, have been reading and writing for well over a decade; precociously absorbing and filtering the literary experience along with their experience of the world. The best of them, like Stephen Crane and Scott Fitzgerald-- America's two best natural talents-- by this age are already prepared to be great. They should be promoted, encouraged, advised, directed-- but their instinct and genius must oversway all; they must be allowed to run free.

(Part III: The Future of Literature.)
(Also Coming: "Overrated James Wood.")

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

The Mystery of Talent Part I: Buddy Holly

What interests me is the organic origin of art.

Toward that end I've been listening to the recordings of 50's rock n' roller Buddy Holly. What I've discovered is that he wasn't just some guy who died in a plane crash. He was phenomenally talented.

Striking about many of the recordings is his guitar playing. Buddy Holly was not only the best songwriter, next to Chuck Berry, of the early rock era. He was not only one of the most ambitious and versatile vocalists, along with Elvis, Jackie Wilson, and one or two others. Buddy Holly was also one of the era's best lead guitar players.

In 1956, at the beginning of his career, when he was, what-- 19?-- Holly was effortlessly covering the licks of Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. When co-producing recordings of his own songs a year or two later, he used his guitar to help create a wall of sound, pre-dating Phil Spector. (Drums were used prominently. Note "Peggy Sue.")

Holly overdubs his guitar on "Listen to Me." It's spellbinding. One can hear his clean bright playing on other songs like "Words of Love" and "Heartbeat."

Buddy Holly should've been as big as Elvis. At the time he had enough trouble just making the charts, overshadowed by lesser lights like Ricky Nelson. Nelson had the best rock-pop songwriters crafting his material. His band included legendary guitarist James Burton. Buddy Holly had more talent than Nelson and Burton combined. (Note the explosive guitar solo in "Peggy Sue," as fine as anything James Burton or Chuck Berry did.) Buddy Holly had as much talent in his person, as singer, guitarist, and songwriter, as whole bands of the later "British Invasion," including the Beatles.

At his death at age 22 he may have been more advanced in these categories than the best later talent at the same age. This includes Lennon, Dylan, McCartney, Jagger, Keith Richards, George Harrison-- the lot of them.

Buddy Holly was a true phenom-- a natural talent. Why he wasn't bigger in his lifetime was because in the charisma department he was the anti-Elvis. You've seen the photos, the nerdiness and large eyeglasses. This was before subcultures like punks and folkies embraced nerdiness.

Would Buddy Holly have taken his art to another level? Some of the last songs he wrote, "What to Do" and "Crying, Waiting, Hoping" indicate he could have. He had moved with his new wife Maria Elena into New York City's Greenwich Village in 1959, right before his death. It's fascinating to speculate about Holly meeting the young Bob Dylan when Dylan moved into the neighborhood a couple years later. What a meeting of young minds that would've been!

The two best Buddy Holly songs-- and recordings-- are "Well . . . All Right" and "Learning the Game." They're timeless and poignant, up there with the best of Bob Dylan and John Lennon-- the highest praise I can grant Buddy Holly. Where did these songs come from? What was the source of his art? This is the mystery to figure out.

(To be continued.)

Latest ULA Event

I couldn't make it, but from all sights and sounds the ULA-sponsored shows in Cleveland this past weekend were a huge success-- thanks mainly to the enormous work put into them by Wred Fright. Many of the ULA's biggest stars were present-- including Frank Walsh, Jelly Boy the Clown, Pat King, Crazy Carl Robinson, Jessica Disobedience, Adam Hardin, and many others. For the latest write-ups on the readings and performances see

Friday, July 07, 2006

Literature without Roots

(I've sweated and slept alongside the straits of the Detroit River. For years I lived and worked near that dark waterway of the darkest of North American cities, so that the fast-rushing river still runs through my veins and my soul.)

I'm trying to figure out what's happening to establishment literature-- why, for instance, a promising new journal like n+1 is so intellectually sterile. Surely it's one piece of a larger process. Understanding it is close to impossible. I make the attempt regardless.

Why the stark difference between n+1 and a literary journal from the 1960's, Ted Solotaroff's New American Review, which wasn't monotone monochrome but an explosion of energy and color?

It's not just that the writers back then were better-- Norman Mailer, Ralph Ellison of "Cadillac Flambe," and company. It's that the writers back then, for all their intelligence and learning, had roots. Their subject was the ground they stood on: America; that diverse mad inferno of a country raging on all sides around them. The writers expressed their direct observation of the country while drinking from the living model of the Beats. The subject of the Beat masterpieces "Howl" and "On the Road" is America. They're a vast loud confused love-and-hate cultural expression of America. A visitor from another planet could ask, "What is America?"-- you would point him to that poem, that novel, and say, "There!"

The writers and editors of New American Review had roots. Of course. Culture without roots is an oxymoron; an impossibility.

Yet this is exactly the kind of literature one finds with n+1. It's as if in forty years the planet has undergone a fumigatory transformation so that we now live in a sterilized future of steel walls, omnipresent air-conditioning, and plastic capsules. Conversation between the floating pod people remains at a sanitized murmur.

Instead of hearing Motown's "Sound of Young America" blaring from the streets, or Chuck Berry, or Elvis Presley (in his voice the multi-cultural blending of all organic strands of American music as his person blended Scoth-Irish American-Indian African Jewish bloodlines), suddenly we're given a soundtrack of the techno-airless electronic notes of "Forbidden Planet." There are no streets: no life, no earth, no populace.

I can only guess that the four n+1 editors were placed into isolation booths during college. Talk about torture! These fellows were forced to read the mind-destroying convolutions of Marcuse Agamben Foucault Lacan Heidegger Derrida Habermas Jameson Cioran Lyotard Eagleton Baudrillard etc etc etc for eight years, until their eyes bled. Extreme sensory deprivation: Jerry Mander's worst nightmare. The person couldn't possibly come out of the experience sane and whole.

I have no idea really what these university isolation chambers are like. I'm speculating. I envision a series of brains in jars, labelled "Foucault"; "Heidegger"; and so on, the students connecting their own minds with the jars through electrical cables. This is the only plausible explantion for the depth of the brainwashing shown in the pages of n+1 through the non-stop name-dropping of approved intellectual icons; no original throughts anywhere to be found. They ingested all of it; lingusitic complexities layered upon complexities so that all truth is lost; everything said means itself and its opposite. One can call it profound or one can call it nonsense.

The n+1 editors left the most esteemed Temples of Academe, Harvard, Yale, Oxford, with hi-tech helmets fitted onto their heads; screens on every side filtering experience so the individual never directly senses the actual world. Between him and the world are intermediaries; green-lettered names scrolling on virtual-reality screens; "Adorno," "Agamben," and the like. (You can't see the helmets, but they're there.)

Any scattered glimpses of America in n+1 are accidental. There's more depiction of Armenia. American culture has vanished, been wiped out.

Solzhenitsyn, when discussing the Russian Empire, argued that the first victim of the Soviet system was Russia itself. The first victim of the multi-national conglomerate globalization of culture is America. This is true of American literature at its highest levels, which is being replaced by an "International Style" of lit as devoid of personality, of roots and place, as the blank International Style of architecture. n+1's sterile intellectualism is well fit for a conglomerate-based international empire. Am I being unfair? n+1 opposes empire in its pages while they behave and sound like members of an empire expanding across the planet. They belong to the world: the world belongs to them. Their own land isn't a specter in their heads. They've left it behind them.

More important than what they say is how they say it, and more, what's left unsaid, unfelt. How can they oppose empire when they embody it?

Deny us our authentic culture and you'll soon be denying other people's theirs.

The ULA is the real American literature of today. Our two legendary icons, Jack Saunders and Bill Blackolive, are American folk writers. In their words you'll find the rhythmns and experiences of America. This is our foundation-- the wellspring of cultural renewal. We hope to build on this to give the reader the voices of young America; America reborn. (We hope from our Canadian members also a sense of place, of the tangible Canadian nation I experienced while living across a narrow waterway from it for so long.)

(Upcoming: A Review of James Wood.)

What's Wrong with The New Yorker

The New Yorker could never cover the ULA's story, our historic Howl Protest actions and the like. If they did the story would be horribly tainted. They're full supporters of the cultural status quo, of the narrowness of the "literary" story and the bland inocuousness of "literary" poetry.

They're Ford Motor in the Twenties: You can buy any color you like as long as it's black.
They're Baskin Robbins selling only one flavor.
Asking the stuffy prepster Ivy Leaguers "sold" body-and-soul on the attributes of the purely literary to consider other writers-- particularly outsiders-- would be like asking Ford to promote other car companies. It ain't gonna happen. Which is why we make our own noise and treat establishment outlets like The New Yorker as our competition-- the enemy.

Against Binary Thought

Yes or No.
Red or Blue.
Right or Left.
Republican or Democrat.
Column A or Column B.
There are only two choices. Enter this corridor or that one. Later you realize they both go in the same direction, toward a dead end.
What are the Vegas odds that either side is 100% right?
A dispassionate gambler would figure that one side is one-third right, and the other is one-third right-- leaving a third of the pie for new ideas which have never been thought of or tried.
My goal is for the ULA to live in that new third, and leave stale polarized binary bipolar blue smoke and mirrors behind.

A Tale of Two Saunders

Keith Gessen in n+1 #4: "George Saunders, the great short story writer and my advisor at Syracuse, told me he knew only two non-teaching writers in his generation (born around 1960): Donald Antrim was one and I forget the other."

Curious the contrast between George Saunders and the ULA's Jack Saunders (no relation). Jack has lived a life opposite to that of the teaching writer. His struggle to survive as a writer outside the system is described in his LitVision/ULA novel, Bukowski Never Did This. The independent writer's struggle is the theme of the work, which looks like no novel ever written, is unique to itself, yet filled with clarity and truth.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

"Cocktails with Molly Ivins"

Yes, kids, it's time to sign up for the yearly Nation magazine cruise.

All aboard! Join the line-up of pseudo-Lefties aboard a gigantic luxury liner. Play blackjack with Victor Navasky! Screen movies with Jane Smiley! Be waited on by Third World types aboard ship and on the islands!

Signs are already going up throughout the Caribbean. Reggae songs celebrating the wealthy Americans are already being played. The Great White Liberals are on their way.

"Katrina she no own the ship
Na-tion Ma-ga-zine Is Coming!
No one own it so they say
not even rich white billionaire lady
Na-tion Ma-ga-zine Is Coming!

"Victor he done played the game
Rushing now they all to save us
Big white boat it rides the waves
Na-tion Ma-ga-zine Is Coming!

"These rich liberals they be good
Sailing now with lots of money
Drink they rum eat lots of food
Na-tion Ma-ga-zine Is Coming!"

A conga line has started on the island, poor happy smiling natives joining in with the rich visitors who've arrived like white gods in their Big Boat; like Columbus himself! Steel drums sound everyplace. The happy singing grows louder. "Na-tion Ma-ga-zine Is Coming!"

(Note: The Philly chapter of the Underground Literary Alliance is organizing its own competing excursion. So far all we can come up with for ideas is to "Ride the Ducks"-- a famed local tourist outing; small wheeled boats with quacking ducks painted on them which ride on the river as well as on land. Riders get free the famous "Wacky Quacker" for noise making, which sounds like ULA style. We're not sure though if ULA members and fans can afford the ride's $24 per person charge!)