Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Points of Agreement?

Here are ten points that possibly we all can agree on.

1.) The position of literature in American society has declined.
2.) There are no larger-than-life personalities in the writing game.
3.) The U.S. literary world is centered in, and largely controlled from, New York City.
4.) The literary system is hierarchical.
5.) The system is dominated by those from the upper levels of American society.
6.) The trend in book publishing, distribution, and sales is in the direction of monopoly.
7.) Writers without connections are excluded, except for those who go to the great expense of obtaining MFA degrees, whose main purpose is to create connections for the writer.
8.) Conformity and manners, in the writing and the writer, are valued over excitement.
9.) The style and premises of writers and their writing have scarcely changed in fifty years.
10.) Dissent to things-as-they-are isn't tolerated.

12 comments:

Harland said...

1.) The position of literature in American society has declined.

From?

2.) There are no larger-than-life personalities in the writing game.

Is this good or bad?

3.) The U.S. literary world is centered in, and largely controlled from New York City.

And the U.S. automotive world is centered in, and largely controlled from, Detroit. And the U.S. entertainment world is centered in, and largely controlled from, Los Angeles. And the U.S. technology world is centered in, and largely controlled from, Santa Clara County. What's your point?

4.) The literary system is hierarchical.

Unlike?

5.) The system is dominated by those from the upper levels of American society.

Actually, the system is dominated by wealthy Germans.

6.) The trend in book publishing, distribution, and sales is in the direction of monopoly.

Clarify, please.

7.) Writers without connections are excluded, except for those who go to the great expense of obtaining MFA degrees, whose main purpose is to create connections for the writer.

"Connections" is so vague as to be meaningless. You've made it very clear that, for example, you feel that Rick Moody's family's wealth set him on a course to be a successful and well-known writer. But what about someone who just tries to get to know a lot of people? Are those connections "bad"?

Re/MFAs -- are they really a guarantee of success? They don't even guarantee a teaching job, anymore. Besides, aren't you referring to the five or six programs that have significant prestige? What about someone with an MFA from, say, Ohio State? Are they at the cocktail party? (I think you're on a better track when you suggest that MFAs tamp down individuality and rook naive beginning writers into thinking that the degree will provide exactly the entree your imputing to it)

8.) Conformity and manners, in the writing and the writer, are valued over excitement.

Then obviously your favorite writer is William T. Vollmann.

9.) The style and premises of writers and their writing have scarcely changed in fifty years.

The most absurd comment you've ever made, King, and that's a mouthful. And whenever the subject of postwar innovation comes up, you're almost uniformly hostile to it.

10.) Dissent to things-as-they-are isn't tolerated.

Let's assume that you're right. Dissent is not tolerated. What if it were? What would be different? Assuming that you see yourself as a dissenter whose protests are not tolerated, how would you change things?

King said...

1.) From the 1950's-- not to mention the 1920's, when stories by great writers like Fitzgerald and Hemingway were widely read.
2.) I think we could use a Hemingway or two to put literature back on the map; to help it compete with other cultural happenings.
3.) And the auto industry is dying. And NYC is hardly representative of the nation-- which reflects on our literature.
4.) America wasn't intended to turn out that way.
5.) I'd say the Brits have more influence over our literature than the Deutschlanders.
6.) See some of Tom Hendrick's writing about media monopoly.
The phenomenon of the giant chain bookstores speaks for itself.
7.) This is a large subject. You seem to admit that it's desirable to create connections.
Other endeavors (such as sports) don't operate that way. They have more rational systems in place for discovering and/or creating talent.
I'll be discussing this on my "Happy" blog upcoming.
8.) The excitement Vollmann may represent is weighed down by the word-clotted postmodern nature of his writing.
9.) Just about all "postwar innovation" occurred in the Fifties and Sixties. You're clinging to a notion of an "avant-garde" which is badly outdated.
10.) I believe we need an input of new, contrary ideas into the literary scene. It's the point behind my blogs. I'm at least forcing people like you to examine the current scene-- though you're reluctant to think we need to change anything.

Anonymous said...

1. Yep.
2. Absolutely not. Go see Michelle Tea read sometime, f'instance.
3. Centered in, yes, like Paris in France and London in England, etc. Controlled from, corporate publishing, yes. But literature itself? Puh-leaze.
4. America wasn't intended to turn out as a hierarchy? You mean, when it was founded by a bunch of slaveowners? Anyway, literature has all kinds of hierarchies. Bestselling? Critically praised? Hippest? Richest? Awardwinning? Prose style? Plot? Output?
5. Duh. Welcome to planet earth.
6. Corporate monopoly, sure. But there's more diversity in publishing, any way you cut it, than there's ever been. More books. More formats. More topics. More authors from - yeah, look harder - every aspect of society.
7. If a writer never meets anybody else then he or she will be excluded, yes. Hemingway, for instance, met other writers and publishers who helped his career. Duh.
8. No. What you don't seem to get is that readers honestly value work you don't like. That's just true. I guess you could say it conforms to the readers' ideas of what makes a good book, but that's just a way of saying they like it. Nobody says, "This novel is by a polite, rich man, it must be good." They just like the book that happens to be written by that guy.
9. Complete and utter horsecrap. In fact, there's more similarity between books from 1950 and books from 1850 than there is between books from 1950 and books from today, which would indicate that change is happening quicker.
10. From your own blog: "The token small press is tolerated to show diversity, and as with totalitarian societies, the official "opposition" is itself sustained by the established order." So it is, in fact, tolerated. What it isn't is celebrated, which is why it's called dissent. Your dissenters here, for instance, are tolerated by you - you let them comment - but not celebrated, as we're all called rich, terrified liars.

Your real point, as far as I can tell is, "Social realist literature with political content written by new boisterous, self-taught writers, should be given more press and attention." To which everyone says, "You're right, that's unfashionable now, where are these new writers you talk about?" And then you mention a small handful of writers who you like but nobody else does. Not because they're scared, not because they can't take dissent, not because of manners, but because the work isn't moving. Blackolive is hillbilly stream of consciousness that I find difficult and boring. Walsh writes punny, angry poetic rants that's nothing but rewarmed Beat. And most of the rest write 1st person autobiographical diary-like prose either without style or with showy, tedious "jazz" influence. It's probably fun live, with a good crowd and a drink or two, but on paper or screen it's boring to me. And, judging by the fact that NOBODY stops by here and says "love your work," it's boring to the few readers you attract. So it shouldn't get more attention, because nobody likes it. It should stay underground, passed around the zine world where unfettered self-expression is the only barometer for literature, because mainstream readers of literature aren't interested.
It's like you're bringing a punk band to Lincoln Center and saying, "Listen to this! Give us some of your budget!" And the Lincoln Center people say, "Nothing personal, but we're not into this. Go play in a small club, and you'll get a small crowd, and best of luck." And you drag the punk band outside, and play outside Lincoln Center, and everyone walks by covering their ears, and you're saying "Look at the rich pod people!" when really they're just normal people who prefer to hear classical music, and yes, that's partly due to their backgrounds, but so what? They want to hear something else. (And of course, the irony is, the vast majority of people want to hear neither punk nor classical, neither Blackolive nor Moody.)
You offer an alternative that pretty much nobody wants, and then insult people who don't want it, and then you yell about being ignored by people you're insulting who aren't interested in what you have to say, and brag that you're about to tear down a system, when all the while, pretty much nobody - Ivy Leagers, insiders, mainstreamers, undergrounders - agrees with you.

--the wandering jew

Harland said...

1.) From the 1950's-- not to mention the 1920's, when stories by great writers like Fitzgerald and Hemingway were widely read.

"Literature" may have declined, but was what Americans were reading widely in the 1950s all that good? Or was it just middlebrow jetsam that's been supplanted by HBO series?

2.) I think we could use a Hemingway or two to put literature back on the map; to help it compete with other cultural happenings.

We have literary "personalities." Quite aside from whether they're good or bad writers, you apparently don't think any of them cut the mustard.

3.) And the auto industry is dying. And NYC is hardly representative of the nation-- which reflects on our literature.

Silicon Valley is hardly representative of the nation either, but here we are, typing away on Google-owned software.

4.) America wasn't intended to turn out that way.

No, that's why so many slaves were signatories to the Declaration of Independence.

You also keep dismissing the fact that this hierarchy has at its bottom-line-watching peak writers like Stephen King and David Baldacci. They dwell in an entirely different sphere than the Moodys and Bellers.

5.) I'd say the Brits have more influence over our literature than the Deutschlanders.

You could say that, but you'd be wrong.

6.) See some of Tom Hendrick's writing about media monopoly.
The phenomenon of the giant chain bookstores speaks for itself.

Fair enough, though I'd be willing to bet I'd be far more likely to be able to get a copy of a ULA book through Amazon than through the typical independent bookstore.

7.) This is a large subject. You seem to admit that it's desirable to create connections.
Other endeavors (such as sports) don't operate that way. They have more rational systems in place for discovering and/or creating talent.
I'll be discussing this on my "Happy" blog upcoming.

That's because "other endeavors" like sports can't rely on hype to disguise incompetence. A hitter who can't hit a curveball makes his incompetence known immediately. I agree with you that connections, in literature and elsewhere, ensure the success of people who in a true meritocracy would not have had a chance. I've already agreed with you. Now, how do we "change" the system.

8.) The excitement Vollmann may represent is weighed down by the word-clotted postmodern nature of his writing.

So in other words, he's not mannerly or conformist but he's not misbehaving or noncomforming in the right way.

9.) Just about all "postwar innovation" occurred in the Fifties and Sixties. You're clinging to a notion of an "avant-garde" which is badly outdated.

But the changes have taken place. There are writers building on the "badly outdated" avant-garde -- you just haven't heard of them, King, because you don't pay attention to anything happening outside your narrow concerns, whether they're your absurdly caricatured sense of the literary/publishing/academic plutocracy or your equally caricatured sense of the downtrodden outsider.

10.) I believe we need an input of new, contrary ideas into the literary scene. It's the point behind my blogs. I'm at least forcing people like you to examine the current scene-- though you're reluctant to think we need to change anything.

I've been "examining the current scene" for twenty years, King. Being as fixated and obsessive as you are, if you'd been around that long it wouldn't be Moody you're always bitching about, but Jay McInerney. I know about not getting paid attention to. I know about getting rejected. I know about self-publishing. I know about not having gone to the right schools. I know about not having connections. I know about watching shit get hyped as "great literature." I know about working at physical labor and then coming home to write. I know everything you know, King, but I also know about how commercial publishing works, and what it's like to work with an editor, and how to compromise without selling out, and how to find decent people of integrity within a system they abhor as much as you do. I know how to see beyond the caricatures that, to you, serve as reality.

Ralph Fallot said...

Yeah, brave guys, piling on King Wenclas. Let's take his points one at a time, "Harland" and "Wandering J."

1.) The position of literature in American society has declined.

Absolutely right. And why is that? Because most Americans can't relate to the work being published by the big houses. Now I don't know about the ULA, but when I read stuff about young hipsters in NY and LA--well, I can just watch "Friends," can't I?

2.) There are no larger-than-life personalities in the writing game.

We have synthetic android personalities. James Frey and JT LeRoy (the latter not even real). Do they encourage the reading of literature? No! They promote their own works. We need a kind of "ambassador of literature," someone who we can relate to who will spread the word that literature is not dead.


3.) The U.S. literary world is centered in, and largely controlled from, New York City.

It's a shame but it's true. New York does have a stranglehold, and there's no sign they plan to give it up. I don't know what we can do about this, but we surely don't have to take it. Can you imagine for one minute how much books would cost if they weren't supporting the monumental overhead of those overpriced offices, not to mention the parties, book tours, expense account $$$, etc.

4.) The literary system is hierarchical.

My feeling: the WRITER makes the work, so the WRITER should be in charge. Name me one thing that George Plimpton wrote that will live on. Name me one thing that some fat cat in a New York high rise office building has done that compares to "Grapes of Wrath" or "Studs Lonigan."

5.) The system is dominated by those from the upper levels of American society.

Again: they own the printing presses. They own the distribution arm. They own the sales force, which might as well be selling brooms or widgets. But they DON'T own the MEANS OF PRODUCTION. Remember: only WRITERS can write books. If writers refuse to supply the product, the supply will dry up. What will they print with their printing presses? Scrapbooks?

6.) The trend in book publishing, distribution, and sales is in the direction of monopoly.

One thing we can do. Look to the 'zine world. I know that direct distribution, from creator to reader, hot off the griddle, can work wonders. The zine is the most direct, most intimate, most immediate form of print publication there is. Who needs Barnes and Nobles when there's a five hundred books in every ream of paper?

7.) Writers without connections are excluded, except for those who go to the great expense of obtaining MFA degrees, whose main purpose is to create connections for the writer.

A writer works alone. A writer should go it alone. Connections aren't literature--they may grease friendships but they don't put words on a page that stir the heart, set fire to the spirit. Thomas Beller and Hiram F. Moody III can go to a million cocktail partys--but have they ever moved one person to wonder, to reflect, to change his life. NO.


8.) Conformity and manners, in the writing and the writer, are valued over excitement.

Writers should shit in the punchbowl, not beg for the dregs from the bottom.

9.) The style and premises of writers and their writing have scarcely changed in fifty years.

Down with debased vanguardism. America is changing fast, new technologies, new views, new "norms" emerging every day. Now's the time for a new literature, forged in the heart of this new, mute country. What good is Philip Roth or Anne Beattie to the hearts and minds of Americans who work hard, who struggle to live? How does Thomas Pynchon and Don Delillo speak to those people? With pretentious game playing. It's not an adequate response to the people's needs.

10.) Dissent to things-as-they-are isn't tolerated.

No it isn't. And I say it's time to be intolerant right back.

Anonymous said...

"... most Americans can't relate to the work being published by the big houses. Now I don't know about the ULA, but when I read stuff about young hipsters in NY and LA--well, I can just watch "Friends," can't I?"

Most literature isn't about young hipsters. That's just an ignorant opinion. Go to a bookstore and read some recently published work. (Yes, there are some hyped, trendy hipsters, but that's true of any art form at any time, and they're certainly not the majority.

"We need a kind of "ambassador of literature," someone who we can relate to who will spread the word that literature is not dead."

Sure, that sounds cool. But an ambassador is someone who attracts a large audience. Underground literature by its definition does not.


"Can you imagine for one minute how much books would cost if they weren't supporting the monumental overhead of those overpriced offices, not to mention the parties, book tours, expense account $$$, etc."

Absolutely true. Not that anyone here has defended overpriced lunches.

"My feeling: the WRITER makes the work, so the WRITER should be in charge. Name me one thing that George Plimpton wrote that will live on. Name me one thing that some fat cat in a New York high rise office building has done that compares to "Grapes of Wrath" or "Studs Lonigan.""

Who claims that George Plimpton is better than Steinbeck? Nobody. He's an editor. Apples and oranges.

"If writers refuse to supply the product, the supply will dry up. What will they print with their printing presses? Scrapbooks?"

Yep, that's true, but the underground does not offer a chance for a writer to make a living. Corporate houses do. That's a choice every writer can make, though berating a writer for making that choice seems pointless.

"The zine is the most direct, most intimate, most immediate form of print publication there is. Who needs Barnes and Nobles when there's a five hundred books in every ream of paper?"
Zines are cool, but they're largely read by other zine writers. That is not a wider, more diverse audience than Rick Moody's - it's just a different one.

"Thomas Beller and Hiram F. Moody III can go to a million cocktail partys--but have they ever moved one person to wonder, to reflect, to change his life. NO."

That's bullshit. People are moved by all sorts of literature. Going to parties doesn't guarantee you literary quality, but neither does it prove you don't have any. People read the authors they like. Just because you don't like them doesn't mean nobody does.


"Writers should shit in the punchbowl, not beg for the dregs from the bottom."

Sure, but any writer who shits in the punchbowl shouldn't complain about, say, not getting invited onto a panel.

"What good is Philip Roth or Anne Beattie to the hearts and minds of Americans who work hard, who struggle to live? How does Thomas Pynchon and Don Delillo speak to those people? With pretentious game playing. It's not an adequate response to the people's needs."

If you don't like those authors, that's your opinion, but don't pretend it's "the people."

"10.) Dissent to things-as-they-are isn't tolerated.

No it isn't. And I say it's time to be intolerant right back."

Oh, you're intolerant plenty. You've just insulted a bunch of writers in a single post, and what have they done to you? Name me one way in which you aren't tolerated.

--the wandering jew

Harland said...

Great, another graduate of the King Wenclas School for Rhetorical Assassins of Straw Men.

So don't read about hipsters. Although the King would have you believe otherwise, you don't have to scratch very far beneath the surface of even the dopiest book review section to find other books. Or, like the other guy said: go to a bookstore.

James Frey? J.T. LeRoy? Really? Again? Gosh, I think when you wish for larger-than-life figures you sometimes run the risk of getting exactly what you asked for.

New York: I'm still puzzling over this particular obsession. It seems to me that many things, including much of the world's economy, is controlled from New York. Not big news. Not as if New York rode into Kansas City back in 1940 on some big raid and stole all the editors.





The means of production? Have we finally gotten beneath the carpet and the linoleum and discovered that at bottom it's all about warmed-over Marxism? King, who is this guy? Is he with you? Are you endorsing this (high school) sophomore crap?

"Who needs Barnes and Nobles when there's a five hundred books in every ream of paper?"

That's the best line of this whole exchange. Deep.

"Thomas Beller and Hiram F. Moody III can go to a million cocktail partys--but have they ever moved one person to wonder, to reflect, to change his life. NO."

Moody moved the King to change his life.


Writers should shit in the punchbowl, not beg for the dregs from the bottom.

Writers should write. And they certainly shouldn't beg for dregs after shitting in the punchbowl.

"What good is Philip Roth or Anne Beattie to the hearts and minds of Americans who work hard, who struggle to live? How does Thomas Pynchon and Don Delillo speak to those people? With pretentious game playing. It's not an adequate response to the people's needs."

The people are better off if they don't look to literature to meet their needs.

Tom Hendricks said...

"Dissent isn't tolerated " - and I add - by those who claim they oppose censors! Hypocrisy is rampant.

Tom Hendricks said...

This is an excellent ten list. May I reprint it as a Musea E-mail club weekly entry?

Pete Houston said...

The Fiction Editor of the Atlantic Monthly, came to talk at my college. I'm an aspiring writer. I went.

Turns out, I didn't fit in there. The room was packed with people from the college's MFA program (Mother Fucking Assholes, I call them). If you weren't in the program, you weren't supposed to be there listening to an editor talk about how to get published. I got lots of dirty looks.

Curtis talked a lot about the cover letter. He said you should mention where you'd gotten your MFA. IT DIDN'T EVEN OCCUR TO HIM THAT SOMEONE WHO DIDN'T HAVE AN MFA WOULD SUBMIT TO A LITERARY MAGAZINE. Someone asked him what you should put in the letter if you didn't have a writing degree, and he was baffled.

He also said the language in the story should not be too "acid" (i.e. little or no profanity), and that the characters in the stories had to act in ways that he found "recognizable." In other words, stories about people who don't act in ways "recognizable" to a stodgy, middle-aged, upper class dolt will not make it into the Atlantic. Thanks for telling me. I'm edgy, young, and from the lower middle to working class, so I won't bother submitting.

So yes, the talk was very informative. I learned that the dominant lit scene in America basically consists of a tiny coterie of extremely boring and privileged people talking to themselves. No outsiders welcome. Now I know.

Harland said...

Pete,

The Atlantic's fiction editor is not the be-all and end-all of the literary scene. He's not even representative, and considering that the Atlantic publishes about four stories a year, culled from among the usual suspects, if he was giving advice to the MFA students at your school as to how to be published in the Atlantic, he was lying to them. They won't be.

The King can rail on about conspiracy, but there are other places to publish, places where the editors aren't baffled by the prospect that some writers don't come with MFAs. I'm not saying that it's easy to publish there, especially coming in over the transom, but it's worth a try. Please do not confuse difficulty getting published with a vendetta that's being carried out against you personally and whatever it is you have to say.

King said...

??? For someone who has no readers (my stats say otherwise), we seem to have a nice little discussion going-- which in a way, is the point. Only by attacking the current system's premises can we make progress.
Many of these questions are answered in my archives-- and some will be addressed in future posts, here and on my Happy Lit blog.
UNLIKE the system's pet writers, I've made myself and my ideas accountable.