Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Reactionary Aristocrat

THE LITERARY ARISTOCRAT-- Rick Moody, say, or the demi-puppet "Harland," his alter-ego-- demands a literary system which is regulated and comprehensible; protective of, and beholden to, privilege. A world where privilege in the form of the casual and connected amateur (think George Plimpton) is the highest value. This person embraces the "little," the seemingly-but-not-really independent, as long as it follows rigid conditions.

Such overseers want an alternative literature which is controlled from the top; which mimics, in its words and ideas, establishment literature. This makes it no alternative at all. They have the puppetmaster's mentality, which is to connect strings to the most random and radical of endeavors; strings like CLMP, or Young Lions, or the nature of the 501c3 law, which in practice at a certain level demands that the wealthy oversee the enterprise and take control.

This explains the differing viewpoints of myself and them toward PEN-- whether PEN is to be run democratically by the membership, from below; or from the PEN office, through secretive meetings like the one outlined in the post above. It's no wonder that "Harland" wears a mask. He stands for the old, clubby and corrupt ways of the literary world. Yet why shouldn't the operations of PEN stand exposed, open to the world? Why the Kremlin walls?

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Smelly Bums

In a debate with an unknown person at the blog, I was characterized as a smelly bum. This is the rationale for ignoring my point-by-point criticisms of the PEN organization. Unfair, of course, and revealing of the literary establishment mindset. Then again. . . .

This morning on the way to a job, I stopped at a Starbucks for a cup of hot tea. As I was giving my order, what could only be described as a smelly bum walked in-- carrying a large blanket-- and took a seat at a table. The apparent manager told him right away that he'd have to buy a coffee or leave. She didn't say, "Can I get you anything?" first. The air of hostility toward the man, from the staff and customers, was palpable.

The homeless man looked at her, not saying anything, as she went on with her work. It occurred to me that the man wasn't playing by the rules. What's more, his very presence in the shop, looking as he did, was a violation of the rules. Rightly or wrongly, the bourgeois territory is very regulated-- regulated not by any posted list of what not to do, but by the rigid, trained personalities of the staff and customers. It just wasn't done. THEY had to follow the unspoken rules of behavior and protocol, and so should the bum.

I realized that to well-trained PEN people I must indeed appear to be a "smelly bum," as what I do-- my questions, my probings into the nature of their world-- is breaking the rules. Even the most analytical of literary critics, Sven Birkerts or James Wood, would never dare glance at the workings of the literary machine itself. They've been trained not to. If they ever did, it would be in roundabout fashion, in a way which could never expose or offend anyone. They're the well-dressed customers in a coffeeshop, standing in line, waiting their turn, not speaking too loudly, or on the other hand not forgetting to speak at all; always pulling out in timely fashion their credit cards or Starbucks cards and having the proper "Spanish Mocha Rasperry Latte" word ready to be produced on cue.

I didn't wait around to see how the situation with the homeless man resolved itself. I had to get to work.

About Liu Xiaobo

We've seen how the people at PEN American Center handle dissidence in the U.S. They don't! They turn their backs on it.

Which is what makes PEN's recent award to Chinese dissident writer Liu Xiaobo so hypocritical. If PEN staff and officers were in China, they'd be members of the one-viewpoint literary system there. They would be part of the bureaucratic monolith treating him like a pariah for speaking uncomfortable truths. Can there be any doubt of this? (The writer-bureaucrats might even refer to him in a derogatory way as "a smelly bum.")

If none of them will speak up for a milder dissident here, and risk possible smudge on their career, in a less authoritarian system, why would anyone believe these conformists would speak up about ANYTHING if they were approved writers in China? The idea is absurd.

Friday, May 29, 2009

The Ring of Plutocracy

THERE EXISTS today in the literary world interlocking relationships between major New York City nonprofits: PEN American Center; National Book Critics Circle; Council of Literary Magazines and Presses; National Book Foundation; Guggenheim; and Young Lions among them. All seem to be under the influence of New York finance. (See my two-part series, "Big Money Takes Over the Small Press World," from 2006 at the Monday Report box at

It certainly is a literary establishment, when you consider that these entities have strong relationships with book conglomerates like Time-Warner on one hand, and on the other hand with major publicity outlets, mass circulation magazines like the New Yorker. No one inside the system will report on this, because the reporters are participants. In other words, they're bought off.

The connected organizations are a Ring of Plutocracy, of literary New York, which thinks and acts in lockstep.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

The PEN Monolith

We see from establishment literary people a monolithic view of American literature; a view of it which is elitist, New York-centric, which happens to perfectly align with the needs of the multinational book conglomerates, and is completely intolerant of any dissenting viewpoint. (PEN members are supposed to love dissent.)

Do you see the alternate view of American literature appearing anywhere? In approved lit journals? In public forums? In magazines which cover literature? The New Yorker? Poets and Writers? New York Review of Books? New York Times? PEN itself will not respond to any criticism of its organization.

The attitude is that the view of underground renegades like myself is not valid, and therefore SHOULD NOT BE NOTICED. Think about the implications of this.

Yet I can more than hold my own in debate with anyone from the established camp. Read the entirety of my blog and see that I make a strong case for the alternative view. These are new ideas which are healthy for our literature. They present the excitement of the new. Yet they're not allowed to be noticed.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

PEN Yacht Parties

Everything that the "libertarian-egalitarian wing" of PEN American Center years ago once feared has come true many times over. PEN, beneath its progressive posturing, has turned into a plaything for rich people. This was shown most infamously with last year's drunken yacht party. (See ).

This affair was part of PEN's hyper-expensive 2008 "World Voices" festival. We can legitimately ask how much of the half-million-dollar-plus budget for the festival was spent on this one event. HOW MUCH on the cases of champagne? HOW MUCH for amply stocked party trays? HOW MUCH to rent, of all things, the Queen Mary?

The participants included some of the wealthiest, most connected writers in America. Not quite socially-conscious behavior for what's supposed to be a "public charity."

It's one more example of how a clique of privileged writers have been scamming, through the manipulation of non-profit charities, this entire decade. I was one of a group of writers who began blowing the whistle on these prep-school deck-shoe criminals in 2000. For a few years we succeeded in throwing a spotlight on the hogs of the U.S. literary scene.

The result? The hogs were rewarded with ever more opportunity to pursue their gluttonous greed, while WE the whistleblowers were ostracized. Even PEN, supposed voice of literary conscience, has become an aristocratic toy: vehicle for blackballing of downtrodden writers who speak up; yacht parties for America's richest and greediest. PEN now embodies the worst of this country's inequities.

The question is whether the PEN staffers and members of conscience who remain will take back control of, and reform, the once-credible organization.
(Please forward.)

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Feedback II

I've also had an exchange of several emails with a leading lit-blogger-- one whose role is to hype and legitimize the system. In his emails he gave rationalizations for staying uninvolved, and for PEN's stonewalling; he focused not on the staggering control and corruption I've outlined, but on the one or two things PEN and Random House get right; and he shows a striking inability, like most status quo writers and sycophants, to see the publishing houses within context within gigantic media empires. Finally, this blinkered individual states that he too has on occasion spoken up against the literary establishment, giving as his example that he protested the registering of IDs for PEN's yacht parties.

Wow. IDs at yacht parties. YACHT PARTIES!!!

Can anything else better show what PEN has become-- or the insularity of establishment literary people in New York?

(A revealing look at one of PEN's yacht parties is at )

The Petition to PEN is at

Note the differing perspectives.

Friday, May 22, 2009

The Literary Train

David Haglund, the Captive PENster whose integrity and independence are being held hostage by PEN American Center, discussed formerly underground and now dead Latin American author Roberto Bolano at the PEN's main blog at
This brings up an interesting point. Five years ago no one in the U.S. had heard of Mr. Bolano. Then one of the book giants decided to publish one of the man's novels, and initiated the usual p.r. assault. Dutifully, the ENTIRE conventional literary world followed along. It had suddenly become acceptable, even mandatory, to discuss the man. Literary critics and lit-journals like N+1 have since jumped to go along. It's a demonstration of the workings of the monolith.

In the same way, the monolith has decided to stonewall the Petition to PEN matter,
and all the many credible criticisms which have been made on this blog about the PEN organization. Obediently, the entire literary system, like cattle, follow orders. This alone proves many of my arguments.

Or as the bureaucratic maxim says, "When the word comes down, get on the train."


As support slowly grows for the Petition to PEN at
I've received a dash of feedback regarding some of my arguments, including a brief discussion at Tom Hendricks's Musea blog,
Some interesting points. The other side is not without its arguments. Why aren't they being made?

Granting Pollock's grant-- what do we do with Cormac McCarthy? How large have been his book advances?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

PEN 2009 Awards

(I haven't finished analyzing the 2007 awards yet!)

A quick look at some of PEN American Center's 2009 payouts:
1.) $25,000 to Cormac McCarthy. Amazing. PEN is a public charity. Cormac McCarthy is one of the most successful authors in America.
2.) $35,000 to Donald Ray Pollock. Pollock's a working class guy who obtained a MFA in middle-age. (Why he believed this necessary, and whether this affected his art, is another story.)
The key point is that Pollock is published by Random House, and is currently receiving a p.r. push by the giant book company. PEN has made itself an extension of a Random House (really, Bertlesmann) publicity campaign.
3.) $10,000 each to Steve Coll and Richard Brody. Both work for the New Yorker mag, which is the center of the literary establishment: Brody as an editor; Coll writing a blog for them. Steve Coll is President and CEO of New America Foundation, and former Managing Editor of the Washington Post. PEN continues rewarding the establishment, maybe because it now IS the establishment.
4.) The "Beyond Margins" recipients will be announced at the awards ceremony today. They're treated as an afterthought. Do we dare ask what makes them "Beyond Margins" in PEN's eyes? Images of Hattie McDaniel at the back of the room at the 1939 Oscar ceremony.

Monday, May 18, 2009


Tomorrow I'll post a quick look at PEN's 2009 awards. When examining PEN it's really a matter of too much information-- too many points to make about the corruption of the organization. There are three main areas: 1.) PEN's egregious awards; 2.) PEN's hyper-expensive galas and readings; 3.) PEN's stonewalling and blackballing. Then this toxic mix needs to be put into context within today's established literary scene. Stay tuned.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

PEN Stonewalling


Carl Rollyson, on page 336 of his Susan Sontag bio, describes how PEN's Karen Kennerly and Michael Roberts in 1998-99 refused to answer Rollyson's letters to them when he was researching his book. PEN is a public organization, yet the policy of the last two Executive Directors has been to stonewall issues they're uncomfortable with.

IS THERE a rogue, dictatorial element in charge at PEN American Center? If not, why aren't PEN staffers and members allowed to speak?

Unfortunately for Michael Roberts, this is no longer 1999. There's now the prevalence of the Internet, which makes it far easier to document and publicize his kind of authoritarian behavior-- behavior so clearly contrary to everything PEN is supposed to represent.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The David Haglund Watch


On May 7th I posted a remark on PEN staffer David Haglund's officially-approved PEN America blog
( ).
A few days later I posted a follow-up. It's now Day 6 and I've received no response. I'm curious to see how long it'll take before he answers my comments, if he does. (PEN itself, of course, has been stonewalling the "Petition to PEN" matter for much longer.)

PEN is beginning to resemble a comedy routine.

The last several days I've posted comments on five blogs run by PEN members, which are attached to PEN's main site (, on the topic of PEN's half-a-million dollar World Voices Festival. Like Haglund, not one of the five PEN persons has yet dared reply to my comments. PEN is appearing more and more like a cult. My essay, "End of the Pods," at a while back may have been right.

I envision Haglund and the five PEN bloggers sitting in a room like plants waiting for someone to tell them to do something. Obviously they need permission.

It could be they're just not allowed to communicate in any way with non-PEN writers. The price of PEN membership? But what happens if they meet a non-PEN writer on the street? What then?

Think of the dilemma. Do they scamper across the street to avoid the person? Do they run in the other direction? Do they look for an open manhole? Do they throw themselves to the ground yelling "Mayday! Mayday!"

It's not easy being a PEN member.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

New York Posh

That PEN American Center blithely continued its round of parties these past weeks while the nation battles economic calamity shows how out-of-touch New York's literary socialites truly are. In their skyscraper high-rise glamorous lives they've lost all proportion. PEN's staff spawned from Harvard and Oxford bubbles have always been insulated from the harsher realities of life. They remain so now.

But after all, this is the same city that wants to charge $2600 to see a baseball game. Its mayor is a multi-billionaire. It's a sick city of stupendous wealth and layers of poverty, the most hierarchical city which ever existed. PEN people, the N.Y. literati, circulate through its upper reaches.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

When Did PEN Lose Its Soul?

There's a fascinating chapter in Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon by Carl Rollyson and Lisa Paddock (2000), which discusses the transformation of PEN American Center in the 80's and 90's.

"PEN had been a small organization precisely because it drew money largely from writers who did not have that much to give. This was not perceived as a failing. Indeed, to the young Susan Sontag, shabbiness was a writer's badge of honor."

(How things have changed!)

In truth, PEN was never as democratic as it should've been, as its ideals purported it to be. In 1985 though it began an urgent embrace of New York's big money players. Ironically, Susan Sontag, like Norman Mailer before her, became one of the enablers of this embrace.

Mailer and Sontag had credibility as well-known literary radicals, albeit radicals owned by book companies, who were entranced by the allurements of celebrity and power.

This became evident by the time Susan Sontag became President of PEN in 1987:

"--Ted Solotaroff, the renowned editor of American Review, where Sontag had published some of her fiction, 'worried that the current leadership increasingly has the look of a Politburo.' But little was done to address his concerns. In the previous fifteen years PEN had become a much larger organization. It now held an 'indispensable Benefit Dinner' each year to solicit funds from the moneyed class. The first one Sontag would preside over would be at the Hotel Pierre."

Other biographers, such as Sohnya Sayres in Susan Sontag: The Elegaic Modernist (1990), are less critical of Sontag:

"Considering the spectacle of PEN's latest appearance on the society page, dined by the fabulously rich, I suppose Sontag's brokerage could take on real clout."

Rollyson and Paddock document the dissension within PEN ranks (and from others) over the years, quoting James Purdy, George Garrett, and Seymour Krim denouncing PEN's elitism. When the big move toward New York money players began in 1985, "--the libertarian-egalitarian wing of PEN loathed the organization's new ties to its big-money financial backers." By the time the final outcry over this happened in 1997 (see "PEN Background" post below), the bedding by New York finance was entrenched. Like the horse being taken away to the glue factory in Orwell's "Animal Farm," the realization of what had occurred came too late.

The constant from 1985 to 1997 as PEN changed was PEN Executive Director Karen Kennerly. (The Executive Director is supposed to work for the writers in the membership and on the board.) The Rollyson-Paddock book suggests Kennerly was the real power behind PEN during this time period.

Whose interests did Karen Kennerly represent? Those of American writers? PEN American Center today is an expression of chic New York financial people, the book conglomerates, and their causes. Karen Kennerly, incidentally, now works as a Manhattan real estate broker.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Thanks, Zmag

There's a chip in the monolith of stonewalling about the Petition to PEN matter. Zmag has kindly covered the issue on their website, under News Briefs. (Click on link and scroll down.)

They do a good job of summarizing some of the facts of the case. However, many more examples and arguments are to follow. See post immediately below this one, and watch for its follow-up.