Tuesday, April 27, 2010

“Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves”

The old Cher hit could’ve been the theme song of the zine explosion of the late 1990’s. In the form of the self-made zine, American writing achieved new excitement and freedom. Foremost, from a literary perspective, were the personal zines/travelogues of Aaron Cometbus, Bill Blackolive, Jen Gogglebox, Urban Hermitt, and many others. The style was the presentation of raw experience, unrefined, direct and immediate.

Zines are an example of how the kind of vehicle used to present writing—the package or product—determines the style of writing. Prominent zine writers, like Wred Fright with “Pornographic Flabbergasted Emus,” or Hermitt, or Doug Holland of “Pathetic Life,” or Cometbus, sold their art to the general public through unorthodox outlets—often to segments of that public who weren’t reading anything else. Zinesters sold through the mail, at zine readings, punk rock shows and art fairs, on buses and in coffeeshops: everywhere. Those zines which didn’t build an audience didn’t last. The criteria for survival were readability, verve, and personality: creating, and connecting with, an audience.

The situation of lit-blogs of the past ten years has been different. Lit-bloggers haven’t been of the vagabond, punk, desperado personality. They’ve not been hawking their wares out in the world. Instead they’ve been domesticated, operating through approved channels, mainstream in focus, almost obsessively conforming to the trends and touchstones of the academy. Run down the list: Maud Newton, Mark Sarvas, Daniel Green, Lee Klein, Ed Champion—one could easily list a hundred examples. Lit-bloggers without MFA’s, like myself, can be counted on one hand.

The lit-blogger audience consists of A.) suits within the publishing world; B.) other lit-bloggers.

The art, then, isn’t outward-directed, as with print-zines, but insular and inward. Inward into the existing lit-world, and into the self, both. The objective is to confirm, and conform to, the standards of the status quo. With no need to create a new audience, readability is a low priority. Often it’s scorned.

Missing is risk, originality, true creativity. The wild vagabonds of the 90’s have been replaced by conformists.


Harland said...

So, King, your literary criteria are (just to set matters straight):

Presentation of raw experience, lack of refinement, directness, immediacy, readability, verve, personality, and experience on the author's part "hawking their wares."

Don't you think now that you're turning the searchlight on "litbloggers," as opposed to the Citadel of Commercial Publishing, that it might be a good time to stop speaking in generalities? Maud Newton has a foothold, sort of, in the glitterary world of your dearest fantasies. Sarvas, well, he's published a book so I guess by your standards that makes him the coequal of Philip Roth. Champion's a crude Falstaff widely considered to be a joke, and Dan Green's a crank whose opinion-forming apparatus is about as narrow-gauged as yours (today he takes Lethem apart for not writing a sufficiently "postmodern" novel). What's the common thread linking these people? Where is Dan Green at the cocktail party? (Sitting in the wing chair -- that's a bona fide literary joke, King. Get the reference?)

King said...

Oh, I wouldn't say these are necessarily my literary "criteria." I'm pointing out the excitement that existed with the zine scene-- which was never anything more than a fairly-obscure alternative to the status quo way of doing things.
(I could argue that the zine ethos is more in-line with what had once been mainstream American literary thinking. You know-- the whole redskin/paleface debate. Lately the Henry James side of the argument has had things entirely its way.)
As far as directness, lack of refinement, etc.-- do you hold the same point-of-view toward contemporary pop/rock music? Phenomena like punk?
Of course not!
Yet once, the same attitude predominated in the musical field, where the emphasis was on musicianship over emotion and authenticity. And so, Buddy Rich's scorn that Elvis and his combo couldn't play their instruments, in his way of thinking. Or the producer of Big Brother and the Holding Company's complaint that they weren't hitting any notes!
You're incapable of seeing that yours is a system way of viewing art which, in my opinion, is at odds with the authentic American voice.
Okay, okay. Leonard Bernstein was just as authentic as Hank Williams or B.B. King. Surely. Yet until the rock revolution, the Leonard Bernsteins of music had things completely their way, with roots musicians pushed to the sidelines-- often, as in B.B. King's case, to streetcorners. Right there is where we see the similarity between zine writing and roots music. This is my point-of-view, which is surely not your point-of-view. It's a point-of-view which shouldn't be excluded from the debate.
Take the non-narrow viewpoint, as you advocate, and you'll see that this society is a collection of systems, institutions, bureaucracies, which in any field today, on any subject, have the largest voice.
The problem occurs when they seek to exclude every other voice.

Harland said...

I can't really buy your implicit argument that a mandarin prose style (e.g., that of Henry James) equals an elitist outlook. It's elitist only in that it makes demands on readers that readers are obliged to prepare themselves to meet, and they can do this regardless of where they've gone to school or whatever connection they have to "the machine." It's highly democratic to suggest that anyone willing patiently to spend a few years learning to read can "crack" the byzantine code of a James. On the other hand, it's paternalistic to suggest that reading has an instructive purpose and that this purpose is best fulfilled via "readable" and "direct" prose that conveys "raw experience." That is not prose art; it's perhaps not even journalism. And even in the case of such readably direct etc. -- e.g. Hemingway, for a famous example -- the prose is the product of highly refined technique.

You seem to suggest that technique itself is a signifier not only of class of but of class intentions (exclusivity, etc.). But I don't think that's true. I think you're conflating the natural "elitism" that inheres in the act of making art (i.e., you either get it or you don't, and the artist isn't charged with the task of explaining it to you) with the elitism that derives from -- oh, whatever you usually go on about. Ivy League education, Guggenheim Fellowships, whatever it is that you insist that "I" have. But in any case a lot of the writers you routinely deride are hardly making "elitist" art. They are in one sense or another making popular art, which is why (for example) Rick Moody's book was turned into a big budget movie, and why (for example) Dave Eggers sold a gazillion copies of his memoir, and why (for example) Jonathan Franzen's book was selected to be part of Oprah's Book Club. I don't mean to mush these guys together, but I'm grouping them because you usually do. And yes, I know it's not "fair," perhaps even is "corrupt," that, say, Franzen gets an NEA grant and Moody gets a Guggenheim, but who said life was fair?

I don't know what you mean by the "authentic American voice." From your statements along these lines over the years I've deduced that you mean a certain kind of blue-collar or proletarian fiction treating blue-collar or proletarian concerns and written by authors whose "authenticity" derives from having lived the experiences they write about. Well, I hate to be the one pointing out the memo sent about fifteen years ago that's poking out from the bottom of the stack of papers on your desk, but that sort of privileging of "authenticity" at the expense of what I, at least, would call "literariness" is the reason why some of the most pedestrian books imaginable have been showered with praise and prizes because they deal with the "authentic" depiction of this immigrant experience or the "authentic" story of being a member of this particular marginalized group, or what have you.

And, now that I think of it -- despite the fact that I don't find such books especially interesting, particularly because their "literary" value (by my lights) exists in inverse proportion to the degree of "authenticity" that they are perceived to reflect -- such books tend to muddy your idea of an "authentic American voice." To invoke such a mythical entity is to imply a degree of homogeneity in the authentic American experience that simply isn't and never has been present. When you cite music as an analogous situation it becomes especially problematic, since your blithe suggestion that "roots musicians" were "pushed to the sidelines" because of their *musical* abilities kind of grossly overlooks the usually overt racial discrimination that accompanied such marginalization.

King said...

Man, what a garbled, jargon-filled post. You're losing focus, "H."
You know what?
You really know nothing about anything.
AS important as race, if not moreso, in the exclusion of roots musicians from acceptability (until they captured the market and created their own acceptability) was class. Nat King Cole, after all, achieved mainstream acceptance because he was willing to provide a homogenized product.
There were many white roots performers who were looked down upon as well. Even Elvis, at the beginning, as I pointed out.
I suggest you reread my comment. I admit that no one branch of music, or lit, is strictly more authentic than another. I've argued for the inclusion of a particular kind of writing that today is looked down upon and confined to streetcorners. (I shouldn't be arguing that any longer-- I'm no longer fronting the ULA, ya know.)
Roots writing, like roots music, is more authentic only in this respect-- that its creation is a more natural, more organic process. The Carter family created music on their backporch. Music from the ground up. It was not imposed from on high by an academy or an office-tower bureaucracy.
In the same way, zines are created on someone's kitchen table, usually WITHOUT someone's textbook or writing professor instructing the "proper" way to write.
Any of us should've learned how to write, the basics, by high school. The rest is creativity.
Whether Johnny Cash's bass player experimenting with his guitar, or a free spirit zinester experimenting with words-- no gatekeeper looking over the shoulder-- the process is less regimented, more natural, more unhindered, more truly creative.
The difference is art from the people-- as contrasted with art imposed from on high by authority.
It shouldn't be a hard concept to grasp. I don't see why you have trouble with it.
Garage band rock-- which dominates in Detroit-- is exactly what the name implies.
Zines come from basically the same place, following the same instinctive DIY philosophy.
It's something to celebrate-- a ferment of activity, unprodded, by people who otherwise wouldn't be reading or writing.
Real outsiders.
Cutting edge in every way.

Harland said...

Yes, even Elvis, in that three-month wilderness period between his first recording session (at age 19) and his emergence as a regional star while performing on the Louisiana Hayride. Geez, King. Can you check your history?

King, you're a romantic mystic, with all the usual blind spots. Elvis Presley? Really? He's been coded "rebel" for the past fifty-five years by forces very much the same as those you constantly criticize, and you buy it.

Don't you think there are some novels out there that are created at the kitchen table without the benefit of a textbook or writing professor? Don't you think there are a lot of writers who consider their work on some level to be DIY, who are operating without a safety net?

King said...

Of course there are. I've promoted some of them-- and have ties to some like Richette who aren't zeensters at all.
Elvis's success, in two stages, was because of two unique low-rent entrepreneurs. (Three if you count Dewey Phillps.) I refer to Sam Phillips, who ran a storefront record company about as tiny as you could get. Then later came the man with the big cigar, who'd once been a carny barker.
Elvis's success was mainly due to his unnatural charisma-- his explosive energy. (And in being in the right place at the right time.)
I've long said I was looking for a "Zeen Elvis" who would put the underground over-- never found such person. That's the way it goes.
One has to recognize the vast difference between early rock n rollers and the status quo of the time. It actually took some time before the form was accepted by the intellectual class-- not until Bob Dylan came along, who eased the transition from folk among the college crowd to rock n roll.
Of course, now the intellectual snobs embrace the art, bandwagon jumpers that they are.
What can we agree on? Ed Champion? That's a start.
Your attacks are at least excusable, to a point, as you're defending your "Billionaire Boys Club" turf. You've been catered to yr entire life, and still are, so it's hard for you to adjust to those who don't genuflect.
Champion is merely a naked opportunist without principle or character.

Edward Champion said...

Well, let's see, I posted a podcast interview with Allison Amend (university press, little coverage), did an interview with Patrick Wensank not long ago about Bizarro fiction (months before HTML Giant), and have been carrying on a series in the past week called Dead Writer's Almanac, in which forgotten and dead writers (not mentioned of late in the mainstream outlets) are profiled. Sure, I also interview "mainstream" writers -- whatever the fuck that means. But you'd have to be some insufferable snob to limit your reading tastes to a rigid aesthetic. You and Sam Tanenhaus aren't really all that different, King.

Harland said...

You mean, if you could have found a zine man with the Elvis sound and the Elvis feel you could have made a million dollars?

King, honest, I don't know what you're on about. I know about Elvis' rise to fame. Everybody has to start someplace. OK? You going to tell me about the Cavern Club next? Maybe you should, because it disproves your terrific theory pretty completely. About 956,732 bands played fully in the spirit of DIY at the Cavern Club, but only one turned out to be the Beatles.

"Now the intellectual snobs embrace the art." You mean "now" as in since 1965?

Genuflect? Catered to? Really, King, who *do* you I am?

Yeah, I think we can agree on Ed. But we should take greater care because we seem to have summoned him.

King said...

What I was looking for was a writer who went beyond mediocrity.
(Mediocrity as in, say, Ed Champion.)
Myself, I'd rather be bad than mediocre. (Just me, I guess.)
We can debate the Beatles and Cavern Club all you want. If not for an aggressive promoter who believed in them and knew how to package and market them, they would've remained right where they were. They were working class Liverpool outlyers who needed someone to get them "in" to the London bureaucracy.
When Brian Epstein said the Beatles would be "bigger than Elvis" he was thought mad. That's a visionary for you.
(I'll be discussing this topic, as a matter of fact, on my "premium" blog. Too bad you'll miss it.)
The accountrements of the Fifties, which later became trademarks for the Fifties, were originally the product solely of the working/lower class-- the leather jacket j.d. attitude. B-movies especially before 1965 portrayed such individuals, for the most part, as social cretins. (Or see Sinatra's comment about "cretinous goons.") Not all that different from the way the ULA was portrayed. Note that hysterical Believer article which Justin Taylor made a big deal about. Yeah, we did a short bit of performance art at KGB and sent your crowd, H, into panic. Terrorists! The same result if I even asked a question or two at a lit event. Such is lit's refined status.
The trick when reviewing history is understanding the state of mind of the people at the time.
For instance, "Rock Around the Clock" today seems completely inocuous-- mainly because its use on generic shows like "Happy Days."
When it was used under the titles in "Blackboard Jungle" in 1955 it was a punch in the face.
About the only way to get any sense of the feeling is to listen to some of Bill Haley's earlier rock songs from a few years before, which because we haven't heard them five million times contain some of the edgy freshness they had then.
(In the same way, a Hemingway story can never have the impact now that it had in 1925.)
A question for you:
What's your opinion of the recent D.G. Myers article on Francine Prose?
To me, it's mediocrity writing about mediocrity. Mediocre writing and mediocre thinking. I'll be surprised if you don't agree.

Harland said...

Ed couldn't sell air conditioners in Hell.

But, er, wasn't Brian Epstein part of that bureaucracy, owning one of the largest music store chains in the North of England?

Wasn't my crowd, King. I probably know some of them (can't quite keep track of your literary disruptions, you know), but I mostly just have friends, not strategic partnerships. Probably to the detriment of my career, alas.

I guess that's one of the "tricks," although "the state of mind of the people at the time" is so broad that it can only be read as a subjective observation. People, most of them black, who knew the Big Joe Turner version of "Shake, Rattle and Roll" probably were pretty easily able to slip the punch that Bill Haley's version threw at them.

I didn't read it. What did he say? D.G. Myers is much too conservative a critic for me.

King said...

I was thinking of Haley's "Crazy Man Crazy," which is jazzier than Turner's slow rumble.
With history one can
A.) look at it through the prism of political correctness;
B.) try to understand what really happened.
"Rock Around the Clock" was a monster hit, thanks to the movie tie-in.
Turner's song couldn't shock America (even if it were that kind of record) if few people heard it.
This is what I told ULAers again and again-- the trick is getting the word out.
Re Epstein: The version of the myth I received was that his father owned a few applaince stores and that Brian ran a small record shop at the back of one of them. He was a very young guy himself, as a matter of fact-- enjoyed corny show tunes, but was open to new kinds of art. (By new, I don't mean recycled avant-garde from the 1920's. . . .)
Nice dodge of the Prose question. Is she an embarrassment to the Insider crowd???

Harland said...

Of course she's not an embarrassment. She's our leader, and we fight and die on the burning sands for her.