Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Literary Theater

AN INTERESTING POINT made by Wred Fright in my Three Question interview of him concerns the perils of stepping too far outside the box when promoting a literary product.

The ULA (Underground Literary Alliance), of which we're both past members, went farther in its promotion than any lit group ever has. Those raised inside a preppy bubble-- like the Eggers crowd-- were completely thrown. (Refer once again to the Tom Bissell Believer article.) Yet what the ULA did was mere literary theater-- done in the great American carny tradition from Barnum to Screaming Jay Hawkins.

The post below this one is hyperbolic-- obviously so. Hyperbole wrapped around a core of truth. Literary people have so disdained the creation of entertainment for so long they've lost all notion of how to do so. They can't recognize a story which is intentionally melodramatic, nor criticism which is purposely provocative. Should we all be super-serious Sven Birkerts and James Wood standing self-importantly behind Harvard lecterns destroying through sheer blathering dullness the minds of their students?

(The Eggers era, by the way, will someday be seen as a phenomenon of WASP chic. If you've seen one of their self-congratulatory events you'll know what I'm talking about. The Dave's well-advertised excursions into the Third World, or Third World America, pith helmet and compass, are part of this. I think The Believer will be used as a kind of zoo exhibit of a particular insular American cultural mindset.)


Patrick said...

Literary Theater? What was theatrical about it? You guys crash some readings and act like assholes? Oh, how punk! If it was me you pulled that shit on, I'd fuck you up Bill Hicks style. I'm not some timid chick-lit scribbler, I'd show you the fuckin' door right before I kick your ass out of it.

Just sayin'.

Because see, I agree with you. Reading fiction should be like a performance. It's something that should be approached with the goal of entertainment in mind. After all, anybody can stand up and read a poem or a story, but there has to be more. I mean, a great presence can make any limp prose and stilted dialogue seem like Twain, right? I don't know. It certainly makes it "feel" more fun.

And in that same vein, heckling should be more creative, more cerebral.

Anyway, for the indirect reference to me (oooh! I'm a "they!"):

"[they] can't recognize a story which is intentionally melodramatic, nor criticism which is purposely provocative."

Oh lord. Are you kidding? You sound just as pretentious and elitist as those you are "fighting" against when you say things like that. "It sucks because that was my intention!" Maybe, if you want to get readers on your side, you should write fiction that has substance and not simply condescendingly suggest that the substance is there; it's just that the people who can't see it are too stupid to see it. That's a big fucking cop-out, Wenclas, and not only that; it's indicative of your "I'm just a misunderstood genius" posturing.

Why do you go on so much about Bissell and his Believer article? How many people out there have even read the damn thing? I have, from what I've read here, and on the ULA page, I think it's fairly spot-on. Except for the rambling about the inside/outside thing. I don't care about that.

The whole world isn't against you, Wenclas. It's just that not everybody likes you.

King Wenclas said...

I use the Bissell article as example because Justin Taylor used it. It's a ridiculous article. B's speculations about myself are hilarious; my "disillusion"-- when all he'd have to have done is get a copy of my newsletter, which was well read in NYC in the mid-90's, to dispel that myth. The guy did no real research and spoke to not a one of us. It was a hatchet job, pure and simple. I have every right to disdain it, and to do so often.
Re our theater:
Well, you weren't there, so you're not able to judge the routine we put on. I should mention I know how to project my voice-- and I know how to use it to handle a crowd. (An old trick.) I used to bartend in one of the toughest saloons in Detroit and I controlled the place, when I had to, with my voice.
The ULA included some of the best lit performers around; including Mr. Fright, Crazy Carl Robinson, Ann Sterzinger, Frank Walsh, Brady Russell, Michael Grover, and many many more.
Our first big event was a debate between the ULA and the combined staffs of Paris Review and Open City, their side led by George Plimpton and Tom Beller. We destroyed them. Plimpton had the Maysles Brothers camera crew in tow, so the event, at CBGB's, was filmed-- but the footage never shown. Which says a lot.
Okay, okay, I'll agree that my writing isn't provocative. Why, then, are you provoked?
Next up on "Pop" will be another Detroit story, one I wrote this week. I'll let it sit for a week or two to see if I need to tweak it. (Maybe submit it to a workshop?) Then I'll post it. Maybe you'll find it more to your liking. Or maybe not.

King Wenclas said...

p.s. I always enjoy being heckled myself. After the ULA made noise, people heckled me at every reading I did, including poetry open mics. I loved it! I thrive on confrontation. I'm at my best when I can interact like that-- it's a great way to charge up an event.
(Recall that one of the ULA's points was the lameness of standard lit readings. We well made that one.)

Patrick said...

Bissell claims to have spoken with Jackman in the article. Quotes and all. Or did you not read that far? Also, he samples a lot of the writing from the prominent writers on the ULA website (including the manifesto). You need to do more than just CLAIM it was a "hatchet job." You need to provide evidence, because without it, all I can assume is that you attack that piece because it was the only one that bothered to do more than let you promote yourselves.

And I don't know why you take it so personally anyway, he was nicer about you than the group as a whole.

"The ULA included some of the best lit performers around; including Mr. Fright, Crazy Carl Robinson, Ann Sterzinger, Frank Walsh, Brady Russell, Michael Grover, and many many more."

I would hope all of those folks you listed are good performers because most of them aren't very good writers.

"We destroyed them. Plimpton had the Maysles Brothers camera crew in tow, so the event, at CBGB's, was filmed-- but the footage never shown. Which says a lot."

How did you destroy them? And why didn't you bring in your own camera people? Not punk or DIY enough to break rules? That sounds pretty lazy. And convenient. That you would so soundly serve up a dialectical ass-whipping and not have any evidence yourselves seems very suspect. But that's what you do, Wenclas. You claim victory even when nothing is won. When nothing has changed. Your shit's always better, and it's true because you say it's so. You gotta understand, man, that you're only a legend in your own mind.

King said...

If so, why does it bother you so much? I'd rather be that than just one more member of the literary herd.
Re Bissell: Jackman never met the man. Bissell sent him in the neighborhood of five questions by email. That was TB's sole interaction with the group.
After the article came out, both Jackman and myself wrote essays for the ULA site dismantling the piece. Jackman also sent a letter to The Believer making further points, which The Believer printed. I suggest you look it up.
Was Bissell's article coherent?
Was it accurate?
There's a difference.
For several years the ULA was the most exciting literay group on this continent. We questioned the status quo as no writers have done since. This is healthy for any art. I'll take that legend any day over the alternative.

Wred Fright said...

The Bissell essay is a howler. My favorite moment to chuckle at is where he notes that the ULA writers often don't use their real names and compares them to the Communists of the Soviet Union such as Joseph Stalin who also gave themselves new names. Um, Tom? Ever heard of a penname? I suspect most of that essay was written tongue in cheek. I was disappointed that he never mentioned me though. Patrick, thanks for including me on your list of "aren't very good writers"--I appreciate it in the spirit that any publicity is good publicity! I hope you find some writers you like!

Wred Fright said...

I did think it was lame of Bissell to call the ULA "literary terrorists" right after 9/11 when the word "terrorist" was quite, pun intended, explosive. Maybe that article wasn't so tongue in cheek after all. King, did you see that Bissell recently won a Guggenheim Fellowship? Maybe you should apply for one of those!

Harland said...

He got the Guggenheim for meritorious service against...the Underground.