Thursday, September 30, 2010

Wimpiest Writer in America


Who's the wimpiest writer in America?

At the moment I'd give David Sedaris that designation, though there must be other candidates. (John Hodgman comes to mind.)

A security guard at an airport asked Sedaris to remove his vest, and he became out of sorts. Oh my! Hand-wringing. Such a traumatic experience. She was so mean! "I'm going to turn her into a rabbit," he proudly exclaims now after the terrible encounter, referring to his new book of un-fabled animal fables. What would the guy do if he were in a real confrontation? I hesitate to think about it.

John Hodgman reminds me more of the original wimp, namely, Wimpy from the Popeye cartoons. I can see Hodgman cornering people in alleyways, saying, "I'll gladly pay you on Tuesday for a hamburger today!"

Jonathan Franzen surely needs to up there on the list somewhere. Who else?
Yes, sixty years ago there were likely too many macho Hemingway-wannabe writers around, but the pendulum certainly has swung too far the other way. This for an art, American literature, that traditionally distinguished itself by its vigorous characters, settings, and sounds.

Say what you will about the Underground Literary Alliance, but it sought to get back to American roots writing by promoting some of the more vigorous writers around, notably, Wild Bill Blackolive. Our women writers, from the print underground, were tougher than most of today's men. Even our trannies were tough!

We lost. The wimps and fakirs of American letters continue to occupy first place. Such is literature's sad state. (Never fear: the foppish aristocrats will soon enough go by the wayside.)

New Planet Found

Where do I sign up? Book me on the first flight out!

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Knot

Most writers spend their time trying to unravel the Gordion Knot. Few will take Alexander's approach to it. Yet until they do, neither they nor literature itself will move forward.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Lit at NPR

I seldom listen to NPR radio. It’s on the order of the BBC World News: the Imperialist viewpoint. This morning, though, I listened to the local station, WHYY, on and off, flipping back and forth to an AM sports station.

NPR, frankly, is bad radio. It has tepid bumper music interspersed between announcers who sound like they grew up in uptight WASP households where no one was allowed to raise their voice. They’re every moment being careful not to too much raise their voices. Evenly modulated.

There was a smidgen of local and national news, a promo for a discussion about the “Fundamentalist threat to democracy” (I suspect they weren’t referring to Islam), then a story from Pakistan. I went back to sports. When I returned to NPR a reporter from Moscow with an upper-class Brit accent was talking about the political situation in Russia. I went back to sports. Then, a bit later, I gave NPR another shot.

The announcer was interviewing a woman writer about what seemed to be a children’s book. At least, it was about fables. The author stressed that there were no morals in these fables, the gist being that concepts of good-and-bad or learning something useful were outdated. The woman used an example of what not-to-do, feeling good about yourself if you were well. Presumably no should feel good, especially if it’s to the detriment of others. We’re all the same, ya know, even if we’re not. The new kind of fables sounded horrible. She added that she didn’t think much of plot.

At the end of the interview the interviewer gave the woman writer’s name: David Sedaris. I’d been faked out. I flipped back to sports.

(See the link at )

Sunday, September 26, 2010

It’s a Hoax, Right?

IF Jonathan Franzen indeed used any of his ill-gotten 2002 NEA grant money on the writing of his novel Freedom, American taxpayers should ask for their money back.

I didn’t read the novel—it’s too expensive. I did stand in a chain bookstore for more than thirty minutes yesterday perusing a few chunks of it. I wanted to see if I was being fair to the book’s author. Maybe he’d surprise me. He did. The book is worse than I expected. The effect is like being promised a full course dinner, then when the cover to the silver platter on the dinner table is lifted you’re presented with a single pea.

I was looking for ideas. A book presented as a great novel should contain deep, sweeping, or striking ideas. The ideas in Freedom are so ridiculous that for a moment I wondered if I was being put on. I asked myself whether the work was a parody of a great novel. I considered whether the hyper-promotion accompanying the book’s publication was a giant hoax, like the hysteria of manmade global warming theory but on an only slightly smaller scale.

The problem isn’t merely that the discussions about issues are superficial and sophomoric, or that the issues are highly questionable—overpopulation, and the destruction of birds by cats!?! The issues are dramatically unexciting. They impinge only tangentially on the lives of the characters—or so it appears in my quick reading—and are hardly necessary for creating narrative drive. They’re not compelling issues, are they?

Polemics in a novel can be a good thing but only if the polemics are used properly. Ayn Rand is nothing but polemics and the polemics are on every page, necessary for the very existence of the work, the issues an intrinsic part of the characters’ lives, and so her novels burst with energy. In Frank Norris’s The Octopus, a truly great novel, the issue for the ranchers involved is one of their very survival. They also connect with the larger theme of colliding economic forces which toss human beings to the side. The speeches in the book are compelled by the story.

In contrast, the discussions in Freedom come across as a bunch of comfortable rich people talking. Cats killing birds isn’t quite a life-and-death matter. It’s more on the order of rich-guy-is-bored-with-his-life kind of thing, so again, perhaps the book is satire, and maybe I should give it a full reading, if the book for a moment appeared interesting enough for a full reading.

Where ideas in literature are concerned, we’ve come a long way from Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, haven’t we? Maybe the educated class killing off God wasn’t such a good idea.

I have no doubt that some people in our society actually hold ideas as portrayed in Freedom. As I mention in the post below this one, Franzen’s novel resembles By Love Possessed by James Gould Cozzens with its WASPy main character filled with cranky upper-class paranoia about the changing world. In Franzen’s case the paranoia is about too many poor people having too many babies—and their accompanying population of cats!

It’s to laugh, it’s to laugh.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Why Jonathan Franzen Can't Be a Great American Novelist

Jonathan Franzen's splash of success with his novel Freedom is reminiscent of the attention given upper-class author James Gould Cozzens in 1957 upon the publication of his novel By Love Possessed. Like Franzen, Cozzens wrote a big book and was given the vaunted Time magazine cover, which was possibly worth more than it is now. The novel went to the top of the best seller list. 53 years later, Cozzens and his ambitious book are all but forgotten. In truth, the book wasn't all that good, albeit better than most novels published now.

The difference between Cozzens then, and Franzen today, is that James Gould Cozzens had already written a great novel, Guard of Honor, about the politics and personalities on a U.S. Air Force base during World War II.

What should we expect from a Great American Novel? Surely that its underlying theme be America itself; that the artwork display a knowledge of how this great civilization we're privileged to live in operates. America is the mightiest civilization in human history. How did it become that? What makes it that? These are questions which need to be asked and answered.

American power, wealth, and influence come from the attitude of those who've led America and those who've worked for it on its many levels. They come from American ability at organization. This gave America its ability to outproduce any society that's been known, gave the nation its unstoppable power. We've been the better developed bee hive.

Guard of Honor is one of the few novels written about America which implicitly understood this. America's story is a story of work. It's about bureaucracy, which so dominates our activities and our thoughts. Cozzens, in using the Air Force as his focus, gets to the heart of the creation of American empire. He wrote at the dawn of that empire. Its last scene, of a General and his aide watching a mighty "flying fortress" rising into the nighttime air, expresses that sudden role. The Air Force has been the major expression of American influence the past 70 years. It has bombed countries at will, unopposed, to enforce Pax Americana. It delivered in 1945 the atomic bomb upon the world.

Before the war Cozzens had been, like Franzen, virtually a hermit-- though as far as I know he never watched birds! The war brought out more of Cozzens' talents, putting his creative and analytical mind to use.


Cozzens served in the USAAF Office of Information Services. "One of his functions was in controlling news, and it became Cozzens' job to defuse situations potentially embarrassing to the Chief of the Army Air Forces, Gen. Henry H. Arnold. In the course of his job he became arguably the best informed officer of any rank and service in the nation, a major by the end of the war."

Cozzens was yanked from his complacent station and thrust into the middle of the System's most active and cutting edge service. He was given several hectic years observing the hive and its workers and leaders up close-- then put that experience into a book. He knew his subject as thoroughly as Herman Melville knew whaling and ships.

There've been few great American novels because the novelist needs to be more than a writer. He needs to be both extrovert and introvert to create such a thing, to use both sides of his brain, the practical and the artistic. Scott Fitzgerald came close with "Gatsby" in portraying a different kind of American from Cozzens' Air Force officers. He was portraying a different era of American history, that of the freebooting roughnecked business pioneer, the dreams of empire and success. Cozzens wrote about the realization of the dream on a massive scale. Fitzgerald might have written a great novel with his last book, had he lived longer. He was writing about an industry from the inside-- an industry whose function was the creation of dreams. But he didn't live long enough.

Being from the more affluent parts of a society need not be a handicap to understanding that society. Properly utilized, it might be a benefit. In the 19th century aristocrats were involved in running society at the highest levels. Many put the insights and experiences gained to use in their works.

The Great American Novelist, should such an animal truly come our way, would have to at some point in his life be truly involved in the muck and fire of the Machine, amid its gears, feeling its furnace heat, hearing up close its chaotic clashing gear noise. It's not something which can be gained by watching birds in a backyard or by viewing media events on TV.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Power of the Machine

In contemporary America, being “educated” in the liberal arts doesn’t mean having much knowledge of history and economics, along with an understanding of the philosophical foundations of our (Western) civilization. It means instead being indoctrinated into the codes, mores, and pet theories of the Machine. Being a literary intellectual means reading The New Yorker and The Believer and listening to “This American Life” on NPR.


The Machine in the person of individuals like Lev Grossman at Time magazine is full of its own power. After all, they almost single-handedly created Obama and with him defeated the then-strongest political brand, Clinton. Creating the “Great American Novelist” in the public’s mind in comparison is child’s play. Upper-class author Jonathan Franzen is the Great American Novelist because the Machine says he is. In today’s society, nothing else is required. And anyway, his novel “Freedom” looks like a great novel. It’s big enough. Inside there’s a facsimile of what a great novel should be like. A lot of chapters and people. The book will sit on many thousands of bourgie coffee tables, read or unread. If the buyers of the impressive product ever thought about it—they won’t—they’d wonder why they bought it.


The Machine in its literary manifestation is more than a combination of academia and giant media conglomerates, in which freshly indoctrinated secular priests from elite universities are shuttled into the corridors of decision-making power at the book giants. In on the action are entities such as nonprofit media like NPR, and even the federal government, which pose as alternative but are anything but. And so, Terry Gross interviews the Machine’s Jonathan Franzens, adding to the buzz. The National Endowment for the Arts gives its limited largesse to Machine writers—as it gave money to Franzen at the occasion of his first big media-hype splash in 2002. They’ll be celebrating Jonathan Franzen the anointed Great American Novelist in their Pavilion in Washington D.C. this Saturday—an appropriate city to do so if you think about it. (You won’t.)


The most important, revealing, and duplicitous television commercial of all time was the famous “Big Brother” ad for Apple which aired only once during a Super Bowl in 1984. What it was telling viewers was the opposite of what it was actually doing. What it was doing, on the prime vehicle for media reach, TV, was encouraging the public to buy products that would further increase the amount of artificial electronic noise surrounding and going into their minds. That’s why it aired—an early step in the process of having people buy Apple (or some brand) everything: pc’s Iphones Ipods Ipads etc etc etc. Electronic media: devices to deliver messages from the Machine. AT THE SAME TIME the commercial was telling the future buyer that by doing so he/she was asserting his/her freedom. Completely Orwellian. We see today our intellectuals asserting their intellectual independence by consuming the Machine’s “alternative” media, like reading The Believer and listening to “This American Life,” or buying the Great American Novelist’s book “Freedom.”


When one looks at or encounters the new generation of writers, one finds them congenitally incapable of questioning anything. Read their main sites like HTML Giant and you’ll see there a combination of relentless trivia, sillyness, and babytalk. They’re like pet turtles or hamsters kept in a shoe box, never having been trained to look outside the box.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Members of the Club


At the National Endowment for the Arts Pavilion this Saturday in D.C. you'll encounter not just grant scammer Jonathan Franzen, but a collection of other bonded and branded literary Insiders. Most of the names are Insider's Insiders like Thomas Mallon, Gail Godwin, Elizabeth Alexander, and Jane Smiley. Even the younger, less well-known writers who'll be appearing with Franzen are fully members of the approved Club.

I looked at two of them. Natasha Trethewey is an African-American symbol of diversity. Yet even she is the typical well-educated System person put forward as representative of contemporary literature. Trethewey received her Masters at Hollins, "where her father is a professor of English."

Allegra Goodman's father taught philosophy at the University of Hawaii, where her mother taught biology, directed the Womens Studies program, and served as Vice President for Academic Affairs. Her mother then became the first woman Dean of Arts and Sciences at Vanderbilt while her father accepted a position in Vanderbilt's philosophy department.

What's the point?

A.) These writers well know how to access the System. Again, as I've been discussing on this blog, it's about the literary bureaucracy.
B.) The minds of these two writers grew up within the System and have never left it. Can we expect them to be able to think outside that System? Can we believe they know much of anything about what average Americans are going through right now?

All of these showcased writers live within comfortable bubbles. They represent monothink: the point of view of the liberal privileged, which means, for the literary art, the same-old same-old that's been shoved at us the last forty years or more. This is Tops-Down literature, imposed from above. I don't know who these writers think they'll be speaking to on Saturday, but it's not Americans as a whole. You can believe that they'll be speaking to simply more comfortable people-- mirror images of themselves.

Yet it should be the job of the WRITER, if anyone, to truly and honestly know his country, the pains and dilemmas and heartaches of those who inhabit it. America is a vast place. A huge nation. We need voices who represent more than a tiny sliver of it. We need organic literature, not imposed from parasitic out-of-touch bureaucracies like the National Endowment for the Arts, but coming from the ground up, from the American people themselves. This was what the DIY zeen revolution of ten years ago was about, attempting to bring authentic roots writers to the forefront. We've already had enough preciously privileged rich guy Jonathan Franzens, thank you.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Letter to NEA Chairman

Directly below is a copy of a letter I emailed to Rocco Landesman, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, regarding Mr. Franzen’s appearance at this Saturday’s National Book Festival on the mall in Washington D.C. I’ve also sent a copy of the letter to the department at the Library of Congress overseeing the festival. I await a response.


To Rocco Landesman, Chairman, National Endowment for the Arts

Dear Sir,
Isn't it a scandal that in this time of huge federal deficits, with accompanying public outrage, the NEA is celebrating author Jonathan Franzen as part of the National Book Festival this Saturday, without asking him to return his ill-gotten 2002 NEA grant??
It was a mini-scandal at the time, but seems to have been conveniently forgotten, dropped down the memory hole.
See the posts and links at
A few starving writers and burdened taxpayers were outraged then, that a millionaire writer was awarded public money he didn't need, and which he stated wouldn't be used for the intended purpose.
We should all still be outraged.
Karl Wenclas


NEA Embraces Corruption?

INSTEAD of having Jonathan Franzen give back his ill-gotten unneeded 2002 National Endowment of the Arts grant, we find out instead that they're celebrating him, by having Franzen read in their pavilion during the National Book Festival in Washington D.C. this September 25th. What up with that? Few can disagree that his award was one of the most questionable of any in the NEA's history, based on the fact he was making millions at the time, and he made some questionable statements to questions about what he would do with the money. Again, see a good summary of the matter from the time at

Could the timing possibly be worse? The federal government is broke to the max, trillions in debt, millions of tea partiers are expressing outrage, and in the midst of it, the NEA throws a swanky celebration centered, in part, on a major lit-corruption poster boy. Are they insane? Where's Marie Antoinette? Or Nero with his fiddle? Can anyone BUT conclude that the whole gang needs to be run out of town as quickly as possible?

Saturday, September 18, 2010

WANTED: For Defrauding the Public


See the story at

Let this privileged author give back the 2002 NEA grant now! There can no longer be any excuse. Follow the example of football player Reggie Bush, Mr. Franzen, who gave back his Heisman award. Can a millionaire writer do less than a millionaire sports star?

(We have to hit Franzen’s little-seen conscience while he’s flush with bucks.)

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Corruption Enablers


Here are a few of the journalists who did major stories on Jonathan Franzen recently without mentioning his egregious 2002 NEA grant problem:

David Ulin, L.A. Times
Jocelyn McClurg, USA Today
Lev Grossman, Time Magazine
Jennie Yabroff, Newsweek
John Barber, Toronto Globe and Mail
William Skidelsky, The Guardian (UK)

Given the amount of press attention Mr. Franzen is receiving, I could name many others. The question is why the established media are ignoring this aspect of Franzen's public history, when any cursory examination should come up with the information. It's at least as relevant to the matter of Jonathan Franzen as the overblown Oprah carnival. In fact, the NEA scandal gets to the heart of how the American literary world operates. I'll speculate that these distinguished alleged journalists are more in the nature of well-presented shills whose actual purpose is to sell products. The NEA story might damage the Franzen product in a way the Oprah silliness never could. There's nothing wrong at all with sales, with ballyhoo, with carnival barkers in straw hats and colorfully striped shirts. These "journalists" writing glorified p.r. releases should simply be up front about what they are.

(Now that Franzen is rolling in the bucks, is it too much to ask for him to pay back to the broke federal government that ill-gotten NEA grant?)

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Lit versus Sports

The realm of sports is not only five-thousand times better at marketing itself than American lit is, it's also more aggressive at rooting out corruption in its ranks. Who would ever think that would be the case?

Witness star millionaire football player Reggie Bush having to give his Heisman Trophy back.

Yet when will star millionaire writers like Jonathan Franzen return their ill-gotten awards?

Note that with all the many articles about Jonathan Franzen in recent weeks, not one, that I know of, has mentioned his accepting an NEA grant in 2002-- taxpayer money intended to allow struggling writers the ability to write. See the link at

Mainstream media have focused on superficial media events like Franzen's minor dispute with Oprah, yet have studiously and curiously ignored real-world literary corruption involving the dude.

Why is this, do you think? Any idea?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Collapse of the Status Quo


First is the smashing victory of outsider Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell over Mike Castle and the Republican Party Establishment in Delaware. The media, of course, continues to see the current political upheaval solely in terms of their Column A Column B acceptable choices, when the real message is American citizens taking back their democracy.

Second, we have the Peter Dobrin article in yesterday's Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper about the ongoing collapse of the Philadelphia Orchestra. The story is accessible here--

Writers please note: Literature has been following the embed-yourself-in-the-academy classical music model when it doesn’t have to. It’s a failed strategy. Classical music, by the nature of the art, has no choice. Writers do.

Mr. Dobrin could take note of the third story—today’s announcement that the Philadelphia Inquirer, along with the Philadelphia Daily News, has been put back on the auction block. Physician, heal thyself!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Stepping Outside the Box

THERE WILL BE NO PROGRESS in the standing of literature as long as writers are unwilling to step outside their box, to see the art as the non-writer sees it. They're as enclosed in their wonderfulness as were the executives at General Motors before their crash, assuring themselves of how good were their products. Within the world of literature, Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace are great writers, even though their art is designed for writers, for critics and professors, not the public. The standard of value, and the entire package of "literature" within which that standard is placed, are wrong.

I heard a commercial on radio this morning which mocked the supposed dullness of opera. At its best, opera is an amazing, wonderful art-- but its branding, its image, has become so staid it turns off the general public. This is the situation literature is devolving toward. Being enclosed within the academy, not knowing how to create a truly exciting product, is part of that.

Those writers first to break away from the mindless pack will transform the business and the art.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Breaking the Machine


Everybody hates the Machine. They hate the Machine in all its manifestations. We'll see this with the elections in two months. If the State tries to draw too much power unto itself, people eventually rebel against it.

The current literary system is becoming an extreme version of the Machine. It resembles one of those East European countries during the Soviet era, when the bureaucrats walked around with chests full of medals announcing their importance. Note today's literary writers, how their bios are an endless list of credits, this degree or that one; listings of publication in unread publications; most important of all, the various grants and awards signalling arrival within the System as a true Insider. The credits have replaced the art. No one cares, really, about the art, not to mention the art's connection with the living culture of society. That's why you'll see no mention of American literature by the lead apparatchiks of the Machine. American literature? What's that? The System's purveyors and participants seek to obliterate all distinctions and any distinction among the actual writing. There's widespread conformity/competence, with occasional nods to approved "avant-garde" behavior, Surrealism, say, which was cutting edge a century ago and whose rebellious distinction was long ago absorbed by the Machine and has lost all meaning.

The only way for the writer today to stand out is to reject the Machine. To move outside the System's mental and physical boxes in order to reconnect the literary art with the mass of the people. To take literature out of its castles and kremlins-- its prisons-- away from its controlling Directors of Approved Conformity, to liberate it. It takes courage though, and imagination, to step away from the System's comfortable intellectual chains.

When the Soviet Union finally collapsed it happened swiftly. Seemingly overnight. The Party ID card which one day had been worth everything, the next day was worth nothing. All the conformist safety-seeking writers who were Party members or who had otherwise embraced the Soviet system, who'd failed to speak against it, were instantly discredited. All their credits and glittering phony medals meant nothing. No one wanted the fake dead art of these fake writers, and nobody wanted them.

There's a cautionary tale in there someplace.

Friday, September 10, 2010

The Totalitarians

For a totalitarian intellectual system to exist-- one which allows no dissent, anyplace-- there needs to be cooperation on all sides: a symbiotic relationship between purveyors and participants. There's typically a closing of ranks against any contrary voice, with an affirmation that the herd is right. The brainwashed themselves are at the forefront of defending a system within which they're the primary victims, by not being encouraged to think. They'll revel in their inability to question and think.

This is certainly the case with writing programs, where consensus, within and without the workshop, is the chief criterion. It's why you see no real creativity in the art itself, but instead, more and more, the generic literary poem or short story, so generic as to be interchangeable.

This is the inevitable end product-- nay, the goal-- of the bureaucratic mentality.

One can dismiss my so-called rantings, which are anything but. I worked with bureaucracies, saw how they operate, up close, before I became a literary activist. I understand well the workings of systems, their objectives and results. It's easy enough to show how system thought harms the literary art.

Is the writing game consumed by the bureaucratic mentality?

All one need to do is read Seth Abramson's post at his blog--

to see what it's about. Study his language, which is a reflection of the way he thinks. This is writing? It's a classic example of the institutionual mindset. Seth could have a successful career writing inscrutable government regulations. You could study recent 2,000-page bills in Congress, or even anything from the defunct Soviet Union, and not find a more classic example of bureaucracy. The system subsumes all. The System ultimately becomes the intelligence at play. The Seths of the Machine are parts of it, whose job is to oil it sufficiently, to defend it, and so elevate their place within the Machine's hierarchy.
It didn't take much to bring out the totalitarian in our System person-- the Ultimate Apparatchik. Note his comments at his blog responding to my two comments. Abramson declares, authoritatively, my points inaccurate, says "we're done here," and ends the debate, before there was a debate, in so doing confirming my statement that dissent isn't tolerated.

Am I being too harsh on the guy?

Not from my viewpoint. Abramson's intent is to get all writers into MFA programs. He fails to show the artistic benefits to the writer, or to the product.

Groupthink is the inevitable result of the workshop process, in that anything potentially disturbing to the literary community is eliminated.

To prove the System's failure, all one need do is compare the massive investment in the writing art currently being made by this society-- demonstrably more, by far, than by any society in history-- with the meager return on the investment. To say, "All cultures have produced mediocrity" isn't good enough. Many have also produced writers of great genius, such as in ancient Athens, Elizabethan England, Nineteenth-century Russia, and on occasion in our own country, such as in the 1920's, when our literature was at a kind of Golden Age from which it's since been in gradual but steady decline, a decline accelerated by the advent of writing programs. The art, from its relative glory days, has been marginalized in this society. It doesn't even try to reach the mass of the people. It's not competing. Competing isn't in today's literary vocabulary.
Note how Totalitarians rely on Orwellian language to make their points. Slavery within a system becomes Freedom. Status Quo is portrayed as Revolution. Language itself is abused, which should concern all writers.

What of the brainwashed? Do they exist?

In legions. Look at the golly-gosh comment at Seth's blog, by Alice, which appears after Seth's reaction to mine. All is wonderful. The System is terrific. The eyes are blank. This is a person who long ago stopped questioning and thinking. An MFA degree? Some education!

Thursday, September 09, 2010

The MFA Defense

Seth Abramson, aforementioned “Ultimate Apparatchik,” has written a would-be defense of MFA programs for the faux-Lefty establishment web site The Huffington Post. See

His article is not so much a defense as an avoidance, in that much of what he says (not all of it) is irrelevant to the matter of MFA programs and why writers should join them, and what they’re really about.

Let’s examine Abramson’s six points, taking the first one last.

2.) He says that the programs are selective, that they don’t admit everyone. Well, fine, but this leaves unresolved two crucial issues. A.) They’re still creating a too-large of supply of would-be writers with no demand for them. The supply-demand problem leaves the writer— each of us—with little to no value in the culture, in the society, in the economy. Writing programs, in my opinion, continue to be dominated by bourgeois people with little to say but attracted to the role of “writer.” Any examination of the subjects and themes of their work shows this to be the case. B.) If not everyone is admitted to these programs, then who decides? What are the criteria? Abramson fails to see that the very existence of these programs establishes Gatekeepers. The reality is that prospective students know they’ll need to conform to the standards of the gatekeeper, whether a bureaucratic administrator who thinks in the kind of CONvoluted jargon which Abramson himself writes, or the Professor who’ll be teaching the course. This is the first step in the conformity process. Maybe Abramson does see this.

3.) He disputes the notion that writers are promised a book deal from entering the MFA program. There are two things to be said about this. A.) The edifice of the “Become-a-Writer” scam, which MFA programs are part of, gives the impression that publication is the outcome. Otherwise, what are all those articles in Poets and Writers, Writers Digest, Writers Markets, etc etc etc, about? Why do these magazines catering to the dreams of hapless bourgie folk exist? B.) Abramson needs to take the next step and admit that the edifice—the System; the Machine—if not an outright scam, is hardly necessary for the writer and the production of literature. He doesn’t anywhere attempt to show this. If there is no guaranteed “book deal” from MFA programs as Abramson says, or hardly the chance of one, then what’s the point?

(For a privileged few, of course, there is a point to them—if you’re in the right one. If you want to be MEANINGFULLY published, which means, by a major with publicity support, then there are a handful of elite programs which offer the opportunity of that—Bennington, Brown, Columbia; perhaps a few others. These can be determined by what colleges the elite pack of supported writers attended, from Bret Ellis, Susan Minot, Jay Mac from years past, to the overhyped hipster writers of now. This introduces other questions, such as who gets into those schools and programs; what are the criteria, and so on.)

4.) Abramson disputes the notion that “—you must attend an MFA program.” This begs the question: What is his advocacy for them about? Why devote the time and effort toward attaining that certification, when the writer could instead just write? WHY does the art need to be professionalized, its practitioners certified? He pretends not to see (he pretends not to see a lot) that with the explosion of writing programs, celebrated in his Poets and Writers article, it’s becoming more and more accepted that being a writer necessarily means having that certificate. If all lit editors have them, all their friends and colleagues, everyone they publish and see published, then writers without them are assumed to be unqualified, if not from another planet. THE ENTIRE HISTORY of the Underground Literary Alliance, and the hostile reaction to its very existence, testifies to that.

5.) Abramson dismisses the idea of choosing an MFA program based on its faculty. But for the cynically ambitious, this is the only reason for choosing a program. I’ve known and encountered enough ambitious writers who’ve been in elite programs, private reading groups, and the like, and their prime motivation for being in them is to make connections. Getting to pick up Jonathan Franzen, say, at the airport when he’s giving a talk at Iowa. Finding the right mentor—with access to meaningful publication—as happened to Jonathan Safran Foer by attending a class taught by Joyce Carol Oates. In the real world, making connections is what it’s about.

It comes down to the writer’s motivation. No doubt many students are hobbyists looking for little more than bourgie self-expression, looking for a nice little circle of like-minded folks to read and approve their unambitious works—a variation of Ladies Literary Societies of days past. These people are mere cannon fodder for the never-leave-the-academy Seth Abramsons of the intellectual world. They justify the teaching positions, giving jobs to those who already have MFA degrees. But then, like any Ponzi scheme, you need a fresh influx of students, always more and more, to keep the scheme operating.

1.) Which brings us to the first point of Seth’s, that many programs today are “funded.” Leave aside the matter of why hard-pressed universities would subsidize A.) hobbyists whose febrile solipsistic work is unneeded and frankly unwanted by the society-at-large; B.) the kind of ambitious affluent trust-funders who attend Ivy League colleges. Instead of, say, cancer research. Forget all that. We should know by now that “free” funding is not only a good thing for some writers, it’s a good thing for those like Seth who want to continually feed the writer supply, assuring teaching positions—and Poets and Writers or Huffington Post articles—for themselves.

6.) Have I missed a point? Ah yes. “Cookie-cutter writing.” It’s easy enough to show this is what’s being produced. Certainly nothing is being published from these programs WHICH CONNECTS WITH THE PUBLIC. Otherwise, the hundreds of university lit journals which publish MFA writers, almost exclusively now, wouldn’t be “non-profit”; i.e., begging for donations, on life support. It’s an insular process. No, there is no excitement in American literature because the writer Machine takes up all space, squeezing out everything else, and what the Machine produces isn’t exciting, and not even very good.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

The Ultimate Apparatchik

Seth Abramson, he of the Poets and Writers MFA article, has quite an impressive educational resume. He's a graduate of Dartmouth College, Harvard Law School, and the Iowa Writers Workshop. He's a current doctoral student in English at the University of Wisconsin.

Wow. Many years of elite education. He's made an enormous investment in the System (or his parents or the taxpayer has), and the System has made an enormous investment in him. Anyone think Abramson could for a moment buck said System? It's possible, but unlikely, for that would be to reject every fiber of his being: Years of indoctrination.

With such long and intense top-level training, one would expect his work to be at the apex of achievement.

Yet when one examines his poetry, one finds it to be not particularly bad, and not particularly good, but consistently mediocre. You'll look in vain for much evidence of his poetic education in the form of meter, rhyme, euphony, and striking imagery. No-- instead it's typical academy produce: bland prose with line breaks.

Even one of Abramson's admirers, Ron Silliman, admits it's post-poetic poetry. "We are moving away from poetry as literature. . . ." You know. Poetry without the poetry.

As with other apparatchiks, for Abramson the poetry itself is a means toward a bureaucratic end. The art produced is the necessary excuse for the institutional positions, classrooms, credentials, credits, awards, seminars, The art is the flimsy covering for the apparatus. Which is why it doesn't matter to the apparatchik if the art isn't very good.

The DIY Mindset

All readers should keep in mind that as a writer I'm from a Do-It-Yourself, individualistic ethos, which is a radically different way of viewing the process of literature from that of the literary bureaucracies. They seek to capture and enclose the art. DIY seeks to free it. Only when the bureaucracies are toppled will literature become once again a vital cultural force.

The issue, for the apparatchiks, is one of control. This is behind the impetus toward the professionalization of literature through certifications and university writing programs.

Yet literature should remain the most democratic art, open to and practiced by everybody. No barriers. No elitism. No certifications. No badges. No "one way" or approved way of creativity-- particularly as their way, the apparatus way, has shown itself to be a failed way. No mandarins regulating our words, keeping thought and passion in line.
The reason the ULA broke apart was that we were all staunch individualists, unable to harness ourselves to go in one direction, except temporarily.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010


SOME of the assumptions in the current issue of Poets & Writers magazine reveal the distorted thinking process of those who blindly support MFA programs. I don't include the magazine in that category, by the way-- I mean, not the "blindly" part. P&W supports MFA programs for one sound reason: That's where their ad dollars come from. The scam process, the mythology involved, sustains not only the university programs and attendant instructors. It also supports THEM.

Perhaps the most misguided individual of them all is Seth Abramson--
who writes about the rankings; rankings which despite his noise about transparency etc. act in practice at keeping the "writer" suckers involved.

Two points:
-Abramson refers to MFA programs as artistic "patronage." Patronage? Who's paying whom? Writers are going heavily into debt, for what? Scroll down on Seth's blog a bit and you'll find a host of disclaimers about the programs. Among them, clearly, is the admission that the programs are a waste of time and money, unless the goal is nothing more than bourgie self-expression.
-Abramson refers to the MFA "revolution." Yet, nothing is being turned on its head. MFA programs are a continuing trend. There's nothing revolutionary about them. They encourage not rebellion or innovation, but the status quo. More of the same.

The result? The American short story, once a thriving, popular art, is all but dead, economically and artistically. (See my page about literary stories under "Fun Stuff," at the upper left part of this blog.)

I've found MFA writers to be incredibly gullible. My experience in half-a-dozen forays onto HTML Giant, for instance-- whose participants were thrown by the very idea that a writer WOULDN'T have an MFA-- is that MFAers, for the most part, think slowly, question nothing, and are unable to sustain an argument. A harsh assessment but an accurate one.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Dead End

You know you've reached the end of the slowspeed train line when the poster boy for the art is Jonathan Franzen, a dull personality with a dull style and dull slow-witted thoughts. Yes, yes, the bourgie impossibly dull set who are comfortable or removed or clueless enough they're no longer living in the world-- only in their bubbles-- appreciate the guy. Good for them.

I don't know if anyone reads my "premium" blog at
but I'll be posting some further thoughts on the situation of literature

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Another Clue

There's a term in business, most often used in sales, called "TMI."

Thursday, September 02, 2010

An Easier Task?

Should I give establishment-oriented readers of this blog-- fans of David Foster Wallace-- an easier assignment? Is explaining his Harpers story too difficult? How 'bout instead we look at the first chapter of his fairly recent novel, Oblivion? Could you handle that? Or is not the story after all easier? In fact, isn't the first chapter of that novel-- chosen by myself at random-- a better example of DFW's humongous flaws?

A CLUE: DFW's main flaw as a writer is basic basic basic. It's obvious. It's right in front of you. Two pages into most of his work you should know it.

Intellectually Bankrupt


I'm not surprised that no one can defend, or even try to explain, David Foster Wallace's story. Literary people refuse to examine their premises, whether about the system they're part of, or the system's much lauded art. Look too closely and the charade falls apart like tissue paper. There's scarcely a trace of real thought or intelligence behind any of it. It's all fakery and posturing. Push its participants too hard and they devolve to Tao Lin-style babytalk. The situation of American literature has never been worse.