Friday, April 30, 2010
A conjunction of events: We've been discussing rock n roll on this blog. Simultaneously, I was thinking about Wred Fright's first book (originally a long-running zeen), about a garage band, "Pornographic Flabbergasted Emus." This prior to posting a "Three Question Challenge" re Wred, which will be up tomorrow, or next week, or in a month.
With these thoughts in my head, I heard on the radio a Jackson Browne song.
Is Jackson Browne the worst rock singer ever?
To me his music always was very mealy wimpy as un-rock as you could possibly get.
Is he worse even than the likes of Kelly "Caterwaul" Clarkson and James Taylor?
Let me know.
Thursday, April 29, 2010
Find it at http://www.americanpoplit.blogspot.com/2010/04/pop09-jezebel.html
For comparison, here are links to stories by two of my biggest critics.
1.) LEE KLEIN: A long-time blogger and Iowa workshop grad. Last time I saw Lee he informed me I wasn't a writer. Lee writes solipsistic postmodernism, as shown by "Prequel to 'The Telepathic Beauty.'"
2.) JUSTIN TAYLOR: A member of the HTML Giant herd, Justin is receiving a big push right now from the Murdoch-owned conglom Harper-Perennial. As expected, the story HP has posted, "Tennessee," is standard domesticated literary fiction, what I call narrow realism.
I don't know-- maybe my writing philosophy is clearly inferior to theirs. I believe I'm on the right path. Judge for yourself.
THE PROBLEM with America’s establishment-stamped approved writers is they’ve been trained to be so solipsistic they’re incapable of seeing the context within which their narrow art is placed.
America is being churned by huge societal forces. Much of the population feels under economic assault—because they’re under economic assault. The working class has been broken; devastated. Those in the middle fear they’ll suffer the same fate. I’ve seen myself, in the course of a few decades, a major American city literally destroyed. No, not by a hurricane—by economic factors alone. Detroit. By the crushing force of sweeping societal change.
Where is this portrayed in our literature? Where is the full scope and impact of our machine society anywhere portrayed?
Our writers instead have been infantilized, drooling in html sandboxes, minds stunted into permanent childhood while the art drifts into oblivion.
Tuesday, April 27, 2010
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.
Monday, April 26, 2010
(Writer/cartoonist Brady Russell can be found at
1.) How do you avoid categorization as a hipster writer?
BRADY RUSSELL: Man, I hope no one puts me in that category, because I turn hipsters off. If all the non-hipsters look at me and say "he's a hipster" and all the hipsters look at me and say, "he sucks" I'm out of luck with everyone, aren't I? Honestly, I just don't think about it. Beyond that, I don't know that I've made enough of a mark for anyone to put me in any category, but it will be a milestone when someone does.
2.) Do you place too much faith in new technology?
BRADY: I get excited by everything. I can convince myself to try painting, drawing, movie making, theater... but the Internet is this still largely unchartered territory. Sure, a lot is entrenched out there, but new things keep upsetting the way things worked. Remember MySpace? Remember when it was the biggest site in the world? Now it's a hasbeen. That was 4 years ago! For those of us in the underground, the Internet presents a chance to make a mark. The problem for me, though, really, is choosing a format and a medium I want to really give the old college try to and sticking with it. At the end of the day, though, it's just a medium for promotion. Of course you need to create something compelling for people to see and read.
3.) What are your writing strengths that set you off from the pack?
BRADY: I wish I knew. I just finished listening to Steve Martin's audiobook of BORN STANDING UP for the second time. It's all about how he participated in inventing the "new comedy." I've been trying to invent a new humor myself, though I don't think I've successfully exported it to a fictional story yet. It's something that I can do on-the-fly, when talking to people (or myself). There's a way I think it can be done on the page, but that part of my brain doesn't click in as well when I'm writing. It's the humor of not-quite-logic: things that almost seem to make sense but don't when you look closely. It yields a quizzical sort of bemusement, rather than the rather played humor of beat-beat-pause-beat, the rimshot or any other traditional joke.
Non-fiction is tempting. I also read Matthew Josephson's LIFE AMONG THE SURREALISTS. It's about his time with the avant-garde, but also how he was an avant-garde poet who eventually realized that his real strength was writing biographies. I know that I can write about complex political and economic subjects in ways that make sense to normal people, but it doesn't exactly get my skin tingling to think of
(EDITOR'S NOTE: Answer halted for far exceeding word limit. Sorry!)
(Brady Russell is a community organizer in Philadelphia.)
Saturday, April 24, 2010
The New Writer shouldn't see me as the enemy. I dabble in writing in an effort to create the badly-needed new literary vehicle. An effort to accomplish what New Writers should be doing. What they're not doing.
I'm a salesman more than a writer. I'm a low-rent, anti-establishment promoter. If I was successful I wouldn't be searching after new ideas and new writers. I'd be in a comfortable office twiddling with paper clips or doodling with my computer. I'd go with the flow. Like what everyone else is doing.
That I'm not successful (I'm at the bottom) demands I discover a new road.
The New Writer should realize that literary art hasn't changed in fifty years. The art isn't just stagnant. It's sat unmoved for so many years, collecting excrement, it's become a cesspool.
What if football teams used the same playbook and followed the same strategies as fifty years ago? That's the current state of American literature.
To the New Writer: You have your MFA degree. This qualifies you to write like 500,000 other degreed writers. Move beyond it. Rip up the certificate.
The task of the New Writer is to realize that the current literary art is at a dead end. It's time to create new art.
Thursday, April 22, 2010
Wednesday, April 21, 2010
MINI-INTERVIEW: Frank Marcopolos.
(Small-press promoter Frank Marcopolos oversees http://frankmarcopolos.com.)
1) Is Brooklyn a hipster town?
FRANK MARCOPOLOS: Brooklyn is massively large, and culturally extremely diverse. There are some neighborhoods, like Williamsburg or Brooklyn Heights for example, that are hipster-havens, sure. But there are also plenty of neighborhoods that are not, for better or worse, and offer their own unique blend of cultures and attractions.
2) Does the printed book have a future?
FRANK: Certainly the printed book has a future, but it's a diminishingly significant one. Devices like the Kindle make one's reading life better, since you can carry around so many books at once, but there will always be books that are better suited for print -- I'm specifically thinking about the kinds where you want to make notes in the margins, stick post-it notes in, etc.
3) Where do you see yourself in relation to literature five years from now?
FRANK: I'll first, foremost, and forever be a lover of literature. I'm striving to have an impact as a writer/editor/audiobook performer as well, but with those things, predictions can be dicey. Too many factors are beyond my control to clearly see that far down the road.
(Frank Marcopolos is the former editor of the critically-acclaimed litzine, The Whirligig; he is currently shopping a college love-triangle novel and performing audiobook versions of public-domain stories on his website, http://frankmarcopolos.com)
Tuesday, April 20, 2010
THE SOFT ORWELLIANISM OF THE LITERARY WORLD
For all the emphasis by system writers on words, their respect for the meaning of words is low.
This was seen in Tom Bissell’s 2003 Believer essay about the Underground Literary Alliance. The centerpiece of his argument was that all writers are outsiders. There are no distinctions among them. John Updike was an outsider. He maintained an office at The New Yorker, was published by conglomerates, lauded by monopoly media, heaped with lit-system awards. But, by Bissell’s reasoning, even he, John Updike, was an outsider.
Which is to leave the word “outsider” with no meaning.
No doubt this was Bissell’s intent. If everybody is an outsider, no one is. The Insider cliques resume their paid-for partying in good conscience.
Jonathan Lethem did a similar trick in an essay in Harpers when he defined the term plagiarism through convoluted language and thought into ridiculousness.
I’ve noticed the same phenomenon at work at HTML Giant. Mild statements by Christopher Higgs are referred to as “provocative.” His audience realizes there have to be provocative ideas and writings somewhere. Maybe this is it!
Creating mild disagreement isn’t provocative.
What results from the debasement of language is a soft Orwellianism, where the words and stances used mean their opposite.
And so, when Tom Bissell says “outsider,” he really means, “insider.”
When an essay by Christopher Higgs is called “provocative,” you can bet it’s the opposite of provocative writing, but instead remains within the acceptable bounds of his audience.
When the PEN organization releases a book celebrating dissident writing, all the contributors will be system-approved safe. (Including Updike!)
When a book comes out titled “Revolutionaries,” the contributors and their art will be so representative of today’s literary hipster status quo, there won’t be a smidgen of revolution about it.
And so on.
Monday, April 19, 2010
The stance has appeal even for those who live and work in established worlds opposite to that of the rebel outsider. They don't become the reality. They borrow the trappings.
A handful of genuine literary outlaws continue to exist in America. A mere handful. They live on the margins. Some have denounced mainstream corruption. They represent a sliver of dissent in American literature. A tiny, tiny sliver of literary dissent.
Is this a valid viewpoint? Ask yourself why there's hostility to the expression of a mere viewpoint. Ask why the Overdogs of literature have worked hard to shut that viewpoint out.
Friday, April 16, 2010
MINI-INTERVIEW: Colin Meldrum.
(Colin Meldrum is the founding editor of A cappella Zoo (www.acappellazoo.com), a web & print journal of magic realism & slipstream.)
1.) Is experimental writing an overdone dead end?
COLIN MELDRUM: Not overdone, but yes.It’s hardly probable to be truly innovative anymore. But while there’s little uncharted territory left to discover, this “dead end” alley is worth keeping open and alive. So, perhaps “experimentalism” has settled into a cul-de-sac, a genre, rather than a movement. We made it to Oz, learned the language, even became desensitized—but some of us would still rather not resettle Kansas. The task, then, is to distinguish personal experiments (exercises) from results worth sharing, results in which once groundbreaking—now secondhand—techniques frame or accent an independently worthwhile story, rather than distract from it.
2.) How does your journal stand out from the solipsistic hipster pack?
COLIN: I don’t read our contributions as solipsistic. Not most of them, anyway. I certainly doubt that our contributors intend to be obscure or self-indulgent. We’re about hybridizing and building bridges, rather than alienating or shocking readers for the sake of defining an antagonistically unique niche for ourselves. We’d like to stand out as adaptable, as communicative and teachable within the reading and writing communities. We’d like to stand out as publishing not the product of a writer sitting and trying to write something/anything, but the well-rounded, memorable stories which ached to be constructed, obsessed over, and communicated.
3.) What's your goal with A cappella Zoo?
COLIN: Not to change or enslave the world. And probably not even to prove a point or to stumble upon a new movement in contemporary storytelling, though I confess the dream was tempting in our earlier phases. We do intend to explore the spaces between mainstream and genre, adult fetish and childish fancy, my perspective and yours. We’re not ready to push any dichotomous categories off their pedestals, though; I’d say we’re more interested in providing a home for the writers who already wander these in between spaces, and to connect these writers with the readers hungry for them.
(If you visit any of Colin’s own writing, he’d like it to be his contribution to issue two of Sideshow Fables.)
THE SCARIEST THING about the herd I encountered is the realization that this is the literary intelligentsia for the next forty or fifty years. The new bureaucracy is the old bureaucracy, with more exaggerated apparatchik characteristics: intellectual complacency; narrow-mindedness; intelligence replaced by glibness; unearned arrogance; personal timidity; hostility to dissent; unquestioning acceptance of dominant institutions; and so on. You could drop them into a German bureaucracy circa 1937, or a Soviet one circa 1973, and they’d fit in well. Every criticism I made at the outset of my discussion with them, they later demonstrated to be true. The only thing surprising about this herd was the speed at which it closed ranks against the intruder. The Internet has served to quicken the actions of LeBon’s “Crowd.”
Their put-downs of me were revealing. –I was referred to as a broke James Patterson. Unexamined is what Patterson does right. After all, people are reading him. The thinking individual—one not buried under clouds of conceit—would look to the Pattersons of writing as a template to improve or build upon. (The irony is that the James Pattersons pay the bills for publishing’s house of cards. And surely, his art is no more empty than theirs.) –Any mention of strategy or marketing was scorned. These blogging DIYers seek to be not-DIY as quickly as possible.
Their art, meanwhile, is herd art. Utterly insubstantial; meaningless and largely unstructured; unplotted collections of words; endlessly self-referential; free of real-world ideas (“unjudgemental”); their art is beyond criticism—or beneath it—because it takes no risks and upsets no one. The world outside the bourgie apartment or the unchallenging discussion of a faculty cocktail party is far removed. The interchangeable writings aren’t solipsistic so much as narcissistic, in that they’re mirror images of one another. The members of the herd see in the writings reflections of themselves. It’s the perfection of bureaucratic art. It would be an art fitting for an Orwellian 1984.
A final clue was an email I later received, not from an individual, but from TheHerd@theherd. (Or similar.) An acknowledgement that collectively they’re a machine?
Look at their title. Study it for a minute, and see how fitting it is for a dawning Orwellian world.
Thursday, April 15, 2010
MOST AMAZING about my brief foray onto HTML Giant is that few of that crowd can conceive of the idea of writers existing outside academies or other kinds of institutions. Yet many great American writers did exactly that, from Jack London through Kerouac. (Even F. Scott Fitzgerald was a college dropout.) American lit has never before depended upon such a narrow class, with corresponding narrow outlook.
Not that the MFA degree has improved their kind of art. Most of them discuss issues through layers of academy jargon. Is that considered how to write well?
The focus of their art and their debate is as restrictive as academy’s walls. They’ll discuss vendors at the AWP conference, but not the AWP organization itself, which over the years has had its full share of corruption and scandal.
Still, a few HTMLers assert their intellectual independence. “I’m not a puppet!” a marionette cries, waving his arms about, though the audience can clearly see the strings attached.
Wednesday, April 14, 2010
The HTML Giant gang has positioned themselves for the short term. They've moved to the most status quo position on the literary game board. They're a defense of the system-as-is. They may be little more than a puppet-mouthpiece for lit's Billionaire Boys Club (that infamous troika) occasionally seen at places like Rumpus. As such, HTML Giant should drop the word "future" from their site. What they represent isn't the future, but business-as-usual, promoting the same moldy postmodern aesthetic posing of the lit-hipster crowd. A more apt word than "future" for them might be "static." Or, "stale." Or the phrase, "been done," with the possible addition, "too often." Or, "Literature's Dead End." Once you've put yourself into a corner there's nowhere to go.
I'm not running my mouth on this blog simply to bury Caesar. I'm creating an alternative to Caesar. First, an alternative literary philosophy. Second has to be an alternative literary art.
Tuesday, April 13, 2010
Another go-round of the PEN “World Voices” International Writers Festival is upon us. Last year’s included such overwhelmingly exciting highlights as Rick Moody “interviewing” fellow Insider Mark Z. Danielewski. Compelling stuff. This year well-hyped Insider Jonathan Lethem is given cred by being paired with punk retread Patti Smith, who was relevant thirty years ago but now is in the phase of cashing in.
The question is why every year PEN blows half-a-million dollars on a writers festival no one’s heard of. It’s not easy to spend that amount of money on a week of readings. The PEN folks are either spectacularly incompetent or spectacularly corrupt. Probably both.
Thoughts come to me of the last days of the Soviet Union when the leading apparatchiks—generals; ministers—lost control of events and spent most of the time drunk. American lit is filled not with dynamic personalities, but ticket-punchers; literary bureaucrats and conformists. It faces accompanying institutional decay and inertia.
WORLD BOOK BUSINESS
It’s curious that the rise of PEN’s World Festival was simultaneous with the takeover of the American book industry by multinational conglomerates like Bertlesmann and Murdoch’s News Corp. It’s in the interest of these conglomerates to develop a showroom of international literary figures whose products can be sold in a variety of markets. This is no different than Ford producing a vehicle which can be sold in Europe, or India, or America, with few changes. Local individuality and local control are gone in the name of cost-effectiveness. Martin Amis, Zadie Smith, Orhan Pamuk, Paul Auster, Jhumpa Lahiri, Pico Iyer, Laila Lalami, Michael Ondaatje, Ian Buruma: stables of jetset writers who subscribe to the same multinational ideas and belong to the same affluent and sophisticated international intellectual class. A highly-placed well removed elite.
PEN’s World Voices is designed supposedly to end America’s cultural isolation, to make the nation more global and sophisticated, like New York. Where, then, do the geniuses at PEN with their half-million dollar festival budget to spend hold their International Festival to be able to reach us ignorant folk? In the center of Manhattan itself!
This shows that the festival show isn’t staged for the American masses, but for the conglomerates—for global decision makers in their Manhattan skyscraper offices. (And, to be fair, for other NYC plutocrats who help fund the outfit.) PEN has to justify to their puppetmasters their existence as puppets. Standard bureaucratic practice.
Established American writers caught up in the giant machine-system are so comatose they can’t contemplate change. With their stunted imaginations the thought never enters their heads. PEN staffers, supposedly serving PEN writers, receive comfortable paychecks ensuring their silence. Money maven Karen Kennerly made $77,000 as PEN exec Director in 1997. Ten years later Director Michael Roberts received close to triple that. Quite a pay spike. One can guess at the current Director’s pay.
Writers who are outside the system will discuss change, but expect it to be done moderately. Establishment pawns encourage this attitude.
Moderation changes nothing—is an excuse for doing nothing. The essence of the bureaucratic mindset: the delays of process.
Status quo doesn’t change itself. It has to be forced to change, through pressure; leverage. The REAL interest of the American literary world is to change, before, like the Soviet Union, it simply freezes up and collapses. PEN members need to wake up and take back their organization. They need to embrace the adventure of change.
Monday, April 12, 2010
IN THE MEAN TIME, anyone who lives in Philly can help me in a search outlined at
Either I'm going insane, having flashback hallucinations, or I've been seeing real colorfully bizarre creatures everywhere in this town!
Sunday, April 11, 2010
Tuesday, April 06, 2010
I’d bet that few who read “The H Group” at www.americanpoplit.blogspot.com completely get it. It looks like a traditional short story, but there are subtle differences. I’ve written it to mimic the traditional—more to be a pop artwork. The pop motifs are the point.
(Next at “Pop”: neonoirish pop-- “Jezebel”!)
Thursday, April 01, 2010
"I wonder what's doing in Buffalo?"
This is the final sentence of one of O. Henry's finest stories, "A Municipal Report." The sentence is a return to the beginning of the tale. The piece opens as a simple essay, an academic lesson-- a discussion of the suitability of various American cities as settings for stories.
From this starting point O. Henry begins a story about Nashville. He's artless. He's experimenting. He plays with the idea of writing a story, introducing a few characters while testing, through simple narrative, what he can do with the characters.
An expansive mind is playing with the reader, which isn't made clear until the final sentence. In the few pages between beginning and end O. Henry takes us through a morality play. As the story lopes along in its brief space, its meaning dawns, at first hidden to us, then expanding outward within the space of a paragraph until we realize he wasn't talking about cities at all. The theme, as with all his best work, is how to be a human being. It's about character and honor, about how to live.
"It seemed that the old miller, who had known so much sorrow himself, was a magician in driving it away from others."
-"The Church with an Over-shot Wheel"
O. Henry is the most underrated American writer. He's dismissed as a mere jokester, or a local colorist, or a crafter of trick endings. Sure, at times he was a low-rent con artist-- he'd known con artists in his life. Many of the many hundreds of short stories he wrote were tossed off to be quick entertainment, and look to be made out of cardboard. When we examine them, nothing is there.
But O. Henry also wrote a few dozen fabulous stories which show a knowledge of character, of place, of humanity, possessed by no other American writer. No writer has written better and more famously about the city of New York-- yet at the same time, more realistically about the American West, or more sarcastically about the post-Civil War South.
The Llano Kid in "A Double-Dyed Deceiver" jumps from the page. You feel the Texas sun on his face, see his clothes and revolver.
You see, just as clearly, the walking caricature of the Antebellum South that is Major Pendleton Talbot, with frock coat and black string tie fifty years out of date, in "The Duplicity of Hargraves."
You see, though, also into the soul of characters like hero soldier Willie Robbins of "The Moment of Victory"-- a character O. Henry gently mocks yet simultaneously understands.
O. Henry was the greatest of all short story writers, because he had the largest soul. Like the play "King Lear," O. Henry's masterpieces begin simply, even crudely, but keep expanding and expanding in significance until the meaning has become universal, even cosmic. This is surely the case with two amazing reads, "The Renaissance at Charleroi" and "The Church with an Over-shot Wheel." At their key moments they have a sudden largeness about them which goes beyond time and space, as if the works have been transported beyond their own boundaries. Their conclusions aren't surprise endings, but something more. If there are coincidences, they're not really coincidences. They have a point. The coincidences ARE the point. O. Henry is telling us that something else is happening. The something is left unsaid, but we feel the currents, like the movements of nature, or the pattern of stars.
O. Henry could speak to people, reaching their hidden emotional depths, as few writers have spoken to them-- a handful of writers over the course of storytelling, including a literary history stretching thousands of years-- because of the life he'd lived. He spoke about his life only through his stories. But the facts, the realities, and the meanings of that life are spoken about, indirectly, again and again.
The bare facts are few. William Sydney Porter was born in the South during the Civil War. A time of chaos and destruction. To make his way in the world, as a young man he went to Texas, where he worked various jobs. While employed as a bank teller in Austin he was charged with embezzlement. Porter abandoned his wife and young daughter and became a fugitive from the law, ending up in Honduras. He returned to America as his wife was dying. Porter spent three years in a penitentiary in Ohio.
These are bare facts. We can surmise that Porter-- "O. Henry"-- faced hard choices. Questions of character, courage, and honor had to have been on his mind a great deal. They were, perhaps, an obsession. At times he'd flinched. At least once, he'd not flinched. At some point-- surely at some point-- he was psychologically, morally, in every way broken. Like a few other writers-- Malory and Cervantes come to mind-- Porter had gone thoroughly through the fire of life and the world.
"There was one word that controlled his theme-- resurrection. Not a new creation, but a new life arising out of the old. The congregation had heard it often before."
-"The Day Resurgent"
O.Henry had a continual theme in his work, a theme which seems to have never been picked-up by academics and critics. Only once, in a mid-level story, "The Day Resurgent," did O. Henry slip up and advertise it. But it's a theme-- resurrection, as O. Henry describes it-- with tremendous implication and impact. A theme that reverberates far. It's the idea that man can change, or be changed, can be redeemed, can start over. Can, like safecracker Jimmy Valentine in "A Retrieved Reformation"-- or like "Deceiver" the Llano Kid-- be rescued from himself. Can, like the bohemian artist in "The Last Leaf," or Uncle Caesar in "A Municipal Report," prove himself by coming to the rescue of others.
O. Henry in his deceptive, trickster, often masterful way, comic and cosmic, got to the core questions of what being human is about. This marks him as among the greatest of American writers. He shouldn't be underrated at all.