Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Mediocrity

ONE ENCOUNTERS mediocrity at every level of the literary realm, from high to low. I define mediocrity as not just resistance to change, but resistance to the very idea of change. Those who end up inhibiting or stopping the progress of an art or project are those individuals most comfortable in their own stagnancy: their own mediocrity.

The vast majority of those who today consider themselves, or pass themselves off as, creative writers, are folks without a microgram of imagination or creativity. The literary art has become so mediocre that the image of a writer today is the opposite of a picture of charisma and excitement. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Kerouac are long departed. The image of a writer today is the image of a mediocrity, and so the field attracts the like-minded.

If you step too far outside the acceptable bounds of the mediocre personality, as I surely did, then you face hostility and denunciation. This happened eventually even within the Underground Literary Alliance. The engine in the ULA’s souped-up car was making too much noise, so the ULA’s mechanics removed the engine.

12 comments:

JeffOYB said...

C'mon, Karl. Can you rephrase that? Undergrounders particularly dislike seeing history rewritten. I like your posts. (Who knows what impact they have standing alone.) But I have to speak up here. ULAers did what they could to encourage each other. No one told anyone to leave. In fact, we imploded for no good reason at a high point -- shortly after the launch of the unique line of our members' amazing books. (My opinion, of course, but I bet it would be backed by the other members.)

JeffOYB said...

...An audacious, rule-breaking, fresh-attitude line of books, I might add.

King said...

??? I don't have to rewrite the ULA's history. I lived it.

King said...

Re that history: It's pointless to go over it here, but I will to a limited extent.
Recall that the ULA began imploding in early '07 when we lost five members at once. (We'd actually peaked in '03/'04, but didn't realize it.) Your lauded ULA "members," those five and at least one who remained, put forth me as the reason for the ULA's troubles. This theme continued. Yes, I'd made, and was still making, much noise, and stirring up opponents in the process. The "team," what there could be called of one, expected me to continue working for them, indefinitely, like a slave, and ultimately wanted me to have no say in the organization, even though the equity in the ULA's name was put there largely through my work and my actions.
There's a strange psychological phenomena with groups, where the group starts to believe that a particular member is owned by the group. The expectation had been present for some time with new members, that they'd join with their personal projects, and then I existed solely to promote them and their book/project. They couldn't see that my sole interest was promoting the ULA itself, the ULA brand. I expected others to do likewise.
What happened to your "members" with their books, after ONE person stopped working for the team, in part because he needed a break? Where were they? It was their books, after all, not mine. Have you asked yourself why the team was so dependent on one person?
**************
In fact, I spent much of 2007 attempting to restart the necessary p.r. campaign, staging readings and doing radio interviews, but was getting no support even in Philly, only the usual jealousies and backbiting. That I was then expected to give up all say over the fruits of those labors was the last straw. By then I had so many knives in my back anyway it was impossible to count them all.
Several attempts at compromise were made, and not taken up. . . .
******************
Those who left, incidentally, started their own underground entity, which predictably went nowhere. They sought to correct what they viewed as the ULA's chief flaw. They built their car without an engine to start with.

King said...

III.
The ULA's history is useful only in what can be learned from it, so that any future teams/projects don't make the same mistakes.
From my perspective, next time I start a project I'll ensure that my work is protected. The only way to do this is through some kind of legal entity. Blind cooperation doesn't work. Or, as Robert Frost said, "good fences make good neighbors."
Second, there has to be some kind of structure with designated roles and responsibilities, mechanisms for dispute resolutions, and so forth. There has to be a structure which enforces compromise, as unpalatable as that compromise is.
You also have to have individuals committed to the group project, and not just using it to promote their own individual project. They have to realize they're making a full commitment, make it two years, three years, whatever.
The truth is that the ULA stayed together for long enough to take advantage of the window of opportunity it was given. That it didn't fully jump through that window wasn't my fault or yours. Timing is all. We needed everything clicking at the point of maximum interest in us. (It was naive to believe that interest would last after the novelty factor wore off.) The biggest problem was that we never got the major players here, on the east coast, so that we could push the p.r. much higher than we did. The three chief young writers, those perceived as such at the outset, literally fled from attention. It was a childish attitude. From 2001 to 2005 I was able to do promotion-- but where were the writers? For the huge Black Book article, elite camera crew sent from NYC, I had to recruit a couple local poets, which was how I got Frank into the group. Promo opportunities come at short notice. If you don't have your artists on the ground, there, available, you're screwed. You can't promote artists from 1,000 miles away. It's impossible, as I found out.
By '05, I was trying to promote an event at the time I was working two jobs, living out of a suitcase in a druggy hotel, and was exhausted and broke. I could only do what I could do-- but the expectations of our writers never ceased. They were all "stars" in their own heads, and I existed only to serve them. Fuck that!
**********
No, my friend, next time I get involved in a project I'm going to do it right. Everything-- everything-- will serve the promotion, which is the only way to buck the odds. The writers will serve the brand and the writing will serve the brand and the publications will serve the brand and the images and actions will all serve the brand. It will be run like a pro outfit, the way record companies do it. If the artists don't want to play the game they'll be cut loose and others will be found. Etc etc. The upside potential is enormous. Nobody in lit today is competing. There are only a handful of individuals in lit who even know how to compete on a big level. I happen to be one of them.

JeffOYB said...

I'd say we were good and unique in being brand-forward and even in getting along. I don't think an official structure could be made like you're suggesting. I prefer attempting something that can actually be started tomorrow and uses fun and proven indie strongpoints. Legal? C'mon, that's not the future. Everyone had "say" over their work. We did miss a great chance. After the first lull we might've created a 2nd wave to ride if we'd pushed the books. We had a few performers, one PR pro, and a worker-bee. I still think we had fair odds at creating a 2nd wave. I suppose I could still telemarket to a couple dozen indie stores in hotspots. Brand-noise needs brand-artifacts to springboard off of. Once we got the non-mediocre-stuff-to-read your interest waned. Our writers did do some events, and waved around all available brand materials at each event. Wred called stores in his region. We didn't blame you for our troubles. We had high hopes and did what we could to give you material to work with. Maybe you were fed up. But you weren't forced out.

King said...

C'mon, Jeff. Isn't your company legal?
**************
Since my work was involved in intangibles, like creating the ULA brand as an idea in people's heads-- which is what branding is about-- then my work involved way more than my own writing. That last radio appearance I made was my work. The proposed book offer that came about because of the show was due to my work. I would've been expected to promote that book, which, again, would've been my work.
You were using my branding, the ULA name, without giving me any say in how that name was utilized. It dawned on me that I had no stake in the project.
A collective is a naive idea. That's anyway what I found it to be. Beyond this, an organization which depends on volunteer effort can work only based on trust and loyalty. We lost that.
I was the dog pulling the sled. It's why, after I bailed, so did others, even SK. He had disagreed with the noisemaking strategy from the beginning. With me inactive he should've been happy. But that would've meant taking responsibility for things.
********************
You were on the periphery of things, in the woods in Michigan. You don't know key parts of the ULA's history. You have no idea how the initial publicity was created. You weren't present in Philly in 2001 when the first schism took place. SK was a key player. You also don't know the manueverings which were going on through the course of 2007.
This isn't the place to discuss such matters. But there are problems everyone on a team has to be concerned with-- like continually losing talented young writers. This was the case in losing the planned centerpiece, thanks in part to the influence of outsiders. We lost NC four years later in the same way. What it meant for me was constant wasted energy spent beginning to hype someone, only to see that person leave. It's not the way to run an operation.
Early '07 we lost one useless person, two others who were worse than useless, they were divisive, but we also lost at the same time two key players. One has to understand why this happened.
(More.)

King said...

If the ULA were to be resurrected, it couldn't be done through your suggested tactics. A grind-it-out approach might work with books on bikes, when you're the only game in town, but with literature you're up against a thousand other small publishers, as well as a million POD people, all doing things the same way. The proper strategy has to be geared toward creating demand-- to giving people a reason to buy. Publicity is a huge part of that.
Anything else is small-time.
We might've still kicked things into gear in '07-- but that would've meant an immense amount of work on my part. I was given no reason to engage in that work-- and many reasons not to, including SK's senseless maneuvering.
********
Anything else should be said privately. We have no reason to disagree. Whether we could ever bridge our contrasting outlooks is debatable. Let me know if you're interested, and when I can I'll send you an invite to my "Invitation Only" blog.

JeffOYB said...

I wasn't using the name, I was hyping it. Any use of it raised its status for all other uses. Everyone's cred increased as anyone's did. Any success of the book line would've meant your success and every other member's.

I'm into PR and everything I did worked to multiply it.

I've never suggested grind-it-out.

A product line is of course vital to have. It's proof to create more PR with. I note that you still downplay the actual art even as I acknowledge the importance of PR.

There were quite a few dogs pulling in different function areas and with different styles, some even overlapping so one didn't have all the burden (Fred & C-Carl got some decent PR which in turn shed good light on the whole cause) -- all in support of synergy and noise-making on our team. There weren't public mistakes that a PR pro wouldn't have allowed -- other than just plain giving up after the whole line came out.

Sure, you can start your own company and control the publishing and the PR and require effort and contribution from those you hire or sign on. Good luck setting it up and getting indie artists involved. Who knows, maybe it would work.

You did a lot of legwork and several folks/writers did a lot in turn to follow up on it and hold up their end and make art that showed what we meant.

I also did a huge load of work, along with our writers, but we were let down big time.

Would I do it again? Heck, even if things got action-packed, how would I know cold feet wouldn't pop up again at a critical moment?

I guess I'd have to see proof of a successful project. That was our standard all along. Our main players were zinesters who already knew the ropes. Oh well, even tough zinesters proved to be lightweights, it seems. Or, middleweights. Good early on but without the heavy finishing closer.

People have said maybe the ULA just had its 15 minutes. I think that 2nd waves can be created. If it doesn't happen after a good try, well, then, sure call it a day.

I think our members got short-sighted and just gave up. Quite a few good compromises were made. Cooperation seemed totally viable. We did as well as any group of indie writers has done and seemed to have good potential for the next step. But everyone just threw in the towel in the 3rd quarter. A rally coulda happened. I shoulda just made those darn phone calls... Being able to tell the members that we'd picked up a couple dozen indie stores who were into the concept would've renewed some spirit, I bet. Spirit to wait and see, I suppose.

King said...

"We did as well as any group of indy writers has done. . . ."
That's a statement I agree with 100%, and so is something to build on.
That said, we have different perspectives based on our very different vantage points. I was on the front line throughout, strategizing, organizing, and leading, from the front. I took more hits than anybody. I also had the hands-on task of dealing with some very volatile personalities-- Frank not least of them, believe me. From announcing my idea in early 1999, recruiting the first team, writing the "script" for the first campaign, then kicking off that campaign in October 2000, up through 2007, I led the group long enough! longer than anyone else could've. I couldn't get anyone else to take the lead even for a nanosecond. Witness the series of "Directors" we put into place, who ended up, when responsibility was put into their lap, of quickly vanishing. Recognize, Jeff, that you'll make no headway by positing I bailed too early. Too early! When we lost half the founding team in the first couple years in an internal battle which was extremely draining.
At the same time, I recognize that your contribution was second only to mine. No one else, frankly, came close. I also recognize the investment you made in the ULA Press line. Which is why it was surprising that in the dispute between SK and myself, over an issue I made clear I wasn't budging on, you were neutral at best. You lost me-- and then lost him anyway. After all, what was he going to do, fly in from Asia to head the ULA? Therein lies the crux of the problem. He was bucking my strategy continually, bringing in divisive personalities-- I could name them-- but when offered the reins, the opportunity to at last do things his way, he bailed.
The only power I ever had in the ULA was the power to refuse my work. I finally used that power-- and like a drunken bum being held up by someone, the ULA immediately collapsed.
Why didn't you make those calls, Jeff? You could've showed me. . . .
I had already well demonstrated my abilities. The attention the ULA received was truly amazing. All of it happened under my direction and maneuvering. In '07 I was gearing up the campaign again, getting little support even here in Philly. Again, you weren't here on the scene to know what was happening.
***************
Our definitions of marketing are very different. You see it as mainly distro. I see it as mainly p.r. What the ULA did that was unique was clearly the p.r. campaign which set us off from the pack and gave us a huge profile. We could've done more of this. One HAS to stand out from the pack. This is the crucial point. Everything else is secondary.
BTW, if I once dismissed the product-- I didn't-- I certainly do no longer. The bulk of my emphasis now is on creating a truly better product. I'll be posting on that elsewhere.
****************
Where does that leave us? I'll be commenting on that on my private blog. I urge you or anyone else interested in these questions to join.

JeffOYB said...

Well, good luck. I look forward to seeing an exciting, relevant, effective, indie literary project actually work and make a splash and spark some interest in everyday readers, even something that looks to get some traction, that shows a workable model -- like how the zine model used to work. I keep looking.

The closest thing, in reality, I've seen to that, was you and I running the ULA table at the Dally in the Alley in the Cass. Literature isn't for hipsters. That was an occasion where we broke literature out of its box and engaged the general public and it worked.

I still have that relevant content, the goods, deliverable. I'd be game to add to the line-up if ever shown another game player who actually did something, if shown a team that worked better than the old one.

I never implied marketing is distro. It does have to *include* distro, though. Boots on the ground, baby! That's what zining was *half* about. ...Effectively and professionally getting the work out to the people. It's a part that can't be denied. It's a key part of the triumph. But once on the shelves (or in whatever venue) of course the hype (more accurately, the good word on the street) is what moves it out to the people. Turnover is then the finisher. No, not quite, because most stuff then just sits on coffee-tables. I don't want people just to buy stuff. It has to turn over then keep rolling. The fire has to spread. It's easy to see when it shows such signs. Even when something small shows those signs, the fat cats will tremble...

King said...

We agree on the essentials. I respect your abilities. Let's keep lines of communication open. Thanks.