THE TOM BISSELL MATTER PART III
The print zine scene of the 1990’s became embodied in the Underground Literary Alliance during the decade of the 2000’s. Many of the best zine writers at one time or another were in our ranks. In his essay on the ULA, Tom Bissell, defender of status quo writing, reveals his unbridgeable differences, artistically and philosophically, with that style of writing.
ORDER OR CHAOS?
In his essay, Tom Bissell gives the game away about the obsessiveness of his “Big Six” publishing training when, with a fragment of my own zine writing—of which Bissell apparently approves—he compulsively adds commas to it. As a writer he reveals himself to be compulsively uptight.
Like all writers today, Tom Bissell follows the rules of the Chicago Style Manual. To not follow the rules is unthinkable. Leading publications like The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, New York Times, et.al. require well-regulated writers for a well-regulated readership. Dictionaries and style manuals enforce rigid consistency in letters. As much as system writers laud the memory of the Beats, in no way would they try to be like them in their writing. Nor in lifestyle, come to think of it. To achieve in this hyper-competitive society requires a well-regulated personality.
Consistency in letters wasn’t always the norm. In the time of Shakespeare/Shakspere—who varied even the spelling of his own name—literary chaos reigned.
We live today in an advanced civilization. Order is required. Every year sees increased regulation and order. Over every aspect of life. If cameras are placed on every street corner, there need to be intellectual cameras watching over our writing.
But what do you do with a genre of writing that intentionally breaks the rules and goes outside the bounds of any style manual?
The Underground Literary Alliance recruited writers of any age and from every conceivable corner of the country, job, belief, and lifestyle. We even had a token Ivy Leaguer in our ranks. We presented roots writing—the chaotic sound of American life. American culture has forever been renewed by the underground streams of roots artists.
The best recent example is the rise of rock n’ roll music. In the 1950’s, American roots music, performed by lower class musicians, urban blacks to rural hillbillies, sounded crude and alien to the ears of the classically trained. Controlled precision was the norm. The young college set didn’t accept and adopt rock music until the success of Bob Dylan and the Beatles in 1964-65, ten years after Elvis cut his first record. Roots music had been around much longer.
Roots writing has been around at least since Davy Crockett’s time. Print zines were and remain America’s great literary subculture.
Roots writing is not tops-down official literature approved and imposed from on high, but from the people up. Literature from outside the well-regulated monolith. In 2003 it looked and sounded alien to Tom Bissell, former W.W. Norton editor. The print zinesters he encountered were unapproved. To me, that was their appeal.
Bissell could relate ULAers only to the manuscripts he’d received as a big-time New York editor. In the 1950’s, the trained big band drummer Buddy Rich, encountering Elvis Presley, Bill Black, and Scotty Moore backstage of the Dorsey Brothers TV show, remarked with surprise and scorn that they couldn’t even play their instruments!, in his expert opinion. Their music was beyond his comprehension. It wasn’t that Presley and his combo were inferior to Buddy Rich, as Rich assumed. Who remembers Buddy Rich now? It’s that their standards were different. They were listening for different sounds. Their musical values differed, dramatically. Buddy Rich presented technical perfection. Elvis offered a rawer sound, a growl which seemed to come from the ground. Rock music’s untutored earthiness was its appeal. The expression not of craft or clinical virtuosity, but emotion. Experience. The feel of a honky-tonk saloon or a holy roller church service.
Rock n’ roll was also a step backward toward simplicity in art. Yin-yang. It was time for a change. Musical complexity had run its course. What makes the pop songs of the early Beatles so appealing to this day is how artless they sound. “Baby’s in black, and I’m feeling blue, tell me oh, what can I do.” Their later songs became more complex, but it was a very different complexity from Bach.
The difference between print zinesters of the Underground Literary Alliance and Bissell’s back room stacks of mailed-in manuscripts is that zinesters weren’t trying to write like Alice Munro or John Updike. They weren’t asking for Tom Bissell’s approval. They were being themselves. Wred Fright, Wild Bill Blackolive, Urban Hermitt, Crazy Carl Robinson, Jack Saunders, and many others were and are total originals.
EMOTION VERSUS CRAFT
Tom Bissell says in his essay, about two of the ULA’s best zine writers, “Hermitt’s problem is that she, like Jackman, has mistaken emotion and purity of intent for art.”
Bissell mistakes craft for art. Art, ultimately, is the expression of emotion. It could be the elevated emotion of a Beethoven symphony, or the kick-in-the-gut emotion of a garage rock band like the Detroit Cobras. Art is in some way the expression of being alive. Craft is a side story. The fact is that both Urban Hermitt and Michael Jackman used deliberate craft, but it was of a very different type from the standard “literary” writing to which well-trained Mr. Bissell was accustomed. Hermitt’s misspellings and uncapitalized letters were carefully chosen—the intent being to express the chaos, confusion, and awkward immediacy of his/her life. The long zines of both writers, when read in their entirety, conveyed, yes, indeed, a great deal of emotion.
A major difference between the most-lauded literary writing of today, and the kind of writing the Underground Literary Alliance advocated, was in the writing’s viewpoint. Our style of underground writing was of a populist kind. Outer-directed more than inner-directed. In this sense we followed the tradition of populist American writers from Whitman to Twain to Frank Norris and Jack London to John Steinbeck.
In his famous Harvard speech, Alexander Solzhenitsyn criticized the dominance of what he called anthropocentricity in contemporary American society. This means the self as the center of the universe—a philosophy well demonstrated in the writing of David Foster Wallace. This philosophy dominates the highest levels of American literature today. Those who advocate this viewpoint, and ensuing style of writing, should realize that theirs isn’t the only possible kind of writing. Some of us believe that convoluted complexity and intense solipsism isn’t the only way of doing things. Some of us believe an opposite style of writing works better for readers. We should be allowed to think that way, and still be accepted as legitimate writers.
In his essay, Tom Bissell attacks no ULAer’s writing so much as the writing of Michael Jackman. He makes assertions regarding Jackman’s style. The reader of the essay is compelled to believe those assertions. Bissell calls the writing “boringly real.”
“When Jackman’s narrator suspenselessly opens the newspaper to find an apartment—its $200-a-month rent serves the same grandstandingly sociological purpose here as a Thomas Pink tie does in the work of Bret Easton Ellis.”
Yes, the styles of the two writers have similarities. They fill their prose with markers of contemporary life. Their subjects and settings are different. The difference is that no one, with the possible exception of Tom Bissell, would claim that Bret Ellis isn’t a good writer.
In the excerpt which Bissell cited, and in some of his other zine writing, Michael Jackman wrote in the tradition of literary naturalism. That naturalism has fallen out of favor among the refined literary crowd of today doesn’t mean it’s not legitimate writing. It works by accumulation. It does indeed pile on the reality, hitting the reader over the head with it until the point is well made. There’s an inescapability to it. It’s highly readable. When you plunge into the narrative you’re dragged through it, through every step of its shitty reality. Jackman’s best zine was a long tale about boot camp in the army. Not one degradation and harsh treatment missed. At the end of it, you the reader felt the same disgust with authority and life as the narrator. As with other naturalistic writings, there’s no way out of it. It’s not selective writing and isn’t intended to be.
When Tom Bissell claimed in his essay that Jackman’s writing is unreadable, I felt compelled to ask, unreadable for whom? Unreadable for a chi-chi Manhattan cocktail drinker is a possibility—but Jackman’s kind of writing, done in an always clear style, is certainly far more readable than the showy prose of a Ben Marcus or George Saunders. At least for the vast majority of readers. The ULA always favored literary democracy.
I wonder if the wheel is turning even for elite literary people. After all, the much-acclaimed Jonathan Franzen in his latest novel follows a distinctly mundane, unshowy style of writing, which works through the gradual and inexorable building of the facts and threads of his story.
For a while I couldn’t understand why Tom Bissell changed the name of his Believer essay from “Attacking All Fiction Writers!” to “Grief and the Outsider.” The first title, for all its inaccuracy, better expresses the upbeat in-your-face carnival barker style of the Underground Literary Alliance. But, grief? ULAers might have felt outrage, anger, frustration; a range of emotions, as well as being eternal quixotic upbeat out-of-touch-with-reality optimists, which was our basic nature. We had to be optimists to go up against the overwhelming scorn of the entire established literary community. But, grief? That’s an emotion which fits better for the kind of anthropocentric very-serious certified and approved literary people Bissell has been used to hanging around with. You know. Obsession with self. To be honest, ULAers never had a huge amount of expectations about the mandarins’ treatment of our writing—which was why we were zinesters. Grief??
I didn’t connect the dots until I reread Bissell’s essay. In there is a quote by the ULA’s Jack Saunders which Tom Bissell apparently agrees with. Jack is speaking about successful literary figures: “They know that when they have to write, then, well, they have to suddenly become rather sad and ironic.”
Yes! They do. Grief!
One has to at least ask to what extent class bias played a part in the easy dismissal of the ULA’s writers and writings.
Are the divides and antagonisms of class presented anywhere today in American fiction? Or is it a subject that the good people prefer to avoid?
One can find convincing data on America’s class divide from nonfiction writers on both the Left and the Right, Paul Krugman to Charles Murray. Class stratification permeates the American educational system, and by extension the intellectual community. Why would we think it’s nonexistent in the literary realm?
I have to remind myself that literary hatchet man Tom Bissell speaks for a narrow section of American literature, a snobby and elitist clique whose position at the top of the literary castle grows ever narrower. They’ve already lost the market. All they have left is control of the major organs of literary publicity. These remain powerful pieces.
Tom Bissell represents the institutionalization of literature. He represents the past. Literature is being democratized, right now, whether any of us likes it or wants it. Great transformations in publishing and literature are taking place as I type this. Ebooks. Underground rumbles of a new variety, different from yet similar to the sort the Underground Literary Alliance advocated. A literary earthquake.
What does Tom Bissell think of the writing of Amanda Hocking?
I’m already looking ahead to the fusing of literary and pop. I achieve this fusion in my latest e-novel, The Tower. I’m unique in that I understand both styles of writing. The new novel merges clarity and pace with large themes and relevant ideas. As well as a powerful story. It stands between the extremes of both camps. In that it’s revolutionary. What this new aesthetic accomplishes may be beyond the comprehension of writers from any side. But someday it will be understandable. Right now, this kind of novel is unfamiliar territory, especially for professionally trained literary people.
For art, too much training, too many institutions, too many bureaucracies and cultural apparatchiks of status quo thinking are a detriment. Art and culture have to be living organisms. Always in flux. Not in stasis, not well-regulated, not held captive in a carefully watched box. Art will break from the bounds of that box every time.