TOM BISSELL’S DISTORTED ESSAY PART I
Reviewers and readers who take Tom Bissell’s 2003 Believer essay on the defunct Underground Literary Alliance, “Protesting All Fiction Writers!”—now reprinted with a different title in Bissell’s Magic Hours book of essays—at face value make a huge mistake. They should be aware of the essay’s context—the reason it was written and published. For the previous two years the ULA had been engaged in an intensely bitter feud with Dave Eggers and McSweeney’s, which kicked off when we protested an award to the publication for “Best Zine.” Things from there escalated. This was the backdrop to Bissell’s essay.
Bissell admits that Dave Eggers was initially opposed to the essay’s publication. A scant few months after its appearance, Eggers himself was caught posting anonymous attacks against the ULA on Amazon. Eggers carried extreme animus toward the ULA—from his perspective, with good reason. Could the essay have been approved if Bissell hadn’t assured the editors that it would be a proper takedown of the Underground Literary Alliance? A takedown, moreover, which fit the happy-face McSweeney’s/Believer image of pristine innocence. No easy feat.
In the essay, Tom Bissell presents himself as an innocent bystander; a disinterested observer objectively weighing facts. Gullible journalists today like Katie Ryder accept the presentation at face value. They swallow it whole, to the extent that Ryder, in an interview with Bissell, speaks of his tolerance, and absurdly applauds him for giving his subjects a “fair shot.” Yet in 2003 the essay was a partisan attack, and in it Bissell behaved like a partisan. He would not have been allowed the assignment otherwise.
The effectiveness of Bissell’s takedown can be judged by the result. The ULA was branded as a collection of no-talent whiners and thuggish authoritarians. His essay became the accepted source on us; the standard text. When I made a 2007 appearance on a PBS radio station, the host was still influenced by Bissell’s text, asking me wide-eyed and believing why the ULA wanted to ban Jeffrey Eugenides from publishing. A truly ill-informed statement. As evidenced by snarky or hateful statements still made about me online, the branding remains to this day.
Journalists and reviewers wishing to understand Tom Bissell’s essay on the Underground Literary Alliance should realize that he did very little research on us. He exchanged several emails with one member out of forty. He made no effort to meet any of us, though many of us were a short bus ride away. He asked for none of our zines, though we were a writers group that sprung from the print zine scene and defined by it. He did read our web site, which contained a smattering of our writing.
To understand the ULA you’d have to understand the background we came from. The three initiators of the project, Steve Kostecke, Michael Jackman, and myself, were from Detroit. We’d witnessed wrenching social change and economic devastation, up close. First hand.
David M. Sheridan’s 1999 Michigan Quarterly Review essay about Detroit, “Making Sense of Detroit”-- http://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?cc=mqr;c=mqr;c=mqrarchive;idno=act2080.0038.301;rgn=main;view=text;xc=1;g=mqrg -- is a great source, because it was written at the very time that plans for an underground writers group were being discussed and formed. It gives a compelling picture of what was happening to the city. Sheridan’s essay also quotes from an essay of my own about Detroit, an essay which alone would be a good source for my mindset at that moment of time. Without understanding Detroit it’s impossible to understand the Underground Literary Alliance.
Tom Bissell, in his Believer piece, dismisses Jackman’s talk of “injustice”—yet thoughts of injustice were inescapable from our brains. Sheridan states that I wrote about “violence and racism and poverty.” With trademark snarkiness, The Believer, in one of its tags to Bissell’s essay, mocked the ULA’s concerns as “alienated socioeconomic posturing.” I urge people to read Sheridan’s essay and then decide if our concerns were posturing.
Tom Bissell never did the hard research to find out where the ULA was from and what we were about, because he didn’t care what we were about. That wasn’t the point of his essay.
Tom Bissell’s own striving-writer background included an editorial position at W.W. Norton in Manhattan, at the very heart of the tops-down Big Six publishing system. By accommodating himself to powerful individuals he made his way through the heart of the machine. This was the perspective he brought to his essay, to his look at ULAers and our writings.
Bissell made no attempt to understand our alien style of literature, our psychology, or the DIY/ print zine ethos of the 1990’s. That ethos determined how the ULA operated—by consensus, with no hierarchies and no real leaders. Our titles were a game. The “Director”—Michael Jackman—in personality was the most detached and laidback of the ULA’s major players.
The DIY/punk aesthetic determined our occasionally provocative, in-your-face behavior, which we saw as theater. We were sending up, in our way, the sober self-seriousness of the literary elite, and the pronounced pin-drop solemnity of the standard literary reading. The punk aesthetic determined many of our various styles of zine writing—expressions of the sound of American reality, of a Greyhound bus or a punk show or the street, in all its crudeness, emotion, immediacy and spontaneity. It’s why in 2006 we protested a tepid establishment “Howl” celebration at Columbia University. ULAers saw ourselves as the legitimate heirs of the Beats, and heirs of Dada and other arts movements outside the walls of the canon and the publishing machine. Our stylized and impudent zines were our proofs of our authenticity and credibility. In his Believer essay Tom Bissell scorned the very idea of this kind of alternative writing. Yet it was the kind of writing we’d been selling, mostly to alienated young readers who otherwise wouldn’t have been reading anything.
Authoritarian? That was the opposite of what we were about. We were a rebellion against rules, regulation, constipation, and authority. We were a disorganized blast of noise. We did have strong voices. In one of his recent interviews with Katie Ryder, Tom Bissell still refers to our no-hierarchy group as “authoritarian.” This is an ignorant, know-nothing statement. Also an ironic one, seeing that Bissell works and writes in a world of hierarchy and authority.
Bissell admits that his essay on Robert Kaplan was a “literary assassination.” His essay on the ULA was no less an attempted assassination. Unlike Kaplan, we had no standing, no resources, no body of powerful and connected friends with which to withstand such attacks.
(Much more to come on this blog.)
(Also see @KingWenclas for other remarks.)