ASSESSING TOM BISSELL PART II
What of Tom Bissell’s essay itself? Retitled for Magic Hours as “Grief and the Outsider,” it appears to the eye roughly similar to the original version, though an additional “grief” or two may have been added to the narrative, for effect.
“Literature is always written by outsiders,” the essay begins. This is ridiculous on its face. Bissell’s statement is a refusal to make distinctions. It’s an attempt to strip the words “outsider” and “insider” of meaning—but it appeals to the self-image of Bissell’s audience: The Believer’s upscale staff and its hipster readership, who truly want to believe in what Bissell is selling them. Tom must believe he’s dealing with quite the gullible audience, because he goes on to say that John Updike, who virtually lived at The New Yorker, was an outsider. Bissell likely threw this in as a test of how much he could get away with.
In the essay, Tom Bissell presents a bizarro universe where down is up, up is down, victims turn into victimizers and victimizers into victims. We see in the real world Bissell and his mentors circulating their words everywhere, including in mass circulation flagship publications. ULAers, meanwhile, aren’t to be seen anyplace. From 2003 Tom Bissell has received the Rome Prize and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Not quite an outsider himself.
Quickly enough in the essay, the members of the Underground Literary Alliance are called “no-talent whiners” (from a New York editor) as well as “thuggish, cruel, and petty.” They, ULAers, “cause distress to fellow writers” Bissell assures us-- I guess by the ULA’s very existence-- and “they manage to achieve true menace.”
Tom Bissell does concede a few innocuous points. With the “fair” part of his presentation over with, he descends to the heart of his attack. Bissell paints the ULA as having “a stolid refusal to accept anyone who goes about his or her artistic life differently than the ULA.”
All evidence demonstrates, then and now, the opposite: the refusal of those who wield real literary power to accept writers who don’t play by the accepted rules or who don’t take the acceptable path. Chad Harbach: “We’re all MFA’s now.”
Tom Bissell then begins a long analogy between the Underground Literary Alliance and the censorship of the Bolsheviks. The ULA, mind you, was protesting the stagnation of literary bureaucracy, but dare not let truth intrude into the conversation. Bissell tells us that in Russia, “hundreds of independent newspapers . . . were crushed.”
Never mind that the ULA sprung from a diverse scene of hundreds of independent publications, with no ties whatsoever to any monolith. What side does Bissell think we’re on? He compares us with Soviet Glavlit, of all things, when a tops-down Glavlit mentality was the very thing we were fighting. Bissell talks of writers being “tarred,” of being forced to clean floors for a living. He discusses banned writers, banned because “—they did not write about the correct subject matter. . . . They were not real writers.”
Isn’t it funny that the ULA’s members weren’t considered “real writers”; that Bissell’s statements applied to no writers so much as those of the Underground Literary Alliance? To make his points, Bissell turns truth on its head.
“I am not suggesting that the ULA wants to exterminate writers in a Stalinist burst of classocide.” !!! This sentence disingenuously suggests exactly that.
Bissell targets our goofy nicknames; “King”; “Wild Bill”; “Urban Hermitt”; and the like. “To rename oneself in such a way is a gesture of both concealment and aggression.”
No it’s not. It’s ballyhoo. We were using those names before the ULA was ever thought of and formed. But Tom Bissell is caught up in the malevolent creation of his imagination, and takes it beyond all bounds.
“—I suspect, too, that very few writers would want to live in a world in which the Underground Literary Alliance could determine who could and could not write.”
Well, maybe, if such a thing were conceivable. When did that question arise? At no point in our history were we not the lowliest, brokest, most powerless of writers. There are hundreds of well-funded institutions involved with the creation of literature, operating out of large and impressive edifices wielding great power, from prestigious university writing programs to the Big Six book giants dwelling in gigantic skyscrapers. A great deal of determinations are made in these thick-walled, castle-like structures. The Underground Literary Alliance, a collection of street writers, has never inhabited a one of them.
The ULA’s attacks were against a closed system, an insular mentality that does, in fact, in the real world, determine who can or cannot write. Our goal throughout was to break OPEN that system, to allow different writers, with different ways of writing, a voice in the culture; a seat at the literary table. One can disagree with our premise, but to impute to the ULA the very things that were being done to us, as Bissell did in this essay, was either malicious or goofy. What it was, was branding—tarring us with a series of labels that were in effect smears. Bolsheviks, Stalinists, terrorists, thugs—he had no trouble slinging words around, knowing that in the memory of everyone who read his essay—which meant a great many literary people—the words were going to stick. I truly believe Tom Bissell is in the wrong business. He’d make a great political campaign strategist.
Tom Bissell then corrects me for using the term “the real America” to describe collapsing industrial cities like Detroit.
“The ‘real’ America,” Bissell states, “is not poor and desperate, just as the real America is not young and wealthy and hip. They are both America, and both can be written about in revelatory ways.” So it is determined by the authority himself.
This is true, as far as it goes, but Bissell misses his own point. One America was being written about, in novel after novel, book after book. The other America, seldom. Or at least not written about often enough, or in a passionate enough way—as the likes of a Frank Norris or Jack London or Theodore Dreiser or John Steinbeck would once do—to outrage a sleepy American populace. The ULA was a naive endeavor in many ways. We were naive or idealistic enough to believe that literature could be relevant. That words alone could change America.
Tom Bissell’s entire essay on the Underground Literary Alliance is a mass of misinformation, distortions, and half-truths. Most of them are minor. Taken together, they add to the essay’s severely slanted effect. I’ll give three examples, one resulting from Bissell’s laziness, the other two from his dishonesty.
1.) Bissell mentions a short piece of mine from 1997 that was posted on the ULA site. He sees it as an “early” work of mine, and states that its “less hysterical tone suggests a writer whose voice has not yet been calcified by rejection—“
Though this sounds credible to the reader, it isn’t true. I’d published my zine, New Philistine, beginning in 1992. My first serious writing. Its tone was nothing if not “hysterical,” as those who’ve read it know. Before 1997 I’d also published a few essays in lit journals. At least one of the essays, also about Detroit, was far stronger than the short, later piece that Bissell cites. Though it’s most polemical parts were cut out, no doubt wisely, by the journal’s editor, the printed work was still more un-p.c. and in-your-face than the kind of writing usually found in such places. To the extent that this essay is still unavailable online, though a brother essay, about baseball!, is up. Tom Bissell could have easily found out about my other writings. But he didn’t. He was already viewing ULAers through the prism of his own literary experience. To this day he hasn’t altered that viewpoint.
My voice, incidentally, had been “calcified” before I ever started writing. It was why I began writing. As with Michael Jackman, to express my outrage and sense of injustice at the crumbling world around me.
2.) In the reprinted version of the essay in Magic Hours (I can’t seem to find it in the original), Tom Bissell says that McSweeney’s was “fronted with its own money and printed independently, which, as I understand it, pretty much defines a zine, but what do I know?”
Note the disclaimer at the end of the sentence, and the “pretty much.” Bissell has fudged the truth, and he knows it. He could’ve checked the definition for “zine” in any number of online dictionaries. Here’s what I found:
“an inexpensively produced, self-published underground publication” --The Free Dictionary
“a noncommercial often homemade or online publication” --Merriam-Webster
“a cheaply-made, cheaply-priced publication, often in black and white, which is mass-produced via photocopier and bound with staples.” --Urban Dictionary
“a small circulation publication . . . self-published work of minority interest usually reproduced via photocopier.”
What zine does not mean is a slick, professionally-produced journal created by a paid professional staff working at a leased office, printed in Iceland and shipped back to the United States via cargo container, and selling in the neighborhood of twenty-five bucks.
The Tom Bissell disclaimer: “Who? Me?”
3.) Tom Bissell cites a challenge to the ULA from poet David Berman requesting a debate with us. When I responded in semi-polite fashion, Berman gave me a snarky response and ran off. He wasn’t serious in the challenge, of course, but merely looking to make a smirky rejoinder, which Bissell quoted in his essay, I suppose because he saw it as an available dig. When we kept after David Berman about the challenge, he begged off. Bissell’s presentation of the trivial incident is untruthful. As is so much else in the essay.
What’s curious about this particular incident is that Tom Bissell seems surprised that I wasn’t a thug or a terrorist in my response to David Berman. Bissell is puzzled. “Several people told me,” he writes, that ULAers are “basically polite.” Tom Bissell created in his head and in his essay a stereotype of the ULA as a collection of thugs and terrorists, then wondered why we didn’t fit the stereotype. Never, of course, did he meet us and find out for himself. That we were writers, pure and simple, engaging in occasional theater and a lot of ballyhoo in order to draw attention to ourselves—old-fashioned promotion—was something Bissell didn’t consider.
What of our whistle blowing?
Tom Bissell selected a couple points out of scores of points, then again turned reality on its head, transforming arts grant victimizers into victims. Our chief target, one of the most connected writers in America—who Bissell portrayed in his essay as Jean Valjean!—was especially adept at gaming the system for his own benefit and that of his cronies. The scion of two hyper-wealthy families, this person sat on numerous grants panels, influenced the selection of heads of organizations like PEN America, awarded taxpayer money to his friends, and himself applied for and received a Guggenheim grant while residing inside America’s most exclusive private enclave, an island reserved for names like the Duponts and Firestones. Want to discuss the 1%? This individual was and is the cream of that 1%. Jean Valjean indeed.
The same person is also good friends with some of the wealthiest and most powerful figures on the literary scene, names like Daniel Handler and Dave Eggers, those able to decide in reality who’s blackballed from literature or not. To decide who is turned into a real-life Valjean, “branded as an outcast,” as Victor Huge portrays the character in his novel.
I could go into the literary corruption matter much further, and may say more in a few days in a comment to this blog post. Tom Bissell’s treatment of the NEA award to Jonathan Franzen—which Bissell both sidesteps and misdirects the reader about—is thoroughly dishonest. What’s interesting to me is that, though Bissell addressed some complex and controversial issues, he included no sources to his essay. No links to the ULA’s reports or to articles about the issues, in Page Six and elsewhere, where readers could find out about the controversies themselves. If I’m able to dig some of them up, I may include such sources in my comment about the whistle blowing subject.
Know that our whistle blowing presentations were thoroughly documented, unassailable, unless attacked in a quick, pithy and distorted way, as in Tom Bissell’s essay.
In retrospect, for the ULA band of nobodies to take on the powerful literary figures mentioned here, or not mentioned, was insanity. The ULA’s crime was stating the case for the 99% ten years before Occupy.
To summarize Part II of this impromptu series:
--To deny our legitimate outsider status, Tom Bissell claimed that all writers are outsiders.
--He accused the ULA of the very sins and crimes engaged in by the established literary and publishing mainstream.
--He tarred us, without a shred of evidence or speck of connection to reality, as akin to Leninists, Bolsheviks, and totalitarians.
--He defended the “young and wealthy and hip,” and by extension defended the extreme inequities of American society, which many ULAers were and are in a unique position to appreciate. Writers cleaning floors indeed! Not in Tom Bissell’s fervid imagination, but in American reality.
(NEXT UP: I’ll address the case made against underground writing. Watch for the next post about this, possibly up by this weekend. Responses and counterarguments to what I’ve said here are welcome. Will we see any? I doubt it.)