What accounts for the overwhelming conformity of today’s approved literary world? What are the motivations behind the obedience of the literary herd?
They’re varied. Some writers, such as Ed Champion, know the official literary system is thoroughly corrupt, but these writers are personally afflicted with an invertebrate condition which prevents them from going very far in speaking out. They’re spineless jellyfish.
Another category is that of ambitious opportunists, who simply don’t care about character and principles. The necessary pose is all. If American lit became dominated by populists, they’d become populists—and would be sure to network with, and accommodate themselves to, the new major players. Think of the Rod Steiger character in the David Lean movie “Doctor Zhivago.” Maud Newton comes quickly to mind—and Mr. Bissell. Perhaps Eggers himself is like this. After all, when he began McSweeneys he went after the Insider crowd; the Moodys and Minots.
The vast bulk of the established literary herd, however, are True Believers in the current system. Through the totality of their reading and literary education, they’ve never been exposed to anything contrary to the status quo. They’ve been trained to look down on anything else. One sees this not just with McSweeneyites themselves, but also at McSweeneys-affiliated web sites like The Rumpus, or tacit allies like HTML Giant. At no place in these realms, at any time, do you see a word of contradiction. No moments of questioning the current literary system and how it works, or their own art. Least of all the style of literary art that they all unquestioningly accept. Read Rumpus blog posts of their crew of wannabes and you see minds which never for a moment have stepped outside the conformist hipster “Urban Haute Literary Bourgeoisie” bubble.
If you’re not thinking independently, if you’re not questioning your world, are you even truly a writer? But not, instead, an unthinking regurgitating machine cog?
The Underground Literary Alliance was accused of many things. Those who were actually in the outfit know that dissent and debate among ourselves was constant. We offered a wide variety of viewpoints; ranged the gamut of extreme Left to extreme Right, and even our aesthetic ideas were never of a piece.
When you examine an outfit like McSweeneys you see, by contrast, an organization which in significant ways is straight out of George Orwell’s 1984. Care to dispute that statement? Anyone?
1.) First and most fundamental is the underlying philosophy of postmodernism, which, as did the totalitarians of the 20th century—spawned by the same intellectual influences—disbelieves in notions of truth. Truth, ultimately, is what power says it is.
2.) Related to this is the view toward history. History exists to be rewritten and distorted. We see this in the reprint of the mendacious Tom Bissell essay against the ULA. Curious additions were made portraying Dave Eggers as having been an authentic zinester. These additions surely didn’t come from Bissell himself. By the way, how hard do you think Eggers had to work to obtain them?
3.) Key in spotting the Orwellian nature of McSweeneyites and similar literary groups, such as HTML Giant, is reading the convolutions of their writings. The postmodern style is designed to destroy understanding and meaning. Clarity in thought and expression isn’t wanted. The literary works—see literary god David Foster Wallace’s final novel, for instance—are everything that Orwell in his essays and his fiction warned against.
4.) False democracy. I’ve well documented the phoniness of today’s Insider literary crowd. They pay lip service to “the 99%,” but their actions, their desperation to receive the proper approval and credentials, their accumulations of money, position, and power, reveal the opposite. Or as Orwell said in his fable Animal Farm, “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.”
There remain literary dissidents outside the walls of the Inside literary crowd. I’ve yet to find one dissenter inside the hierarchical, well-controlled castle—at least, not one questioning, dissenting soul brave enough to publicly (or privately?) speak up. Talking back to power is a concept not practiced there, or known.