Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Cold War Literary System


When one reads accounts of the treatment of writers in the old Soviet Union, such as Giovanni Grazzini’s Solzhenitsyn, one sees strong parallels to the way dissenting or nonconforming writers are treated in the United States now. There’s the same divide between Approved and Unapproved writers; the same bureaucratically based intelligentsia condemning writers behind the scenes, silently denying those writers access to the system, including publicity or media attention, while circulating distortions and calumnies against them, as happened to the writers of the Underground Literary Alliance, without those writers able to present their side except in obscure samizdat fashion—as I do through posts on this blog.

The apparatus is shaky, as the Soviet apparatus was shaky. Mainstream journals, newspapers, and magazines, through which the literature of our time is announced and its ideas and names allowed to circulate, face increased popular indifference and plummeting circulation. But it remains a powerful apparatus, its members recruited from the New Class; such membership bestowing largesse and credibility. The apparatus retains the power to make, or banish, individual writers or groups of writers.

The system also pushes forward its approved models of a proper writer. Sholokhov, notably, in the first instance. A Jonathan Lethem or Lorrie Moore in the U.S. today. Within the bounds of the particular system, what’s certain is that the proper model will be appropriately safe.

Revealing to me was discovering Sholokhov’s three choices regarding Solzhenitsyn; his stated three ways to handle the man: as 1.) A madman; 2.) not a writer; 3.) an anti-Soviet slanderer.

Substituting “System” for “Soviet,” these are the three ways the current U.S. literary system depicted writers of the Underground Literary Alliance.


Sixty years ago two giant opposing systems, centered around the Soviet Union, in one instance, and the United States, in the other, waged an intense ideological war. The Cold War was a fight of ideas and ideologies. On the literary plain, the Soviet Union embraced Stalinist-style Socialist Realism. The liberal capitalist world, through the actions of men like George Plimpton and Robert Silvers, countered with a literature of the opposite; what could be called Irrelevant Postmodernism. Writers were encouraged to focus on the personal, the trivial, or the nonsensical. (The French author Robbe-Grillet was maybe the ultimate expression of this viewpoint.)

Pushed aside in the United States was that literary form which had dominated American letters for the previous fifty years: populism. As the Soviet Union’s ideological contortions narrowed and damaged Russian literature, the very same thing happened to American literature. That different kinds of writing were excluded only showed the two systems to be mirror images. As, of course, the opposing military complexes were built in opposition to, but were similar to, the Other.

One can study the education and career of the conforming working class American writer Raymond Carver to see how every shred of populism and activism was wrung from his mind and his work, leaving a compliant, beaten-down shell.

The problem, from an American standpoint, is that the Soviet Union and its moldy bureaucratic systems and decayed ideologies collapsed—but our literary system continued on, to this very day, more repressive of counter-ideologies, nonconformity, and dissent as ever. 


Those Approved literary groups who try to break from their restrictive box face unresolvable contradictions. The elite (Ivy League-spawned) journal n+1, for instance, claims to want a return to populist American art. But its very intellectual foundations—Partisan Review and New York Review of Books major influences—are with the organs of past American liberal/neoconservative Cold Warriors. Their postmodernism philosophy in all its aspects, premises, jargon, and aesthetics, stems from the anti-populist camp.


Bipple Nipple said...

I have two "friend" accounts with Bissell. your email link for a contact doesn't work. Please update it.
Tom Bissell shared a link.
August 22
My writing career: Assaulting the powerless since 2003....

AttackingtheDemi-Puppets: Power Used Against the Powerless
McSweeneys Books shouldn’t have included the smear essay against the Underground Literary Alliance in Tom Bissell’s Magic Hours. What was the point? Bissell wasn’t attacking and slurring the powerful, but the powerless—an organization which was already broken; many of whose writers are broken. This ...
15 people like this.
Ian Bogost You are the one percent! Next time, Bissell! NEXT TIME [frantic fist waving]!!!
August 22 at 10:47am

Mark Doten wait, didn't you tangle with this guy a while back? or was that someone else? (to be fair: daniel handler prob is a 1-percenter at this point, bless him.)
August 22 at 10:49am

John Warner Are you posting from your summer resort?
August 22 at 10:50am

Tom Bissell Gears of War: Assaulting the Powerless. I like it!
August 22 at 10:56am · 4

Nick Kolakowski So anyone who's been published by McSweeney's is the one percent? Awesome.
August 22 at 10:57am

Salvatore Pane This man's name is King Wenclas.
August 22 at 11:01am · 1

Ian Bogost The worst kind of fame is the one other people imagine you have, but which you don't really possess.
August 22 at 11:03am · 2

Tom Bissell Daniel, I do recall this! And I thank you for your defense. The man is so fascinatingly blind.
August 22 at 11:07am · Edited

Phil DeKane Hmm. I couldn't put my finger on it at the time, but this explains that curious feeling of being oppressed I would get while hanging out with Tom.
August 22 at 12:01pm via mobile · 1

Anthony Majanlahti That is one bonkers blogger.
August 22 at 12:11pm

Phil DeKane I took a moment to glance through some of King's recent blog posts. I especially enjoyed one part where he claims to have a lot of evidence that he's not a bad writer. In other words, he can prove he's a good writer!
August 22 at 12:38pm

Trisha Miller I love that all his Bissell/Believer takedown pieces are filed under "Fun Stuff"
August 22 at 12:44pm

Trisha Miller Also: how dare you not take your special lady friend to your fancy summer resort.
August 22 at 12:47pm

August 22 at 12:51pm

J-dot E-dot Boles Having money obscures one's writer's vision. No doubt about it. No writer with money will ever get into heaven. Poverty affords clear vision, just as Jesus said.
August 22 at 12:52pm

David Hellman How do I get judged by history too? Pretty sweet
August 22 at 1:04pm

Bo King You've clearly made a friend for life.
August 22 at 1:37pm

Joshua Roberts Have you noticed Wenclas has many subsidiary blogs, including this one, The El Cid Project, which appears to be quite the Islamophobic/Save The West From Foreign Incursion soapbox. Truly charming.

The El Cid Project
The Greatest Movie Ever-- depicting the clash of cultures and the battle against...See More
August 22 at 2:02pm

Neal Pollack When will the literary establishment finally recognize the literary achievements of such unsung giants as Wred Fright and Wild Bill Blackolive?

Your current contact email doesn't work. Please update for juicy info.

King Wenclas said...

Hmm-- Anyone care to respond to the actual post??
Instead, the usual knee-jerk sneering. Yet why doesn't Bissell-- or the others-- address the points I made in my 4-part takedown of Bissell's essay?
How would you react if you were similarly smeared??
As I've stated, the republication of Bissell's essay allowed the ULA to be libeled all over the literary world. He created a distorted stereotype of the ULA and its writers. That distortion became the reality. Sure, I'll combat that distortion in any way possible.
I suspect these people can only sneer, not argue, because of their limitations-- which includes an ability to think outside3 thee lines of strict literart conformity. And so, we get brilliant comments like,
"anyone published by McSweeney's is the one percent?"
(No, but those who run it are. Aren't Heidi and Ben in fact at their summer resort right now? No? Yes?)
"That is one bonkers blogger."
(Address specific points?)
"Daniel Handler is prob a 1 percenter"
Probably? Handler is worth several hundred million dollars. Probably?
And so on.
The McSweeney's crowd can't debate. They can smear. They can libel. They won't or can't debate.
(The incurably brainwashed: Someone who presents viewpoints they don't agree with are suffering from a "phobia." Is it an unfair comparison to point out that this was exactly how dissident writers, or those who spoke unapproved opinions, were treated in the Soviet Union? My analogies aren't that far out there when you step back and take a larger view of today's literary world. That the ULA was ostracized fits a pattern. The remarks in the above Comment show that the herd remains closed-minded. They're incapable of questioning anything about their world.

King Wenclas said...

p.s. Forgive the typos. I was typing in a less-than-ideal setting.
It should be "which includes an inability to think outside the lines of strict literary conformity."
p.p.s. This blog's listed email address should work if you take the NOSPAM out of it. Or, another email for me (I have scores) is americanpoplit AT gmail DOT com.

King Wenclas said...

p.p.p.s. I have no Facebook account. A page there under my name was put up by someone else.