Many of the reviewers of Tom Bissell’s book Magic Hours commented on his renowned empathy, including regarding the Underground Literary Alliance. A typical schizophrenic example is this comment by blogger Ron Hogan at Beatrice.com:
“I was struck by his willingness to approach them with empathy, even when he was unrelenting in his analysis of their deluded assholery.”
Quite an example of irrational malice toward the ULA on Ron Hogan’s part, though we had no encounter with him in our heyday, and we’ve further been inactive for a number of years. It shows which side actually carries hatred toward the other.
Beyond this, how is Tom Bissell able to get reviewers like Ron Hogan to believe two things at once; that Bissell was being empathetic at the same time he eviscerated us?
The site www.diffen.com defines empathy as follows: “the ability to mutually experience the thoughts, emotions, and direct experience of others.”
In his essay on the ULA, Tom Bissell fell far short of this goal. As I point out in parts I and III in my examination of his Believer essay, Bissell made little attempt to understand us, or the very different background we came from as writers. His essay throughout shows ignorance of the DIY zine scene and its different codes and standards. He had no understanding of zine mentality, as revealed in such things as his cheap shot at the writing of Urban Hermitt, to his misunderstanding of zine nicknames. He never met a one of us. How could he possibly show empathy toward us, when he had no understanding of us and how we thought; when we were separated from his kind of system writer by an aesthetic and cultural gulf?
Bissell’s thoughts and feelings toward writers are filtered through his own experience as a writer—not ours. He’s empathetic to writers who think as he does; who follow his own assumptions, goals, aesthetic rules, and institutional framework.
Tom Bissell plays the “empathy” game well, but it’s a questionable—and arrogant—assumption for a journalist in any circumstance, the claim reeking not of objectivity or reality but a snow job.