Was Tom Bissell’s Believer essay about the Underground Literary Alliance, reprinted this year in Magic Hours by McSweeney’s Books, of malicious intent?
One way to judge is to look at reactions to the essay from recent reviewers.
The very influential Kirkus Reviews said this:
“Bissell can tear into his subjects with a ferocity and brutal wit that recalls Dwight MacDonald, as when he writes about the would-be literary provocateurs of the Underground Literary Alliance.”
In her review of Bissell’s Magic Hours in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Maria Bustillos calls the ULA “a bunch of noisy, not-too-talented zinesters who tried to form a literary movement.” Maria Bustillos goes on to applaud a Tom Bissell cheap shot against one of the best zine writers around, Urban Hermitt. I’m sure Bustillos has never read Hermitt’s work. Tom Bissell read only an excerpt.
By the way, Tom Bissell is listed on the L.A. Review of Books masthead as a Contributing Editor.
Lesser lights, taking their cues from the Bissell essay, also took their shots. For instance, video gamer Matthew Rickart, while applauding Bissell’s book, called ULAers “bitter children” and “hackneyed.”
Brian Wolowitz, at the site Spectrum Culture, first notes Bissell’s “ambivalent” attitude toward the ULA, then claims “he often attempts to understand or defend easily dismissible figures like the clownishly clueless ULA members. . . .”
If Brian concludes we’re merely clownish, then what kind of defense of us has Bissell made?
The answer is given in a Tom Scocca Bookforum piece on Tom Bissell, in which Scocca calls Bissell’s ULA essay “a masterpiece of tactics.” It’s exactly that, if the essay was able to convince some writers that Bissell was being even-handed at the same time he eviscerated us.
Part of the problem is that the natural sympathies of most of these reviewers is with Bissell, in that he’s placed himself where they seek to place themselves, within the approved literary hierarchy, accepting and defending the status quo. The other part of the problem is that their view of the Underground Literary Alliance is filtered through the prism of Tom Bissell’s biased and distorted essay. They accept his premises as a given.