Friday, November 09, 2012

American Literature and Football


This post was prodded by two news items. 1.) Former Penn State president Graham Spanier arraigned on charges of covering up the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse allegations. 2.) The USC Trojans college football team accused of cheating by deflating game footballs.

One very big story and one much smaller one, both giving indications of a pattern.


Conspiracies of silence seem to happen a lot in the college football scene. My question: Does it also occur in the literary game?

I’ve shown that Tom Bissell’s recently republished essay on the Underground Literary Alliance contained outrageous smears against our organization. (The extensive “lots and lots of tombstones” portion of the essay, comparing ULAers to homicidal Bolsheviks.) But I’ll also soon address the question of whether the essay is filled not just with distortions and ridiculous slurs, but blatant dishonesty. It will involve Bissell’s take, in the essay, on the arts grants corruption matter—likely the one area of the ULA campaign that created for us the most hostility.

One of the questions to be asked is whether the literary world, right now, is engaging in a conspiracy of silence, in that many prominent literary persons reviewing Bissell’s book for esteemed publications didn’t see the slurs in the essay in the first place, and are refusing to discuss them to this date. (One of the reviewers, as readers of this blog know, began to discuss the issue then quickly ran away. Strange behavior for a journalist, who should be upfront and open at all times.)


Though a low level manager (towel handler and gofer) has become the fall guy at USC over the deflated footballs controversy, the real focus is on USC coach Lane Kiffin, because he has a track record of skirting the boundaries of honesty and dishonesty. The entire record is too lengthy to post here. You can google him and see, for instance, what was said when he was fired as coach of the Oakland Raiders by Al Davis, among other things.

The question here is whether Tom Bissell, despite all the many plaudits he’s received, has a dishonest personality. Yes, I’m biased on the matter. Of course I am. I admit that. But didn’t Bissell carry bias toward the ULA going in, when he originally began writing the essay in 2003, based on the crowd for whom Bissell was writing it? Based on those he needed to please?

The matter should be settled strictly on an objective look at the facts. On what’s available for us—all of us—to see, laid out in black and white. I’ve always invited such a transparent examination.

The question of Bissell’s honesty came up previously, in January 2005 when I questioned whether or not he’d engaged in plagiarism. I’ll repeat: questioned whether he’d engaged in plagiarism. I simply took the examples that’d been given to me, laid them out on this blog, and asked the audience and the literary world to decide.

Most interesting to me was the flurry of reaction and hostility I received. Led by Maud Newton, a host of lit world apologists expressed outrage—not at Bissell, but at me, for raising the question. The explanations and excuses offered still strike me today as sheer sophistry. When I began winning the ensuing blogosphere debate, Maud and others simply cut off all further discussion. The matter was suddenly closed. I was virtually ostracized.

Do we see a pattern, analogous to today’s college football scene?

It could be the nature of clubby and closed worlds to allow corrupt behavior; to cover up and defend it whenever possible, in the interest of the overall game, or the interest of the specific team. I’ve said before that the McSweeney’s Gang carries immense leverage in the tiny world of the U.S. literary scene. They continue to have legions of defenders, admirers, and apologists, Maud Newton only one of them. The admirers run through every level and nearly every institution—as we’ve seen, including among them those like Garth Risk Hallberg able to review books for the New York Times. These admirers are notable for refusing to speak publicly about any topic uncomfortable for literature’s power teams like McSweeney’s. We find written about that particular team only very positive, glowing, puffy, airy and brainless kinds of things. I’m asking whether or not this is analogous to the college football situation; to the steadfast closing of ranks, the conspiracies of silence, at places like Penn State and USC.

The difference—it’s an enormous difference—is that regarding college football there are a number of sports reporters behaving not like sycophants, but like legitimate journalists. They uncover bad behavior. They rah! rah! for the game, but also print on occasion uncomfortable, sometimes extremely revealing, stories.

Ten years ago the ULA was doing this, to a tiny extent. We barely raised the tarp covering the literary playing field, then wrote about what we’d seen. The hurricane of reaction and blowback to our revelations caused the eventual collapse, not of the bad guys, the miscreants, but our own organization. Members bailed. Taking on an entire scene that had closed ranks against us became too great a task even for the shit disturbers, the “room wreckers”—the truth tellers—of the ULA.

In the U.S. literary world, since the Underground Literary Alliance ceased its activities, nobody—nobody—is credibly examining the workings of today’s literary game.


Anonymous said...

Greetings! Good post, as always. Gave you a shout-out on my blog this morning.

Any more fiction in the pipe?

King Wenclas said...

Thanks for the generous post. It's always encouraging to know there are others out there thinking outside the lines of standard literary groupthink.
I have two ebooks in the pipeline. One's satirical. The other contains more serious writing.
I'll check out your own writing as soon as I'm able. Yes, pop writers are selling bigtime. I believe we can take it to another level and still be pop writers.

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