Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Literary Citizens United


That Tom Bissell’s biased and inaccurate essay is allowed to define the legacy of the Underground Literary Alliance, while reviewers applaud or look the other way, shows the importance of connections and standing in this society. A democracy? Not hardly. Bissell is backed by power and money, so his becomes the accepted version of the story. I could correct his distortions here for a year, and it wouldn’t change a thing. My response will be hardly read, and will be steadfastly ignored by those with literary influence who do read it. Falsehood wins the day. My Crime City USA ebook isn’t just a fictional story.


The irony about Tom Bissell’s false accusations against the ULA is that literary classocide has taken place in America. Populist styles of writing have been delegitimized and marginalized by the so-called literary mainstream. As I’ve already pointed out, naturalism, once the major stream of American letters, is one of those styles. The Underground Literary Alliance, which advocated a wide variety of literary populism, from the humor-pop of Wred Fright to the east Texas dialect outlaw tales of Wild Bill Blackolive to Michael Jackman’s pure naturalism to many other kinds. Tom Bissell’s distorted essay was one of the tools used to derail our movement.

Former ULA writers are around. They could be spotlighted now. Where are the many “liberal” lit outfits who constantly beat their chests about the 99%? Tom Bissell’s refined style of lit—so, so obsolete in the marketplace and among Americans generally—receives reviews and write-ups. Where are the authentic populist writers? Where are their profiles and write-ups? Why are not Salon, Slate, n+1, Guernica Mag, and all the others, in this day of Occupy, covering populists? Banker’s sons only need apply. The only style these sites and magazines seem to like is the style of urban haute literary bourgeoisie. Brooklyn hipster lit, if you will—refined and irrelevant. The same-old same-old. True mediocrity, because for all its refinement it has little to say, has few ideas, is largely pose.


All the Underground Literary Alliance asked for was a level playing field. Because we won the arguments we engaged in with the refined crowd, they panicked. All coverage, all debate, all discussion by us or about us was shut down. The false narrative about the ULA became the dominant narrative.

The result? Writers from the bottom levels of American society, without certifications, connections, or funds, who write in unfamiliar ways about little glimpsed realities, who present ideas which are contrary to those of the literary establishment and sometimes offensive to them, and who’ve documented financial corruption and cronyism within the literary system, are never heard. Bissell has ultimate gall calling the ULA “authoritarian,” when the system he defends—with the way it deals with alternate ideas and alternative writers—defines the term.


Tom Bissell has scorned the idea of an organized literary system. Yet to me the system moves in lockstep, as unconsciously organized and compliant as a beehive. Look at the example of the Underground Literary Alliance and our brief but contentious rebellion. What was the result? The Machine that Bissell insists doesn’t exist embraced in totality the corruption of our targets.

Was there, say, 20% of the literary scene that took our side of the story, and 80% the side of the McSweeney’s Gang? 5% our side? 1%? No. The established lit scene became 100% opposed to us, though the facts and the truth of the matter were on our side. The members of the literary beehive knew that to do otherwise was suicide. I call that a monolith. The reason for it is that in literature today, money and power, which Bissell’s backers have in abundance, wield enormous clout. Established literary folk can sign all the Occupy Writers petitions they want. It means nothing. I know and they know it’s bullshit. In their clubby little world, such gestures will change nothing.


The journalists who’ve interviewed Tom Bissell or reviewed his book have failed to ask the obvious questions. For one, questions about additions to the essay’s original version. Who wanted those changes? For what reason?

The changes consist of phrases or arguments portraying Dave Eggers as, of all things, a zinester. We’re brought back to the ULA’s original conflict with him. With the ULA a virtual corpse, Eggers can do now what he wanted to do then—namely, appropriate the authenticity and credibility of the independent zine scene for himself. Isn’t this how it’s usually done in American culture? The genuine article is wiped out, while the big money boys move in to play the role.


This is the ultimate question that preening literary folk, in Brooklyn, San Francisco, or elsewhere, need to answer. The motto of the zine scene, as expressed in the pages of Zine World (aka A Reader’s Guide to the Underground Press) has long been, “Free Speech Belongs to Everyone.” Does it? Or does it belong only to those with the biggest megaphone? To whom does American literature belong? To self-appointed mandarins in ivory towers cut off from the living currents of American culture? To Big Money power boys sustained by relationships to the Big Six? Or does not literature belong to all of us?

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Prep School Bullies


I may be making a mistake in responding to the reappearance of the egregious Tom Bissell hatchet-job-against-the-underground Believer essay. I hate for falsehood to go uncorrected. But it’s also true that the prep school bullies at the McSweeney’s empire love to have enemies so they can exercise their innate snobbery, which they usually hold in check behind phony smiles. Oh! The outrage! They won’t come on here directly of course—they don’t have the intellectual capacity or courage for that, but they’re no doubt plotting and scheming. The roles they play as eternally innocent untouched-by-reality icons is very difficult for them to constantly maintain, from the Great White Father on down. I’m not much of an opponent anymore—never was, really—but it’s like practicing on a gym dummy. Keeps them in training.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

About Underground Writing


The print zine scene of the 1990’s became embodied in the Underground Literary Alliance during the decade of the 2000’s. Many of the best zine writers at one time or another were in our ranks. In his essay on the ULA, Tom Bissell, defender of status quo writing, reveals his unbridgeable differences, artistically and philosophically, with that style of writing.

In his essay, Tom Bissell gives the game away about the obsessiveness of his “Big Six” publishing training when, with a fragment of my own zine writing—of which Bissell apparently approves—he compulsively adds commas to it. As a writer he reveals himself to be compulsively uptight.

Like all writers today, Tom Bissell follows the rules of the Chicago Style Manual. To not follow the rules is unthinkable. Leading publications like The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, New York Times, require well-regulated writers for a well-regulated readership. Dictionaries and style manuals enforce rigid consistency in letters. As much as system writers laud the memory of the Beats, in no way would they try to be like them in their writing. Nor in lifestyle, come to think of it. To achieve in this hyper-competitive society requires a well-regulated personality.

Consistency in letters wasn’t always the norm. In the time of Shakespeare/Shakspere—who varied even the spelling of his own name—literary chaos reigned.

We live today in an advanced civilization. Order is required. Every year sees increased regulation and order. Over every aspect of life. If cameras are placed on every street corner, there need to be intellectual cameras watching over our writing.

But what do you do with a genre of writing that intentionally breaks the rules and goes outside the bounds of any style manual?

The Underground Literary Alliance recruited writers of any age and from every conceivable corner of the country, job, belief, and lifestyle. We even had a token Ivy Leaguer in our ranks. We presented roots writing—the chaotic sound of American life. American culture has forever been renewed by the underground streams of roots artists.

The best recent example is the rise of rock n’ roll music. In the 1950’s, American roots music, performed by lower class musicians, urban blacks to rural hillbillies, sounded crude and alien to the ears of the classically trained. Controlled precision was the norm. The young college set didn’t accept and adopt rock music until the success of Bob Dylan and the Beatles in 1964-65, ten years after Elvis cut his first record. Roots music had been around much longer.

Roots writing has been around at least since Davy Crockett’s time. Print zines were and remain America’s great literary subculture.

Roots writing is not tops-down official literature approved and imposed from on high, but from the people up. Literature from outside the well-regulated monolith. In 2003 it looked and sounded alien to Tom Bissell, former W.W. Norton editor. The print zinesters he encountered were unapproved. To me, that was their appeal.

Bissell could relate ULAers only to the manuscripts he’d received as a big-time New York editor. In the 1950’s, the trained big band drummer Buddy Rich, encountering Elvis Presley, Bill Black, and Scotty Moore backstage of the Dorsey Brothers TV show, remarked with surprise and scorn that they couldn’t even play their instruments!, in his expert opinion. Their music was beyond his comprehension. It wasn’t that Presley and his combo were inferior to Buddy Rich, as Rich assumed. Who remembers Buddy Rich now? It’s that their standards were different. They were listening for different sounds. Their musical values differed, dramatically. Buddy Rich presented technical perfection. Elvis offered a rawer sound, a growl which seemed to come from the ground. Rock music’s untutored earthiness was its appeal. The expression not of craft or clinical virtuosity, but emotion. Experience. The feel of a honky-tonk saloon or a holy roller church service.

Rock n’ roll was also a step backward toward simplicity in art. Yin-yang. It was time for a change. Musical complexity had run its course. What makes the pop songs of the early Beatles so appealing to this day is how artless they sound. “Baby’s in black, and I’m feeling blue, tell me oh, what can I do.” Their later songs became more complex, but it was a very different complexity from Bach.

The difference between print zinesters of the Underground Literary Alliance and Bissell’s back room stacks of mailed-in manuscripts is that zinesters weren’t trying to write like Alice Munro or John Updike. They weren’t asking for Tom Bissell’s approval. They were being themselves. Wred Fright, Wild Bill Blackolive, Urban Hermitt, Crazy Carl Robinson, Jack Saunders, and many others were and are total originals.

Tom Bissell says in his essay, about two of the ULA’s best zine writers, “Hermitt’s problem is that she, like Jackman, has mistaken emotion and purity of intent for art.”

Bissell mistakes craft for art. Art, ultimately, is the expression of emotion. It could be the elevated emotion of a Beethoven symphony, or the kick-in-the-gut emotion of a garage rock band like the Detroit Cobras. Art is in some way the expression of being alive. Craft is a side story. The fact is that both Urban Hermitt and Michael Jackman used deliberate craft, but it was of a very different type from the standard “literary” writing to which well-trained Mr. Bissell was accustomed. Hermitt’s misspellings and uncapitalized letters were carefully chosen—the intent being to express the chaos, confusion, and awkward immediacy of his/her life. The long zines of both writers, when read in their entirety, conveyed, yes, indeed, a great deal of emotion.

A major difference between the most-lauded literary writing of today, and the kind of writing the Underground Literary Alliance advocated, was in the writing’s viewpoint. Our style of underground writing was of a populist kind. Outer-directed more than inner-directed. In this sense we followed the tradition of populist American writers from Whitman to Twain to Frank Norris and Jack London to John Steinbeck.

In his famous Harvard speech, Alexander Solzhenitsyn criticized the dominance of what he called anthropocentricity in contemporary American society. This means the self as the center of the universe—a philosophy well demonstrated in the writing of David Foster Wallace. This philosophy dominates the highest levels of American literature today. Those who advocate this viewpoint, and ensuing style of writing, should realize that theirs isn’t the only possible kind of writing. Some of us believe that convoluted complexity and intense solipsism isn’t the only way of doing things. Some of us believe an opposite style of writing works better for readers. We should be allowed to think that way, and still be accepted as legitimate writers.

In his essay, Tom Bissell attacks no ULAer’s writing so much as the writing of Michael Jackman. He makes assertions regarding Jackman’s style. The reader of the essay is compelled to believe those assertions. Bissell calls the writing “boringly real.”

“When Jackman’s narrator suspenselessly opens the newspaper to find an apartment—its $200-a-month rent serves the same grandstandingly sociological purpose here as a Thomas Pink tie does in the work of Bret Easton Ellis.”

Yes, the styles of the two writers have similarities. They fill their prose with markers of contemporary life. Their subjects and settings are different. The difference is that no one, with the possible exception of Tom Bissell, would claim that Bret Ellis isn’t a good writer.

In the excerpt which Bissell cited, and in some of his other zine writing, Michael Jackman wrote in the tradition of literary naturalism. That naturalism has fallen out of favor among the refined literary crowd of today doesn’t mean it’s not legitimate writing. It works by accumulation. It does indeed pile on the reality, hitting the reader over the head with it until the point is well made. There’s an inescapability to it. It’s highly readable. When you plunge into the narrative you’re dragged through it, through every step of its shitty reality. Jackman’s best zine was a long tale about boot camp in the army. Not one degradation and harsh treatment missed. At the end of it, you the reader felt the same disgust with authority and life as the narrator. As with other naturalistic writings, there’s no way out of it. It’s not selective writing and isn’t intended to be.

When Tom Bissell claimed in his essay that Jackman’s writing is unreadable, I felt compelled to ask, unreadable for whom? Unreadable for a chi-chi Manhattan cocktail drinker is a possibility—but Jackman’s kind of writing, done in an always clear style, is certainly far more readable than the showy prose of a Ben Marcus or George Saunders. At least for the vast majority of readers. The ULA always favored literary democracy.

I wonder if the wheel is turning even for elite literary people. After all, the much-acclaimed Jonathan Franzen in his latest novel follows a distinctly mundane, unshowy style of writing, which works through the gradual and inexorable building of the facts and threads of his story.

For a while I couldn’t understand why Tom Bissell changed the name of his Believer essay from “Attacking All Fiction Writers!” to “Grief and the Outsider.” The first title, for all its inaccuracy, better expresses the upbeat in-your-face carnival barker style of the Underground Literary Alliance. But, grief? ULAers might have felt outrage, anger, frustration; a range of emotions, as well as being eternal quixotic upbeat out-of-touch-with-reality optimists, which was our basic nature. We had to be optimists to go up against the overwhelming scorn of the entire established literary community. But, grief? That’s an emotion which fits better for the kind of anthropocentric very-serious certified and approved literary people Bissell has been used to hanging around with. You know. Obsession with self. To be honest, ULAers never had a huge amount of expectations about the mandarins’ treatment of our writing—which was why we were zinesters. Grief??

I didn’t connect the dots until I reread Bissell’s essay. In there is a quote by the ULA’s Jack Saunders which Tom Bissell apparently agrees with. Jack is speaking about successful literary figures: “They know that when they have to write, then, well, they have to suddenly become rather sad and ironic.”

Yes! They do. Grief!

One has to at least ask to what extent class bias played a part in the easy dismissal of the ULA’s writers and writings.

Are the divides and antagonisms of class presented anywhere today in American fiction? Or is it a subject that the good people prefer to avoid?

One can find convincing data on America’s class divide from nonfiction writers on both the Left and the Right, Paul Krugman to Charles Murray. Class stratification permeates the American educational system, and by extension the intellectual community. Why would we think it’s nonexistent in the literary realm?

I have to remind myself that literary hatchet man Tom Bissell speaks for a narrow section of American literature, a snobby and elitist clique whose position at the top of the literary castle grows ever narrower. They’ve already lost the market. All they have left is control of the major organs of literary publicity. These remain powerful pieces.

Tom Bissell represents the institutionalization of literature. He represents the past. Literature is being democratized, right now, whether any of us likes it or wants it. Great transformations in publishing and literature are taking place as I type this. Ebooks. Underground rumbles of a new variety, different from yet similar to the sort the Underground Literary Alliance advocated. A literary earthquake.

What does Tom Bissell think of the writing of Amanda Hocking?

I’m already looking ahead to the fusing of literary and pop. I achieve this fusion in my latest e-novel, The Tower. I’m unique in that I understand both styles of writing. The new novel merges clarity and pace with large themes and relevant ideas. As well as a powerful story. It stands between the extremes of both camps. In that it’s revolutionary. What this new aesthetic accomplishes may be beyond the comprehension of writers from any side. But someday it will be understandable. Right now, this kind of novel is unfamiliar territory, especially for professionally trained literary people.

For art, too much training, too many institutions, too many bureaucracies and cultural apparatchiks of status quo thinking are a detriment. Art and culture have to be living organisms. Always in flux. Not in stasis, not well-regulated, not held captive in a carefully watched box. Art will break from the bounds of that box every time.   

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Biggest Distortion


Tom Bissell's biggest distortion regarding the Underground Literary Alliance was to deftly accuse us of what he calls "classocide." This, when at the time we were founded, and since, "classocide" was happening to us. Could anything be more egregious? It's why I've urged the other side to read the David M. Sheridan essay about Detroit. The untold story of America-- the story I wanted to tell-- was the wiping out of America's industrial working class. Ironic, isn't it, that in these days of Occupy and the 99%, the so-called liberals of New York literature and media are embracing a literary attack dog who's still-- with the reappearance of his essay-- being utilized against what was an authentic working-and-lower class activist writers group?

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Bissell’s Distortions


What of Tom Bissell’s essay itself? Retitled for Magic Hours as “Grief and the Outsider,” it appears to the eye roughly similar to the original version, though an additional “grief” or two may have been added to the narrative, for effect.

“Literature is always written by outsiders,” the essay begins. This is ridiculous on its face. Bissell’s statement is a refusal to make distinctions. It’s an attempt to strip the words “outsider” and “insider” of meaning—but it appeals to the self-image of Bissell’s audience: The Believer’s upscale staff and its hipster readership, who truly want to believe in what Bissell is selling them. Tom must believe he’s dealing with quite the gullible audience, because he goes on to say that John Updike, who virtually lived at The New Yorker, was an outsider. Bissell likely threw this in as a test of how much he could get away with.

In the essay, Tom Bissell presents a bizarro universe where down is up, up is down, victims turn into victimizers and victimizers into victims. We see in the real world Bissell and his mentors circulating their words everywhere, including in mass circulation flagship publications. ULAers, meanwhile, aren’t to be seen anyplace. From 2003 Tom Bissell has received the Rome Prize and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Not quite an outsider himself.

Quickly enough in the essay, the members  of the Underground Literary Alliance are called “no-talent whiners” (from a New York editor) as well as “thuggish, cruel, and petty.” They, ULAers, “cause distress to fellow writers” Bissell assures us-- I guess by the ULA’s very existence-- and “they manage to achieve true menace.”

Tom Bissell does concede a few innocuous points. With the “fair” part of his presentation over with, he descends to the heart of his attack. Bissell paints the ULA as having “a stolid refusal to accept anyone who goes about his or her artistic life differently than the ULA.”

All evidence demonstrates, then and now, the opposite: the refusal of those who wield real literary power to accept writers who don’t play by the accepted rules or who don’t take the acceptable path. Chad Harbach: “We’re all MFA’s now.”

Tom Bissell then begins a long analogy between the Underground Literary Alliance and the censorship of the Bolsheviks. The ULA, mind you, was protesting the stagnation of literary bureaucracy, but dare not let truth intrude into the conversation. Bissell tells us that in Russia, “hundreds of independent newspapers . . . were crushed.”

Never mind that the ULA sprung from a diverse scene of hundreds of independent publications, with no ties whatsoever to any monolith. What side does Bissell think we’re on? He compares us with Soviet Glavlit, of all things, when a tops-down Glavlit mentality was the very thing we were fighting. Bissell talks of writers being “tarred,” of being forced to clean floors for a living. He discusses banned writers, banned because “—they did not write about the correct subject matter. . . . They were not real writers.”

Isn’t it funny that the ULA’s members weren’t considered “real writers”; that Bissell’s statements applied to no writers so much as those of the Underground Literary Alliance? To make his points, Bissell turns truth on its head.

“I am not suggesting that the ULA wants to exterminate writers in a Stalinist burst of classocide.” !!! This sentence disingenuously suggests exactly that.

Bissell targets our goofy nicknames; “King”; “Wild Bill”; “Urban Hermitt”; and the like. “To rename oneself in such a way is a gesture of both concealment and aggression.”

No it’s not. It’s ballyhoo. We were using those names before the ULA was ever thought of and formed. But Tom Bissell is caught up in the malevolent creation of his imagination, and takes it beyond all bounds.

“—I suspect, too, that very few writers would want to live in a world in which the Underground Literary Alliance could determine who could and could not write.”

Well, maybe, if such a thing were conceivable. When did that question arise? At no point in our history were we not the lowliest, brokest, most powerless of writers. There are hundreds of well-funded institutions involved with the creation of literature, operating out of large and impressive edifices wielding great power, from prestigious university writing programs to the Big Six book giants dwelling in gigantic skyscrapers. A great deal of determinations are made in these thick-walled, castle-like structures. The Underground Literary Alliance, a collection of street writers, has never inhabited a one of them.

The ULA’s attacks were against a closed system, an insular mentality that does, in fact, in the real world, determine who can or cannot write. Our goal throughout was to break OPEN that system, to allow different writers, with different ways of writing, a voice in the culture; a seat at the literary table. One can disagree with our premise, but to impute to the ULA the very things that were being done to us, as Bissell did in this essay, was either malicious or goofy. What it was, was branding—tarring us with a series of labels that were in effect smears. Bolsheviks, Stalinists, terrorists, thugs—he had no trouble slinging words around, knowing that in the memory of everyone who read his essay—which meant a great many literary people—the words were going to stick. I truly believe Tom Bissell is in the wrong business. He’d make a great political campaign strategist.

Tom Bissell then corrects me for using the term “the real America” to describe collapsing industrial cities like Detroit.

“The ‘real’ America,” Bissell states, “is not poor and desperate, just as the real America is not young and wealthy and hip. They are both America, and both can be written about in revelatory ways.” So it is determined by the authority himself.

This is true, as far as it goes, but Bissell misses his own point. One America was being written about, in novel after novel, book after book. The other America, seldom. Or at least not written about often enough, or in a passionate enough way—as the likes of a Frank Norris or Jack London or Theodore Dreiser or John Steinbeck would once do—to outrage a sleepy American populace. The ULA was a naive endeavor in many ways. We were naive or idealistic enough to believe that literature could be relevant. That words alone could change America.


Tom Bissell’s entire essay on the Underground Literary Alliance is a mass of misinformation, distortions, and half-truths. Most of them are minor. Taken together, they add to the essay’s severely slanted effect. I’ll give three examples, one resulting from Bissell’s laziness, the other two from his dishonesty.

1.) Bissell mentions a short piece of mine from 1997 that was posted on the ULA site. He sees it as an “early” work of mine, and states that its “less hysterical tone suggests a writer whose voice has not yet been calcified by rejection—“

Though this sounds credible to the reader, it isn’t true. I’d published my zine, New Philistine, beginning in 1992. My first serious writing. Its tone was nothing if not “hysterical,” as those who’ve read it know. Before 1997 I’d also published a few essays in lit journals. At least one of the essays, also about Detroit, was far stronger than the short, later piece that Bissell cites. Though it’s most polemical parts were cut out, no doubt wisely, by the journal’s editor, the printed work was still more un-p.c. and in-your-face than the kind of writing usually found in such places. To the extent that this essay is still unavailable online, though a brother essay, about baseball!, is up. Tom Bissell could have easily found out about my other writings. But he didn’t. He was already viewing ULAers through the prism of his own literary experience. To this day he hasn’t altered that viewpoint.

My voice, incidentally, had been “calcified” before I ever started writing. It was why I began writing. As with Michael Jackman, to express my outrage and sense of injustice at the crumbling world around me.

2.) In the reprinted version of the essay in Magic Hours (I can’t seem to find it in the original), Tom Bissell says that McSweeney’s was “fronted with its own money and printed independently, which, as I understand it, pretty much defines a zine, but what do I know?”

Note the disclaimer at the end of the sentence, and the “pretty much.” Bissell has fudged the truth, and he knows it. He could’ve checked the definition for “zine” in any number of online dictionaries. Here’s what I found:

“an inexpensively produced, self-published underground publication”  --The Free Dictionary

“a noncommercial often homemade or online publication”  --Merriam-Webster

“a cheaply-made, cheaply-priced publication, often in black and white, which is mass-produced via photocopier and bound with staples.”  --Urban Dictionary

“a small circulation publication . . . self-published work of minority interest usually reproduced via photocopier.”

What zine does not mean is a slick, professionally-produced journal created by a paid professional staff working at a leased office, printed in Iceland and shipped back to the United States via cargo container, and selling in the neighborhood of twenty-five bucks.

The Tom Bissell disclaimer: “Who? Me?”

3.) Tom Bissell cites a challenge to the ULA from poet David Berman requesting a debate with us. When I responded in semi-polite fashion, Berman gave me a snarky response and ran off. He wasn’t serious in the challenge, of course, but merely looking to make a smirky rejoinder, which Bissell quoted in his essay, I suppose because he saw it as an available dig. When we kept after David Berman about the challenge, he begged off. Bissell’s presentation of the trivial incident is untruthful. As is so much else in the essay.

What’s curious about this particular incident is that Tom Bissell seems surprised that I wasn’t a thug or a terrorist in my response to David Berman. Bissell is puzzled. “Several people told me,” he writes, that ULAers are “basically polite.” Tom Bissell created in his head and in his essay a stereotype of the ULA as a collection of thugs and terrorists, then wondered why we didn’t fit the stereotype. Never, of course, did he meet us and find out for himself. That we were writers, pure and simple, engaging in occasional theater and a lot of ballyhoo in order to draw attention to ourselves—old-fashioned promotion—was something Bissell didn’t consider.


What of our whistle blowing?

Tom Bissell selected a couple points out of scores of points, then again turned reality on its head, transforming arts grant victimizers into victims. Our chief target, one of the most connected writers in America—who Bissell portrayed in his essay as Jean Valjean!—was especially adept at gaming the system for his own benefit and that of his cronies. The scion of two hyper-wealthy families, this person sat on numerous grants panels, influenced the selection of heads of organizations like PEN America, awarded taxpayer money to his friends, and himself applied for and received a Guggenheim grant while residing inside America’s most exclusive private enclave, an island reserved for names like the Duponts and Firestones. Want to discuss the 1%? This individual was and is the cream of that 1%. Jean Valjean indeed.

The same person is also good friends with some of the wealthiest and most powerful figures on the literary scene, names like Daniel Handler and Dave Eggers, those able to decide in reality who’s blackballed from literature or not. To decide who is turned into a real-life Valjean, “branded as an outcast,” as Victor Huge portrays the character in his novel.

I could go into the literary corruption matter much further, and may say more in a few days in a comment to this blog post. Tom Bissell’s treatment of the NEA award to Jonathan Franzen—which Bissell both sidesteps and misdirects the reader about—is thoroughly dishonest. What’s interesting to me is that, though Bissell addressed some complex and controversial issues, he included no sources to his essay. No links to the ULA’s reports or to articles about the issues, in Page Six and elsewhere, where readers could find out about the controversies themselves. If I’m able to dig some of them up, I may include such sources in my comment about the whistle blowing subject.

Know that our whistle blowing presentations were thoroughly documented, unassailable, unless attacked in a quick, pithy and distorted way, as in Tom Bissell’s essay.

In retrospect, for the ULA band of nobodies to take on the powerful literary figures mentioned here, or not mentioned, was insanity. The ULA’s crime was stating the case for the 99% ten years before Occupy.


To summarize Part II of this impromptu series:

--To deny our legitimate outsider status, Tom Bissell claimed that all writers are outsiders.

--He accused the ULA of the very sins and crimes engaged in by the established literary and publishing mainstream.

--He tarred us, without a shred of evidence or speck of connection to reality, as akin to Leninists, Bolsheviks, and totalitarians.

--He defended the “young and wealthy and hip,” and by extension defended the extreme inequities of American society, which many ULAers were and are in a unique position to appreciate. Writers cleaning floors indeed! Not in Tom Bissell’s fervid imagination, but in American reality.

(NEXT UP: I’ll address the case made against underground writing. Watch for the next post about this, possibly up by this weekend. Responses and counterarguments to what I’ve said here are welcome. Will we see any? I doubt it.)

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Bissell/Believer Back Story


Reviewers and readers who take Tom Bissell’s 2003 Believer essay on the defunct Underground Literary Alliance, “Protesting All Fiction Writers!”—now reprinted with a different title in Bissell’s Magic Hours book of essays—at face value make a huge mistake. They should be aware of the essay’s context—the reason it was written and published. For the previous two years the ULA had been engaged in an intensely bitter feud with Dave Eggers and McSweeney’s, which kicked off when we protested an award to the publication for “Best Zine.” Things from there escalated. This was the backdrop to Bissell’s essay.

Bissell admits that Dave Eggers was initially opposed to the essay’s publication. A scant few months after its appearance, Eggers himself was caught posting anonymous attacks against the ULA on Amazon. Eggers carried extreme animus toward the ULA—from his perspective, with good reason. Could the essay have been approved if Bissell hadn’t assured the editors that it would be a proper takedown of the Underground Literary Alliance? A takedown, moreover, which fit the happy-face McSweeney’s/Believer image of pristine innocence. No easy feat.

In the essay, Tom Bissell presents himself as an innocent bystander; a disinterested observer objectively weighing facts. Gullible journalists today like Katie Ryder accept the presentation at face value. They swallow it whole, to the extent that Ryder, in an interview with Bissell, speaks of his tolerance, and absurdly applauds him for giving his subjects a “fair shot.” Yet in 2003 the essay was a partisan attack, and in it Bissell behaved like a partisan. He would not have been allowed the assignment otherwise.

The effectiveness of Bissell’s takedown can be judged by the result. The ULA was branded as a collection of no-talent whiners and thuggish authoritarians. His essay became the accepted source on us; the standard text. When I made a 2007 appearance on a PBS radio station, the host was still influenced by Bissell’s text, asking me wide-eyed and believing why the ULA wanted to ban Jeffrey Eugenides from publishing. A truly ill-informed statement. As evidenced by snarky or hateful statements still made about me online, the branding remains to this day.


Journalists and reviewers wishing to understand Tom Bissell’s essay on the Underground Literary Alliance should realize that he did very little research on us. He exchanged several emails with one member out of forty. He made no effort to meet any of us, though many of us were a short bus ride away. He asked for none of our zines, though we were a writers group that sprung from the print zine scene and defined by it. He did read our web site, which contained a smattering of our writing.

To understand the ULA you’d have to understand the background we came from. The three initiators of the project, Steve Kostecke, Michael Jackman, and myself, were from Detroit. We’d witnessed wrenching social change and economic devastation, up close. First hand.

David M. Sheridan’s 1999 Michigan Quarterly Review essay about Detroit, “Making Sense of Detroit”--;c=mqr;c=mqrarchive;idno=act2080.0038.301;rgn=main;view=text;xc=1;g=mqrg -- is a great source, because it was written at the very time that plans for an underground writers group were being discussed and formed. It gives a compelling picture of what was happening to the city. Sheridan’s essay also quotes from an essay of my own about Detroit, an essay which alone would be a good source for my mindset at that moment of time. Without understanding Detroit it’s impossible to understand the Underground Literary Alliance.

Tom Bissell, in his Believer piece, dismisses Jackman’s talk of “injustice”—yet thoughts of injustice were inescapable from our brains. Sheridan states that I wrote about “violence and racism and poverty.” With trademark snarkiness, The Believer, in one of its tags to Bissell’s essay, mocked the ULA’s concerns as “alienated socioeconomic posturing.” I urge people to read Sheridan’s essay and then decide if our concerns were posturing.

Tom Bissell never did the hard research to find out where the ULA was from and what we were about, because he didn’t care what we were about. That wasn’t the point of his essay.


Tom Bissell’s own striving-writer background included an editorial position at W.W. Norton in Manhattan, at the very heart of the tops-down Big Six publishing system. By accommodating himself to powerful individuals he made his way through the heart of the machine. This was the perspective he brought to his essay, to his look at ULAers and our writings.

Bissell made no  attempt to understand our alien style of literature, our psychology, or the DIY/ print zine ethos of the 1990’s. That ethos determined how the ULA operated—by consensus, with no hierarchies and no real leaders. Our titles were a game. The “Director”—Michael Jackman—in personality was the most detached and laidback of the ULA’s major players.

The DIY/punk aesthetic determined our occasionally provocative, in-your-face behavior, which we saw as theater. We were sending up, in our way, the sober self-seriousness of the literary elite, and the pronounced pin-drop solemnity of the standard literary reading. The punk aesthetic determined many of our various styles of zine writing—expressions of the sound of American reality, of a Greyhound bus or a punk show or the street, in all its crudeness, emotion, immediacy and spontaneity. It’s why in 2006 we protested a tepid establishment “Howl” celebration at Columbia University. ULAers saw ourselves as the legitimate heirs of the Beats, and heirs of Dada and other arts movements outside the walls of the canon and the publishing machine. Our stylized and impudent zines were our proofs of our authenticity and credibility. In his Believer essay Tom Bissell scorned the very idea of this kind of alternative writing. Yet it was the kind of writing we’d been selling, mostly to alienated young readers who otherwise wouldn’t have been reading anything.

Authoritarian? That was the opposite of what we were about. We were a rebellion against rules, regulation, constipation, and authority. We were a disorganized blast of noise. We did have strong voices. In one of his recent interviews with Katie Ryder, Tom Bissell still refers to our no-hierarchy group as “authoritarian.” This is an ignorant, know-nothing statement. Also an ironic one, seeing that Bissell works and writes in a world of hierarchy and authority.


Bissell admits that his essay on Robert Kaplan was a “literary assassination.” His essay on the ULA was no less an attempted assassination. Unlike Kaplan, we had no standing, no resources, no body of powerful and connected friends with which to withstand such attacks.

(Much more to come on this blog.)

(Also see @KingWenclas for other remarks.)

Monday, May 21, 2012

How Do You Fight a Smear?

I've written before here about false narratives-- deliberate distortions which through widespread perpetuation become labels; shorthand substitutes for the truth. The most effective false narrative against the currently inactive Underground Literary Alliance was Tom Bissell's smear essay, "Protesting All Fiction Writers!" which appeared in The Believer in 2003. That essay has been retitled and become "Grief and the Outsider" in Bissell's new essay collection, Magic Hours. I don't know what changes he's made to the essay. I just reread the original and it was more malicious than I remembered. If I judge by descriptions of a couple other of the essays in the new collection, Bissell has made his way as something of a self-described "literary assassin," not only in our case. I'll likely be posting more about this matter. In his mentions of the ULA in interviews about his new book, Bissell doesn't seem to have learned anymore about us than he knew about us nine years ago-- which was not much.

I have a twitter account-- @KingWenclas. I can't say I've learned how to use it. I may have to do so, in order to counter Bissell's false narrative, which no doubt was a factor in the blackballing of ULA writers.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Rome versus Carthage

I admit I’m taken aback by the reappearance of Tom Bissell’s hatchet job essay on the Underground Literary Alliance, “Protesting All Fiction Writers!” The essay, whose very title is a distortion, originally appeared in The Believer literary journal and has been included in Bissell’s new collection of essays, Magic Hours. The flawed essay is bad enough. Worse are the reviews of it, many of which mention the ULA with gleeful hostility. What’s the point? It’s a sudden rush of extreme animus toward a defunct organization whose writers were knocked out by the recession, their movement broken. It’s as if McSweeney’s (which published Bissell’s new book) and their many acolytes are ancient Rome, wishing to see every Carthaginian shred of our past literary threat knocked down and buried into the ground.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Back Story

AS three of the six founding members of the Underground Literary Alliance were from the beaten-down city of Detroit, David M. Sheridan's 1999 essay (link posted a few posts below) is crucial background information in conveying the kind of crazy environment we came from. Indeed, while Sheridan was researching and writing his essay in 1998, I was meeting ULA co-founder Steve Kostecke at Elmer's Bar at the very heart of Detroit's Cass Corridor, the southern part of the neighborhood then like the Wild West, full of rowdy and bawdy saloons, houses of ill-repute, stray youth gangs, and violence. It was a neighborhood into which the police themselves would seldom venture. In our discussions Steve and I put together the ideas that would lead to the creation of the wildest American writers group ever.

In the 90's I was cranking out not only terrific essays like the one Sheridan references in his piece, but also explosive zeens. I was one of the best underground writers in America-- which means one of the best writers in America, period. But so what? As with others of my kind, my writing was too dynamic, too real, for the literary mainstream. We were denied access to avenues of publicity. So we banded together to obtain some publicity. What followed was the ULA's tumultuous history.

Monday, May 14, 2012

From The King Wenclas Fan Club

Some recent plaudits about myself and my writing:

"Detroit has a lot of crazy people in it, and he was one of them, the postcard writer, Karl Wenclas."
-Charles Baxter
(For some background, see the previous two blog posts. I've not sent anonymous postcards, which would defeat the point, but I have criticized established and successful writers.)

"Someone unleash the feminized mandarins of American literature on this fatuous, florid crackpot."
-D.E. Rasso
(Uh, D.E., they were unleashed on me, some time ago.)

"His shit is BORING, not to mention badly crafted."
-Glenn Kenny
(Everyone's entitled to their opinion, but Kenny gives no examples, and I note his post was made before I released any of my serious writing via ebooks, which makes me wonder if he was simply recirculating the accepted narrative re me.)

In the same post, Glenn Kenny also says this:
"What the fuck are we gonna do, ban everybody with a privileged background from participating in the arts, or in criticism for that matter?"

But Glenn, the question is whether someone NOT from a privileged background can participate in the arts, without sacrificing his-or-her integrity. I'm one literary critic anyway who seems to be banned from the arts. Exactly why could be a matter of debate, if debate about such questions were allowed in the literary mainstream.

But at least my three fans spelled my name right!

Friday, May 11, 2012

About DIY Postcards

One of my favorite promo efforts is sending out colorful hand-made postcards announcing this or that project. I still do this, mainly because I enjoy creating them. Several writers and editors over the years have objected to receiving such mailings, including a few prominent names.

I can’t claim to have invented the practice. I first became aware of DIY postcards twenty years ago, when I jumped into the middle of the nation’s zine scene, and began receiving such postcards and other curious concoctions myself. Zines were an outgrowth of punk rock and anarchist politics. I’m sure that DIY mailings to announce concerts or political events have been a staple of these activities for many decades. There’s also a long tradition of mail art, which automatically fed into the general print zine stream. In the 90’s I received hundreds of such mailings, such art, such lit, such necessary and vital cultural noise.

To get to the origin of zines themselves, you’d have to go back at least to the time of Tom Paine.

I can’t say I understand uptight bourgie folks who would object to this kind of expression, this variety of speech. Especially writers. DIY postcards are the poor man’s promotional device—or they’re at least mine. I’d hate to see such activity squelched in the name of well-regulated conformity. My motto is always: More free speech! Less conformity!

NOTE: My new ebook, THE TOWER, contains scenes of independent DIY activity. Also, a previous ebook, MOOD DETROIT, contains a story, “The Zeen Writer,” depicting free expression of art and speech. They’re both available at the Kindle Store or Nook Books. I know that the established literary community detests what Amazon is doing to their literary monopoly—but ebooks provide an outlet for writers like myself who would otherwise not—save for print zeens—be given any kind of a voice in this society. I see that as a good thing.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Making Sense of Detroit

On-line I stumbled into an excellent essay, "Making Sense of Detroit," by David M. Sheridan which originally appeared in the Michigan Quarterly Review in the summer of 1999. The essay, despite a smidgen of academic jargon, gives a feel for that beaten-down town, and among other things references and quotes from an essay of mine, which happens to be one of the stronger pieces I've written. Sheridan's essay is worth checking out, and can be found here:;c=mqr;c=mqrarchive;idno=act2080.0038.301;rgn=main;view=text;xc=1;g=mqrg

In the summer of 1999 I was living in a Cass Corridor apartment building that'd been half-gutted by a fire the previous February. I was working a decent-paying job along Detroit's riverfront, but simultaneously making plans with other underground writers which were to result in the infamous decade of experience of the Underground Literary Alliance. One could say that as a writer I've bounced around.

The essay of mine Sheridan quotes from isn't available on-line. As he suggests, it's quite impressionistic, with my view of the city then perhaps mediated by alcohol and other things. I led a wild and tough lifestyle in the 90's. But what I wrote was also completely true. Possibly some of that same style of tough impressionism has made it in to my new e-novel, THE TOWER, now available for a Detroit-style price at Nook or Kindle. If you like the excerpts of my Detroit essay, you might consider purchasing my ebook. You'll find more unflinching and truthful writing noplace.

Friday, May 04, 2012

The Fake Category

Intelligent writers should know better than to get hoodwinked into every fake category put forth by marketing professionals. Such is the “Young Adult” category in the book business. If the major buyers of Young Adult fiction (see The Hunger Games and Harry Potter) are older adults, the category has lost all meaning, if it ever had any.

After all, Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn could be considered a “Young Adult” novel. So could Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. Or Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, and other fine American novels. The truth is that a good novel will appeal to young and old adults alike.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

The Cloudy View of an Establishment Commentator


There was recently an interesting article at The Guardian (UK) site by Aditya Chakrabortty, here:

As far as it goes, the essay is on target. The problem is that it doesn't go very far. Note that Chakrabortty limits the discussion to contemporary "literary" novels.

"Literary." They have to be "literary"! Which means, almost by definition, non-political, focused narrowly on "the perfect sentence" in contrast to the broader world. Chakrabortty looks for his political novels among the well-regulated established conglomerate-heavy literary system itself. He's not searching down in the muck of struggle and life for what he desires.

A quick check shows that Aditya Chakrabortty himself is an Oxford graduate. His essay thus comes across, for all its value, as standard university bubble whining. He's been force-fed "literary" novels by the system-- then realizes suddenly that none of them is meaningful or relevant. The authors were all selected from the privileged class, a tiny sliver of a slice of the populace. If any writers have no reason to be political it's these folks! After all, they're doing fine.

"Why aren't they political?" Aditya Chakrabortty muses from his high-up tops-down guarded Guardian perch in the clouds overlooking the world. "Where are the political novels?" A few stray Franzen-like literary birds pass by, daring the thin atmosphere. Cumulous formations float alongside. "Why can't I see any political novels?"

Read THE TOWER by King Wenclas

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Life Mimicks Art

Word has it that rain is dampening the Occupy Wall Street activities in New York City. Curiously enough, there's a rainstorm during the key protest in my new e-novel, THE TOWER. Buy it now at Nook Books or Kindle Store and see.