Thursday, November 29, 2012

Failure of the Workshop Model

A bureaucratic system is incapable of critiquing itself. Like a living organism, its main purpose is to survive and grow. This holds true for the current system in the U.S. for producing official literature.

The failure of the system, and the current workshop model, can be seen in the American short story. One hundred years ago it was America’s most popular art form. Fifty-plus years of the workshop model have killed the art.

Why has readership of the short story dwindled? Look up past volumes of “Best” American stories collections and you’ll discover your answer. You could check the last four decades of such collections and be lucky to find a handful of stories that are fun to read—or memorable, as short stories once were memorable.

The opening of the standard literary story is designed to impress the reader with how well the writer can write. The stories are well written but they’re not entertaining. They’re certainly not fun. Is this a missed opportunity? Yes!—because the short story should be an entry into literature, toward longer, greater works—not a turnoff.

I’m approaching things differently. The first chapter of my new e-novel, due out in about a week, is written to be simple and accessible, thoroughly “pop,” so I can get the reader directly into the narrative. I save my better writing for later.  The traditional novel opening, such as the beautiful beginning to “Gatsby,” or the famous opening to “Tale of Two Cities,” is fine and good. Except today there’s little time for dawdling, and very few writers are Dickens or Fitzgerald. None that I can spot.

Classic arts which survive as relevant parts of the culture do so through pop incarnations of their form. For instance, no one today walks around reciting the poetry of today’s academic crop of poets—whether John Ashbery or Jorie Graham—in the way the words of a Shakespeare or Kipling or Tennyson were once recited by ordinary members of the public. The public does know, though, the words to songs by pop artists, Bob Dylan being a notable example. Classical music composers have interested the general public over the past fifty years almost solely for their movie music—the music is forced to connect with the listener, instead of being monotonous atonal intellectualized university-spawned junk.

Novels are surviving today among the public because of popular versions containing vampires and wizards and such. My premise is that we can do better than that. We can produce novels which are readable and entertaining but also intelligent, relevant, and good.

Monday, November 26, 2012

ULA Versus the Machine

The Underground Literary Alliance versus McSweeney’s was a battle of hippies, punks, dropouts and lowlifes versus the most prestigious conformists of the Machine.

This was evident in Tom Bissell’s trashing of underground writers like Urban Hermitt in his Believer essay. The Believer was founded by individuals who played by the rules every step of the way, certified by the highest Ivy League centers of education. Their becoming writers was the end point of a hugely expensive, institutionalized process.

DIY writers rejected institutions and rejected the process. We said that literature belongs to everybody. Our motto was, Live Simply, Write Simply. Did some take DIY philosophy too far? Maybe. We were a reaction against an overregulated extreme. Against the metronome march of literature’s pod people.

When Tom Bissell says, “You have to write well,” he really means, “You have to write processed.”

The ultimate Machine writer was David Foster Wallace. Wallace presented footnotes, spreadsheets, calculations, trajectories. If a mainframe IBM computer could speak, it’d sound like him. His fiction is hyperalert, overintellectualized, overstimulated,; his mind embedded into technology and into the rat race. Our mad hypertechnological hypermediated electronic civilization drove him crazy. Nothing less.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Antithesis of a Pop Writer

I’VE WRITTEN a post about DIY writing but I’m reluctant to put it up, because in it I trash a bit the epitome of contemporary postmodern literature, David Foster Wallace. I’ve discovered that to criticize DFW in any way hurts feelings. DFW is treated by well-schooled writers as akin to a god. (See the HTML Giant crowd, for instance.) He’s worshipped.

Before I criticize DFW, then—the way he wrote and what our crazed society did to him—I’ll first make two points which all writers should know. The premise for the two points is that literature is in competition with all the many other aspects of American culture which blare loudly at us from all corners of the world at every moment. You have to literally retreat to a cave to get away from this bombardment of images and noise. The first task of a story, poem, or novel is to be read. This is more difficult than ever.

The two points are taken from sales. They’re maxims. They’re musts. They’re two sides of the same coin.

1.) Keep It Simple, Stupid.

2.) Avoid T.M.I.—Too Much Information.

If the writer doesn’t follow these two points he’ll not hook the reader. (Brainwashed HTML Giant readers excepted.) One can debate whether or not I’m a writer, but I’ve been a reader for many years; was a reader before I imagined writing. I started writing out of frustration as a reader at what I was expected to accept as literature. As a reader, I have a good sense of what fiction needs to do to stay competitive and relevant. The success of pop writers like J.A. Konrath bolsters this sense.

David Foster Wallace didn’t just break the two rules of reaching the public. He obliterated them. If literary writers use him as a model, they’re crafting their own failure, their own demise as a genre, as an art, as writers.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Where Are Literary Journalists?

WHILE all Americans await the standard thorough Lawrence Wright-style New Yorker think piece detailing what happened in Benghazi on 9/11, I'm caused to note the absence of mainstream journalism in other areas of American life. Such as in today's literary scene.


Take someone like Lucas Wittmann at Daily Beast/Newsweek. Journalist or cheerleader?

I'm told there is no literary establishment. Yet a Lucas Wittmann gives voice to the main ideas and major players of one literary viewpoint-- the "literary"-- such as that of Dave Eggers and the McSweeney's organization. Any such article by Eggers, depicting how wonderful he and his friends are, is followed by tweets from Wittmann himself pointing people to the article, as if he were a McSweeney's p.r. person. And who knows-- maybe he is.


What really happened in 2003 with Tom Bissell's Believer magazine essay is that the Underground Literary Alliance was engaging in actual literary journalism, covering a host of stories uncomfortable to mainstream literati. Some of those stories, yes, involved Dave Eggers and McSweeney's, or so-called Friends of Eggers.

The Believer, on the other hand, was instituted to shut down real literary journalism and literary debate, to create instead the Dave Eggers personal vision of an uncritical happy face literary scene. Which is what we have today.

Bissell's Believer essay was a flat-out propaganda piece designed to discredit the literary group looking hardest into the operations of the literary machine. The essay represented a clash of views and visions. For Eggers to have his peacefully lobotomized literary world, the ULA had to be destroyed.

Anyone care to deny this?

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The McSweeney's Campaign for Niceness

ONCE he became successful in 2000, Dave Eggers launched a preemptive strike against potential criticism with interviews in places like the Harvard Advocate declaiming strenuously against critics, deeming all negative commentary that a writer or literary group might receive as coming from places of resentment and envy. Over the next few years he continued to blast and destroy any and all who said anything bad against himself and his organization. This was accompanied by a facade of niceness.

The result? Absolute phoniness from what passes for literary media. Tom Bissell was able to smear the Underground Literary Alliance in an essay-- reprinted this year in his book of essays-- and receive applause from reviewers everyplace, because the smears were made in a setting of empathy and niceness. Reviewers' brains were short circuited while reading the essay.

An example of this, and of the essential contradiction of those reviewers concerning the McSweeney's empire, are these quotes from two of the reviewers of Bissell's Magic Hours. The remarks are about Tom Bissell's essay on the ULA.

Ron Hogan at
“I was struck by his willingness to approach them with empathy, even when he was unrelenting in his analysis of their deluded assholery.”

Brian Wolowitz at Spectrum Culture:
 “he often attempts to understand or defend easily dismissible figures like the clownishly clueless ULA members. . . .”

Do these remarks make any sense?

With their facade of niceness, all the McSweeneyites have done is reach new levels of hypocrisy. "Niceness" has been a way to enforce absolute conformity. Doubt it? Try to find anything critical about Dave Eggers and the McSweeney's organization appearing over the last seven or eight years in mainstream media. What you get now, about their publications and themselves, is an unending stream of puff pieces. Any semblance of legitimate literary media has vanished. We encounter instead a series of gullible pod people, for whom everything produced by insider literati is by definition deemed to be great. Dare criticize these wonderful people doing such wonderful things? You're not being nice!

The niceness works only for them, of course. Behind the Fake Face masks they're liable to kick and stomp opponents as ably as anybody. More ruthlessly, in fact. Wearing the faces of nonstop niceness must be wearing on their psyches. They take ample advantage of opportunities for release.

Stay tuned for more examinations of the literary world and how it operates at

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Quarantine

The truth is that a quarantine was erected around the Underground Literary Alliance. Our ideas of populist literature were deemed too dangerous for the mainstream. Barriers were constructed around the contagion. The one thing the literary establishment fears most is free and open debate. Strict instructions were issued to the literary herd. Have nothing to do with the ULA! So has it remained.

But you can’t forever keep out reality.

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.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012



Those who saw what they wanted to see in Tom Bissell's essay on the Underground Literary Alliance live in a world of professionalization. Of offices, deadlines, work. The system they're in has a tangible reality. They work very hard. Nothing is assured. Criticisms of the system, then, especially those which address the inequities and hierarchies of the system, appear to come from another planet. They, personally, those working within the reality of the system, are doing nothing wrong.

The tangible reality of their careers gives total credibility to system ideas; none to ideas outside it. The ideas and premises of the tangible reality can be the only ideas. From Day One of their contact with literature, they are the only ideas, and they're everywhere. This includes writing styles, and kinds of approved and applauded writers and writing. The all-encompassing nature of literary reality gives that reality credibility, yet at the same time, it's everything that's wrong with literature, because a new reality, new ideas of art, will never arrive. Things are done and believed because that's the way they've always been done and believed.

The conformity of bureaucracy is how any system maintains itself.

How could these writers, editors, agents, not scorn the ULA? It'd be like asking lawyers who spent years, much study, and much money obtaining degrees of certification, then passing the bar examination-- all the difficulty; all the necessary conformity to the jots and dots of the law-- to accept on an equal footing self-read self-educated backwoods rubes from log cabins with no certifications or standing at all.

Doesn't this make perfect sense? It makes sense when you're talking about something meant to be contained by bureaucracies, regulated, monitored, and controlled, carefully practiced by intensively screened professionals ready to carry forward an official doctrine of precedents, judgments, consent.

It might be great for law, but it's not great for ART, which wasn't meant to be contained anyplace, but to flow free. To break on occasion from any precedents and consent.

It's easy enough to jump into the head of the system writer; to see as they see, from within the system machine. Far more difficult for those whose minds are placed within this special realm to see outside it. To credibly jump within the head of a literary rebel; an intentional actual outsider.

This kind of "empathy" Tom Bissell failed at, as did his reviewers and praisers.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

About My Blogs

Here's how I plan using my blogs over the next two months:

THIS place will remain my main venue for ideas I most want to get out there.

American Pop Lit, will continue to cover ongoing changes regarding ebooks, pop literature, and publishing.

Happy America Literature, will address plans to restart the notorious Underground Literary Alliance.

My most severe rants will now be reserved for Crime City USA,, a follow-up to one of my ebooks-- a short novel about severe phoniness and fakery in a fictional city operating not unlike today's literary world/

What else? I may get my Detroit blog underway someday. I'll not be completing my "Election Follies" novel. My sudden move out of Philly undercut that. Frankly, the election campaign lasts so long I lost interest. The two candidates aren't compelling personalities. One cares to confront them as little as possible. Besides, I have two new ebook projects I'm slogging through. They deserve more effort.

My other blogs will remain more-or-less on hiatus. Everything subject to being shut down without notice, depending on such things as the free speech climate, my time, and my mood. READ THEM while you can. There are only a handfull of dissenting locales, all of them tiny, in the entire literary world.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Figure This Out

Figure this one out. I can't.

It's an article by Malcolm Forbes in a new cultural journal called The National. (The name itself is a contradiction to what the site is about.)

Why is a website of the United Arab Emirates printing such an Anglophile article? Why are they designating an Anglo-American writer as the "best" critic? Don't they have their own literary critics? Aren't they trying to create some? Shouldn't they present their own perspective? Or do they accept Imperialist culture whole, even when-- as in this case-- the philosophy of the critic is unalterably opposed to theirs? James Wood, after all, is a narrowly-focused athiest who buys all the current postmodern premises (or most of them). He's the polar opposite of even the most moderate Islamist. So what's going on? What or where is the payoff? Is this the price of Imperialist navies in port?

Is this what's meant by "world literature"? A continuation of the British Empire? I don't think James Wood should be posing as an authority on American literature, much less lauded by an even vastly different culture. This looks like the homogenization of culture-- which is what tops-down imposed-from-above literature is about; which is exemplified by James Wood, an Insider's Insider. Eton, Cambridge, Harvard, and The New Yorker.

(Send him back to Britain, I say. Why did we fight a revolution? Can't we embrace what's best in us? Note to Tom Bissell: I'm being hyperbolic.)

While I certainly wouldn't want Islamic culture imposed on us, on Western civilization, that once-glorious thing, I also don't believe we should be imposing our current decadent stale stagnant insular aristocratic literary figures upon Islam. Sorry, maybe I'm a dinosaur, but ideas of world monothink and monoculture leave me cold.

Thoroughly Corrupt

Not only is the literary establishment thoroughly corrupt—as is easily documented—but there is not a single journalist in establishment media, or among literary media, with backbone enough to expose the corruption.

The result is akin to a dystopian novel about a totalitarian world, where everything is a lie; with sycophantic literary fans of the status quo gushing over smear artists; with sick novelists producing massive mad volumes of incomprehensible postmodern nonsense hailed as geniuses, before and after they kill themselves in final nihilistic acts. It’s a world of vacant eyes, unthinking brains, and intense phoniness, with the actors in the tragicomedy of American literature themselves not believing in the substance of their work—titles of journals like “The Believer” notwithstanding. They more than anyone know it’s an empty house. They’d be afraid to defend what they produce. Fortunately they never have to. So overwhelming is the conformity of today’s applauded literary scene that they’re never called on their dishonesty. Those lauded as “critics” like George Saunders and James Wood are those most guaranteed to always take the most narrow view of literature possible, staring straight ahead at large signposts guiding them through the Acceptable Narrative while making sure to never glance to the side at what’s really happening.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Writers, Outsiders, and the Monolith

THE BEHAVIOR of established literary persons toward Tom Bissell’s ULA essay itself gives the lie to his thesis that all writers are outsiders.

From literary agent Heather Schroder, to reviewers like Garth Risk Hallberg, Ron Hogan, and Maria Bustillos, the attitude toward reading the reappeared essay had to have been, “These are writers beyond the pale”—and so, able to be smeared to the extent Bissell smeared us: linking the Underground Literary Alliance bizarrely to the worst crimes of the Bolsheviks. To “lots and lots of tombstones.” Not one of the literary personages who read Bissell’s essay called him on his blatant slurs. We were the Other-- “not writers” surely—and so very much outside the groupthink walls of those who identify with the literary status quo.

That not one of these articulate people will now defend the essay, or answer questions about it, or retract their support of it, shows the literary monolith at work—a monolith of behavior and thought. Not one of them is capable of breaking from the conformity of the herd.