THIRD IN A SERIES
Here’s another inaccuracy in Johannes Lichtman’s review of Tom Bissell’s Magic Hours.
Lichtman writes, about Bissell, “—he probes the deeper motivations behind their inchoate anger.”
This isn’t simply an inaccuracy. It’s an outright falsehood. As I explain in my “Believer Essay” parts I and III, linked at the left of this page, Tom Bissell did shallow research on the Underground Literary Alliance. He never met a one of us. This might’ve been okay if we were just like all other writers. But we weren’t.
What Bissell gives us in his ULA essay are the motivations of system writers like himself. It’s an example of his narrow-mindedness that it never occurred to him there was a difference. Yet the ULA’s founders and most of its members came to literature on a different path from those who are “taught” how to write in university programs.
Tom Bissell’s misinterpretation of the meaning of zine nicknames, or his failure to comprehend (or even try to comprehend) the idea behind Urban Hermitt’s writing, strongly show that zine literature was an alien creature to him.
Zinesters were and are Do-It-Yourselfers. Most zinesters simply begin writing and publishing. They take literature entirely into their own hands. Most have their own angle to pursue. Their task is to sell the zine by connecting immediately to an audience, no matter how they must do it. The rule book is thrown into a dumpster.
There are no thick layers of bureaucracies like those which confront the system writer. No expensive writing programs at impressive campuses of imposing stone buildings. No banks of agents and editors in plush offices in New York skyscrapers; no phalanxes of mandarins in metaphorical robes granting or disallowing approval. Yet, through the system is the way Tom Bissell views literature. It’s how he chose to view us. He imagined us struggling to attain certificates of approval. That we didn’t have any could only mean we weren’t very smart, and not very good. He saw us like other writers attending high-priced bourgie seminars (we’d attend a seminar only to “crash” it), and circulating and recirculating manuscripts through the mailrooms of status quo journals and publishers. No doubt some of us had done so, briefly, at some point. But to become a serious zinester is to throw that over, because you’re going into alternate territory, where the means of survival are something other. Which is why the style of zine writing isn’t literary. The connection with readers has to be as fast as a punk rock song. You’re not out to impress with “craft,” but to shake the reader in the quickest or harshest or most fun way possible.
Tom Bissell didn’t know this. Manufactured creature that he is, I’m sure he still doesn’t know it. But it didn’t have to be that way. Not long before Bissell did his essay on us, I met a local Philly journalist at a famous local saloon named McGlinchey’s. I brought with me several of the most amazing specimens of zines I’d collected over the previous ten years, so she could see the extreme variety of design, styles, writing, graphics, ideas, and viewpoints there embodied. She took those priceless DIY objects away with her. I never saw them again, and her article was killed by her editor, but she became a zinester herself, and today is one of the leading figures in what remains of the scene.
The ULA was an extension of zinedom, a more ambitious project. Naive fools that we were, we sought to bring our discoveries about writing and about readers into the literary mainstream. We brought with us a different viewpoint toward literature. A different mindset. Differently wired eyes and brains, from a different, newer literary planet. Tom Bissell didn’t want to know. “Probes.” “Deeper.” The words are absurd. They’re laughable. Throughout his essay on the ULA Bissell shows a complete misunderstanding of, and unconcern with, zine literature and the zine scene.
Johannes Lichtman behaves the same way, of course. In his email to me, Lichtman pleads deliberate ignorance of the subject. “What your organization is about is not of great concern to me.” He doesn’t want to know! It’s not his place to judge the truth of Bissell’s essays. If Bissell says it, it must be so. Like an unintelligent housecat listening to its master, Johannes Lichtman enjoys the style of writing, the patter of words. For him, the typical trained literary person, that’s good enough. That’s all.
“—he probes the deeper motivations behind their inchoate anger—“
This single remark marks Bissell’s failure as an essayist, and Lichtman’s as a reviewer.