The ideal of the writer used to be of the fearless independent voice, the truth teller standing against injustice, incapable of being broken. That was my ideal—men like Voltaire, Marat, Tom Paine, Tolstoy, Zola, Jack London, Frank Norris—Solzhenitsyn of course—among them. These were writers. Writers!
Those who dominate the U.S. literary scene today are not of this type. We get instead the organization man—very competent inside the narrow parameters within which he’s allowed to be competent, but utterly lost away from the literary system: the Machine.
Tom Bissell and Thomas Beller exemplify this type. They’re two of the system’s approved writers. Best of the best. They appear regularly in high profile mass circulation magazines like GQ and The New Yorker. Yet one senses—one knows—they’re utterly dependent on the system which sustains them. And so, in face of criticism of his essay on the ULA, Tom Bissell doesn’t answer the criticism directly. The stance you’d expect a writer of character and backbone to take. Instead he makes posts at Facebook, seeking affirmation of the herd. He requires the literary herd’s approval and backing. As long as he remains in tight with the McSweeneyites, all is okay.
Thomas Beller is the same. In the Tablet essay, in which he takes an unnecessary shot at me, he’s also sure to pay proper homage to two supposed literary giants of our time, Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace. Beller falls just short of groveling.
Thomas Beller’s reaction to the ULA at Housing Works in 2003 was of a piece with this. Beller demonstrating, in case any suspected he was not!, that he was on the approved side.
Regarding their stations in the literary community, you won’t find in either of these fellows much daring.
Beller’s remarks in the Tablet essay prove this point—and incidentally prove my portrayal of him in The McSweeneys Gang e-novel. Worth reading beyond any comedy.
Have I asked too much of the two literary Insiders when I’ve asked that they explain their portrayals of me and the Underground Literary Alliance? No. They initiated the matter. With their facility with words, their trained glibness, if they had accuracy and merit to their arguments, they’d quickly put me in my place. Yet they remain silent.
What would I do in their place?
If I were Tom Bissell, I would’ve long since admitted, “Hell yes, the essay’s a slanted, biased hit piece. What did you expect?”
This, at least, would be honest.
I haven’t hesitated to defend my own words and ideas, anywhere and everywhere, offline and online, from Columbia’s Miller Hall to HTML Giant to a Tao Lin web site, always greatly outnumbered yet wading happily into the fight. To me, that’s what being a writer is about.