Thursday, February 07, 2013

Thomas Beller, Unreliable Narrator

Here’s the part of Thomas Beller’s essay, “River of Berman,” in the 12/13/12 Tablet Magazine, which refers to myself:


“Sometime around 2004 we were attacked by a maniac from Detroit who had long been a fan, even a friend. His name was Karl “King” Wenclas. He had reviewed Open City’s very first issue—negatively, but still, with energy and attention. I was so impressed that his byline appeared in issue #3, though I had misspelled his first name. (Ken. He wrote me a postcard that began, “Dear Tim.”)

Then Wenclas changed titles and tactics. The hostility to Open City (among many others) moved from the page, where it was welcome, to disruptions at readings and so forth, where it was not. Wenclas and his gang were throwing out taunts and dares, calling us (to be defined as everyone other than them) a bunch of pampered wusses who were marginalizing literature. All the people being thus insulted or harassed metabolized this in their own way. Most people ignored it. I tried to engage, at least for a while, as did George Plimpton, who memorably joined the group on stage at one of their events—a press conference held at the opera house next to CBGB.

The person who handled this antagonism most gracefully and usefully, I thought, was David Berman.”


(Beller goes on to quote from Tom Bissell’s very selective reference to David Berman in Bissell’s attack piece on the Underground Literary Alliance, reprinted in Bissell’s essay collection.)

How accurate is Thomas Beller’s presentation? Not very. He mentions 2004. The events he refers to took place before this.

The ULA press conference Beller attended, along with George Plimpton, was February 8, 2001. It took place not at the Amato Opera House, but at CB’s Gallery, a performance space then owned by, next door to, and part of, CBGB’s. The ULA did perform a show at the Amato—six weeks later. Neither Beller nor Plimpton were there.

The ULA’s attendance at a Housing Works reading, which upset Beller greatly, was also before 2004. It happened on January 30, 2003. A small detail—but a crucial one, as I’ll explain in a separate post. The timing of what was happening then had a lot to do with why we were there.

It’s not just that Thomas Beller gets small details wrong, however. He also presents the literary establishment’s standard false narrative about myself and the Underground Literary Alliance. (My “gang.”) But note the viewpoint.

Beller says, “calling us (to be defined as everyone other than them)”.

Everyone other than ourselves?

We were in fact calling out a select coterie of writers, centered around a handful of key individuals, mainly the so-called “New White Guys,” who were receiving an inordinate amount of largesse and media attention. A sliver—a powerful sliver—of the literary world. To Thomas Beller, this is “everyone.”

In Beller’s mind, the ULA was calling this select circle “a bunch of pampered wusses who were marginalizing literature.”

“Wusses” is Beller’s term, not mine. But is the statement untrue? Were and are these people marginalizing literature?

All one need do is look at The New Yorker’s “Best Books of 2012”—Thomas Beller one of those doing the choosing:

The books and authors named are relevant to one percent of the American population, if that. They’ve marginalized themselves. We’re dealing now with a slightly larger sliver of America. Mr. Beller’s world. They’re a tiny privileged minority even on their own island; an aristocracy hovering, at class-segregated parties, high above the mob. I attended one of Open City’s parties in the late 90’s. Trustfunders, scions, and Eurotrash. Snobs among snobs.

Even when the lit elite leave Manhattan, they take their island and its narrow tastes and viewpoints with them.

But, “wusses”? Are these people not examples of intellectual courage?

NOT! Most frustrating is that they’ll smear you in print, as Beller has done, then run and hide when called on it—as Thomas Beller in fact is doing now.

Because they’re members of a special crowd, the literary elite, they’re never held accountable. There exists no one who’ll hold them accountable. Unmentioned in Thomas Beller’s slam is the real crime of the Underground Literary Alliance—attempting to hold the literary darlings accountable for such things as abuse of the grants process. The well-connected and privileged keeping all goodies for themselves.

Why didn’t you mention in your essay, Tom, what the ULA campaign was really about? Anything else was bells and whistles intended to draw attention to our documented facts; our protests. We did draw such attention, which created outrage in your crowd.

Thomas Beller complains that his journal Open City was “attacked” by myself and colleagues. Attacked? Where? If you’re referring to the Housing Works incident, Mr. Beller, you’re getting your facts wrong, as I can prove.

Thomas Beller’s statement about my criticisms of the establishment, about “where it was welcome” is revealing. As he makes plain, at one time I was tolerable—to a limited extent. A curiosity piece for the aristocrats’ amusement. Many subscribed to my newsletter. Now I’m not tolerable. I criticized the Wonderful People too harshly (Mr. Beller’s isolated, marginalized world is muffled in wonderfulness). Unlike them, I actually believed in my stated principles and ideals. So now I’m blackballed. My mistake was in pointing out that in the approved literary scene all is not always wonderful.

Noteworthy about Beller’s Tablet essay, and all his essays, is that Thomas Beller clings, clings, to his illusions. His writings are invariably nostalgic, about a more wonderful time. The smell of bagels on Manhattan’s upper west side. Snow in Central Park. In line with this, Beller grasps at any defense he can find of the literary familiar. Don’t bother him with something different, or dissenting, or new. Writers who write and live outside the acceptable lines. Someone tweets him that books are “knowledge” and e-readers “information.” Precious! Thomas Beller hurriedly retweets this. Yes! The past! Childhood!

The literary elite comprise the mentality of children, expressed by writers who’ve never left intellectual childhood.


(Be sure to read the new ebook, The McSweeneys Gang by King Wenclas, which contains a fictionalized version of Thomas Beller, among others. New pop fiction. Not the stale literary status quo. Available at Kindle or Nook.)

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