Monday, December 09, 2013

Quarantine

REFLECTIONS ON ANCIENT LITERARY HISTORY

THE THING TO KNOW concerning myself and any possible attempt to revive the Underground Literary Alliance is that the ULA exists within the culture in a kind of prison camp, surrounded by guards and watch towers. Not a physical camp, mind you, but a mental construction of one. The image of the ULA which exists within established literature’s mind is the creation of distorted narratives about us. No one can see the reality—or wants to see it.

Within the prison camp I exist as a Hannibal Lector figure. Confined to a straitjacket while strapped to a chair on an open concrete floor, observed by spotlights. The writer pariah, untouchable by the literary community. It’s an impossible situation, because the more you try to escape from the straitjacket, the crazier you seem.

I realized this over a year ago, when I attempted to counter gross distortions and lies about the ULA which were perpetuated by a republished essay about the organization. The essay was receiving glowing reviews from a score of reviewers—including in the New York Times—despite its inaccuracies. In the essay, the ULA’s grass roots DIYers are portrayed as would-be totalitarians, simply for wanting to have any kind of a voice in this hectic society. (The fate of the Underground Literary Alliance of course well proves who are the real totalitarians.)

As I contacted various editors to present the other (real) side of the story, I encountered in almost every instance a priori hostility. I knew none of these people, nor did they know me, but on the question of the ULA their minds were settled. The accepted narrative, false as it was, had become the hardened reality.

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The conflict between the Underground Literary Alliance and the larger lit world was a difference of temperament and ideas. The warm morality of the ULA cause, our uninhibited freedom, versus the cold expediency of inflexible cultural conformity. Against indoctrinated system writers marching in lockstep and single file, there was and is no room for those who occasionally step out of line.

The flaw in the original ULA strategy was thinking that our actions and revelations would provoke the conscience of the greater literary community. We couldn’t comprehend that said animal has no conscience. That it’s an unthinking beast concerned only with its own survival.

If we play-acted as radicals, our opponents play-acted as persons of integrity.

The result was that we provoked the literati’s monstrous true face. We were quickly ostracized.

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Banished! Which leaves me unable to aspire to any kind of a normal writer’s life. Should I begin any association with other writers, no matter how tame and innocuous, they would be tarred by the association. The paranoid fear of possible dissent existing within the established literary community would quickly again reach levels of hysteria. Anything we said would be received through a prism of mendacity and dishonesty.

Within the cultural straitjacket, then, my possible actions are constrained. The script has been written—”abandon all hope, ye who enter”—which means that if I’m to do anything it must be in the guise of the crazy. Extreme. Possible colleagues would have to be themselves outcasts, those with no possibility of being accepted themselves, for whatever reasons. It wouldn’t be the ULA which existed ten years ago, with its amateur theatrics and—when all was said and done—rather tame personalities. It would be the Underground Literary Alliance gone nuclear. With no quarter given, none would be asked. Balls to the wall writing and activism done on speed.

Not that this is going to happen. I’m simply saying that given the circumstances, the closed walls faced, it’s the only way of operating that could happen. A cultural scorched earth policy with intensity matching that of the ULA’s ruthless and unmovable enemies.

3 comments:

anolen.com said...

You do have an option, and I think you know what it is already. Your option is to write for people who are bored by the 'literary' tripe; the people who don't give a rat's ass about Franzen's, Eggers', etc opinion and just want a damn good story. Your 'Pop Lit' idea.

I've found writing that well is hard, it's hard to be truly entertaining and I think that's why so many writers go the easy route and conform to the Borg. They *will* loose their soul; but may also look successful from a distance. Some people think that's a good deal. :D

If you create another ULA, screw showing up the establishment. Every thinking person knows they're ponce-impostors anyway. Put that energy toward reaching smart people who are bored with literature. Start an online mag that only pubs entertaining, good stuff. Start with old literature if you have to, but people need to know that if they go to something.com, they'll always get something good.

I'd do it myself, but I don't have the cred or connections you do. Call in some favors and get your old writer friends to write for free for a while. :)

King Wenclas said...

You make it sound easy! Build it and they will come. But there are hundreds, maybe thousands of online mags. The trick is always how to get people to them-- how to let folks even know about them.
For much of the 90's I was involved in the zine scene, which was creating terrific, innovative writing. We operated outside the existing institutions; were extremely creative. I know well the challenges & obstacles involved in operating that way.
Even from 2000 to 2007, when I was leading the ULA, we tried a wide variety of tactics, outside the established lit world, to try to connect with the larger public. With the very people you talk about.
Post-ULA, a host of former ULAers, with much the same viewpoint toward lit as you and I, have been trying a variety of ways to create an alternative literature. Most notable or ambitious among the attempts was the Guild of Outsider Writers and its many permutations. They had hundreds of writers signing up for their group; writing pieces for the website but doing little else. Because they rejected noisemaking-- the kind of things I specialized in-- they made not a ripple in the larger culture; eventually ran out of steam & vanished.
Sometime I'll discuss my last active year w the ULA, 2007, when I ignored the literary establishment to put all my focus on staging readings, doing radio interviews, showing up at every open mic anywhere in the city I was then living in, etc etc.
(cont.)

King Wenclas said...

(Cont.)
At some point you are going to bump up against that literary establishment, because it is a monolith, with a monolithic mindset. Even the lowliest reviewer or alternative paper journalist gets his or her cues from said establishment. From the New Yorker & New York Times Book Review, Salon, etc etc. It's a herd mindset, in which everyone knows who are the acceptable writers.
Regarding myself, or the ULA, the standard source on us remains the egregious Bissell article.
An example from 2007 is a radio thing I did on the local PBS radio station, as a guest discussing the current scene along with a local lit editor who's mind was completely captured by the MFA status quo. The host asked me ridiculous questions that could've come only from the Bissell piece, such as "Why do you want to ban Jeffrey Eugenides?" That kind of thing. Biased going in. Yet that's the very kind of program that any alternative lit project needs to get on.
Currently there's the alternative of ebooks, which have hundreds of their own blogs & web sites catering to the roughly one million writers self-publishing. The realm that Amanda Hocking was successful in; terribly-written generic genre books about zombies, fantasy, vampires. Very depressing. Few others will have her luck.
There are too many writers, either among the lit crowd or ebook crowd, trying to jam through narrow entrances.
And as you say, there are almost insurmountable challenges for literature, period. For even the big guys with access to the literary infrastructure already in place.
It'd be nice to bypass everything established & literary, the entire clotted conglomeration of journalists, reviewers, editors, agents. Problem is that writers have been marginalized in the culture. No one wants to hear about them. After scores of overhyped bland Franzen novelists, thousands of put-people-to-sleep literary readings, the greater public doesn't care. They've tuned out. Yes, it'd be nice to get their attention and reconnect them to exciting literature. You might first have to hit them over the head with a two-by-four!
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Is there a path up the mountain?
Maybe.