A Tale of Two Literary Worlds

(Note: here's the text to an article first published at iNewp web site in September of 2011.)

On February 12, 2007, The Guardian (UK) online published an essay by Sam Jordison titled, "Surfing the New Literary Wave." Amid looking at England's literary scene, the piece glanced "across the Atlantic," listing the writers group Underground Literary Alliance and the literary journal n+1 as upstart rivals to the hipster McSweeney's crowd in the battle for American literary cred.
If anything, the ULA had been the more feared upstart, as evidenced by the feature essay attacking the ULA, "Protesting All Fiction Writers!" by Tom Bissell which appeared in the July 2003 issue of The Believer. The ULA received other coverage at this time-- mainly  disparaging except for a half-dozen write-ups in "Page Six" outlining the ULA's revelations of corruption in the established literary world. In 2007, n+1's editors were the new kids on the block.
Since then, the two upstarts have traveled in drastically different directions.
n+1 co-editor Chad Harbach's novel, The Art of Fielding, was released earlier this month to widespread press attention. Harbach received from Harper-Collins a $660,000 advance for the book. The publicity for the novel includes a feature article in the October issue of Vanity Fair written by another n+1 editor, Keith Gessen. Gessen had earlier received a more modest $170,000 advance for his own novel.
n+1's staff has grown in the past five years. As it holds non-profit status, one can assume its level of contributions from wealthy benefactors-- or from n+1 staffers-- has risen.
The Underground Literary Alliance, on the other hand, in 2007 suffered betrayals and defections, followed by internal disputes and dismemberment. Its final actions-- two readings staged by ULA poet Frank D. Walsh-- occurred in 2009.
2011 has been a particularly bad year for the remnants of the organization. ULA co-founder Steve Kostecke died in April. In July, the ULA's best young writer, Eric Broomfield, who worked in sideshows as Jellyboy the Clown, was critically injured in an apartment fire which put him on a respirator for weeks. Frank Walsh, the group's engine in its final days, has been alternating between homelessness and a flophouse. Reportedly he's lost everything he owned, including a lifetime's worth of essays and poems.
Many other ULAers are broke. Not New York City faux-broke, but truly broke, as in "broken," with everything that entails; including no credit, no health care, bad teeth, intermittent jobs, pay-as-you-go phones, check cashing outlets, resident hotels and couch-surfing. No safety nets. Spiritually washed-up and wacked-out. The ongoing recession has been harder on some writers in this country than others.
Upon reading Keith Gessen's Vanity Fair essay, "How a Book Is Born," which purports to examine today's publishing world, one gets the impression that little exists outside the well-connected New York Vanity Fair bubble he describes, where everyone knows one another. Where pricey Manhattan lunches with editors at giant pubishing houses-- who might happen to also be on your journal's masthead-- are common.
In a large sense Keith Gessen is correct. In terms of the amount of money invested in books, and in promoting those books, the overwhelming bulk of it comes from publishing's "Big Six" with their large office staffs of marketing talent, and their million-dollar publicity budgets.
Yet, the question has to be asked: Should this be all of American literature's world?
What's noteworthy about Gessen's essay is that everyone he mentions in his article comes from the top level of American society, most educated-- as Harbach and Gessen were educated-- at elite universities like Harvard.
Keith Gessen argues that American publishing isn't a monolith-- but it encompasses a monolithic viewpoint. Its writers, editors, and agents look at America from the same high-leveled place. They're standing in the same spot. Every one of them has played by the rules, jumped through the hoops of higher education in this hierarchical society and become successful as a result.
The premise of the Underground Literary Alliance was to present American writers who came from a very different place. Who carried toward American life and society a radically alternative viewpoint. Those who viewed the world from ratholes close to the bottom. Who due to background, personality, or circumstance couldn't conform to the rules of the game. Not students obediently raising hands in the front row, but asleep in the back from having spent the night on the streets or working a job. When awake, staring out the monotonous window of class from boredom.
The thought was that these individuals, no less intelligent and creative, offered a different, more knowing vision of what America is about than the acceptable norm.
It's appropriate that Harbach's novel is about baseball. Baseball represents tradition, rules, order. Complacency and comfort. A fenced-in green environment where all is safe and secure.
The ULA's strongest novel, published in 2007 by ULA Press, was Security by James Nowlan. In the anarchic but powerful narrative, Nowlan depicts a world where nothing is secure. Unlike The Art of Fielding, there's nothing Zen in the book. There can be nothing Zen about a world that's collapsing on top of you.
Nowlan's Security has nothing in common with baseball. It's more like the X Games: extreme and unpredictable, unclean and out of control. No well-manicured fields or paragraphs, only the chaos and unease which many of us face.
At the time, I mailed a promo copy of Security to Keith Gessen. He later let me know he didn't read it. For Gessen, ULA writers were assumed to be inferior. A segment of American literature was, and remains, beneath notice to those atop the literary pyramid.
n+1 did publish a truncated version of a letter I'd sent them. The ULA was on its way down. I was fortunate to be acknowledged.
The ULA had believed in a scene in the Elia Kazan film "Viva Zapata!"-- screenplay by John Steinbeck-- in which, while holding a rifle on a moderate politician, Marlon Brando as Emiliano Zapata demonstrates the concept of leverage. The ULA gained notice, good and bad, when it exhibited leverage-- its power to offer a literary threat. Without this threat we dropped back to the literary mass.
Today, e-books offer a sliver of an opening for literary outsiders. They're a way to compete against the hierarchy. The dilemma, as always, is how to get word out about our writings-- to make, in an impossibly loud society, significant noise. Sometimes a sliver of an opportunity is all that's required.
Chad Harbach's novel is displayed in bookstores across the country, the ample resources of the status quo publishing world and its conglomerate media cousins behind it. For now, this world holds. The mighty Manhattan towers yet loom over the cultural landscape.
I've released two e-books of my own fiction in recent months. I'm selling them for 99 cents apiece. My marketing budget is a little over nothing, but I remain confident. For promotion I send emails. I also mail, to select book reviewers, hand-made announcement postcards which I cut from heavyweight Bristol paper and color myself.

No comments: