Thursday, September 30, 2021

Jonathan Franzen: Voice of the Establishment?

CURRENT NEWS in the Big Four publishing world is that Jonathan Franzen has a new 592-page novel coming out, Crossroads. To me, Franzen represents the voice and ideals of today's upper-caste establishment, in the same way James Gould Cozzens and John P. Marquand represented that voice in their time. With Franzen we get inferior Cozzens-- By Love Possessed-- and not a Guard of Honor

The factor which caused Cozzens to write a significant novel-- despite his blinkered views on life and the world-- and not just another novel of manners, was his involvement in the Second World War, which placed him at the center of a massive and quickly-growing bureaucracy, the U.S. Army Air Force. He was able to put his strong observational talents to work observing and learning the workings of a gigantic organizational machine, along with the strengths and weaknesses of the too-human individuals who ran and populated that machine. Out of it came one of the most important of all American novels-- important because it caught America at a moment of vast change: transformation from isolated backwater to global empire. Any person in decades and centuries to come wishing to understand that nascent giant can do no better than to read Guard of Honor.

It's Jonathan Franzen's misfortune that he's been involved in no epochal, life-changing event, and hasn't challenged himself-- has failed to push himself into the world much beyond his limited upper-east side Manhattan horizons, and so has nothing to write about except the same recycled family scenes, stuffy and uninteresting (to this commentator anyway), which appeared in The Corrections, and apparently are in the new book as well.

Friday, September 24, 2021

Race to the Bottom


The economics of Cheap cramps innovation, contributes to the decline of once-flourishing industries, and threatens our proud heritage of craftsmanship.

The above is a quote by Ellen Shell in a 2010 book titled Cheap, about the race-to-the-bottom taking place in the American economy-- one which has led to a culture of shoddiness.


I've been thinking, prodded by this book and others like it, that no one has been more affected by this race toward cheap ubiquity than the individual artist. Especially devalued over the past twenty years has been the work of musicians and writers.

Musicians: due to the Internet and streaming. All music is instantly available-- one no longer needs to travel to a store to purchase it, much less attend a live concert.

Writers: due largely to Amazon, which has made virtually every book ever published quickly available with a few clicks of a mouse. Ebooks have only added to the mass of authors and titles, drowning the reader in the number of choices, but also the authors themselves. It's becoming impossible for any one writer or book to stand out. Every writer scrambles for their niche, or really, their micro-niche.


A number of tactics can be used to reverse this situation. One is to make the work less readily accessible. This includes a return to analog, taking lessons from the comeback of vinyl records, as I discuss here. Another, related tactic is to strongly increase the quality and uniqueness of the individual work, thereby boosting its value. The idea being to make the artwork more of a rare and valued object. A collector's item.

Our zeens, now on sale at New Pop Lit's POP SHOP, are an expression of these tactics. Hand-crafted, available only via snail mail, totally unique, they return the concept of value to the literary realm, amid a universe of the generic and cheap.

Monday, September 13, 2021

The Truth About the Literary System

 NO ONE really wants to know how the literary system in the U.S. operates.

That thought went through my head last week when I tweeted, from my personal Twitter account, links to a few essays I wrote some time back about Tao Lin and other writers and how the literary game is actually played. Clues to how a writer-- such as this one-- can receive a $2 million advance from a Big Four Manhattan publisher for an unreadable 900-page novel which bombs. 

The truth is that no writer wants to know "how the sausage is made," to use an old analogy. The reality is too upsetting, too dislocating, so we dismiss it, block it out. There will be exceptions, we believe. There have to be exceptions.

Or really, most writers aren't ambitious, aren't hungry enough to want to change things, are content to find a place in the literary world, any place. A niche.

While abject mediocrities receive $2 million advances and the condition of literature continues to decline. 

MY THINKING when I began looking into how the literary machine worked-- chiefly during my days with the Underground Literary Alliance-- was that hearing the reality would so outrage the great mass of writers they'd tear down the Potemkin Village of the established literary scene. But it didn't happen.

Can change, real change, in the literary world, or with society itself, ever happen?

Maybe not. There will always be a significant percentage of people who'll take the easy-and-cheap payoff. This happened even with the sleep-on-floors radicals of the ULA, so it can happen to any movement, anyplace.

Thursday, September 09, 2021

The Inanities of Conspiracy Thinking


No doubt there are countless actual conspiracies out there plotted by devious persons inside government and out of it (along with a mass of grifters of every species). For those interested in discovering the actual truth of happenings, however, standard conspiracy hysteria does truth a disservice, by creating layers of speculative noise through which the truth seeker must wade to find understanding.


Case in point is the 9-11 Twin Towers matter. Now, it's possible someone dynamited those towers. It's likely we haven't received 100% truth of the matter-- given the nature of governments, we never do. BUT-- some of the scenarios thrown out by the conspiracy crowd are close to ridiculous. 

One needs to always try to look at a supposed plot through the eyes of the plotters.

Did the CIA perpetuate 9-11 in order to create justification for war in Afghanistan and Iraq?

I can see the meeting at CIA headquarters. Or perhaps, in an underground bunker someplace.

"We need an excuse for war," the head guy (Dick Cheney?) tells those gathered around the table in the low-ceilinged room deep underground. "Any suggestions?"

Possibilities are endless. A staged attack on U.S. forces someplace in the Mideast. Backing of various rebel groups. The planting-then-discovery of WMDs. A hand raises in the corner.

"Why don't we attack our own main city, knock down the symbol of capitalism-- the Twin Towers-- killing thousands of our own people, destroying immense wealth and collapsing the stock market and our own investments in the process."

(Silence. A frown from the head guy. A silently pressed button. Men in sunglasses enter the room and carry the person who made the suggestion away.)

OR: Of all the ways to create a rationale for war in the Mideast, the actual attack as happened seems the least likely. Yes, it would accomplish your objectives-- and then some. But you might have friends or relatives who'd stray in the vicinity. You might shake the stock market bubbles beyond recovery. Your fingerprints might be discovered on the crime-- as a result of which you'd be crucified. Something could go wrong. With complex plots, things always go wrong. (As happened with the resulting wars themselves.)

We should also remember-- a minor point-- that the mission of the Central Intelligence Agency and indeed of the President and VP is to work for America, however corruptly or ineptly. The home team. The 9-11 conspiracy scenario is like a chess player knocking down his own queen-- or an NFL quarterback scoring a touchdown the wrong way-- and then celebrating.


The first rule of everything is to keep the plan as simple as possible. The knocking-down-your-own-skyscrapers with jet planes is anything but. It is the kind of thing America-hating religious fanatics might think up.

To top it off, we're to believe controlled demolitions went off at the same time? Talk about a complicated plot! Only a lunatic could think of it. And toward what end? If the purpose was to impress/terrify the world, wouldn't the planes themselves be enough?

OR: Maybe there was evidence in WTC 7's CIA office the conspirators needed destroyed?! Cue the jets and demolitions. Could they have sent someone in surreptitiously to take out the papers or videotape? No, too easy. Blow everything up instead.

Which would be like dynamiting a house to get rid of a few ants.


There is, by the way, testimony on the matter from ex-CIA (supposedly) pilot John Lear, who makes the plan more complicated yet. Lear claims the jets which rammed into the Twin Towers on 9/11/2001 weren't 767 passenger airliners at all, but instead, military planes disguised as 767's. Okay. I mean, why not? If you're imagining scenarios, there's no limit to what you can come up with.

John Lear, incidentally, is the same guy who claims there's a colony of 250 million humanoid aliens living on the moon, that the USA first went to the moon in 1962 and made regular trips to Mars in 1966, that Mercury, Apollo, and the rest of the missions "were just decoys to distract the population's attention about what we were really doing" (Vietnam?), and many other fun things. 

Like most conspiracy theorists, John Lear is either a jokester, a con man, or insane.


1.)  Conceivable.

2.)  Plausible.

3.)  Likely.

4.)  Indisputable. 

Lacking further evidence, 9-11 conspiracy theories to date are at Level One.


(For a look at a different conspiracy theory, click here.)

Tuesday, September 07, 2021

Boycott That Kiosk!


Welcome to the brave new world of more automation, less service and diminished quality of life, as more and more megamonopolist chains like McDonald's and CVS convert almost wholly to self-serve kiosks of one kind of another. The idea, as one chain employee told me, is to have no human beings working in the establishments, period. They're eliminating people. 

Yep, figure out that order screen yourself. You can do it! McDonald's, Burger King, etc. doesn't want to pay cashiers, so they have you do the work, for free. Amazing that people fall for it.

No more entry-level jobs for young people to learn what work is about. (They can stay home and smoke pot I guess.) No fallback jobs for lower class individuals or seniors. No ways for anyone struggling to make ends meet to work a second or third part-time job to help pay the bills. Nope. My question is: If the monopolies don't need people, why do we need them? Isn't business supposed to be a two-way street?

Service? What's that? You want service??

I guess it's no surprise that fast food outlets are taking this option. They've always been about offering the shittiest culinary experience possible, have only increased the customer degradation a bit. But CVS, an alleged pharmacy? There to help people??

It's part of a push to isolate individuals from all possible human interactions. All exchanges of any kind economic or social will be done via our phones. No need to meet or speak to other actual human beings in real life. Ever.

Do we wonder why everyone is going insane?

Of course, some people love having no interaction with other people. Total technophiles pleased to become slaves to the Monolithic Machine.

(Meanwhile, the CVS CEO for 2020, Larry Merlo, received a mere $23 million in compensation, which was a down year. McDonald's CEO Chris Kempczinski lagged behind, with 2020 salary of $10.8 million.)


The so-called left meanwhile, who always seem to be, accidentally or intentionally, three steps behind in the game, are campaigning to unionize employees of these chains. But what if there are no employees to unionize? Maybe they'll unionize the kiosks.


An interesting business book by Rory Sutherland, Alchemy, has a chapter titled "An Automatic Door Does Not Replace a Doorman: Why Efficiency Doesn't Always Pay." In the chapter, Sutherland points out the advantages to having a live human being greeting people in front of hotels. Among the ancillary benefits: "taxi-hailing, security, vagrant discouragement, customer recognition, as well as in signaling the status of the hotel."

We're actually seeing this with the CVS elimination of human employees, as evidenced by this Wall Street Journal article about professional gangs of thieves making away with billions of dollars worth of merchandise.

Well, the gangs figure, if no one's watching the store, why not?

The real story no doubt is that some CVS higher-up got conned by a fast-talking vendor into making a huge investment in self-checkout machines. Even though most customers hate using them, CVS is not about to go back on the decision. Not yet.



Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Empires of the Mind


I DON'T KNOW if the Afghanistan fiasco will discredit the U.S. foreign policy establishment enough to out an end to the notion of America as the world's policeman. But it should.

Ending the Imperial mindset would allow a refocus on things at home-- including cultural matters. Ideally it would enable a flowering of American art and artists of all varieties. (The precedent which comes to mind off the top of my head is the British rock music explosion after they liquidated their empire.)


Everyone's focus the past five years-- or twenty, really-- has been on politics, as evidenced by insane levels of hysteria on social media and elsewhere, with nothing actually resolved. The machine bumps right and bumps left and sputters along. Wouldn't the immense amount of energy expended on political battles be better spent elsewhere-- on creating stuff, to everyone's benefit?

America has always been the most creative of nations-- in its short history, a mass of inventions, innovations, devices, entertainments, spectacles, movies, music: noise. If the USA didn't invent the notion of having fun, it perfected it. A great many cultural forms-- literature, to name one-- have been stagnant the past twenty years, with no typically American hyper-energy to be found. The end of the occupation of Afghanistan should be looked at as an opportunity to begin things anew. All it takes is the right mindset to make it happen. (Which is what the New Pop Lit project for one is about.)

Let's do it!

Monday, August 30, 2021

Cooperatives and Unionization in Publishing


Recently I covered here the Nathan J. Robinson fiasco, when he fired his entire staff at Current Affairs magazine, a "leftist" publication, when said staff pushed to turn the project into a co-op.

ARE THERE historical precedents for this?

Yes. Prominent among them was the situation in 1981 with the UK's Time Out magazine, when employees went on strike, due to publisher Tony Elliott changing the previous equal-pay-for-everyone policy of the magazine, in order to pay more to talented outside writers. 

The publication had been started by Elliott in 1968 as a modest alternative pamphlet, apparently with a collective decision-making process, which Elliott abruptly voided, in much the same way Nathan Robinson behaved a few weeks ago in this country.


What resulted in the 1981 situation, after Time Out shut down for a few months, was most of the former staff at the magazine forming their own similar listings publication called City Limits. Simultaneous with this, opportunistic mogul Richard Branson geared up his own listings magazine, Event, and Tony Elliott restarted Time Out with a new staff.


What we saw with the Time Out mess was a possible answer to the question: from where does economic value actually come? The visionary? The workers?

The wikipedia entry on Time Out credits the initial success of the magazine not to Tony Elliott, but its designer, Pearce Marchbank

The flavour of the magazine was almost wholly the responsibility of its designer, Pearce Marchbank. . . .

During the strike, Branson poached Marchbank and made him co-editor of Event, surrounding him with the best literary and journalistic talents money could buy, and backed the project with ample funds-- more than a million pounds by some reports. Despite this, Event soon folded.

City Limits started out well but quickly plateaued, while Time Out eventually surged ahead. Time Out of course had the advantage of being in London an already-established name. A "brand." One has to also consider the extent to which Tony Elliott was by then himself an established brand.

City Limits lasted until 1993. 


I was myself part of a literary cooperative, from 2000 to roughly 2009, and have many thoughts on the experience, which I may express sometime in a different post.