Thursday, June 29, 2006

The Battle of Ideas: Rebellion Against the Status Quo

At its most basic, the ULA campaign is a battle of ideas-- which is why we confront ideologues of the literary status quo like those at n+1. As we've seen, contrary ideas are alien to them.

One would think the mandarins and foot soldiers of literature-- advocates of free expression-- would welcome a test of ideas. Instead, they flee from it, the admirable George Plimpton having been the lone exception.

This is the case for several reasons.

Even the most brilliant of status quo writers, such as Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace, machine-products, are technicians incapable of seeing and questioning the barriers of the tiny intellectual world in which they live.

They're geniuses of Lilliput. Imagine a toy city with a toy castle, and toy figures playing various roles. This is contemporary literature.

Note the toy Franzen figure, wearing its various medals and honors. Best of the Best! And yes, in the toy city, he truly is. There: Move him into the castle. Place him upon the parapet! Put four small other toy figures below to represent his audience. Hear the applause! Well, you can't, not really, but remember we're playing "Let's Pretend."

Can any of the plastic figures (bought on sale at Wal-Mart) question his world? Of course not! At least, none ever does.

In the same way, today's esteemed literary figures never question the premises of their situation. Their arguments take place within the castle, no outsider voices allowed. Jonathan Franzen and James Wood argue over trivialities in the pages of n+1. Plastic toy figures debating nothingness, and all are happy; the toy world remains safe and just.

My letter, on the other hand, could never be published, because it attacks the premises of n+1 itself; the shaky foundation upon which it's placed itself.

I didn't play by the rules! I behaved like a member of the audience who doesn't buy the illusion; a spectator at a puppet show who cries out, "They're only puppets!"

This isn't to imply there's anything entertaining about status quo writers. They're inept as entertainers. Today's academy-trained writers aren't entertainers. They're priests for whom writing and reading is a duty accompanied by inscrutable prose layered with footnotes.

Walk through the "Literature" section of a chain bookstore, scan the volumes of essays, and you'll see they're the product of one cute and refined class of persons, giving one perspective on the society of letters. Jonathan Franzen; David Foster Wallace; Sarah Vowell-- all from the top 5% socio-economic level of America, carrying in their heads the same assumptions and view of the world-- the same assumptions about American literature and their privileged place within it. They're spokespersons for written American culture because, well, because they are. It's already been determined by someone-- by whichever hierarchy or institution makes such decisions. Far be it from them to question these happenings, which for them would be like questioning the natural order of the universe.

Within the toy city, they really are the best. They have the paper degrees, honorariums and accolades to prove it! (They even have a toy opposition represented by New Criterion, graduates of Dartmouth rather than Brown, Columbia, or Yale. They're the red figures in the plastic bag, not the blue ones.)

One couldn't ask Jonathan Franzen to leave Lilliput (to debate the ULA) because that would turn his universe on its head. It'd be a step into the unknown, a place establishment writers never go.

Because they're mere technicians, status quo commentators are incapable of stepping back and considering the position of literature within society as a whole. If they did, they'd see consistent failure. The publishing world has grown only modestly in fifty years-- most of the sales by a handful of lackluster "popular" novelists named Grisham or Albom producing works as lobotomized of intelligence and real passion as are the most hyped of the Iowa-style workshop books and stories. Fifty years ago even the blockbusters like Tobacco Road were real novels; actual literature.

As literature has stagnated, the rest of the culture has exploded exponentially-- sports, TV, movies, music-- so that literature's place in society, by remaining static, has become marginal. It's become Lilliput. It's undergone a fifty-year retreat into the safety of ivy-covered walls.

A few status-quo commentators in stray careless moments acknowledge the retreat ("all" writers are in universities)-- at the same time they turn away from those who fight for literature outside the safety of the walls; whose strategy isn't one of retreat, but of headfirst ATTACK full of clowns, voices, debates, signs, rhetoric, ballyhoo, noise.

The wrong people are in charge of literature. Franzen, Foster-Wallace, James Wood and their ilk aren't strategists. They don't see the depth of the decline, much less know how to reverse it. It's time to relegate them to the corner of irrelevance they love so much and let others move to the forefront.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Bookforum Follies

Frank Norris in his great novel The Octopus depicted a scene of a swanky party of rich people in San Francisco raising money for poor people in India; gorging themselves with drink and feast while a sick homeless woman outside the party perishes on the streets.

In 100 years little has changed, this never more evident than in today's literary world where the darlings of hipness and wisdom pour forth their sympathy over the horrors of the world-- just as long as it's not about anything happening in their own backyard! Just as long as their concern won't affect the structure and corruption of their own society.

The summer issue of Bookforum prints poetry from prisoners at Guantanamo. Given not all of the prisoners are true jihadists who stand against everything Bookforum represents-- but surely some of them are. Paeans to Allah run through the poems: "And Islam will prevail in all corners of the earth."

What misplaced sympathy! Bookforum celebrates a few hundred individuals who may be prisoners-of-war. At the same time, over one million individuals sit ignored in jails and prisons throughout America, in conditions more horrendous than those in Guantanamo; a large percentage of these people-- as many as half-- in for non-violent drug law violations.

Does anyone care about them? Is their existence acknowledged? Why isn't Bookforum publishing their poetry-- or the poetry of downtrodden people throughout this vast nation? Would this run too close to home?

Does Bookforum show concern only when it's safely chic; for those a safe enough distance away to have no meaning? (Manhattan is ringed with brutal jails and prisons full of warehoused souls; locked up in part to preserve the pristine conditon of the Imperial City's golden class, those who circulate at the top of the city's vast multi-colored hierarchy, including the city's privileged literati regularly lauded in Bookforum's pages. "The Clean and the Saved.")

How about a story, Bookforum, not about jihadists, but about zeen writer Cassidy Wheeler? (See Bill Blackolive's 10/10/05 Monday Report, "Letter from a Chained Man," at about Wheeler's situation.) Or why not publish poetry from prisoners whose work is circulated by Anthony Rayson's South Chicago ABC Zine Distro (covered on this blog on 1/5/05 in "Zeen Review Extravaganza")?

Come on, Bookforum. Push yourselves away from your wine bars, buffet tables, and chi-chi p.c. campaigns. Wake up to the awful happenings in your own country.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The Ballad of Phillip Lopate

See him thumping down the streets
kicking vagrants, punching Beats
Call him Phillip Lopate

Pontificating from cushy Academy's nest
P for Professor on his chest
Stifling rebellion is what he does best!
Well-trained Phillip Lopate

Sour features, turned down thumb
"Jack Kerouac was a bum!"
Watchdog Phillip Lopate

Face of conformity, institutionalized school
"Everybody has to follow the rules!"
Guardian Phillip Lopate

Wears the grimace of a cop
New ideas make him blow his top
Officer Phillip Lopate

"Single File! Get in line!
Or I'll have you do hard time!"
Authority's Voice Phillip Lopate

Others control him, behind the scenes
pushing his buttons, pulling his strings
Obedient Phillip Lopate

Watch him speak now on the stage
Establishment Protector full of rage
"Dare not tamper with Literature's page!"
The man they call Phillip Lopate.

Oh, yeah, Phillip Lopate
Yeah, yeah, Phillip Lopate
Oh, my, Phillip Lopate
Say goodbye please Phillip Lopate!

Cricket Farnsworth?

n+1'ers can gain all the plaudits, ascots, and British government grants they want and for pure preppy literary snobbery they're mere pretenders, maybe why they dislike the bow-tie wearing genuine snob article at New Criterion so much.

Can n+1 boast, as New Criterion can, of an office manager named Cricket Farnsworth?

(Coming Soon: The ULA's Cricket Farnsworth Fan Club.)


There are two kinds of writers.
Those who are in the Underground Literary Alliance,
and those who wish they were in the Underground Literary Alliance.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

No One Is Safe

Frankly, I'm becoming of the mind that it makes no sense trying to get along with the elitist snobs of today's literary scene. They'll never accept undergrounders as equals.

The irony is that most of them are terrible writers. I've barely scratched the surface of going after the new (#4) n+1 publication-- haven't mentioned the fiction, which is beyond horrendous. Purely awful. n+1 publishes creative writing gutted of characters, life, the world; hamster-brained solipsism or hyper-intellectualized crap (yes, it really is that bad); and they have the closed-minded gall to be offended at my letter depicting them in a plexiglass box in a museum! (Have they read the dense story they published by Ilya Kliger, about museums or something, with possible appeal nationwide to a grand total of 43 people?)

Their real complaint against me is one of manners. The prime force within the literary world today isn't ethics talent intelligence excitement entertainment or quality-- but manners. Lit folk worry that ULAers might disturb their carefully modulated gentility. (I might make a fool of myself. Heavens!) These people are completely uptight and take what they do all too seriously, which is why their ideas and art are dry and decayed.

n+1's pretentiousness is evident on every page. For all the posturing, it's little more than a snobbier version of Open City. (Even uses the same kind of artsy photos between pages to assert its profundity.) The "best" lit journal? The ULA's Slush Pile blows it away with simple honesty and reality. (Copies may still be found in the zeen section at Tower Records.)

It's time for the ULA to put on its war paint and begin crashing more readings and parties. That person next to you with the fake moustache stuffing hors d'oeuvres in his pockets might be Frank Walsh, or Patrick King, or Jelly Boy, or me.

Friday, June 23, 2006


The most hilarious part of n+1's refusal to debate Stefan Beck was when Keith Gessen pointed out that Beck was merely "Associate Editor" at New Criterion, while they were "Editors" with a capital E-- all four of them.

Well! Clearly inappropriate to put them on the same playing field. The proposed debate would not have been doable simply on matters of protocol.

(The Four n+1 Editors arrive at the theater to discover that Beck has already entered. Improper! Not done! They refuse to walk into the theater until Beck comes back OUTside the theater and waits until THEY-- the "Four"-- have gone in. After all. Social position, you know.)

After they imposed their "No Beck" condition on the event, I scouted around to see who I could recruit to represent the Criterion team instead. No, not the figureheads on the masthead. Truth is that Beck and another obscure guy run the entire operation. Kimball, Kramer, died eons ago-- were stuffed and mummified and are now kept in a closet at the New Criterion office, in a back room; carted out solely for black-tie fundraising events.

Then who else? Who has a name big enough in n+1 eyes to prod them into a public exchange?

Only one person: Jonathan Franzen.

Yes, the ultimate hermetically-sealed writer himself. A safe opponent. We could've slapped a "New Criterion" t-shirt on Franzen and no one would've noticed the difference. In fact there's little difference between any of these clowns. "Right"; "Left": they come from the same backgrounds and schools, follow the same rules, and all suffer from the same aesthetic lethargy and artistic constipation.

Frank Walsh would've done intros. The n+1 "Four" wait pompously on stage, having taken their chairs first. Smugly they preen and pose. Franzen steps out, overwhelmed by the setting, blinking in the glare of lights behind huge eyeglasses.

"Oprah?" he says.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

"The Best"?

Keith Gessen assures me that whatever my criticisms, n+1 is still "the best" literary journal out there.

The Best?

The "Best" isn't afraid of conflicting ideas, as n+1 clearly is. They've shrunk from engagement again and again.

Early in the year, after n+1 was trashed by Stefan Beck in New Criterion, I offered to stage and promote a debate between the two parties. All they'd have to do is show up. Stefan Beck was open to the idea. Gessen never gave me an answer, beyond a condition that Beck-- the initiator of the dispute-- not be part of it! Strike One.

On May 1st I exchanged e-mails with Gessen, pointing out the noise we'd made with our "Howl" protest, holding open the possibility of joint action. His answer was disingenuous, not mentioning a public discussion they'd already set for May 16th at The Kitchen in New York, which I didn't know about. I'd invited n+1 to participate in our April reading. I received not even an e-mail announcement-- standard procedure-- about theirs.

Can we surmise they didn't want the Underground Literary Alliance anywhere near their event? Never mind as participants-- that'd be unthinkable for such snobs (associating with us in any way would be highly embarrassing to their intellectual reps). They didn't want us even in the audience!

They forfeit the opportunity to gain attention for their journal in the interest of protecting their fragile sense of specialness. Maintain a hermetically-sealed capsule around themselves allowing no contrary opinions to intrude, and maybe they really are heirs to the "New York Intellectuals," as they pretend.

Their May reading made not a sound.

Who was there? Did Stefan Beck show up? Any diversity of ideas? Anyone not from their narrow intellectual test-tube world? No. Their guests were Caleb Crain and Vivian Gornick. The public symposium was no doubt as thrilling as the printed one-- which means, not at all. Strike Two.

Strike Three was declining to publish my letter because it was critical of their journal.

"The Best"? At what? Hiding?

Geniuses unto themselves. Quite a joke.

Other Fronts

When I saw Jelly Boy the Clown in West Philly ten days ago, he mentioned starting a Phillip Lopate Fan Club. After all, no one better represents the angry reaction to the ULA presence than Phil-- denouncing Jack Kerouac (and us) from the Miller Hall stage like a stupid big attack dog while his handler looked on proudly.

Maybe ULA Webmaster Patrick Simonelli can add this feature, "Sign Up for the PHILLIP LOPATE FAN CLUB!" as a way to express our thanks. (Special Phillip Lopate puppets are on the way.)

Monday, June 19, 2006

Demographics: Facts About America

25% of whites and 50% of minorities don't graduate high school. 75% of adults don't have four-year college degrees. Over 90% don't have advanced degrees. (Over 99% don't attend Ivy League colleges.) When these facts are considered, even the ULA might be somewhat elitist-- though far less than today's lit world as a whole, which is focused on a few percent of the populace.

Literature belongs to everyone. The ULA's ultimate goal is to appeal to the public at large. The building blocks we're putting in place, "Miss ULA," Whino the Cat, Jelly Boy the Clown and all, will allow us to do so.

For Keith Gessen to think there is anything inaccurate about my letter to n+1 shows the totality of his and his friends' cluelessness about their own society and about themselves. I wonder if he's read his own essay.

Gessen writes articles about Soviet-era samizdat for snob journal The New Yorker, yet is willfully ignorant of samizdat in America. Nowhere is it mentioned anywhere, by anyone, in n+1's Symposium. Gessen has no knowledge of the many thousands of zeensters who exist throughout America; of rough-hewn journal writers like Wild Bill Blackolive, Ammi Emergency, and Urban Hermitt who write not out of concerns over career or social status but because they have to. In his essay Gessen discusses publishing with the given that the conglomerates are the only choice. Writers outside this world don't exist, are "total fakers" unworthy of notice.

Gessen's objection isn't with me-- but with himself. Keith: Take it up with the guy who wrote your essay! Confront him on his inaccurate statements, his concerns with "social position" and the like. HE said he didn't know any writers waiting tables. I didn't say it.

I'm not here to play the game of "I'm Okay, You're Okay" by validating your feel-good-about-yourself liberalism. Because you have a few Lefty articles in your issue doesn't give you a free pass about your main topic. Your Symposium, the attitudes expressed by you and your colleagues, and by lit folks you admire like Jon Franzen and James Wood, well show you're an embedded part of the literary status quo; part of the elitist nature of literary culture, every bit as much as the precious black-tie characters at New Criterion. They're just more up-front about it, is all.

Friday, June 16, 2006

More About n+1

Is n+1 worth the time I'm devoting to it? Frankly, no. These stooges live in an intellectual bubble-- arrived on the scene with a splash of publicity and have allowed their momentum to slow. Unlike the ULA, they don't have the born energy to reverse it.

Their big hope with issue #4 is an essay by Philip Connors. Forget the symposium, "American Writing Today," an instant snoozer. Even the editors hope to forget it. They've now posted big signs around the Connors essay, with large black arrows pointing at it: "Look at This Instead!"

Yes, the Connors essay is the best thing in the issue. I'm reluctant to criticize it, because it contains a chunk of strong 9-11 reportage near the end, but the rest is mediocre.

Connors doctors an article in order to be employed at the Wall Street Journal, a newspaper he loathes. He stays three years around people he intensely dislikes-- apparently collecting material for an expose. The resulting expose is mostly embarrassing, the kind of thing once done better by Jay McInerney, punctuated by two highlights: 1.) Evil Editor Bob Bartley changes "pipe dream" back to "pipedream." 2.) Connors and Bartley share an elevator ride. "I was going to ask this. I was going to ask that. I didn't ask anything." (Literary people love writing about missed moments.)

(I found the piece unsettling because the Underground Literary Alliance had in its ranks for a short time a person who secretly loathed us and everything we're doing. Whatever you do, be genuine. If Connors was himself fraudulent, how can one take his scathing remarks seriously?)

His great revelation: That the WSJ editorial page is the WSJ editorial page. It's pro-Capitalist (pro-Monopolist) and ultra-conservative. Shocking!

Dog bites man.

More relevant would be an article on how and why the liberal-"Left" has fallen into lock-step with the notorious Wall Street Journal editorial page on the subject of uncontrolled immigration. (Memo to Thomas Frank: Sometimes people in red states like Kansas do vote their economic interests.)
Another Gessen complaint is that I included his magazine's Letters section in my own letter's purview. Sorry-- but throughout n+1's short history, James Wood and Jonathan Franzen have been the editors' touchstones of literary intelligence and relevance, mentioned by them again and again. Their exchange in #4 SHOULD be a highlight of the issue. That it's not is an example of how establishment literature carries only the facade of life and relevance. They're pretenders; cardboard imitations. No energy is there.

Another letter I quote from, from Columbia professor Jenny Davidson-- whose remarks go into the issue unchallenged-- argues that the lit journal is too narrow and elitist. The example she gives, of school principals and such, is intended as a way for n+1's editors to broaden their focus. That I quote it as an example of the furthest reaches of this crowd's narrow limits is well-justified.

That Gessen tries to direct and control the kind of letters which go into the journal further shows that I was right to include them in my fairly tame remarks. After all-- they made it into the issue, didn't they? My letter didn't. Oh well.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

The Letter n+1 Refuses to Publish

(Text of letter sent May 21st, 2006 to the editors of literary journal n+1.)

To the Editors,

Keith Gessen in #4: "Practically no writer exists now who does not intersect at some point with the university system. . . ."

Nice to know I and my colleagues don't exist! He's dismissed an entire class of writers, and with them, the majority of his own society. Writing isn't something everyone in a democratic society should engage in, don't you know. It's reserved for a special class of citizens who know how to write (and read) properly-- in the prescribed way.

A few vague nods toward populism are scattered about the essays and letters. Otherwise the symposium and much of the issue is a long moan about the decline in "literary studies," in "reading comprehension" and reading. The contributors know they need to reach somebody other than themselves, "someone's well-educated mother" (emphasis on "well"), "a lawyer or a high school principal or a financial journalist"-- which broadens their target to 2% of the populace. The status of literature has declined in the culture-- all admit it-- yet to remedy the problem they take baby steps.

The title of the opening feature, "The Intellectual Situation," proclaims these people "intellectuals." They've paid big money to gain that word and won't give it up! They embrace that designation, that difference, and as long as they do they marginalize themselves. About the larger society and how to reach it they remain clueless.

An image pops into my head of one of those hybrid French museums in which the contemporary is planted hopefully amid the walls of classicism. A large plexiglass box hangs suspended from the ceiling of the old museum. Inside the box, holding wineglasses, stand today's literary caretakers. The conversation is filled with standard academic jargon: "derive" this and "derive' that; derived specificity derived from the arbitrariness derived from the inutility of "an inverted vitalist." (Throw in some "genetic mysticism" and a few "imprimaturs" while you're at it.)

The buzz among the people suspended in the box is at a polite murmur. Look! There's Vivian Gornick repeating outmoded terms like "middlebrow" whose purpose is to reaffirm the literary hierarchy writers like her dwell in, above, er, the floor. And in the corner! James Wood and Jonathan Franzen, our culture's (supposed) Best Critic and Best Novelist, "mutual almost-admirers," are locked in debate-- almost. Museum patrons struggle to listen, expecting to hear words of energy and wit, of sharp-edged conflict or sparkling wisdom, finding instead the dullest such exchange, from two big names, ever.

Stephen Burt discusses the most lackluster sliver of a vibrant poetry scene. Gornick dismisses the notion of class while the museum admission fee becomes prohibitively expensive and the box she's in rises higher. Caleb Crain next to her wonders why the audience is moving away from them. "Where are they going?" he asks as the box is hauled up a few more inches.

Gerald Howard at the center of the group bemoans the conglomerates (of which he's part). He's "gloomy-hopeful" someone will find a way out of their plexiglass trap. He never asks, "Does anyone have a hammer?"

He's too preoccupied with the chatter. Meanwhile, outside the museum runs a stream, fed by underground springs, representing the life force of authentic culture. Franzen for one would like to reach this water, this renewal, but no one among the powdered crowd knows the way out of their box.


King Wenclas
Underground Literary Alliance

Monday, June 12, 2006

Intellectual Condescension or Cowardice from n+1?

Yesterday's post was actually written by me a couple weeks ago. Not everything I write makes it onto this blog. Many things I write for myself, as a way of figuring out the world.

I decided to post it after receiving an e-mail from n+1 editor Keith Gessen. In its condescension the e-mail was typical of the attitude of those at the center of today's literary world. He complained about a letter I'd sent the journal several weeks ago, in which I gave my opinion about some of the contents of the issue-- mainly a symposium about literature today, but I also included in the focus of my statements a few of the issue's letters, including an exchange between Jonathan Franzen and James Wood.

In his e-mail Gessen informed me he wouldn't be publishing my letter. He didn't like the idea that I hadn't addressed the entire issue-- an essay on global warming, for instance, which had nothing to do with literature; the kind of article included as a feel-good gesture, to say, "Look how concerned we are!"-- even though the essay included few if any real-world solutions, and would have nil impact on the problem of global warming regardless. n+1, after all, is a literary journal. Its impact is confined to the realm of literature. If I wish to address it, it will be on the subject of literature, where the interests of its editors, and the members of the Underground Literary Alliance, intersect. (If I want to get into a discussion about environmental issues I'll look elsewhere-- maybe writing to my congressman and Senators.)

Gessen, you see, wanted his journal addressed on HIS terms, not the reader's. I guess I didn't play by the rules. They went to so much trouble to set up the issue to make themselves appear so wonderful!-- constructing a well-ordered garden of ideas, and in true ULA fashion I trampled all over it.

Gessen spoke, in his e-mail, from the Olympian heights all his kind of lit-folk adopt-- even when they know little about anything beyond what was programmed into them in school. "You're better than that" etc etc, concluding with my letter, which criticized the issue, conveniently being shut out.

But Keith, this is 2006, not 1951. There are other outlets for my letter, and my ideas, including this blog. I'll post the letter here, and let the literary public judge its worth or cogency or irrelevance for themselves.

But do you really want me to address the rest of the issue as well? I can easily do so-- as I did in a couple paragraphs of my previous post. I'd rather stay on topic-- with the theme of the ULA campaign-- as I did in my letter to you.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Systems, Children, Knowledge, and Novels

(Or, the Continuing Education of You the Reader.)

I was in a discussion with someone who knocked the ULA's hectic public debate with George Plimpton's Paris Review in 2001. The person mocked PR as being irrelevant, saying they had a readership of seven!

Yes, but what seven? Plimpton didn't derive his power within American literature from number of copies of his lit-journal sold. If the seven readers were on the masthead and included the editors of large circulation mags like GQ and Esquire, and influential editors and publishers like Gary Fisketjon and Morgan Entrekin, then the influence of the modest lit-journal was multiplied ten thousand-fold. Its "seven" readers themselves controlled a readership in the millions. This was why Plimpton was a well-honored figure in lit circles; how he discovered and created well-hyped star after star-- opening the door to a million dollars worth of publicity for authors like Jay McInerney, Tama Janowitz, Susan Minot, and others.

The person I contended with in the discussion had no understanding of the concept of leverage. Like so many writers today, he has no comprehension of how the world works. American civilization is a gigantic machine. Leverage is a connection between several of its parts.

Leverage is a tiny holding company with a modest suite of offices in an unremarkable building in Delaware or New York. The tiny company is owned by an "old money" family which made its fortune a century ago or more and now maintains a low profile. The holding company itself owns a controlling interest in one of the major money center banks in New York; maybe in more than one of them. These banks in turn hold the debt of, and in effect own, several multinational corporations (or more than several); vast extents of farmland and rain forests from Iowa to Brazil; even a large chunk of the Federal Reserve banking system, a private entity which owns our currency and charges us interest for its use. Tremendous leverage-- all stemming from the modest offices of the tiny company at whose yearly board meeting elderly family members nibble peanuts while adjusting the volume on their hearing aids.

In the new issue of n+1 is a staggerly childish proposal put forth by co-editor Mark Greif. He proposes a 100% tax on yearly incomes over $100,000. A laudable idea-- the kind of simplistic solution to America's problems which might be forwarded by a ten-year old.

The only real problem with Greif's idea is that it shows zero knowledge of how our economy works. Several among a score of criticisms of his notion:
-it'd be politically impossible;
-capital markets, lubricating oil within the machine, would stop their flow and the economy would grind to a halt;
-tax dodges would proliferate and the rich would quickly find a way around the tax, as they've always done;
-you'd need a totalitarian police state to enforce it.

Worst of all, Greif's proposal fails on its own terms. He puts it forward as a way to redistribute wealth (confusing income with wealth) when it would do nothing of the sort. It would, in fact, stratify our caste society more than it is now. The classes would be rigidly set in stone. The very wealthy don't need income. They're already rich. Their wealth increases from simple appreciation of assets-- the increase in value of their land, houses, art, antiques, furs, yachts, stables of horses, wine and comic book collections, classic cars, and so on and so on.

Shelves of books have been written about tax dodges and how the rich intentionally lose money to decrease their income. The point is that here we have a literary person writing about a subject of which he has no knowledge. None. Which doesn't matter in today's literary world. Good intentions are enough. Young Johnny has an idea! On the surface, a brilliant one. Pat him on the head and give him a lollipop.

In today's lit world, nonsense is spoken daily with utter seriousness, with the facade of knowledge, and no one says a word.

As I explained many times in New Philistine, I'm from a non-standard writing background, having bounced around a lot of my life. My first writing "job" was editing a local union newsletter. A couple years after that I found myself, bizarrely enough, writing an investment newsletter for a free-booting commodity trader. The late 80's was the heyday of independently produced investment newsletters. Many of the best of them-- my models-- appeared in a now-defunct newspaper based in Kansas called Consensus. The most noteworthy thing about the lone-wolf wannabe-entrepreneur newsletter editors was what good writers they were. Their opinions sparked with wit and sarcasm, bold insights and striking knowledge. To this day I can't read standard "literary" fare-- the lethargic mumblings of Jonathan Franzen; the condescending goofball gobbledygook adolescent arrogance of David Foster Wallace (his recent book of essays is awful) without becoming depressed at the contrast between society's lauded writers-- frauds for the most part-- and the clarity, verve, and real intelligence of a tiny subculture which for all I know is gone.

Our era's most famous novelists, like John Updike, speak wisdom neither to Presidents or the populace. No sensible person would take their advice on anything. An Updike is more a curiosity you'd put in a corner, in his rocker, cover with a blanket, and allow the large-headed icon to babble away to his heart's content with rounded harmonious sentences of words which make no sense.

Literature today is a babbling ignored ignorant old man rocking away in a far corner of the room.

Forget the lists of "best" novels which regularly appear in mainstream publications, or on the syllabus lists of academics. The best American novel of the second half of the 20th century-- in fact, not myth-- is virtually unknown: Guard of Honor by James Gould Cozzens. This is an objective statement. Cozzens was a conservative author I have no ulterior reason to applaud. By "best" novel I mean best written and best constructed; that which conveys the most knowledge of our American civilization, about how it operates and the people who run it, with unflinching truthfulness.

In its massiveness, it's not an easy read. It's not a book for children. I struggled with it for years. When I finished it I found it satisfying and enlightening. Cozzens is the novelist who best understood the American system-- the "Machine"-- the nascent American Empire whose actions and consequences we live with every moment.

Set on an air force base in World War II, the novel shows with scope and depth the workings of the gears of the Machine, with attendant bureaucracy, politics, racism, loyalty, egotism, glaring incompetence combined with amoral brilliance which is the story of American success. The story of America is the story of systems. We're the masters of systems. Our wars were won not by military genius but by the mass application of organization and logistics.

One can't understand America or any part of it, including its culture, without understanding its systems.

Guard of Honor is the most relevant novel I've read for understanding America NOW. Its youthfully swaggering flawed General Beal and his senior advisor-- a judge in civilian life who solves for his boss problem after problem; who covers up base fuck-up after fuck-up-- is reflected today in President Bush and his Vice President. Through learning the workings of the base one understands the workings of the minds of the two men. Rare is a novel which is as relevant sixty years after it was written as when it came out. In soberly depicting the personalities and attitudes, strengths and weaknesses of those who created American Empire, in revealing how the machine operates, it'll remain relevant for decades or centuries to come. Next to it, all the well-hyped novels by Roth, Updike, DeLillo, Pynchon, Oates and company were written by children. On Guard's final pages, with all problems temporarily resolved, monster airplane representing American technological strength vanishing into the sunset as General Beal and his artful handler watch, the reader sees suddenly that the novel's own construction, perfect in its wholeness of form, is a work of art; intelligent without being intellectual; plain, solid, masterful, stoic: quintessentially American.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

ULA Cleveland Summer Extravaganza Weekend

While we will continue making noise about the historic "Howl" protest, the ULA is also preparing for a big event in Cleveland in early July, organized by the ever-crazed Wred Fright.
Watch for upcoming details.