Friday, December 31, 2010
Experiments in POP
Write your literary stories 90% of the time. But also try your hand at pop. Do it, and if it's in any way pop I'll post it at my American Pop Lit blog, which is a blog devoted not to the ultimate, "serious" literary product-- but to experiments at POP.
This is what I've been posting there myself. Yes, much of it might be considered to be bad writing. The tales break many of today's literary rules. When you're creating something new, you're going to be bad at it until you become good-- until you get to the finished point which exists now only as an ideal within your head. You need to imagine the ideal, then try to produce it.
Think of creating an entirely new kind of automobile. Your first prototypes likely won't run-- or they won't run the way you want them to run. This is fine as long as each attempt gets you closer to the goal. It might take a hundred attempts-- or a thousand. At the end of the line awaits the produced vision, the revolutionary answer to sweep the board of the status quo.
This is what the progress of art has ever been about.
THE BABE RUTH EXAMPLE
The most profound thing baseball player Ty Cobb ever said was his insight into why and how Babe Ruth was able to revolutionize the sport. A sport at which, before the Babe appeared, Cobb had been dominant. Cobb exemplified the dead ball era, when precision and control when hitting the ball was the norm.
Babe Ruth was a pitcher. It didn't matter if he made hits or not. He was presumed to be an out.
Having no pressure on himself, Babe Ruth began experimenting with his batting swing. He didn't take himself too seriously. He didn't care if he struck out, or looked foolish while doing so. He didn't have the vanity and self-importance of a Ty Cobb.
To amuse himself, Ruth began swinging as hard as he possibly could to see how far he could hit the era's rock of a baseball. Often he swung so hard he fell down. Other times he hit the ball farther than anyone before him ever had. The crowds took notice, as did the lords of the sport. The game was transformed. Its popularity, along with the popularity of Ruth, skyrocketed.
What's the lesson for writers?
You can't be afraid of looking foolish.
Intellect-- or Soul?
Not that some emotion on occasion isn't stirred. The writing of David Foster Wallace, for instance, seems to generate a certain empathy from a narrow circle of readers. It's the kind of emotion felt for the android in the movie "Blade Runner."
Literature will become great only when it stirs again great emotion-- when it reaches deep, as great art reaches deep, into our very souls. That should be the goal.
Thursday, December 30, 2010
Pop Story Rerelease
Still to come: the concluding chapters of th Big Boy Saga.
Sunday, December 26, 2010
The Plot Intensifies!
Two chapters to go! Next: "Killtown USA." Not to be missed!
"True Grit" Review
Tuesday, December 21, 2010
About POP Fiction
Call it Art Pop or Neo Pop, Power Pop or Neo Pulp. A handful of writers in America are trailblazing a new direction for the literary scene. Imagine! Exciting new writing. Not standard popular fiction, and not standard “literary,” but something better, something more. Old fashioned raw and gritty zeen writing with a brass section and an added beat. In the final chapters of my novella which doesn’t have a title but which I describe as the Big Boy Saga, I intend to take fiction into a new place. This will be on the remaining cuts on my pop album. (Ten chapters altogether.) Have a view. Take a listen.
Chapter Six: “The Trap”
Chapter Seven: “The Armory”
A few moments of thought should dispel that. Computer models "prove" the theory. I'd like the same computers to pick a Super Bowl winner. Even in a very controlled situation, like a horse race, where most of the variables can be quantified-- weights and speeds, history, track conditions-- it's difficult if not impossible to be consistently correct in the analysis. How much more difficult with climate, where you're facing infinitely more variables. Scientists are dealing with a mere two hundred years of semi-reliable recorded weather statistics, out of millions of years of climate on this planet. Very tough to credibly determine any cycles or patterns, which are the most likely explanation for modest warming. Scientists also focus on one variable-- co2-- out of thousands. Not the largest variable either. (See the sun.)
What was P.T. Barnum's quote? No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.
Friday, December 17, 2010
Who will win the now-unleashed gang war? Maxwell aka "Big Boy"? The malicious but well-loved Fake Face? The District Attorney? Sal the Hood? Jake Pol?
Exciting chaotically colorful chapters are yet to come.
Thursday, December 16, 2010
Worst Christmas Songs?
But what are the worst Christmas songs? Nominees abound. There are good bad songs, like Dylan's, and then there are songs which are simply bad. Among the latter put Bruce Springsteen's "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," a typical pretentious Bruce shoutathon; the Burl Ives version of "Twelve Days of Christmas," which seems to last an entire twelve days; and, well, 95% of what you hear in a shopping mall. What I loathe the most though are the Elvis Presley Christmas songs which have been layered over with the voices of bad contemporary female country singers. It results in mangled Frankenstein monsters, mistmatched sounds, and shows that, whatever Presley was, he wasn't really a country singer. (A hillbilly yodeler at Sun, maybe, but that's not the same as the generic corporate pop country music of now.)
Anyone else have Worst Christmas Song candidates? Surely by now others must also be cringing from the omnipresent onslaught of recorded garbage.
Tuesday, December 14, 2010
Favorite Christmas Song
Someone named after a Christmas carol, as I am, should be something of an authority on Christmas songs. In that light I now have a new favorite Christmas song, Bob Dylan’s “Here Comes Santa Claus,” beating out prior #1 “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas.” The Dylan gargle-with-broken-glass voice effect, combined with a corny beat, is untoppable. Sure, he’s destroyed his reputation—but created a Christmas classic in the process!
(On other Christmas song fronts: Sorry, Taylor Swift, but your wimpy “Santa Baby” is a poor trade-off for the sexy original by Eartha Kitt.)
A City's Karma
I have the opposite feeling in Philadelphia now. Everything is going right, as evidenced by the Cliff Lee baseball signing. In football, Michael Vick and the Eagles are running wild. The hockey team's winning. The town's arts are reviving. Philly's home monopoly, Comcast, is finalizing the details for acquiring NBC. Strength is pouring into the city and running through its streets. There are some great, vibrant neighborhoods. It's why I'm glad to be here. With good vibes comes great opportunity.
Monday, December 13, 2010
The Other Way
The New Writer will go beyond the current to create a synthesis of past and present; a better model to return excitement to reading. Those who are right now attempting this are artistic pioneers, trailblazers willing to set out on a lonely path in hopes of discovering a glorious new uninhabited spot upon which to recreate the literary art.
Wednesday, December 08, 2010
Two points about it. First, their premise that MFA programs are healthy because at least writers are read by other writers is a bridge too far. Writers don't read other writers, beyond those in The New Yorker or a few "Best" collections, who are studied as successful models. Otherwise, forget it. This is why standard lit journals have no readers.
Second, the Bubble Boys disdain the notion of writing for "the market," which means writing for an audience, which means writing for other people. Can't have that. So the writer writes for him-or-her self.
Since they don't read one another's work anyway, it makes no difference.
Monday, December 06, 2010
Are You Reading “POP”?
A new chapter is up at
Friday, December 03, 2010
Stop the Phoniness!
More POP: "The Girl"
Check it out!
Tuesday, November 30, 2010
The Mass Insanity of Writers
OR, RUNNING OFF A CLIFF.
Virtually every writer I know has a book coming out. I meet writers on the street who I haven't seen all year. They tell me they have books coming out.
Everyone's writing novels. Housewives and businessmen who've never before considered themselves writers are writing novels and have books coming out.
Some have more than one. Some are approaching a dozen. They're not selling them, they're doing no marketing to speak of, but they're cranking out more of them. Right now the book is the LAST thing to produce but barbers, gardeners, tailors, sailors, Aunt Helen Uncle Bill the guy at the desk next to yours at your job are writing novels and have books coming out.
If writers, or people in general, had a sense of basic economics-- or basic odds-- this madness wouldn't be occurring.
Ever been to a racetrack?
Those who have, for any extended period, learn odds. They see the glue factory horses. Those are the ones who have NO shot. The line on them starts at 80 to 1. The extreme longshot. The experts-- called handicappers-- know they have no shot, but there's always a sucker or two who'll bet them regardless. "Hey, 'Destiny DeBong.' I'll bet it!"
They're off! The horses thunder down the track. "Where's Destiny DeBong?" you wonder. You don't see it among the leaders. That's it! Way behind the others. Half-a-racetrack behind. In danger of being lapped.
At the present time, Destiny DeBong is a better bet than the novel.
What are the odds right now of getting attention for your book? 8,000 to 1? 80,000? 800,000?
If everyone in the underground has a book coming out, you can believe the 400,000+ MFA folks out there also have books coming out.
In the last ten years, due to the ease of publishing, Print-On-Demand and the micropress, there's been an explosion of product, with no apparent corresponding rise in demand. Writers today aren't exactly rock stars.
So where's the logic?
The conglomerates alone crank out too many novels. Go to a supersize chain bookstore. Where's Joe Schmoe's book? There are ten thousand books on the first floor. How will anyone find it?
Maybe five serious novels in the past year received serious marketing attention. Jonathan Lethem's was among them. I can't remember the title.
I know. I know. You're different. You're going to be different. The literary agent will choose yours from hundreds or thousands. It'll be published, and published with backing. Full-page ads in the N.Y. Times, at least before the Gray Lady goes bankrupt.
The funny thing is, there are roads to literary success. Roads no one is traveling. The key is finding or creating a new road and outflanking the pack.
Oh oh! Here comes the herd. Thundering along. Books! Everyplace and everywhere you look-- books! Novelists like Goodloe Byron are giving their novels away free.Talk about devaluing the product. More books! Books which nobody wants.
I believe I'll hide on an island or in a cave for a couple years until the hysteria passes.
(This was originally posted elsewhere by me earlier in the year.)
Monday, November 29, 2010
Another "Pop" Chapter
Friday, November 26, 2010
An example of the sad condition of today's literary world can be found in this post by Blake Butler at
The essay speaks for itself. I posted a pair of quick responses to bring a contrary viewpoint to the gushathon over Blake's post. I shouldn't have had to say anything. The essay speaks for itself. It's not even an essay-- it's a dissertation. A miscarriage. Dead-on-arrival. Butler writes as if he's pursuing a Phd. A hurricane of words, a mass of poorly written sentences, and at the center of them: nothing.
We've come along way from classic American essayists like Vidal, Baldwin, Mailer, and company, haven't we?
I love it. If the entire intellectual literary community is stopped at an orange-sign roadblock with emergency lights flashing, without the sense to turn around, it leaves open roads which will take the writer to actual destinations.
Who has winning ideas? Which ideas, which writings, will prevail?
There was a flurry of interest last century when a jar was found in the desert in Egypt containing the so-called gnostic gospels-- counter narratives to the four accepted versions of the story of Jesus. Had they been suppressed? If so, why? Politics, surely! I believed this myself. That is, until I started reading the counternarratives. What I found were insular, nonsensical, clearly inferior writings.
The four accepted gospels became popular. They lasted because they contained compelling writing about a real, unique personality moving and speaking in a recognizable landscape. When all is said and done, they're great, moving stories, written simply and with clarity, with simple but effective dialogue. Two thousand years later, the narratives still live and breathe.
The gnostic gospels, on the other hand, are dead artifacts, and were always dead to the world in that they were written for small and narrowly focused communities withdrawing from the world, while their more orthodox brethren were confronting it. Elaine Pagels' book on the gnostic gospels explains this well. Some early Christians were populists who believed their message was for the world; for everybody. Others constructed barriers of nonsense, the Eleusinan Mysteries, making it difficult if not impossible for readers to comprehend what they were saying-- which was the whole idea. Strip away the verbiage and you see they weren't saying anything. They were less-- not more--rooted in humanity and reality.
The followers of David Foster Wallace are contemporary gnostics who write for a tiny minority of readers able to "get it"; those watching the nakedly parading Emperor who convince themselves they see something. DFW is their dead god. His kind of work represents, as I said, a dead end. The task of the new writer is to tear down the System's plaster gods, to offer living alternatives that can reach the general population, and revive the corpse of American literature in so doing.
Saturday, November 20, 2010
Where Are the Great New Writers?
Where are new talents bursting on the scene to revolutionize the art? This is the most stagnant period in American literary history, in part because writers have lost any sense of real creativity, are content instead to copy the accepted models, trying to perfect what’s already been done. There’s a stagnant mental attitude which oversees and pervades the entire system of literature. This may be due to where America is right now as a civilization, a nation of bureaucracies and institutions, where competent mediocrity is celebrated, has been institutionalized and turned into high value.
The system’s best, like Jonathan Franzen, are skilled mechanics. Even if one accepts the dubious proposition that David Foster Wallace was a “genius” writer—when was that? When did he first gain strong notice? Twenty years ago? He was a follower, maybe a culmination, of academic trends. He led to more paint-by-the-numbers imitators. The art wasn’t turned on its head. There was no Michael Vick breathtaking shock-the-world breakthrough. DFW signalled the end of a trend, not the nascent beginning of one.
Today’s writers are content to write and exist within comfortable boxes. That’s the problem.
Friday, November 19, 2010
Stacks of Books
Tina Brown takes the helm of the ever-thinner magazine Newsweek. Ever hear of it? I'm told it used to be a flagship of print media. She won't be able to save it.
Wednesday, November 17, 2010
Movie! Movie! Movie!
A new post at one of the more unpredictable blogs I’m currently associated with asks readers to choose between three movies done on the same topic—or at least between the three promotional trailers for the three movies. See
Friday, November 12, 2010
The Bottom Line
The bottom line is that, in the area of short fiction, writers aren’t giving the general public what it wants. None of us is—myself included. The New Yorker is merely the most visible part of the problem.
There are many things writers need to do. One of them is to lose the infatuation with postmodernism a la David Foster Wallace. This is a dead end. It’s solipsism, a retreat into the mind. What the journal n+1 calls Neuron Lit or such is in fact Moron Lit. It goes nowhere. It’s a retreat away from the audience. Or, to claim as other writers do, that Art is Nonsense is itself nonsense.
The postmodern escape from sense and reality came as a result of the traumas of World War II, when the world collapsed into madness. It was a philosophy and aesthetic of a particular time. That period has ended. It’s time to move on. Some teach that “There is no reality.” Why, then, Professor, are you teaching the class, and charging an exorbitant amount to do so?
Reality is a given. The world makes sense. In the morning you don’t put your shoes on your head instead of your feet, or walk UP the stairs when you want to go DOWN to the street.
At www.americanpoplit.blogspot.com I’m posting experiments at new short fiction. I’m presenting worked-out aesthetic ideas. As with any experimenting, most attempts are bound to be failures. That doesn’t mean you don’t keep trying. The ULA itself was ultimately a failure, in that it didn’t achieve the impossible goals it set for itself. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t worthwhile. It was completely worthwhile. It was an attempt to inject new ideas and writing into the literary body. It was an honest try to revive the literary patient. We know that doing the same-old same-old doesn’t work. The many “Best” or New Yorker story collections are proof. All they signify is the extent of the illness.
Do YOU want to attempt new pop literary art? You need the will to make the attempt.
Thursday, November 11, 2010
Giving the Teacher What She Wants
The literary story today is a model of conformity. After decades of writing workshops, system writers have synthesized all the many instructions and subliminal cues to give the academic system of writing perfect examples of consistency, as seen in poem after poem, story after story—by the thousands. They’re all adeptly crafted, as from a factory.
This is the nature of bureaucracy—and the question is whether art can and should be the product of bureaucracy. In place is an unstated “book” of how to write, so that writers who want to get ahead create by the book, and only by the book. Which also means that those writers approved and promoted are those best able to conform to the system way of writing. They’re the students raising their hands at the front of the class, giving, quickly and efficiently, the teacher exactly what she wants.
It’s a machine way of writing art and results in machine art, with no room for difference, much less the creativity of new ideas. Is this process good for American literature? Writers are giving the system and its priests and acolytes—the nomenklatura-- what it wants but they’re not producing what the public wants. The public lives outside the literary machine, and doesn’t know the values and codes of the particular bureaucracy that’s been put in place.
More thoughts on this upcoming: “Dropping Chandeliers.”
Monday, November 08, 2010
Pop Fiction Isn't Genre Fiction
I was reminded of this while reading a Patricia D. Cornwall detective novel from 1990, "Postmortem," via a paperback picked up in a fifty-cent bin.
Ms. Cornwall from the start is striving to be literary; "serious"; through too much detail from the start, as well as a couple excrutiatingly bad sub-plots, involving a niece and a boyfriend, both of whom as characters are, at best, unlikable.
The novel can be better. There's a way to do it. It's what a handful of writers in this country are working toward.
Tuesday, November 02, 2010
“The Big Boy Saga” Continues
NOW UP! at
Part Two of The Big Boy Saga-- “The Green Club.”
Plot threads are being laid down.
Can anyone challenge the Fake Face gang—and live?
Friday, October 29, 2010
New Look Blog
Dare you write and submit a pop story? Take the dare. This blog is no more or less read than a thousand other lit sites. The difference is that this blog represents the future of literature. YOU have the opportunity to get ahead of the pack. Place the bet.
The Illusion of Success
Meanwhile, as this takes place, a tiny well-connected clique gobble up the largesse, grants, advances, awards, and publicity which truly are important in deciding the direction of literary culture in this country.
Everyone is happy.
Wednesday, October 27, 2010
A Crisis Moment
See the Philly Zeen post,
The World Series begins tonight, and he’s not there. If anyone has suggestions about how to get the Phanatic out of his funk, please post them at Philly Zeen. This is important! Thanks.
Tuesday, October 26, 2010
More About MFA Programs
ANIS SHIVANI ARTICLE
Here's an article about MFA programs which dissects them thoroughly and well:
Where was Anis Shivani when the Underground Literary Alliance was presenting an alternative to the MFA system? The ULA was staging the revolutionary performance lit readings that Shivani asks for. It was a great-- and recent!-- history that was ruthlessly put down and is now completely ignored.
Do you want change, folks? Or not?
(Hat tip to Frank M. for letting me know about this article.)
Monday, October 25, 2010
A Tale of Two Marionettes
THE STORY OF TOE AND NOE
This is not the story of Pinocchio, which was how a puppet became a boy. This is a more tragic tale-- of how a boy became a puppet.
Toe isn't the main character of the story. He's not even the villain-- for of course the Puppetmaster pulling the strings behind the scenes is the villain.
Toe is only a marionette puppet. He was always a puppet, from the moment the Puppetmaster picked him out at the Puppet store, on sale, with big letters attached shouting out, "BUY ME!" Believe me, if the Puppetmaster hadn't got him for a bargain basement price he wouldn't have bothered. Toe was a garish-looking, untutored and unsmooth simple-minded puppet. The puppet's only possible appeal was its own brazenness.
Toe knew he was a flawed puppet, of inferior production and stock, and so needed a way to become useful to his master. Otherwise he'd be left forever backstage in his puppet box!
How to be useful?
A light went on inside his wooden head. He would help destroy the NPA, aka the No Puppets Alliance! This, back in 2005 or thereabouts, was how and why he maneuvered himself to meet Noe, who at the time was not a puppet at all.
Toe whispered in Noe's ear about how wonderful it was to be part of the Puppetmaster's traveling caravan, along with flashy other puppets such as Boe Boe, who was soon to run the new All Puppets All the Time APTML blog. (Unlike Toe, Boe Boe was one of the favored marionettes, and so didn't have to work so hard at all. His woodenheadedness was never an issue.)
See the colorful favored ones! Toe said to Noe. See how well they're treated! They're not independent. All is provided for!
Unknown to Noe, the Puppetmaster had already infiltrated two of his older falling apart and desperate to be useful puppets into the NPA, namely Hoe and Foe. Hoe and Foe whispered into Noe's ear about the wonderfulness of puppetry. Look at the wonderful examples! On display at this time was the most favored puppet of them all-- carrying somewhat of a resemblance to writer Jon Franzen, if truth be told, but with puppet eyeglasses which weren't stolen. Become a puppet, and you also can roll in money and puppet awards.
Sad to say, young Noe made the jump. He lost his independence. He didn't know that once you make the transformation, there's no turning back. Now sad Noe sits backstage gathering dust in a puppet box, all but forgotten. Despite his lack of a heart or a brain, Toe truly feels sad about what he did to Noe, and so will occasionally stop by after a performance to say Hello! And every once in a while-- coincidentally when the now-dissolved No Puppets Alliance shows signs of the weakest life-- Noe is allowed to prance onstage with the more favored, gleaming marionettes, to calliope music, if only for a moment.
Friday, October 22, 2010
Now Up!: New Blog Posts
FINALLY at long last a new story at the American Pop Lit home of new pop literature blog—“”Fake Face versus Big Boy”—Part One of the Big Boy Saga, an exciting mini-novel.
Fake Face is of course a duplicitous and evil character in the fictional but not-so fictional city of Killtown, who was introduced in two previous stories on the blog. Now he’s back! With a formidable new antagonist.
ALSO: A brand new post at my exclusive restricted-access marketing blog, for serious lit-biz people, a few remarks about social media, in a post titled, “Social Media.” And other new insights.
Access is easy—you must ask to be invited.
Thursday, October 21, 2010
Let's Go Phillies
Originally uploaded by King Wenclas
Monday, October 18, 2010
Renewing American Culture
The balkanization of American culture now being implemented is a strategy of weakness. The past idea was that there was one American culture made up of an amalgam of our society’s many influences. “Out of Many, One.” The rock n roll explosion in the 1950’s, for instance, came about through the melding of roots music’s many diverse influences. Chuck Berry’s first hit, “Maybelline,” was a reworking of a country tune. Cowboy singer Bill Haley began singing rhythmn and blues. The idea was always to create an art which would reach the entire market. This was the goal of Berry Gordy Jr. when he created Motown with the slogan, “The Sound of Young America.” Create an American literature with this ethos and the balkanized mainstream brand which truly reaches no one will quickly fall apart.
Saturday, October 16, 2010
The Decline of American Culture
. . .AND THE DEATH OF ZINEDOM
Here’s the link to one of the forum discussions I started regarding Molly Norris:
Note that there’s more commitment to vague and childish notions of multiculturalism than to free expression in the zine community. Which is scary. From the 1970’s through the 90’s, zinesters were THE most radical defenders and promoters of uninhibited free speech in the nation.
What happened to them? Where are the anarchists? The punks? The Chomskyites? It’s as if all have been brainwashed. Multiculturalism is a globalist/imperialist ethos originally propagated by gigantic multi-national corporations whose commitment to their home base long ago became secondary. Now the ethos has woven its way through the political system, the educational system, to the bottom-most levels of the culture.
Where are the Zine World: A Reader’s Guide to the Underground Press editors and writers in the Molly Norris debate? For fifteen years this flagship publication has pushed the primacy of free speech at the beginning of every issue, particularly to young high school-age readers. For all we know, cartoonist Molly Norris may well have been one of those readers and imbibed from the zine free speech philosophy. Where are the Zine World writers and editors now?? It’s as if they themselves have gone into hiding.
As you’ll see if you click on the attached link, the We Make Zines forum has almost three thousand readers. Yet not a one of them was able to step forward and announce support for Molly Norris. How easily we abandon our most fundamental rights.
Thursday, October 14, 2010
See the story at
Is the mainstream media, which so backed the absolute incontrovertibility of this theory, covering this story? If not, will they?
Wednesday, October 13, 2010
No Martyrs for Free Speech
MORE SPORTS VS LIT
I see there's a big scandal in the sports world involving a sports agent. ESPN has freely covered the story, even though one of their own guys, Mel Kiper, is implicated by association. Mel Kiper engaged in no illegal actions, yet is on the hot seat. The fact is that sports, of all cultural realms, is way better at policing itself than the insular world of literature. In lit, everything is silenced.
I've called big names like Jonathan Franzen corrupt and still call them corrupt. I've gone after questionable acts by the well-connected big money-backed likes of Paris Review, PEN, and National Endowment for the Arts. Throughout, many law firms have read this blog, yet I've received not so much as a single letter from one of them about what I've written. You know why? Because IT'S ALL TRUE.
Meanwhile, other writers, except a handful, across the board, have remained silent about corruption, even when it hurts themselves. It no longer surprises me, just as it didn't surprise me when I encountered the same kind of reaction regarding the Molly Norris matter.
MORE MOLLY NORRIS
Molly's idea to have a Draw Muhammed Day was naive. Her idea was that if ten thousand, or a million, or 300 million Americans were to join in, it'd be impossible for extremist anti-free speech blackmailer fanatics to issue fatwas. They'd have to kill everyone. What Molly didn't bank on was the gutlessness of the American public-- particularly of writers and artists.
The Islamists well sense this gutlessness. They're encouraged by cowardice. It's a chief motivating factor behind their behavior. They believe America is a corrupt, decadent, weakening civilization. They know there will not be martyrs for free speech-- that we don't believe in our own principles enough to die for them and they're aware that we scarcely anymore believe in anything.
Monday, October 11, 2010
Free Molly Norris
This is a sad story:
What happened to free speech?
Friday, October 08, 2010
Static or Dynamic?
THE HARDEST THING
The hardest thing for people to accept is that we don’t live in a static world. We want things to stay as they are—but that’s not the nature of life! One advantage I have from having lived many years in Detroit is having the truth of change pounded into me as I watched the destruction of my world. What were we told as the city declined, jobs vanished, our world collapsed? “Change or die!”
In every aspect of life we see death and renewal. We see continual change. Those who’ve sought to maintain a static economy, for instance, have been destroyed with that economy. As historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote, by 1980 the Soviet Union had constructed the best late-19th century economy on the planet.
One has to understand that the world consists of constant upheaval.
Today people are thrown by “climate change.” There always is climate change. There’s always been.
Art in particular—the leading edge of culture—has through history progressed by creative destruction. Destroy the old to create the new. Those who fail to recognize this are themselves destroyed. Witness classical music. Symphonies are in trouble across the country. In every way, from financing to styles to instrumentation, they’re unable to compete. Their model no longer works. Protecting that model from competition has made things worse. True innovation—revolutionary upheaval—hasn’t occurred. It hasn’t been allowed to occur. Or, it occurred—outside the system’s walls.
The same situation applies to literature.
Wednesday, October 06, 2010
The ULA Story
I mark the brief literary rebellion as analagous to the 1905 rebellion in Czarist Russia. In similar fashion, the ULA campaign faced enormous hostility, and was soon enough put into place. Its leaders were effectively silenced, despite the brief noise they made.
My mistake was in not realizing that revolution-- even cultural revolution-- can't be sparked from below.
A study of history instead shows that revolutions, from 1789 to 1917 to even the toppling of the Soviet Union, are in fact, at least in the initial stages, coups. Both the French king and Russian czar in their respective situations decapitated themselves, abdicating because they lacked the will to fight. They were uncertain Montezumas who didn't believe in themselves or their station. Actual revolution occurred as a result of their actions, could take place only because there was no head; no direction for the herd to follow, and so the animals went into panic.
Why do I still believe something similar can occur in the American literary world?
Because the institutions of the aristocrats are crumbling. When the props of the system, like The New Yorker and the New York Times, go under-- and they will go under-- then all will be up for grabs. The current leaders of the scene will abdicate. The book publishing machine will go on, but the front of artistic justification will be gone.
What of the aristos? I've studied these people. I've watched them up close; their special in-bred caste. They're not very sharp, and are burdened with a kind of complacent inertia, a mental lethargy in the presence of new ideas.
The ULA itself sits unmoving like a car on a white-trash lawn or driveway, hood up, engine gone. I have no idea whether it'd be worth it to try to repair and restore the damaged thing-- or if an entirely new and vastly better vehicle should be created.
Tuesday, October 05, 2010
Change the Model
I’VE SHOWN that the current model of American literature is broken and corrupt. It doesn’t fit the needs of society or the art. That the enormous moldy and bureaucratized system can on occasion by straining every aspect of its crumbling empire create a modest success shouldn’t blind us to its overall failure. The success doesn’t justify the gigantic resources put into it. If there were any real competition to things-as-they-are, the failure would be shown in stark contrast.
Literature needs a new model, a new vehicle, new kinds of art exciting and striking enough to attract the public. It needs writers with the vision to leave the herd behind and set out on a daring and uncertain path. Great achievements await at the end of that path. Writers first need to scrap their moldy indoctrinated assumptions about literature and art. They’ve blindly bought everything they’ve been told by their teachers but what they’ve been told, what everyone’s been told about lit the last few decades, has been wrong.
Friday, October 01, 2010
I'll be reading some poetry this Sunday October 3 as part of the Mad Poets Festival in downtown Media. See
I'm scheduled to go on at 2:15. I'll be on for five minutes, which is enough, as long as any poet should be allowed to read. I hope to surprise, enlighten, and entertain while I'm at the podium.
I'll also be taking notes, possibly taking a snapshot or two and doing a mini-interview or two for my new blog. (See below.)
NEW BLOG POST
I have a new blog post up at my "private" blog at
The subject of the post is radio and what might be learned from a particular show.
I have a new Philly blog at
part of new experiments I'm running. We'll see how this one goes!
Thursday, September 30, 2010
Wimpiest Writer in America
Who's the wimpiest writer in America?
At the moment I'd give David Sedaris that designation, though there must be other candidates. (John Hodgman comes to mind.)
A security guard at an airport asked Sedaris to remove his vest, and he became out of sorts. Oh my! Hand-wringing. Such a traumatic experience. She was so mean! "I'm going to turn her into a rabbit," he proudly exclaims now after the terrible encounter, referring to his new book of un-fabled animal fables. What would the guy do if he were in a real confrontation? I hesitate to think about it.
John Hodgman reminds me more of the original wimp, namely, Wimpy from the Popeye cartoons. I can see Hodgman cornering people in alleyways, saying, "I'll gladly pay you on Tuesday for a hamburger today!"
Jonathan Franzen surely needs to up there on the list somewhere. Who else?
Yes, sixty years ago there were likely too many macho Hemingway-wannabe writers around, but the pendulum certainly has swung too far the other way. This for an art, American literature, that traditionally distinguished itself by its vigorous characters, settings, and sounds.
Say what you will about the Underground Literary Alliance, but it sought to get back to American roots writing by promoting some of the more vigorous writers around, notably, Wild Bill Blackolive. Our women writers, from the print underground, were tougher than most of today's men. Even our trannies were tough!
We lost. The wimps and fakirs of American letters continue to occupy first place. Such is literature's sad state. (Never fear: the foppish aristocrats will soon enough go by the wayside.)
New Planet Found
Wednesday, September 29, 2010
Tuesday, September 28, 2010
Lit at NPR
I seldom listen to NPR radio. It’s on the order of the BBC World News: the Imperialist viewpoint. This morning, though, I listened to the local station, WHYY, on and off, flipping back and forth to an AM sports station.
NPR, frankly, is bad radio. It has tepid bumper music interspersed between announcers who sound like they grew up in uptight WASP households where no one was allowed to raise their voice. They’re every moment being careful not to too much raise their voices. Evenly modulated.
There was a smidgen of local and national news, a promo for a discussion about the “Fundamentalist threat to democracy” (I suspect they weren’t referring to Islam), then a story from Pakistan. I went back to sports. When I returned to NPR a reporter from Moscow with an upper-class Brit accent was talking about the political situation in Russia. I went back to sports. Then, a bit later, I gave NPR another shot.
The announcer was interviewing a woman writer about what seemed to be a children’s book. At least, it was about fables. The author stressed that there were no morals in these fables, the gist being that concepts of good-and-bad or learning something useful were outdated. The woman used an example of what not-to-do, feeling good about yourself if you were well. Presumably no should feel good, especially if it’s to the detriment of others. We’re all the same, ya know, even if we’re not. The new kind of fables sounded horrible. She added that she didn’t think much of plot.
At the end of the interview the interviewer gave the woman writer’s name: David Sedaris. I’d been faked out. I flipped back to sports.
(See the link at www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=130143871 )
Sunday, September 26, 2010
It’s a Hoax, Right?
IF Jonathan Franzen indeed used any of his ill-gotten 2002 NEA grant money on the writing of his novel Freedom, American taxpayers should ask for their money back.
I didn’t read the novel—it’s too expensive. I did stand in a chain bookstore for more than thirty minutes yesterday perusing a few chunks of it. I wanted to see if I was being fair to the book’s author. Maybe he’d surprise me. He did. The book is worse than I expected. The effect is like being promised a full course dinner, then when the cover to the silver platter on the dinner table is lifted you’re presented with a single pea.
I was looking for ideas. A book presented as a great novel should contain deep, sweeping, or striking ideas. The ideas in Freedom are so ridiculous that for a moment I wondered if I was being put on. I asked myself whether the work was a parody of a great novel. I considered whether the hyper-promotion accompanying the book’s publication was a giant hoax, like the hysteria of manmade global warming theory but on an only slightly smaller scale.
The problem isn’t merely that the discussions about issues are superficial and sophomoric, or that the issues are highly questionable—overpopulation, and the destruction of birds by cats!?! The issues are dramatically unexciting. They impinge only tangentially on the lives of the characters—or so it appears in my quick reading—and are hardly necessary for creating narrative drive. They’re not compelling issues, are they?
Polemics in a novel can be a good thing but only if the polemics are used properly. Ayn Rand is nothing but polemics and the polemics are on every page, necessary for the very existence of the work, the issues an intrinsic part of the characters’ lives, and so her novels burst with energy. In Frank Norris’s The Octopus, a truly great novel, the issue for the ranchers involved is one of their very survival. They also connect with the larger theme of colliding economic forces which toss human beings to the side. The speeches in the book are compelled by the story.
In contrast, the discussions in Freedom come across as a bunch of comfortable rich people talking. Cats killing birds isn’t quite a life-and-death matter. It’s more on the order of rich-guy-is-bored-with-his-life kind of thing, so again, perhaps the book is satire, and maybe I should give it a full reading, if the book for a moment appeared interesting enough for a full reading.
Where ideas in literature are concerned, we’ve come a long way from Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, haven’t we? Maybe the educated class killing off God wasn’t such a good idea.
I have no doubt that some people in our society actually hold ideas as portrayed in Freedom. As I mention in the post below this one, Franzen’s novel resembles By Love Possessed by James Gould Cozzens with its WASPy main character filled with cranky upper-class paranoia about the changing world. In Franzen’s case the paranoia is about too many poor people having too many babies—and their accompanying population of cats!
It’s to laugh, it’s to laugh.
Friday, September 24, 2010
Why Jonathan Franzen Can't Be a Great American Novelist
The difference between Cozzens then, and Franzen today, is that James Gould Cozzens had already written a great novel, Guard of Honor, about the politics and personalities on a U.S. Air Force base during World War II.
What should we expect from a Great American Novel? Surely that its underlying theme be America itself; that the artwork display a knowledge of how this great civilization we're privileged to live in operates. America is the mightiest civilization in human history. How did it become that? What makes it that? These are questions which need to be asked and answered.
American power, wealth, and influence come from the attitude of those who've led America and those who've worked for it on its many levels. They come from American ability at organization. This gave America its ability to outproduce any society that's been known, gave the nation its unstoppable power. We've been the better developed bee hive.
Guard of Honor is one of the few novels written about America which implicitly understood this. America's story is a story of work. It's about bureaucracy, which so dominates our activities and our thoughts. Cozzens, in using the Air Force as his focus, gets to the heart of the creation of American empire. He wrote at the dawn of that empire. Its last scene, of a General and his aide watching a mighty "flying fortress" rising into the nighttime air, expresses that sudden role. The Air Force has been the major expression of American influence the past 70 years. It has bombed countries at will, unopposed, to enforce Pax Americana. It delivered in 1945 the atomic bomb upon the world.
Before the war Cozzens had been, like Franzen, virtually a hermit-- though as far as I know he never watched birds! The war brought out more of Cozzens' talents, putting his creative and analytical mind to use.
Cozzens served in the USAAF Office of Information Services. "One of his functions was in controlling news, and it became Cozzens' job to defuse situations potentially embarrassing to the Chief of the Army Air Forces, Gen. Henry H. Arnold. In the course of his job he became arguably the best informed officer of any rank and service in the nation, a major by the end of the war."
Cozzens was yanked from his complacent station and thrust into the middle of the System's most active and cutting edge service. He was given several hectic years observing the hive and its workers and leaders up close-- then put that experience into a book. He knew his subject as thoroughly as Herman Melville knew whaling and ships.
There've been few great American novels because the novelist needs to be more than a writer. He needs to be both extrovert and introvert to create such a thing, to use both sides of his brain, the practical and the artistic. Scott Fitzgerald came close with "Gatsby" in portraying a different kind of American from Cozzens' Air Force officers. He was portraying a different era of American history, that of the freebooting roughnecked business pioneer, the dreams of empire and success. Cozzens wrote about the realization of the dream on a massive scale. Fitzgerald might have written a great novel with his last book, had he lived longer. He was writing about an industry from the inside-- an industry whose function was the creation of dreams. But he didn't live long enough.
Being from the more affluent parts of a society need not be a handicap to understanding that society. Properly utilized, it might be a benefit. In the 19th century aristocrats were involved in running society at the highest levels. Many put the insights and experiences gained to use in their works.
The Great American Novelist, should such an animal truly come our way, would have to at some point in his life be truly involved in the muck and fire of the Machine, amid its gears, feeling its furnace heat, hearing up close its chaotic clashing gear noise. It's not something which can be gained by watching birds in a backyard or by viewing media events on TV.
Thursday, September 23, 2010
Power of the Machine
In contemporary America, being “educated” in the liberal arts doesn’t mean having much knowledge of history and economics, along with an understanding of the philosophical foundations of our (Western) civilization. It means instead being indoctrinated into the codes, mores, and pet theories of the Machine. Being a literary intellectual means reading The New Yorker and The Believer and listening to “This American Life” on NPR.
The Machine in the person of individuals like Lev Grossman at Time magazine is full of its own power. After all, they almost single-handedly created Obama and with him defeated the then-strongest political brand, Clinton. Creating the “Great American Novelist” in the public’s mind in comparison is child’s play. Upper-class author Jonathan Franzen is the Great American Novelist because the Machine says he is. In today’s society, nothing else is required. And anyway, his novel “Freedom” looks like a great novel. It’s big enough. Inside there’s a facsimile of what a great novel should be like. A lot of chapters and people. The book will sit on many thousands of bourgie coffee tables, read or unread. If the buyers of the impressive product ever thought about it—they won’t—they’d wonder why they bought it.
THE UNHOLY ALLIANCE
The Machine in its literary manifestation is more than a combination of academia and giant media conglomerates, in which freshly indoctrinated secular priests from elite universities are shuttled into the corridors of decision-making power at the book giants. In on the action are entities such as nonprofit media like NPR, and even the federal government, which pose as alternative but are anything but. And so, Terry Gross interviews the Machine’s Jonathan Franzens, adding to the buzz. The National Endowment for the Arts gives its limited largesse to Machine writers—as it gave money to Franzen at the occasion of his first big media-hype splash in 2002. They’ll be celebrating Jonathan Franzen the anointed Great American Novelist in their Pavilion in Washington D.C. this Saturday—an appropriate city to do so if you think about it. (You won’t.)
SLAVERY IS FREEDOM
The most important, revealing, and duplicitous television commercial of all time was the famous “Big Brother” ad for Apple which aired only once during a Super Bowl in 1984. What it was telling viewers was the opposite of what it was actually doing. What it was doing, on the prime vehicle for media reach, TV, was encouraging the public to buy products that would further increase the amount of artificial electronic noise surrounding and going into their minds. That’s why it aired—an early step in the process of having people buy Apple (or some brand) everything: pc’s Iphones Ipods Ipads etc etc etc. Electronic media: devices to deliver messages from the Machine. AT THE SAME TIME the commercial was telling the future buyer that by doing so he/she was asserting his/her freedom. Completely Orwellian. We see today our intellectuals asserting their intellectual independence by consuming the Machine’s “alternative” media, like reading The Believer and listening to “This American Life,” or buying the Great American Novelist’s book “Freedom.”
WRITERS IN THE TOTALITARIAN AGE
When one looks at or encounters the new generation of writers, one finds them congenitally incapable of questioning anything. Read their main sites like HTML Giant and you’ll see there a combination of relentless trivia, sillyness, and babytalk. They’re like pet turtles or hamsters kept in a shoe box, never having been trained to look outside the box.
Tuesday, September 21, 2010
Members of the Club
At the National Endowment for the Arts Pavilion this Saturday in D.C. you'll encounter not just grant scammer Jonathan Franzen, but a collection of other bonded and branded literary Insiders. Most of the names are Insider's Insiders like Thomas Mallon, Gail Godwin, Elizabeth Alexander, and Jane Smiley. Even the younger, less well-known writers who'll be appearing with Franzen are fully members of the approved Club.
I looked at two of them. Natasha Trethewey is an African-American symbol of diversity. Yet even she is the typical well-educated System person put forward as representative of contemporary literature. Trethewey received her Masters at Hollins, "where her father is a professor of English."
Allegra Goodman's father taught philosophy at the University of Hawaii, where her mother taught biology, directed the Womens Studies program, and served as Vice President for Academic Affairs. Her mother then became the first woman Dean of Arts and Sciences at Vanderbilt while her father accepted a position in Vanderbilt's philosophy department.
What's the point?
A.) These writers well know how to access the System. Again, as I've been discussing on this blog, it's about the literary bureaucracy.
B.) The minds of these two writers grew up within the System and have never left it. Can we expect them to be able to think outside that System? Can we believe they know much of anything about what average Americans are going through right now?
All of these showcased writers live within comfortable bubbles. They represent monothink: the point of view of the liberal privileged, which means, for the literary art, the same-old same-old that's been shoved at us the last forty years or more. This is Tops-Down literature, imposed from above. I don't know who these writers think they'll be speaking to on Saturday, but it's not Americans as a whole. You can believe that they'll be speaking to simply more comfortable people-- mirror images of themselves.
Yet it should be the job of the WRITER, if anyone, to truly and honestly know his country, the pains and dilemmas and heartaches of those who inhabit it. America is a vast place. A huge nation. We need voices who represent more than a tiny sliver of it. We need organic literature, not imposed from parasitic out-of-touch bureaucracies like the National Endowment for the Arts, but coming from the ground up, from the American people themselves. This was what the DIY zeen revolution of ten years ago was about, attempting to bring authentic roots writers to the forefront. We've already had enough preciously privileged rich guy Jonathan Franzens, thank you.
Monday, September 20, 2010
Letter to NEA Chairman
Directly below is a copy of a letter I emailed to Rocco Landesman, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, regarding Mr. Franzen’s appearance at this Saturday’s National Book Festival on the mall in Washington D.C. I’ve also sent a copy of the letter to the department at the Library of Congress overseeing the festival. I await a response.
To Rocco Landesman, Chairman, National Endowment for the Arts
Isn't it a scandal that in this time of huge federal deficits, with accompanying public outrage, the NEA is celebrating author Jonathan Franzen as part of the National Book Festival this Saturday, without asking him to return his ill-gotten 2002 NEA grant??
It was a mini-scandal at the time, but seems to have been conveniently forgotten, dropped down the memory hole.
See the posts and links at
A few starving writers and burdened taxpayers were outraged then, that a millionaire writer was awarded public money he didn't need, and which he stated wouldn't be used for the intended purpose.
We should all still be outraged.
NEA Embraces Corruption?
Could the timing possibly be worse? The federal government is broke to the max, trillions in debt, millions of tea partiers are expressing outrage, and in the midst of it, the NEA throws a swanky celebration centered, in part, on a major lit-corruption poster boy. Are they insane? Where's Marie Antoinette? Or Nero with his fiddle? Can anyone BUT conclude that the whole gang needs to be run out of town as quickly as possible?
Saturday, September 18, 2010
WANTED: For Defrauding the Public
CURRENT POSTER CHILD OF LITERARY CORRUPTION
See the story at http://mobylives.com/Franzen_NEA.html
Let this privileged author give back the 2002 NEA grant now! There can no longer be any excuse. Follow the example of football player Reggie Bush, Mr. Franzen, who gave back his Heisman award. Can a millionaire writer do less than a millionaire sports star?
(We have to hit Franzen’s little-seen conscience while he’s flush with bucks.)
Friday, September 17, 2010
The Corruption Enablers
Here are a few of the journalists who did major stories on Jonathan Franzen recently without mentioning his egregious 2002 NEA grant problem:
David Ulin, L.A. Times
Jocelyn McClurg, USA Today
Lev Grossman, Time Magazine
Jennie Yabroff, Newsweek
John Barber, Toronto Globe and Mail
William Skidelsky, The Guardian (UK)
Given the amount of press attention Mr. Franzen is receiving, I could name many others. The question is why the established media are ignoring this aspect of Franzen's public history, when any cursory examination should come up with the information. It's at least as relevant to the matter of Jonathan Franzen as the overblown Oprah carnival. In fact, the NEA scandal gets to the heart of how the American literary world operates. I'll speculate that these distinguished alleged journalists are more in the nature of well-presented shills whose actual purpose is to sell products. The NEA story might damage the Franzen product in a way the Oprah silliness never could. There's nothing wrong at all with sales, with ballyhoo, with carnival barkers in straw hats and colorfully striped shirts. These "journalists" writing glorified p.r. releases should simply be up front about what they are.
(Now that Franzen is rolling in the bucks, is it too much to ask for him to pay back to the broke federal government that ill-gotten NEA grant?)
Thursday, September 16, 2010
Lit versus Sports
Witness star millionaire football player Reggie Bush having to give his Heisman Trophy back.
Yet when will star millionaire writers like Jonathan Franzen return their ill-gotten awards?
Note that with all the many articles about Jonathan Franzen in recent weeks, not one, that I know of, has mentioned his accepting an NEA grant in 2002-- taxpayer money intended to allow struggling writers the ability to write. See the link at
Mainstream media have focused on superficial media events like Franzen's minor dispute with Oprah, yet have studiously and curiously ignored real-world literary corruption involving the dude.
Why is this, do you think? Any idea?
Wednesday, September 15, 2010
Collapse of the Status Quo
THREE NEWS ITEMS
First is the smashing victory of outsider Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell over Mike Castle and the Republican Party Establishment in Delaware. The media, of course, continues to see the current political upheaval solely in terms of their Column A Column B acceptable choices, when the real message is American citizens taking back their democracy.
Second, we have the Peter Dobrin article in yesterday's Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper about the ongoing collapse of the Philadelphia Orchestra. The story is accessible here--
Writers please note: Literature has been following the embed-yourself-in-the-academy classical music model when it doesn’t have to. It’s a failed strategy. Classical music, by the nature of the art, has no choice. Writers do.
Mr. Dobrin could take note of the third story—today’s announcement that the Philadelphia Inquirer, along with the Philadelphia Daily News, has been put back on the auction block. Physician, heal thyself!
Tuesday, September 14, 2010
Stepping Outside the Box
I heard a commercial on radio this morning which mocked the supposed dullness of opera. At its best, opera is an amazing, wonderful art-- but its branding, its image, has become so staid it turns off the general public. This is the situation literature is devolving toward. Being enclosed within the academy, not knowing how to create a truly exciting product, is part of that.
Those writers first to break away from the mindless pack will transform the business and the art.
Saturday, September 11, 2010
Breaking the Machine
Everybody hates the Machine. They hate the Machine in all its manifestations. We'll see this with the elections in two months. If the State tries to draw too much power unto itself, people eventually rebel against it.
The current literary system is becoming an extreme version of the Machine. It resembles one of those East European countries during the Soviet era, when the bureaucrats walked around with chests full of medals announcing their importance. Note today's literary writers, how their bios are an endless list of credits, this degree or that one; listings of publication in unread publications; most important of all, the various grants and awards signalling arrival within the System as a true Insider. The credits have replaced the art. No one cares, really, about the art, not to mention the art's connection with the living culture of society. That's why you'll see no mention of American literature by the lead apparatchiks of the Machine. American literature? What's that? The System's purveyors and participants seek to obliterate all distinctions and any distinction among the actual writing. There's widespread conformity/competence, with occasional nods to approved "avant-garde" behavior, Surrealism, say, which was cutting edge a century ago and whose rebellious distinction was long ago absorbed by the Machine and has lost all meaning.
The only way for the writer today to stand out is to reject the Machine. To move outside the System's mental and physical boxes in order to reconnect the literary art with the mass of the people. To take literature out of its castles and kremlins-- its prisons-- away from its controlling Directors of Approved Conformity, to liberate it. It takes courage though, and imagination, to step away from the System's comfortable intellectual chains.
When the Soviet Union finally collapsed it happened swiftly. Seemingly overnight. The Party ID card which one day had been worth everything, the next day was worth nothing. All the conformist safety-seeking writers who were Party members or who had otherwise embraced the Soviet system, who'd failed to speak against it, were instantly discredited. All their credits and glittering phony medals meant nothing. No one wanted the fake dead art of these fake writers, and nobody wanted them.
There's a cautionary tale in there someplace.
Friday, September 10, 2010
This is certainly the case with writing programs, where consensus, within and without the workshop, is the chief criterion. It's why you see no real creativity in the art itself, but instead, more and more, the generic literary poem or short story, so generic as to be interchangeable.
This is the inevitable end product-- nay, the goal-- of the bureaucratic mentality.
One can dismiss my so-called rantings, which are anything but. I worked with bureaucracies, saw how they operate, up close, before I became a literary activist. I understand well the workings of systems, their objectives and results. It's easy enough to show how system thought harms the literary art.
Is the writing game consumed by the bureaucratic mentality?
All one need to do is read Seth Abramson's post at his blog--
to see what it's about. Study his language, which is a reflection of the way he thinks. This is writing? It's a classic example of the institutionual mindset. Seth could have a successful career writing inscrutable government regulations. You could study recent 2,000-page bills in Congress, or even anything from the defunct Soviet Union, and not find a more classic example of bureaucracy. The system subsumes all. The System ultimately becomes the intelligence at play. The Seths of the Machine are parts of it, whose job is to oil it sufficiently, to defend it, and so elevate their place within the Machine's hierarchy.
It didn't take much to bring out the totalitarian in our System person-- the Ultimate Apparatchik. Note his comments at his blog responding to my two comments. Abramson declares, authoritatively, my points inaccurate, says "we're done here," and ends the debate, before there was a debate, in so doing confirming my statement that dissent isn't tolerated.
Am I being too harsh on the guy?
Not from my viewpoint. Abramson's intent is to get all writers into MFA programs. He fails to show the artistic benefits to the writer, or to the product.
Groupthink is the inevitable result of the workshop process, in that anything potentially disturbing to the literary community is eliminated.
To prove the System's failure, all one need do is compare the massive investment in the writing art currently being made by this society-- demonstrably more, by far, than by any society in history-- with the meager return on the investment. To say, "All cultures have produced mediocrity" isn't good enough. Many have also produced writers of great genius, such as in ancient Athens, Elizabethan England, Nineteenth-century Russia, and on occasion in our own country, such as in the 1920's, when our literature was at a kind of Golden Age from which it's since been in gradual but steady decline, a decline accelerated by the advent of writing programs. The art, from its relative glory days, has been marginalized in this society. It doesn't even try to reach the mass of the people. It's not competing. Competing isn't in today's literary vocabulary.
Note how Totalitarians rely on Orwellian language to make their points. Slavery within a system becomes Freedom. Status Quo is portrayed as Revolution. Language itself is abused, which should concern all writers.
What of the brainwashed? Do they exist?
In legions. Look at the golly-gosh comment at Seth's blog, by Alice, which appears after Seth's reaction to mine. All is wonderful. The System is terrific. The eyes are blank. This is a person who long ago stopped questioning and thinking. An MFA degree? Some education!
Thursday, September 09, 2010
The MFA Defense
Seth Abramson, aforementioned “Ultimate Apparatchik,” has written a would-be defense of MFA programs for the faux-Lefty establishment web site The Huffington Post. See
His article is not so much a defense as an avoidance, in that much of what he says (not all of it) is irrelevant to the matter of MFA programs and why writers should join them, and what they’re really about.
Let’s examine Abramson’s six points, taking the first one last.
2.) He says that the programs are selective, that they don’t admit everyone. Well, fine, but this leaves unresolved two crucial issues. A.) They’re still creating a too-large of supply of would-be writers with no demand for them. The supply-demand problem leaves the writer— each of us—with little to no value in the culture, in the society, in the economy. Writing programs, in my opinion, continue to be dominated by bourgeois people with little to say but attracted to the role of “writer.” Any examination of the subjects and themes of their work shows this to be the case. B.) If not everyone is admitted to these programs, then who decides? What are the criteria? Abramson fails to see that the very existence of these programs establishes Gatekeepers. The reality is that prospective students know they’ll need to conform to the standards of the gatekeeper, whether a bureaucratic administrator who thinks in the kind of CONvoluted jargon which Abramson himself writes, or the Professor who’ll be teaching the course. This is the first step in the conformity process. Maybe Abramson does see this.
3.) He disputes the notion that writers are promised a book deal from entering the MFA program. There are two things to be said about this. A.) The edifice of the “Become-a-Writer” scam, which MFA programs are part of, gives the impression that publication is the outcome. Otherwise, what are all those articles in Poets and Writers, Writers Digest, Writers Markets, etc etc etc, about? Why do these magazines catering to the dreams of hapless bourgie folk exist? B.) Abramson needs to take the next step and admit that the edifice—the System; the Machine—if not an outright scam, is hardly necessary for the writer and the production of literature. He doesn’t anywhere attempt to show this. If there is no guaranteed “book deal” from MFA programs as Abramson says, or hardly the chance of one, then what’s the point?
(For a privileged few, of course, there is a point to them—if you’re in the right one. If you want to be MEANINGFULLY published, which means, by a major with publicity support, then there are a handful of elite programs which offer the opportunity of that—Bennington, Brown, Columbia; perhaps a few others. These can be determined by what colleges the elite pack of supported writers attended, from Bret Ellis, Susan Minot, Jay Mac from years past, to the overhyped hipster writers of now. This introduces other questions, such as who gets into those schools and programs; what are the criteria, and so on.)
4.) Abramson disputes the notion that “—you must attend an MFA program.” This begs the question: What is his advocacy for them about? Why devote the time and effort toward attaining that certification, when the writer could instead just write? WHY does the art need to be professionalized, its practitioners certified? He pretends not to see (he pretends not to see a lot) that with the explosion of writing programs, celebrated in his Poets and Writers article, it’s becoming more and more accepted that being a writer necessarily means having that certificate. If all lit editors have them, all their friends and colleagues, everyone they publish and see published, then writers without them are assumed to be unqualified, if not from another planet. THE ENTIRE HISTORY of the Underground Literary Alliance, and the hostile reaction to its very existence, testifies to that.
5.) Abramson dismisses the idea of choosing an MFA program based on its faculty. But for the cynically ambitious, this is the only reason for choosing a program. I’ve known and encountered enough ambitious writers who’ve been in elite programs, private reading groups, and the like, and their prime motivation for being in them is to make connections. Getting to pick up Jonathan Franzen, say, at the airport when he’s giving a talk at Iowa. Finding the right mentor—with access to meaningful publication—as happened to Jonathan Safran Foer by attending a class taught by Joyce Carol Oates. In the real world, making connections is what it’s about.
It comes down to the writer’s motivation. No doubt many students are hobbyists looking for little more than bourgie self-expression, looking for a nice little circle of like-minded folks to read and approve their unambitious works—a variation of Ladies Literary Societies of days past. These people are mere cannon fodder for the never-leave-the-academy Seth Abramsons of the intellectual world. They justify the teaching positions, giving jobs to those who already have MFA degrees. But then, like any Ponzi scheme, you need a fresh influx of students, always more and more, to keep the scheme operating.
1.) Which brings us to the first point of Seth’s, that many programs today are “funded.” Leave aside the matter of why hard-pressed universities would subsidize A.) hobbyists whose febrile solipsistic work is unneeded and frankly unwanted by the society-at-large; B.) the kind of ambitious affluent trust-funders who attend Ivy League colleges. Instead of, say, cancer research. Forget all that. We should know by now that “free” funding is not only a good thing for some writers, it’s a good thing for those like Seth who want to continually feed the writer supply, assuring teaching positions—and Poets and Writers or Huffington Post articles—for themselves.
6.) Have I missed a point? Ah yes. “Cookie-cutter writing.” It’s easy enough to show this is what’s being produced. Certainly nothing is being published from these programs WHICH CONNECTS WITH THE PUBLIC. Otherwise, the hundreds of university lit journals which publish MFA writers, almost exclusively now, wouldn’t be “non-profit”; i.e., begging for donations, on life support. It’s an insular process. No, there is no excitement in American literature because the writer Machine takes up all space, squeezing out everything else, and what the Machine produces isn’t exciting, and not even very good.
Wednesday, September 08, 2010
The Ultimate Apparatchik
Wow. Many years of elite education. He's made an enormous investment in the System (or his parents or the taxpayer has), and the System has made an enormous investment in him. Anyone think Abramson could for a moment buck said System? It's possible, but unlikely, for that would be to reject every fiber of his being: Years of indoctrination.
With such long and intense top-level training, one would expect his work to be at the apex of achievement.
Yet when one examines his poetry, one finds it to be not particularly bad, and not particularly good, but consistently mediocre. You'll look in vain for much evidence of his poetic education in the form of meter, rhyme, euphony, and striking imagery. No-- instead it's typical academy produce: bland prose with line breaks.
Even one of Abramson's admirers, Ron Silliman, admits it's post-poetic poetry. "We are moving away from poetry as literature. . . ." You know. Poetry without the poetry.
As with other apparatchiks, for Abramson the poetry itself is a means toward a bureaucratic end. The art produced is the necessary excuse for the institutional positions, classrooms, credentials, credits, awards, seminars, et.al. The art is the flimsy covering for the apparatus. Which is why it doesn't matter to the apparatchik if the art isn't very good.
The DIY Mindset
The issue, for the apparatchiks, is one of control. This is behind the impetus toward the professionalization of literature through certifications and university writing programs.
Yet literature should remain the most democratic art, open to and practiced by everybody. No barriers. No elitism. No certifications. No badges. No "one way" or approved way of creativity-- particularly as their way, the apparatus way, has shown itself to be a failed way. No mandarins regulating our words, keeping thought and passion in line.
The reason the ULA broke apart was that we were all staunch individualists, unable to harness ourselves to go in one direction, except temporarily.
Tuesday, September 07, 2010
Perhaps the most misguided individual of them all is Seth Abramson--
who writes about the rankings; rankings which despite his noise about transparency etc. act in practice at keeping the "writer" suckers involved.
-Abramson refers to MFA programs as artistic "patronage." Patronage? Who's paying whom? Writers are going heavily into debt, for what? Scroll down on Seth's blog a bit and you'll find a host of disclaimers about the programs. Among them, clearly, is the admission that the programs are a waste of time and money, unless the goal is nothing more than bourgie self-expression.
-Abramson refers to the MFA "revolution." Yet, nothing is being turned on its head. MFA programs are a continuing trend. There's nothing revolutionary about them. They encourage not rebellion or innovation, but the status quo. More of the same.
The result? The American short story, once a thriving, popular art, is all but dead, economically and artistically. (See my page about literary stories under "Fun Stuff," at the upper left part of this blog.)
I've found MFA writers to be incredibly gullible. My experience in half-a-dozen forays onto HTML Giant, for instance-- whose participants were thrown by the very idea that a writer WOULDN'T have an MFA-- is that MFAers, for the most part, think slowly, question nothing, and are unable to sustain an argument. A harsh assessment but an accurate one.
Sunday, September 05, 2010
I don't know if anyone reads my "premium" blog at
but I'll be posting some further thoughts on the situation of literature
Saturday, September 04, 2010
Thursday, September 02, 2010
An Easier Task?
A CLUE: DFW's main flaw as a writer is basic basic basic. It's obvious. It's right in front of you. Two pages into most of his work you should know it.
I'm not surprised that no one can defend, or even try to explain, David Foster Wallace's story. Literary people refuse to examine their premises, whether about the system they're part of, or the system's much lauded art. Look too closely and the charade falls apart like tissue paper. There's scarcely a trace of real thought or intelligence behind any of it. It's all fakery and posturing. Push its participants too hard and they devolve to Tao Lin-style babytalk. The situation of American literature has never been worse.
Tuesday, August 31, 2010
I’m still waiting for someone anyone to explain the David Foster Wallace story, “A New Examiner,” in the September Harpers magazine.
In the same issue, Insider novelist Jonathan Dee, another advocate of a dying art pontificating in an all-but-dead magazine, makes a statement to the effect of “A novel is a record of consciousness.” Here we have a clue to the problem. It’s a narrow way to treat what had once been a great art form. Dee makes the statement in an essay which discusses recently dead quack French novelist Robbe-Grillet. Anyone care to read DFW’s tale, all you DFW fans, and use it to expand on Jonathan Dee’s statement?
Tuesday, August 24, 2010
David Foster Wallace is the highest god of today’s literary world. In their September issue, Harpers magazine has published a story of his, “The New Examiner,” possibly an excerpt from a larger work. Apparently (Wallace was very prolific) they had a lot of manuscript to choose from, and this is what they came up with. I’ve invited an anonymous professor who’s been posting here to explain the story to us. I extend the Challenge to all of Wallace’s many fans. What makes the story so wonderful? What about the story qualifies its author as a genius? Why is this writer your model? What does that portend for literature?
Monday, August 23, 2010
The Literary Model
We have an example of what the literary world lauds in the September Harpers magazine, with a story by David Foster Wallace titled “The New Examiner.” This is their product. This is what they sell. How good is it?
It’s like going into an auto showroom and buying a vehicle with many piled-on extras but which doesn’t run.
Friday, August 20, 2010
The Pack Mentality
It took me a long while to realize what I was dealing with in my attempts to budge the literary mainstream. Winning arguments doesn’t work with them. I’ve won 95% of the arguments with established lit folk I’ve engaged in. During my days in the ULA, after we beat the Paris Review in debate at CBGB’s in 2001, they refused to engage us—except behind the scenes under false identities.
The established literary scene is a herd which judges works and writers based on their conformity to what’s already in place. The ONLY thing they respect is strength. The ULA made headway when we exhibited strength. The minute we moderated and relied on reason and argument, which was all on our side, we were no longer an unstoppable force and our fortunes declined.
The professor engaging me in the comments on the previous thread is upset because I don’t buy into his/her view of literature. I hold a different view. This is intolerable. I’m supposed to like THEIR books, to laud THEIR icons, to agree 100% with THEIR taste. They hold the cover of Time magazine—itself a relic—so they must be right. Yet the reality is that literary mandarins offer a distorted version of American literature not applicable to the times and the broader society. Their philosophical and aesthetic foundation is skewed, and so the castle of art they’ve built upon it is slanted and tottery. Their chief god, David Foster Wallace, had many strengths, sure, but his idiosyncratic work isn’t fit to lead an art form seeking to compete in this hectic society. That lit folks can’t immediately see this is a sign of the depth of the problem. But then, they believe only in what the herd tells them to believe.
Tuesday, August 17, 2010
"Time" in Trouble
We have Joel Stein writing a piece titled "Bring on the Elites!" Stein thinks America should be an aristocracy run by grads of Harvard and Yale, as it pretty much is now. He coyly admits this is how the intelligentsia sees the world. The admission and defense of elitism is in reaction to current populist noise. Elsewhere in the issue, James Poniewozik admits he's a liberal and hysterically feigns to be under hysterical attack. Last and least, in the issue's cover story, Lev Grossman proclaims novelist Jonathan Franzen, he of an ill-gotten NEA grant the same time he was making a million bucks, a populist. Franzen as populist is absurd. Well, he may be one within the tiny and very narrow world of establishment letters, but nowhere else. Jonathan Franzen is from, and writes exclusively about, the upper class. Though he's a self-designated Marxist, he knows nothing about working people. What he knows about America at all could be put into a thimble. If he's ever had a job in his life, it was decades ago. A populist! Say it as loud as you want, it doesn't work. The world of Time is on its way out.
Monday, August 16, 2010
Exchange with a Prof
THE most esteemed professor of film studies in America, Leo Braudy, the voice of the critical establishment on the topic, has already weighed in about the thesis of my new blog. Read his remarks at
My task is to make the argument for “El Cid” a living argument.
Friday, August 13, 2010
The El Cid Project
THE GREATEST MOVIE?
Yes, I have a new blog up. I'm not completely sure where I'm going with it. I just know that the classic 1961 movie "El Cid" is extremely relevant to the world situation, and so a blog about the movie is extremely timely.
I want the reader to proceed along an interesting block in a colorful neighborhood. The people and curiosities you see make up the experience. I also want to get you to the destination-- where a conclusion or surprise may await-- before the sun sets, the shops and saloons close, and the characters head inside to sleep.
The literary writer is preoccupied with each individual step. He pauses every few feet to engage in a flourish of breakdancing. This might be exciting once or twice, but soon enough becomes monotonous. Besides, he never sees anything outside his concern with his own stepping, and he never gets anyplace.
For the literary writer, as always, it's about himself.
Academic Film Criticism
Wednesday, August 11, 2010
The character Ferris Bueller in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” is very appealing. He’s also a kid who’s spent his life getting over on authority figures. One can see his future: banker on Wall Street or similar; a career of “getting over” on people and the world. Such persons often come, like Ferris, from affluent backgrounds. They’ve been indulged by well-meaning parents who’ve made them the center of the universe. Do we really think their focus will shift once they leave high school?
(Parenthetically, the Billionaire Boys Club which the ULA conflicted with is of this ilk. Though they’re the most indulged of writers—because they are- “Me, me, me, I, I, I,” remains their credo.)
The flip side to this is Joel McCrae’s aging lawman in “Ride the High Country.” He has nothing to show for a lifetime of work. The world has gotten over on him. His concern is his character—to be able to enter his house “justified.” For much of the film he’s a quaint, almost comical figure. Yet when crunch time hits, it’s to him that the two young people flee, not to the more engaging and larcenous character played by Randolph Scott.
Monday, August 09, 2010
Friday, August 06, 2010
The Hearse Ride
"I have to see this," a stage driver says. The townsmen don't know what will happen-- and neither do we! They're the audience. They're us. Afterward, the reaction of the salesman whose decency initiated the matter is perfectly genuine. Again, if we're not too jaded by having seen too many lesser movies, that's our reaction.
More important, the sequence establishes the character of Chris, and sets up the rest of the movie. Who is this guy? This "Cajun" is an atypical Western hero in that he's short, looks and talks different, is of uncertain ethnicity in an environment announced to us as blatantly racist. Why does Chris drive the hearse? For the hell of it? Or is something else going on within him, and within the movie?
Chris is the moral center of the movie. This is established in this early sequence and maintained throughout. Others are drawn to him because of his moral authority. He's a man of conscience. (Different but comparable to the Joel McCrae character in "Ride the High Country.") Chris is himself an underdog. Chico idolizes him for his demonstrated courage and ability. The three villagers see more in him. Not that he's a man of tolerance-- but that he's a man INtolerant of injustice.
Because Chris stood up against racist townfolk, he's a man they "can trust."
"The Magnificent Seven" is not quite the standard white-man-rescues-Third-World scenario, because the Seven, in different ways, are themselves underdogs.
Anyway, the hearse ride is a wonderful sequence; wonderful for its vigor, its conscience, its realistic humanity.