Friday, January 21, 2011

Being Honest

One of the major problems about American literature today is the refusal to be honest about it. By honest, I mean admitting that most writing today is very bad. It’s shit. You can’t compete unless you admit this fact, because otherwise you’re unprepared to rectify it. In the Underground Literary Alliance we were at least honest with our slogan, “Our Bad Writers Are Better Than Your Bad Writers.” Not a good slogan to run with, no. But it was essentially true. We were at least more interesting, and energetic, than the generic Franzens Lethems Lorrie Moores of the established bourgie literary world.

Try to get this point across to writers. Impossible! They’re all legends inside their own heads. There’s very little writing today that stands out, that in any way rocks. This applies across the gamut, from stories to poetry to novels; particularly in the first two genres. If a writer does show sparks of talent—think early Gaitskill—the system quickly enough strangles that talent as if it were an accidentally born baby in an abortion clinic.

Every writer in America produces his own vehicle with no thought to the audience, like producing an automobile with each of the four tires pointing in a different direction, misaligned axles, a dull gray paint job, and a motor that won’t start. They’re fit for the writer’s basement, but not to ever be sold. Curiously enough, the individualistically ugly cars all look similar.


Literary writers invariably inescapably disdain “the market.” Ugh! The market! Everything wrong with literature today, in their thinking, is “the market.”

What if other fields had this attitude? Fossilized Motors produces aforementioned automobiles unfit for driving anywhere. You point out the vehicle’s flaws. “The market!” they begin screaming. “Is all you care about the market?!”

An esteemed wrestling promoter—no, not Wred Fright—decides to present a proper wrestling card with “proper” wrestlers. No hype, no personalities, no masks, no caricatures. Not one of the contestants stands out. Two grapplers begin grappling in the proper, rule-followed mode. Which means getting one another in a regulated hold—and holding it for hours. “This is art,” the promoter complacently states. Meanwhile, in the arena behind him the audience escapes.


JeffOYB said...

In the Sixties it was common to ask about a new musician, artist or writer: "Does he have anything to say?"

This doesn't seem to be asked anymore.

Anonymous said...

Man, those were the days.

People said, like, so much back then.

It like freed the people.
It like stopped the war.
It like got Nixon out of office.
It like let people let it all hang out.
It was far freaking out.

Now it's just, I don't know, like, not, you know, the sixties and shit. Dig?

JeffOYB said...

You're mixing your snark.

So it's different now that it's the 'Teens?

Less need to have something to say?

(Last I checked there were 3 wars to stop.)

King Wenclas said...

Just as America is a wonderful ideal which has never been fully realized-- but we should never stop striving to realize it-- so also the Sixties stands to us today as more ideal than reality. I grew up disdaining that era, while living in its shadow.
Yet isn't this era incomparably worse?
We saw this when the ULA was ongoing, in the cowardice of writers, even when agreeing with us, in the face of a campaign against corruption or arguments for change.
We see this still, in the frequent failure of antagonists to stand up under a real identity. Jellyfish. Like this character. Even as the ULA is, for all intents and purposes, thoroughly dead.
What made the ULA unique was that we did stand up, fearlessly, to offer, briefly, a contrary viewpoint.
I have no desire to replay those arguments. Any future project I get involved in will steer away from such questions.
Yet i find it interesting how much fear still exists at even the hint of renewed literary rebellion; at the idea of the mere existence of contrary writers, anyplace.

Anonymous said...

Yea, and Bob Dylan, Andy Warhol, and Hunter Thompson stopped the war.

King Wenclas said...

Did Zola, Frank Norris, Jack London, Upton Sinclair, and others with something to say stop anything? That's not the gauge. The importance is being relevant to your day and age, and maybe, just possibly, planting the seeds for others down the line to change things.
If nothing else, that's what the Underground Literary Alliance accomplished. The ULA is a powerful idea. It's how the literati themselves treated us, even during the time of our greatest weakness in 2007. At the time I couldn't see that.
Invertebrates always fear change. They should fear it. Think of these formless lumps of nothingness, without character, and suddenly writers with backbones, walking upright, step into the literary cafe. It must surely be a shocking experience.

JeffOYB said...

It's pitiful for someone like Anonymous (who's that?) to suggest that artists didn't help the successful Vietnam anti-war movement. Or, that to matter their work would've somehow had to "stop" the war in some isolated, instant and literal way. Otherwise they're to be laughed at. It's just pitiful. It's snark at its weakest, most naked ugliness. The neat trick is what happens when the weak gang together to perpetuate weakness: they get a kind of strength that keeps the powerful in place. Let's see how our 3 current wars develop in the absence of any serious artistic objection. ...No high-impact art against them. ...No major anti-war movement. Endless war projected. Any connection?

JeffOYB said...

ps... Of course the remarks about freeing the people, etc., were meant to be snotty as well: but would the Civil Rights, Women's Rights, Gay Rights movements have succeeded without the contributions of literature, music, movies?

It's just so embarrassing to see snivelers discount the impact of art even as they undoubtedly are straining for -- or to keep -- sinecures in the defanged arts machine (hence the anonymity).

Mingla (formerly Anonymous) said...

Yes, they would have succeeded.

No, they're not to be laughed at. It's just that their "protest" work is ridiculously irrelevant.

Zola, Norris, Sinclair, and London were all journalists and their influence was journalistic, not artistic. Or do you simply conflate the two practices?

"The importance is being relevant to your day and age, and maybe, just possibly, planting the seeds for others down the line to change things." Well, JeffOYB doesn't agree. He says that there's an absence of opposition to the current three wars. And he's right -- so those seeds must have washed out of the ground at some point. He asks, "No high impact major anti-war movement...endless war projected...any connection?"

Why, no, personally I don't think there is any connection. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the demographic in which the most political and economic power currently resides is that Baby Boomer generation that supposedly was so committed to change and supposedly was inculcated with the values of the Protest Ethic, so to speak. But they're totally happy with the way things are. The equivalent of a protest song is the feel-good measure of electing an ineffectual, centrist democrat to the presidency who pretty much goes all the way down the line with the needs of the military industrial complex. Like Clinton, like Obama.

But you posited the connection, the onus is on you to prove it, not me.

"Civil Rights, Women's Rights, Gay Rights movements."

You mean like, To Kill A Mockingbird, In the Heat of the Night, The Defiant Ones, An Unmarried Woman, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, Longtime Companion, Philadelphia, The Boys in the Band? Yeah, they're all terrific, just terrific.

I'm not sniveling. I'm disagreeing. Moreover, I'm disagreeing with one of Wenclas's usual tautologies, which is that today's writing is bad because today's writing is bad. Why? Fill in blank with Wenclas's colorful simile du jour. Yeah! It's the lack of social commitment! What writers need to do is for some guy, some modest, well-intentioned, selfless guy, to identify all the right ways of thinking about things and then writers can just, you know, write along those lines. That's how all great artistic movements have occurred: a bunch of people coming up with a program and following it through. Wenclas, I know this is getting slightly afield of your obscure but quite parochial concerns, but are you familiar with the work of Clement Greenberg? He was sort of the King Wenclas of art criticism. He knew exactly what "the major problems about American painting today" were, and he devoted years of his career to codifying what was right. Well, it was fun while it lasted, and the best artists he supported managed to get out from under his ukases, but pretty much his way of thinking, and especially his dictatorial approach to what Artists Should Do, has been thoroughly discredited.

King Wenclas said...

And so?
I don't classify Frank Norris, say, as a journalist, but as the author of the greatest American novel. My standards for saying this likely don't agree with your standards, but I've articulated them on many occasions. For our society they're valid.
As for the rest of your sophistry, I've posted my arguments, my viewpoint, here and elsewhere, many times over. That literature's place in society is now less than, say, football, is indisputable. We can dispute the reasons for that, but we can't dispute that fact.
I've presented ONE possible solution for altering that fact. Jeff, myself, and several others, through the vehicle of the Underground Literary Alliance, sought to make that possibility a reality. That we got out there and worked toward that goal would be applauded, one would think, by those who present themselves as lovers of literature. We believed, in the same way that Jack London and others believed, that literature can and should reach all of the population. No, we weren't/aren't content to see it isolated among the genteel and the affluent. Not when the art can do so much more than that. It's an art that, at its best, can be powerfully moving. History has shown that literature more than anything else can change populations, societies, even entire civilizations. Think of the power of literature in its many forms, from the Iliad, to the Gospels-- powerfully moving narratives-- to the Koran, and other texts. One can include novels in this. Why not ask that literature move people again? Why not?
I've never sought to impose my ideas upon anybody. It's ridiculous to imply this-- unless you believe that merely presenting a contrary view, which was what the ULA did, is somehow dictatorial. Those who shut out all views other than their own are the real dictators.
But we've already been over this ground. . . .
You should really get over your fear of the ULA idea.

mingla said...

This is strictly ahistorical, Mr. Wenclas. All those "powerfully moving" texts remained untranslated from Greek for centuries and then untranslated from Latin for many more. The enacters of change who read them and possibly -- possibly! -- were influenced by them were among the ruling classes, although I would draw the line at depicting them as members of the garden party that your references to gentility and affluence invariably invoke.

Probably Aristotle was a greater influence on classical, medieval, and renaissance/enlightenment thinking than any poet, dramatist, or, later, novelist. Plato himself was deeply suspicious of art.

Anonymous said...

Bertolt Brecht's "In the Jungle of the Cities" was inspired by Upton Sinclair's "the Jungle."

It was one of the most advanced avant garde plays of its day, and it is still performed reverantly in Germany.

Sinclair taught Brecht that he could leave the rarified world of bourgeois "high culture" and write a hard-knuckled work about the filth, violence, and alienation of the city.

So Mingla's claim about Sinclair's influence not being "artistic" is hokum.

Mingla said...

No, it's not "hokum." Brecht's artistry is ratified here, not Sinclair's. To have been inspired by a work of nonfiction (or by reality) does not then endow the nonfiction (or reality) with "artistic" qualities.

King Wenclas said...

The problem I have with invertebrates like yourself, "Mingla," is in your smugly narrow definition of art. Art to you is what meets the needs of the well-trained literary person like: yourself. Talk about tautologies.
To me, Frank Norris exhibits great artistry in The Octopus in showing the currents sweeping through a civilization. He depicts many levels of society-- not just one-- and mixes his various plotlines together in the way a conductor orchestrates a symphony. Then he builds this to a shattering climax.
To me, if literature isn't reaching the soul of a nation, it's not doing it's job. Not easily accomplished-- but it's what must be strived for.
I don't know if you'll find such an idea in your textbook. Likely not. For a better explanation of what i'm talking about, of what literature at its best can accomplish, you can always consult Norris's own essays on the topic.

Mingla said...

I'll grant you Norris. I've read The Octopus. OK?

By "well-trained," I take it that you mean that I've read a lot of books and thought about them in isolation and in relation to each other. Yes, that's true. I think it would be difficult to describe to you what "meets my needs" because I think your preoccupations are not connected as much with literature per se as they are with something more sociological or activist in nature. That's fine, and to the extent that Norris' or Zola's or London's work engaged with current issues they were probably effective. But I don't think that the reason someone reads "A Piece of Steak" today is because of the concern it evinces for the economic conditions under which turn of the century London boxers had to endure. And I don't think the reason that your favorite villains are irrelevant is because they fail to sufficiently engage the great social issues of the day.

I didn't set out to define art, but it's really the pot calling the kettle black for you to call what you perceive as my preferences "narrow." Anyway, I don't think that's the "problem [you] have with invertebrates" like me. The problem you have is that you've already invented a little biography for me that casts me in a villainous role. Let's analyze it a little.

My name is in quotes and I'm an invertebrate. In Wenclas-code, this means that I'm a plant, from the establishment. Probably Handler or one of Moody's agents. Maybe Tom Bissell.

Now's your cue to say, "Why oh why are you so afraid of little me, a man with no connections, no influence, no power?"

What else? I am "well-trained." This of course means that I have attended an MFA program, am I right? Which, given the width and breadth of your frame of reference -- maybe a little bigger than the one you bring to your assumptions about me -- can mean only that I am a semiautomaton who parted with scores of thousands of dollars to have a preordained writing style, treating preordained subject matter, programmed into me. Correct?

Also, it provided me with a standardized "textbook" to which I can refer for all literary questions that arise, one that fails to assert that literature only does its job if it reaches the soul of the nation. It probably does, however, teach me to raise evasive questions like, "How can a Zola reach the soul of the nation when he's (a) dead, (b) not an American, and (c) reliant, in his dead foreign state, on some snooty "well-trained" translator to bring his words to "the nation" (i.e., America)?

It also teaches me to make picayune and obfuscatory observations like noting that to say that Frank Norris "exhibits great artistry...showing currents sweeping through a mixing plotlines together the way a conductor orchestrates a symphony...building to a shattering climax" is not literary criticism or perceptive appreciation. It's not even good book report writing. It's just hyperbolic enthusing.

Oh well. Time to divide mitotically.

King Wenclas said...

Quite an analysis. Dare I say that you make a lot of assumptions about my assumptions!
Your minute study of my blog post is enough evidence to declare you "well-trained." We need make no more assumptions about my words than that.
We clearly have different understandings about what literature is and what it can, and should, achieve.
For instance, what do you mean by "literature per se"? Literature divorced from the world? An abstract entity floating in the sky? Do you mean Richard Kostelanetz random words on a page? Words of nonsense? Garbled collections of letters? How far do you go?
I believe that literature has a context in the world we live in. Works which delve into that world, as The Octopus does, stand to me as greater (larger; more meaningful) examples of literature than, say, the so-called neurological novel which searches solipsistically inside the writer's head.
Which kind of novel is more narrow?
Can't you tell?
You're so encased within your exclusive viewpoint that you dismiss an alternate way of viewing literature as not literary criticism.
Why not?
Are the words not put together well enough for you?
Is literary criticism poetry?
Or is what's most important what the words are saying?
p.s. I refer to you as an invertebrate solely because of your refusal to post under a real identity. The entire original point of this blog was to declaim against this form of cowardice. After so-many years of anonymous mouthings it's only become increasingly old.
(And ridiculous, when this "Anonymous" has to state that he's a different "Anonymous" from that "Anonymous." Can you see how the lot of you come across come across as so many unsubstantial demi-puppets? Your way of presenting yourself demands no respect from the outset. If there's a person behind the words-- instead of a computer program-- then I can't respect that person. It's not the way I deal with individuals. You're either upfront in your dealings with others, or you're skulking around like a character in a diseased Brechtian Berlin universe.)

King Wenclas said...

p.s. Let's note the title of the post this thread is attached to. Do you get it?