Thursday, April 28, 2011

About Steve Kostecke

I first heard about and from Steve Kostecke in the 1990’s when the print-zine scene was at its peak, filled with fabulous writers many corresponding through long letters with one another, missives filled with ideas and energy and the joy of writing.

Steve lived overseas, bouncing around in countries like Korea and Thailand teaching English. He was one of a few of us caught up in the idea that underground writing was a vital segment of American literature. We discussed the idea of the writing of ourselves, a DIY from-the-ground mass generation of cheap publications, as an actual literary movement.

This was the topic of conversation when I finally met Steve, I think in 1997, in Detroit, which was the home base for both of us. Steve’s early writing was about growing up—high school partying mostly—in the Detroit area. Being from that crazed raw angry city was/is a contact point for its refugees, a shared foundation of experience with a kind of disbelief that the nature of the town so fell short of any widely projected American ideal.

I met Steve at a bar on the Wayne State U campus named Z’s Place, then after a few beers we journeyed further south into the lower part of the Cass Corridor where existed the real gritty dives filled with prostitutes druggies dropout bohemians fugitives from reality of all races in a kind of ultimate slice-of-life. I remember Steve as this cocky swaggering guy wearing a brown leather bomber jacket able to drink anyone under the table as we went through pitchers sitting at a creaky table in a saloon surrounded by stray paraphernalia and skinny addict whores at the bar leering our way, open door Cass Corridor life outside as the beers kept on coming. Steve, of course, thrived in such places in Asia.

He was a guy soaking in every aspect of life, with a wide-eyed American wonder at all of it.

Several of us continued to discuss, through the mails, starting a more tangible literary movement. In 1998 I was involved with another writer in a project called Pop Literary Gazette. Steve was one of the writers we included in the journal’s pages. After that folded I gave up everything literary altogether, concentrating on running a small office in the trade business along Detroit’s riverfront, working 70-hour weeks. Still, in the back of my mind I continued to mull over the lit movement idea. I knew there were many talented zine writers whose writing and personalities carried dynamic energy. Writers like Steve Kostecke.

Steve more than anyone—Doug Bassett and Michael Jackman were others—encouraged me to take the lead in putting our ideas into reality. At the end of 1999 I quit my job and moved to Philadelphia.

The founding of the Underground Literary Alliance occurred during a drinkfest weekend in October of 2000 in Hoboken, New Jersey. We’d invited every underground writer we knew to join—six of us made it. Steve came direct, it seemed, from Asia, looking like Jack London just got off a ship, wearing his usual bomber jacket and confident grin, a large duffel bag under his table as he drank freely at an outdoor cafe. He fit, to all of us, the image of a knockabout American writer, in the tradition of Kerouac and Hemingway.

By the end of the weekend, the ULA was reality.

Steve lived in Philadelphia for six months during the group’s early days; participated in two of our first explosive events. Soon enough his restless nature sent him traveling.

While he was in town we did a fair share of barhopping. At one point we went to a branch library in South Philly and Steve showed me how to get on the Internet, believe it or not. I’d been computer illiterate before that time. We also spent many hours debating the nature and substance of what we were trying to create. Within the group, Steve and I were at polar extremes. Steve, I realized, had a laidback Buddhist attitude toward life, while I overflowed with impatience, wanting and expecting to keep pushing and pushing the spark of publicity the ULA had received.

It’s amazing we kept the thing going as long as we did. Steve, Jeff Potter, and myself were the major players in keeping the ULA machine operating. Steve’s work was fundamentally behind the scenes, creating, for one thing, every issue of our house zeen, Slush Pile. For many of the new writers we brought into our ranks Steve was a mysterious figure, which caused in some, frustration. In others, he became the offstage good guy in contrast to the hard-charging reality of me. Steve at the same time cranked out many great zines of his own writing—one about his brief sojourn in Philly. The best of them, in my opinion, was Auslanders Raus!, about time he’d spent in Germany. Some of the best, clear, fun, knowing writing to be found anyplace.

The ULA’s final explosion, as least as far as both Steve and myself were concerned, came in ‘07. We both ended up leaving the team. I don’t know about him, but I was exhausted by the intensity of the project, the huge ambition it embodied and the blowback we’d received from status quo literati. Making change isn’t easy! Especially when attempting the impossible. By the end we were probably sick of each other and of all the various internal disputes we’d endured, about which we had differing viewpoints. There’s no question I was more to blame for the disputes. I’d always had the more volatile personality.

While it lasted, the Underground Literary Alliance was a great dream and a fantastic experience.

Steve was the last of the many underground writers I knew through that experience that I’d expect to leave us so early. He was the most unflappable, the most on an even keel, at the same time filled with healthy energy while having none of the self-destructive behavior of other ULAers—other than a love of drinking, talking, writing, experiencing life.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011


I’ll be posting some thoughts about Steve Kostecke, maybe by the end of the week. Steve was as responsible as anyone for the idea of creating an underground literary movement. We discussed it over beers in Detroit back in ‘97 or thereabouts. A few years later the Underground Literary Alliance was formed.

The post below this one was already written and ready to go, so I’ve posted it.

Dagny Taggart and Feminism

The extensive hatred shown toward the “Atlas Shrugged” movie from liberal critics, so out of proportion to its message and impact, is strange indeed when one looks at it from a global perspective. Ayn Rand was very much within the parameters of secular, liberal society—if on the neoliberal end of that narrow spectrum. Liberal secularism is adhered to by a distinct minority of the world’s population.

Where is feminist opinion of the flick? The Best Actress Oscar this year went to Natalie Portman, who played a weak, disturbed character in a movie of weak or disturbed women characters. Is this the model? By contrast, the Dagny Taggart character played by Taylor Schilling in “Atlas Shrugged”—intelligent and self-assertive—should be a feminist’s dream. Obviously, something else is going on.

It tells me the extent to which feminism has allowed itself to become part of a narrow orthodoxy, in which if you deviate in one part of acceptable thought, you’re guilty in total. Liberalism itself has become an orthodoxy. Seeing that the term once meant the acceptance of a wide variety of viewpoints, one has to wonder whether the liberal concept any longer has meaning.

Monday, April 25, 2011


I just received word, unconfirmed, of the passing of Steve Kostecke, one of the six founding members of the Underground Literary Alliance. I can't begin to tell you how shocked I am.

The Truth About “Atlas Shrugged”


Tell a lie enough times and people will believe it. This is the case with the new film, “Atlas Shrugged: Part I,” based on the first third of the classic Ayn Rand novel.

I attended the movie with wariness, having read bad review after bad review about it. It couldn’t possibly be any good, I thought. Yet the reviews turned out to be lies matching lies about the Rand novel—the most ambitious American novel ever written. They also match, curiously enough, the media lies told about Rearden Metal in the film.

“Is Rearden Metal good?” the creator of the metal asks again and again. The point is made that media judgments are made for reasons other than truth.

It’s easy, of course, to see why the movie version of “Atlas Shrugged” has been panned. There are no serial killers, no vampires, no self-mutilations, no stupidities or insanities, no sadism. Only intelligent adults involved in high-level business dealings. The lead character is a self-assertive businesswoman. In this cracked age, what kind of role model is that?

The film starts slowly, laying down Ayn Rand’s plot threads. Contrary to what literary critics like Thomas Mallon have said, that Ayn Rand had no ability whatsoever at creating characters and plot, Rand was a master at constructing a narrative formed around iconic figures. The story’s development is akin to early moves in a chess game, the moves pointing toward actions to happen much further on. They’re like the first presentation of the themes of a symphonic movement. The story melds several plot strands. Mysterious John Galt. Vanishing talents. The secret of a new kind of motor and its Tesla-like inventor. Several ambitious company owners, Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden among them, struggling to fight corrupt political forces that would shut them down. These are Rand’s heroes. She asks the question, “What makes civilization—capitalism, America—work?”

Hank Rearden and Dagny Taggart are fairly liberal business owners, truth be told, because they’re idealists interested in creating better products, leaving the cronyism and political maneuvering to those who are the bad guys of the tale, including Dagny’s brother.

It’s interesting that the movie is as scorned as it is. The film presents an anachronistic, 1957 look at industry and technology that should appeal to those on the Left—high-speed trains and steel mills. I found it appealing, reminiscent of the booming Detroit industrial world of my youth, and of the railyards I once worked in. “Atlas Shrugged” posits, as the way to achieve this prosperous world, unharnessing the mind and creating better products. Better trains, better metal. Who could possibly be against this?

It’s a vision which Barack Obama and Joe Biden themselves should applaud and approve.

The movie isn’t the book, or even the first third of the book. It’s an argument for the book. The acting is fine, especially from the Dagny, Hank Rearden, and Wyatt characters. Some parts of the novel can’t be adequately depicted. In the novel the inaugural train ride testing Reardon’s new metal is one of the most compelling narrative sequences ever written—proof that Ayn Rand was a much better writer than’s been said.

The plot lines set down emerge together in the last five minutes of the movie—the story’s premise and main theme are suddenly, explosively revealed on a large sign in front of a surprisingly passionate Dagny Taggart. I was left hungry for more. Classic artistry.

Why the lies about the “Atlas Shrugged” movie found in review after review?

Was Ayn Rand right? Have people stopped thinking? Are they panicked by the presentation of ideas—contrary or not—of being asked to not follow the mob, but instead to think as citizens and moviegoers for themselves?

Thursday, April 21, 2011


Is ideology a function of personality?

I was thinking about this while looking at a large poster in Philadelphia advertising a debate between Karl Rove and Howard Dean. I’d judge from the photos that in high school, Rove was a typical brainy chess-playing nerd, while grinning thick-necked and blandly handsome Dean was the go-getter class president type.

The one style will get ahead by quietly mastering information and numbers. Not being well-liked is a given. For the liberal, Dean style, being liked is everything. The good guy savior.

Does this distinction hold across the board between conservative and liberal? Are there other examples? Richard Nixon versus JFK? Paul Ryan opposed to President Obama?

One can apply this to the fans and haters of Ayn Rand. Rand was an extremist—but there’s an everpresent appeal in her stories and ideas to the intellect. Wanting to be liked? Rand was in-your-face on purpose with phrases like “the virtue of selfishness.” Agree with her or not, her books are a challenge—a thrown down gauntlet. It’s undeniable that on the big picture question of her time, the U.S.A. versus the Soviet Union—societies she knew intimately—if not on the details, Ayn Rand was right.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Contradictory New Yorker

The New Yorker magazine is a contradiction. This is evident in the Richard Brody review of the new film version of the classic Ayn Rand novel, "Atlas Shrugged." Brody accuses the film, the book, and Rand herself of being filled with "smug self-satisfaction" and "sneers and smears." Yet his short review is nothing more than a smear-- one giant sneer. Strange that he can't see this.

In the same April 18th issue, George Packer in "Talk of the Town" discusses budget "fairness." The very next piece is a glowing celebration of Gwyneth Paltrow's latest career in the food business. Paltrow, of course, is a well-connected aristocrat who's been able to do anything she wants whenever she wants to-- with middling success-- actress, country singer, now chef. Her entire life is a study in inequality, privilege, unfairness.

The contradiction is that the New Yorker magazine is a tribute to unfairness. Its core audience is America's-- or the world's-- top 2%. Every page of every issue is a glowing example of "smug self-satisfaction." yet apparently these people can't be upfront to themselves. They seem to only be able to exist with an ill-fitting facade of "fairness" laughably out of place with their glossy presentation.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Ayn Rand and Big Business

A question which needs to be asked: If Ayn Rand is simply an apologist for Big Business, why wasn't her most famous novel, Atlas Shrugged, made into a movie long before now-- with major backing behind it, backing the just released version doesn't have?

It's because Rand celebrated free market capitalism, which is only tangentially related to the corrupted version we have now. Ayn Rand's greatest appeal has been to do-it-yourself entrepreneurs and would-be artists. (Her appeal to the artist is palpable.) In her books she attacked crony capitalism, the idea that a person could get ahead by connections and gaming the system while having little ability and no backbone. It's no accident that establishment literary critics, who exist through their willingness to be unquestioning members of a herd, have savagely attacked her and her books.

There is much about Rand's analysis of society that I disagree with. I've lived much of my life on the other end of the political spectrum. Yet at the same time I've always seen the power and appeal of her novels-- the presentation of ideas and the huge ambition of her narratives. I'd rather see a writer risk much and fall short, than the endless line of go-along-to-get-along scribblers who risk nothing and fear to look beyond what all other writers are doing. Current literature is unexciting-- it's unexciting for a reason.

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Writer from Hell

Where the promoters of independent writers could destroy the "Big Six" publishers, if they had half a brain to, is by exploiting the most fertile and active ground, those writers the Big Six willfully avoid. Namely, the so-called "Writer from Hell." All the well-groomed well-trained well-credentialed editors and agents, as reflected in books like Jeff Herman's directory, or on writer discussion forums, scorn and avoid the "Writer from Hell." This is why and how the Big Six can be beaten. Writing, after all, is an art. Those best at it won't be able to be placed into a conformist box.

Think of a cultural fair. As you approach the Literature section, you notice two tents. Outside one of them is a large sign which states in bold letters, "THE WRITER FROM HELL."

A barker tells you more. "Step up folks, right here, di-rect from the wilderness, crazed and unable to be tamed-- The Writer from Hell!" "Strong brew!" he warns confidentially. "Not for everyone. Be prepared to be outraged."

Next to this tent is another one with a more carefully painted sign, "Comforting Writers." You see underneath this in smaller letters, "Same-old same-old. Warm milk and weak tea. Just like grandmother used to make."

Which tent to go inside? I glance inside the weak tea tent. There are half-a-dozen people in the seats listening to a monotone presentation. The entire audience is sleeping.

The more I look around at what's out there among writers, in both the "literary" and "genre/popular" ends of the writing game, I realize how unique were the writers we gathered into the Underground Literary Alliance. Striking talents and personalities. They came from the print underground scene, which in the early part of last decade was still in its heyday.

A fellow traveler to what the ULA was doing, Frank Marcopolos, published many of the ULA's talents in his classic lit-zeen The Whirligig. He's now offering the best of that writing in a new ebook, which I hope to shortly be offering for sale at this site. Frank's collection contains the kind of writing you will simply not be able to read from the tepid mainstream-- including from one or two of those rare and mysterious creatures, The Writer from Hell. Stay tuned.

The Literary Nanny State

What the writing industry has done is turn writers into feeble and helpless individuals who truly believe they can't operate without an editor, a copy editor, an agent, and a helping hand guiding them every step of the way. As if they were five year olds. Writers don't seem to realize that it's in the interest of editors to tell you that you have to have an editor. It's in the interest of agents to tell you that you must have an agent. (At 15%.)

Or, as in so much else, it's all about the money.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Literature and Myth

What I see missing from the bowtie play-by-the-rules publishing crowd who control American literature is any sense of, or appreciation for, myth. I'm talking about the giant mythic literary personalities of the past up to Kerouac. Any civilization, any endeavor, even any band of writers needs their myths. Their examples to model themselves after. To become like. Foundational stories, because then when you blaze a new path through unknown wilderness, you're not by yourself.

When I ran the Underground Literary Alliance I looked for underground writers who carried mythic personas, whatever their other perceived flaws-- Wild Bill Blackolive the classic example.

Would I want to be stuck in a safe secure air-conditioned office with the bowties, taking no chances, assuming no risks?

Not this dog!

If American history and American literature have been about anything, they've been about freedom. Striking out on the open road. This is what our best writers have done and what at least a few writers need to do now if we're to make the literary art once again great and relevant.

The All-Time American Writer Tournament continues at

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Book Business

(I originally posted this at another site.)

There's no way that the Borders type of bookstore can survive the change in the way people receive literature-- and the cost at which they receive it. Stand inside one of the big stores and consider their overhead. Heating in winter? Air conditioning in summer? Lease or property tax costs? Staff? Maintenance?

The big stores have to sell a lot of volume to break even, and they need an adequate profit on each sale. The model works when they're selling $25 books. Even given the fact the stores are designed to be inefficient-- the wasted space; the browsers who read at the store and never purchase anything. Because of volume, the stores were able to accommodate this.

Now they're getting hit on two fronts. A third or so of all books sold are purchased as ebooks. Plot the trend. This percentage has gone up and will continue to go up. Stock analysts considering whether Barnes & Noble is a sound investment will have charts printed out showing the trend. There's no sign of the trend stopping. No-- instead, count on bookstores lucky to have a third of the market in a few years. You can buy e-readers now at drugstores like CVS, for $99. That price will continue to go down. Who needs bookstores? How can the big store model, with its built-in overhead costs, possibly be maintained?

The stores and the big publishers will be hit in a second way, by being drastically underpriced. The big stores can't make an adequate profit on three dollar books. The same thing, by the way, has happened to music stores. The $25 book will no longer be a mass market phenomenon. There's not enough value in a James Patterson for his audience to pay $25 for him when they can get him on an ebook for much less. The $25 book will become strictly a boutique product, sold to decidedly upscale folks at small, trendy boutique stores.

It's not the economy. It's revolutionary change in how people receive their words. Or, as they say in the Bronx, recession reschmession.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Ahead of the Curve

This blog, which from the start was calling for, and predicting, drastic change in literature, transformation of the system as we know it, is looking more and more prophetic. Upcoming I'll discuss why the changes so far regarding ebooks and closing bookstores are just the beginning of the literary revolution. (p.s. #2 seeds have been announced at American Pop Lit.)

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Seeding So Far

Those who've been watching the All-Time American Writer Tournament at know that the four #1 seeds have been selected. Namely, Hemingway, Whitman, Melville, and Twain. Next up will be a few surprises for #2 seeds. We'll get a tad more contemporary. Have faith.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

The Top Seeds

Today I've begun announcing the four #1 seeds for the All-Time American Writer Tournament. Two selections have been made. I'm on the fence about the next two. Feel free to weigh in at If you have favorites, you'd better start lobbying for them!