Friday, July 27, 2012

David Graeber and Debt

The young activist who recommended David Graeber’s new book about the evolution of money, Debt, to me exulted that the Graeber book “demolishes the gold standard.”

Uh, no, it doesn’t. Not even in the long middle section of the historical work, within which David Graeber builds a strong case in support of his thesis, piling on endless obscure historical example after example to show that gold is and has been merely a symbol. In fact, a myth; a creation out of thin air, used by the powerful to strengthen their positions and status. You believe it’s an overwhelming case, even though you have no way of checking its accuracy, short of spending thousands of hours in a university library researching Graeber’s examples. Then you close the book and walk outside, and realize there’s no conceivable way gold will lose its value. In the pages of a book, maybe, but not in the real world. Gold is valued for good reasons—beauty and scarcity among them. Or it might simply be that sometimes, ideas and myths become reality.

The fact is that libertarian theorists would agree with Graeber’s opening section, arguing the case against debt—how it exploits the world—100%. They’d likely agree 90% with Graeber’s concluding section—certainly from Nixon circa 1971 onward. Even the idea of a “Jubilee” I heard twenty-some years ago from libertarians.

However evil gold may have been over the millennia, it’s not as evil as fiat money. Nixon’s move disconnecting our money from gold enabled the United States to become a vastly more imperialist nation, as Graeber describes. It was done to pay for an unpopular overseas war—Vietnam—without the bill coming due. The bill was put off until tomorrow, and maybe tomorrow, for Vietnam and other adventures, has come. Compare this with the way World War Two was financed—with the government and celebrities selling war bonds to the public. If the public didn’t support the war, America couldn’t have fought it.

A return to gold-backed currency (not gold currency itself), if not the ultimate solution to America’s debt problem, would be a step in the right direction. More, it’s doable—a simple return, first, to the way the economy operated 40-plus years ago. No one’s come up with a better solution.

There’s great irony in the fact that the continual proposed solution of the Left is to build up centralized power. To strengthen, even more, the power of the all-powerful state. So much is their animus toward the market and the idea of the market. Yet centralization isn’t freedom. Bureaucracy isn’t democracy. Hierarchy doesn’t equal equality.

The market may or may not be strictly “natural,” but it’s inescapable in the mass society, industrial world we’ve lived in the past few centuries. There’s no way to abolish it. Experiments to do so have been made—with disastrous consequences. The Bolsheviks, after all, intended to make gold a worthless commodity. They outlawed the market. When studying alternatives, one has to research these mad attempts. (I’ve been reading the excellent Timothy Garton Ash examination of Solidarity; what he calls “The Polish Revolution.” The Ash book gives added—and more recent—historical depth to the Graeber work.) One can’t wish reality away, no matter how many well-intentioned Oxford professors insist we must.

Graeber’s Debt is throughout a fascinating work. His depiction of the ruthlessness and unsteady situation, and psychology, of conquistadores like Cortes, for example, is first-rate. We see a Donald Trump, often on the verge of bankruptcy, in a different light. That the “gambler” or entrepreneur is necessary to capitalism, David Graeber fully acknowledges.

The disappointing aspect of David Graeber’s Debt is that he proposes no solution. (Other than his tantalizing mention of a Jubilee—the renouncement of all debt.) David Graeber well outlines the problem, but fails to examine alternatives. Perhaps in a follow-up book. Surely he knows—as the rest of the Left does not know—that increasing the role and scope of the state is no answer. Not when the very thing he abhors—monopoly capitalism—is the creation of the state. Corporations themselves couldn’t exist without government legalizing them and protecting them.

There is, maybe, a flicker of a solution there. As the Right, via the libertarian wing of the Tea Party, offers a philosophy of decentralization, the horizontalization of economy and politics, so should the Left. Bureaucracy is not democracy. Democracy can happen only from the people upward—not from the state down behaving as both god and crown.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Literary Joe Paterno?

Here are some quotes from Philadelphia sports writer and radio host Angelo Cataldi, printed yesterday in the Philly edition of the Metro newspaper:

"Joe Paterno created that environment with pure, unadulterated bullying. . . . It's why he snapped at the most benign questions from timid reporters for the last 20 years of his tenure."

"What is happening now-- the sanctions, the protests, the national disgrace-- is long-overdue payback for years of obnoxious behavior cloaked in cranky charm. Paterno thought he could get away with anything in the domain that he ruled. And for a very long time, he did. But there is a limit even to this kind of hero worship."

What do you think? Unquestioning hero worship? Are there any powerful persons in the literary world who resemble these descriptions?

Examine those puff pieces carefully.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Malcolm Gladwell’s Next Book

New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell is working on a new book that will supposedly examine the fight of “David and Goliath,” according to articles like this one:

Will Malcolm Gladwell examine the quixotic attempt of the Underground Literary Alliance to upend the established literary world? Or does that cut too close to home? After all, he writes for an establishment mouthpiece, The New Yorker, and is published by Little, Brown and Company, owned by one of the big book conglomerates. We’ll find out how independent Mr. Gladwell truly is.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Shaky Empire

WHILE AT ONE TIME the McSweeney’s Gang was an important development in a stagnant literary scene, today the band of clubsters, cronyistas, fellow travelers and hangers-on is sustained by bluff, reputation, and bullying. Though their books, whether published by the Big Six or by McSweeney’s, still receive lavish media attention, their actual impact on the general public has become minimal.

Little girls in Minnesota who self-publish indie ebooks outsell the lot of them.

When you examine the evil empire up close there’s not a lot there.

What are their ideas?

Rehashed postmodernism; pose more than substance. Their overhyped intellectuals, Jonathan Lethem and Ben Marcus, are impressive only on paper. Given a fawning establishment literary world fueled by timidity, their sophistry is seldom challenged. It’s noteworthy that both much-awarded figures are defeatist about their own literary ideology. (See the link to a post about a Jonathan Lethem essay at the left side of this screen.)

Either would be slaughtered in a debate about literature with someone like myself. What’s more, they know it. Not that such debate would ever take place. Sustained by protective nursemaids behind protective barriers, what Lethem and Marcus lack even more than real intellect is intellectual courage.

What of the Emperor himself, Mr. Eggers?

Lately he’s been a one-trick pony, playing the role of Great White Father, savior to the Third World. His latest book, more of the same, is a dud.

The entire McSweeney’s/Believer ouevre, in fact, is growing visibly tired. Cutesy hipster posturing with trademark narcissistic posing by the usual bourgie grandees or their knockoffs, for whom the stunning currents of economic change and devastation the last four years have been no more than a mild puff of wind. They view the hectic tragic world from above, aristocrats in a crumbling castle with walls smelling of mold. In the near distance a tidal wave of readable, low-cost ebooks approaches. Not wishing to see the new wave, they sip more hipster wine or designer beer and move to the other side of the fortress. 

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Intellectually Stunted?

There's something about a monolithic system that deadens the brains of the apparatchiks inside the system, as if they're never asked to think, much less question. What's required of them to have success instead is to accept and obey.

No one among their ranks questions the system and the products of the system. When someone outside the system questions it, or them, they're not sure how to behave. Real debate? They've not been prepared for the possibility. Told everything, they've not been told about that. To hear criticism of the conformist bureaucratic system is an unfamiliar experience. It's not done and as far as they know has never been done.

Attempting, then, to engage the questioner would be a step too far, of which they're not capable.

The irony is that the blindly following system people have positions at universities, which are supposed to be bastions of free thought and opposing ideas, the clash of ideas, but represent instead conformity and monothink.

Or: Free American literature! Buy American Pop Lit books.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Two Kinds of Short Stories

I have a post up at one of my other blogs that questions a literary magazine editor's "Ten Best" short stories list. His list is made up of, not so curiously, all literary stories. See

Michael Nye's list exemplifies the narrow MFA mentality.

There are two kinds of short stories: pop stories and literary stories. The objectives of the two types are vastly different. For the first type, the objective is to entertain and move a general audience. For the other, to impress a hypothetical or real college professor.

For too long, literary stories have had things all their own way, lauded by critics and academia, while the pop short story has been scorned, ignored, denied. It's no accident that during this period, the position of the short story in American culture has steadily declined.

With the rise of indie ebooks, the situation between the two kinds of stories may be changing.

Are all the many college professors and MFA grads-- numbering in the hundreds of thousands-- capable of defending their style of writing? Any of them? That remains to be seen. I sent an email "heads-up" to Missouri Review about my post, inviting comments, receiving to date none. Perhaps others invested in System Lit might weigh in. I invite them to. What literature needs more than anything else is real discussion and debate about its modes, standards, and intellectual monopolies.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Pyramids of Power


Louis Freeh in his report of the Jerry Sandusky affair spoke of a "pyramid of power" and the fear of power which extended from top to bottom at Penn State University. The fear to speak up or break ranks. To take on the powerful. This same mindset extends through other fields, including the established literary realm. Exposures of corruption are swept aside. Loyalty to the system is monolithic. The behavior reflects a herd mentality.

The Underground Literary Alliance exposed corruption throughout its brief history. How did the system react? Did it not embrace and protect the miscreants-- for instance, those who gamed the arts grants system? Isn't the system even more monolithic today? There's an incredible reluctance to speak up to the powerful within American literature and publishing. Those who do are ostracized. The reluctance comes from those who are supposed to be writers-- the voice of bravery and freedom. Where is that voice? Where are there any-- any-- signs of literary democracy? The literary system today is an old-fashioned moribund apparat like Soviet-dominated Eastern European countries circa 1975.

Well, there is one other completely outspoken  blog like this one. I recently stumbled into it. "How Publishing Is Rigged." I have a link to it on the side of this page. The author of the blog wisely doesn't give his name.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Classism Is Like Racism

I have a friend, a young woman I’ll call C, who’s been passed over for two management positions in the last six months for reasons of class. By that I mean, passed over because A.) she didn’t have the proper educational background, and B.) she didn’t enough look the past. Those who got the jobs are fine individuals, but there’s not a doubt in my mind that C would’ve done better—in part because she’s far hungrier a person. She’s bright enough, and works twice as hard as anyone else.

Classism may be this nation’s last allowable prejudice—a prejudice that’s enacted with intense feeling and, often, ruthlessness. I know this from experience. Good “liberal” people who wouldn’t think of behaving in a racist manner—at least not publicly—are utterly scornful of lower caste members of their own race. They’re free to indulge their true feelings toward anyone they perceive as beneath them.

In no area of American life does caste play a greater role than in today’s established literary scene. Think I’m wrong? Examine those who receive nominations for National Book Awards, NEA grants, and/or lavish media publicity, and you’ll find a preponderance of graduates from elite universities, chiefly but not exclusively from the Ivy League. Hear of a hyped writer—Teddy Wayne, say—with reviews in major publication after major publication, along with awards and grants, and likely as not the person will be from Brown, or Columbia, or in Wayne’s case, Harvard. It’s how the country operates. Connections and clubbiness. (The area of politics is little better—this year we have a contest of Harvard versus Harvard.)

Now, it could be that the literary stars from the Ivy league truly are as good as their press clippings say they are. Curiously, though—as I pointed out about Ben Marcus—their book sales are seldom if ever commensurate with the amount of publicity they receive. It could be they’re simply more adept at either gaming the system, or writing exactly according to their professors’ specifications. Conformity and obedience could be reasons why they went to, and graduated from, the “best” schools in the first place. (Though writers as diverse as Charles Murray and Paul Krugman have demonstrated with strong evidence that what college one attends is still largely a product of caste.)

Compounding matters, the staffs of the leading mainstream magazines—like Vanity Fair and The New Yorker—and leading websites—Salon and Slate—which cover literature are made up of graduates from the same dozen or so elite universities. Their bias is toward writers who think and sound like themselves.

Which means, writing styles like fashionable clothes. The right “look” is important. Clarity of style and thought is the last thing they want. Their goal is to distinguish themselves from the mob.

Nowhere is caste bias more prevalent than at the two trendiest, highest profile literary magazines/movements: The Believer and n+1. The difference between them is that one group is biased more toward Columbia, the other, Harvard and Yale. Do I exaggerate their importance? Not when one looks at the advances and publicity their writers and fellow travelers receive. Their writers extend through the entire system, found in any and all the major organs of the New York-based scene, whether The New Yorker, or New York Times Book Review, or Magazine, or New York Review of Books, or Salon or Slate. In a sense, all one big happy family.
Many writers of course exist on the margins of this clubby circle. They are most certain of all to do nothing to compromise their chances; will do or say nothing to offend the big guys.
The greatest irony is that most of the chief figures of this scene, from Dave Eggers to Jonathan Franzen to Keith Gessen, place themselves prominently and vociferously on the Left end of the political spectrum. Yet every fact of their careers and lives is an opposition to this. In their own field, the realm of literature, they’re reactionaries. The Jekyll/Hyde contradiction escapes them. 

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Real Crazy Carl Robinson

The Audience by King Wenclas
The Audience, a photo by King Wenclas on Flickr.

Here's a photo of the real Crazy Carl Robinson captured several years ago in Philadelphia when he was at the height of his popularity. With the recent interview by Wred Fright, Crazy Carl is poised for a comeback. (If I remember correctly, after this photo was snapped we moved to one of Philly's local drinking establishments to celebrate yet another successful literary event..)

This Is Not Crazy Carl!

14690006 by King Wenclas
14690006, a photo by King Wenclas on Flickr.

Contrary to rumor, this isn't a photo of underground writer Crazy Carl Robinson doing a literary reading in Philadelphia. I can't say exactly who the character in the photo is, but he bears a strong resemblance to someone who got into, er, hot water lately for throwing people into swimming pools! (Something Crazy Carl wouldn't do.)

Excluding the Alternative

If we had a fair and honest media in this country, journalists would be eager to look into the shutting out of the Underground Literary Alliance by the mainstream literary world. The ULA’s ideas came from outside the literary monolith. They represented an alternative both to the “business-as-usual” cronyistic way of operating, and to the one-size-fits-all antiquated literary writing style of system produced and supported writers. A healthy, confident system welcomes alternatives. Not in this instance.

Monday, July 09, 2012

Important Writer Interview

WHILE I wait for the established literary scene to either reform itself or collapse, I also look for literary news outside the castle. Here's a good one-- a Wred Fright interview with noted underground author Crazy Carl Robinson, who's a great entertainer and writer. Check it out!

Profiles in Uncourage



How would the established literary community react if the defunct Underground Literary Alliance web site was not only up, with its “Monday Report” looks at literary misdeeds again available to read—but began as well to publish new essays targeting literary corruption? Would many in the standard lit world applaud? Would any of them? Or would not they continue their 100% stonewalling, putting blindfolds over their eyes, plugs in their ears, and gags in their mouths to follow the mandated line of “See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil”? I can’t say I’ve encountered one person in their ranks—not one!—who has a shred of intellectual courage involving their own field. It’s forever go-along-to-get-along. This includes the self-proclaimed Leftists among them, who all seem to be graduates of places like Brown, Harvard, and Oxford, and are just as careful to blackball the idea and history of the ULA as is anyone else.

Letter to n+1


The trendy Brooklyn-based lit group n+1  made a post at their site which I agreed with--

On June 20 I emailed them a friendly note:

To the Editors, n+1,
 I love the essay about credentialism now up on your site. I agree with it 100%. The question has to be asked of n+1, though, regarding American literature: When do you put your principles into action??
  I have a populist e-novel I'm trying to market, written by an authentically populist, uncredentialed writer-- myself-- in a populist style, with the subject of protest, and one of the novel's themes being the divide between elitists and populists in this country, including on the Left.
  I could send you a free copy. Would you read it?
  This is a sore subject for me of late, with the reappearance of the Tom Bissell/Believer hatchet job on the Underground Literary Alliance, a lit group which was the very animal one would think you'd have publicly supported. Namely, a collection of populist, uncredentialed, mainly lower class writers. Legitimate heirs of the London, Norris, Dreiser, Farrell, Steinbeck stream of American literature.
  The credentialed literary elite distorted our message and tarred our populist writing styles.
When Bissell accused us of "classocide," no one among your credentialed elite came to our defense. Yet classocide is exactly what happened to the ULA. We were living on the margins, most of us, before the recession. The economic downturn destroyed us. Literally, physically, in every way.
  You can't have it both ways. You can't claim to want populism, yet at the same time cling to a refined version of literature whose very emphasis of style is A.) on the solipsistic self, not the outer world; B.) on trivialities of style-- "literary" descriptions of bourgeois furniture, say-- that are markers of a bureaucratic mindset (emphasis on the trivial) that comes from a bureaucratic, credentialed system for producing writers and literature.
  It was your own Chad Harbach, after all, who erroneously claimed "We're all MFA's now." What "we," paleface?
  To the credentialed elite, writers who are outside the system of credentials don't exist.
  Anyway, kudos to the unnamed one of your editors who wrote the piece. Good job.
  -Karl Wenclas

Needless to say, I received no response. Will they print my letter? Don 't hold your breath!

Still, I'm giving the literary elite every opportunity to live up to their own principles.  (They could, of course, respond on this blog.)

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Another Country

THINK if this were another country, like China, and a handful of dissident writers bucked what they saw as an overly bureaucratic and cronyistic literary system which produced stale and lifeless bureaucratic art. In, er, China. The well-credentialed literary bureaucrats, those who benefit in some way from the system, if only through seeing their work into disseminated print, naturally would see the dissidents as no-talent cranks and complainers worthy of contempt. How dare the dissidents not play by the same rules other writers play by? How dare they complain? Making noise and dissenting from the established system is a betrayal of the national literature itself! So the way system apparatchiks would view it. The literary dissidents would be ostracized.

This, in a country like China. It could never happen in a country like the USA. Could it?

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Ways the ULA Was Right

What was the actual record of the Underground Literary Alliance?
2001: ULA supports populist writers.
2011: Sectors of established literature acknowledge it's time to return to populist writing.
2001: In activist fashion ULA attacks class privilege and economic inequality.
2011: In activist fashion, Occupy Wall Street attacks class privilege and economic inequality.
2003: In January at Housing Works, ULA members ask for a discussion of looming Iraq War, and are asked to leave.
2003-2011: Iraq War a costly fiasco.
2001-2007: ULA criticizes "Big Six" publishers as monopolistic, inefficient, and top heavy.
2012: "Big Six" looks increasingly shaky.
2005 and 2007: ULA covers Paris Review/CIA story.
2012: covers Paris Review/CIA story.
2001-2007: ULA criticizes taxpayer grants to rich writers while populist writers live on the margins.
2008-2009: In the face of a severe recession and widespread hostility to its activist message, the Underground Literary Alliance disintegrates.
During its brief and tumultuous lifespan, the Underground Literary Alliance was on the right side of issues and the right side of history.
Isn't it time for the literary world to stop blackballing the ULA's writers?

Monday, July 02, 2012

Do They Ever Tell the Truth?

I was looking up reviews of the Ben Marcus novel The Flame Alphabet. I found an interesting review from 1/29/12 by Boris Kachka of New York magazine.

Kachka’s review comes from an alternate universe.

Kachka’s review title describes oft-published Marcus as from the “School of Hard Knocks." The review itself pegs Ben Marcus as “a deliberately obscure novelist who likes to fling Molotov cocktails at the literary Establishment.”

Yet it’d be hard to find anyone who’s more a bred and bonded member of the literary Establishment than Ben Marcus. His mother, Jane Marcus, is an English professor at CUNY and a notable feminist critic. Ben Marcus himself is a professor at prestigious Columbia University in New York, and the former chair of the esteemed Columbia writing program. His novel The Flame Alphabet is published by Alfred Knopf, part of the Random House publishing empire.

How obscure is the book? In addition to the Boris Kachka review, The Flame Alphabet has received reviews in The New York Times, The L.A. Times, The Washington Post, The Financial Times, The Seattle Times, Bookforum, Booklist, The Guardian, Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly, The Millions, and many other places. Almost a Who’s Who of establishment media.

Ben Marcus has written for The New Yorker, Harper’s, Paris Review, Time, Rolling Stone, McSweeney’s, among other publications, and has received grants from the Creative Capital Foundation, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the National Endowment of the Arts. Marcus’s wife, Heidi Julavits, is herself a well-hyped novelist, and also an editor at The Believer.

A person with these kind of connections and credentials sits at the very center of today’s literary Establishment. What Boris Kachka said, then, in his New York magazine review of The Flame Alphabet was plainly false. As false as anything could be false. Why did Kachka say it?

The Boris Kachka portrayal of Ben Marcus fits someone’s false narrative. It’s likely that Kachka perpetuates the narrative because Ben Marcus wields real power in the clubby world of establishment literature—a world of pandering and dishonesty.