ORIGINS OF THE AMERICAN LITERARY APPARATUS
When one reads accounts of the treatment of writers in the old Soviet Union, such as Giovanni Grazzini’s Solzhenitsyn, one sees strong parallels to the way dissenting or nonconforming writers are treated in the United States now. There’s the same divide between Approved and Unapproved writers; the same bureaucratically based intelligentsia condemning writers behind the scenes, silently denying those writers access to the system, including publicity or media attention, while circulating distortions and calumnies against them, as happened to the writers of the Underground Literary Alliance, without those writers able to present their side except in obscure samizdat fashion—as I do through posts on this blog.
The apparatus is shaky, as the Soviet apparatus was shaky. Mainstream journals, newspapers, and magazines, through which the literature of our time is announced and its ideas and names allowed to circulate, face increased popular indifference and plummeting circulation. But it remains a powerful apparatus, its members recruited from the New Class; such membership bestowing largesse and credibility. The apparatus retains the power to make, or banish, individual writers or groups of writers.
The system also pushes forward its approved models of a proper writer. Sholokhov, notably, in the first instance. A Jonathan Lethem or Lorrie Moore in the U.S. today. Within the bounds of the particular system, what’s certain is that the proper model will be appropriately safe.
Revealing to me was discovering Sholokhov’s three choices regarding Solzhenitsyn; his stated three ways to handle the man: as 1.) A madman; 2.) not a writer; 3.) an anti-Soviet slanderer.
Substituting “System” for “Soviet,” these are the three ways the current U.S. literary system depicted writers of the Underground Literary Alliance.
Sixty years ago two giant opposing systems, centered around the Soviet Union, in one instance, and the United States, in the other, waged an intense ideological war. The Cold War was a fight of ideas and ideologies. On the literary plain, the Soviet Union embraced Stalinist-style Socialist Realism. The liberal capitalist world, through the actions of men like George Plimpton and Robert Silvers, countered with a literature of the opposite; what could be called Irrelevant Postmodernism. Writers were encouraged to focus on the personal, the trivial, or the nonsensical. (The French author Robbe-Grillet was maybe the ultimate expression of this viewpoint.)
Pushed aside in the United States was that literary form which had dominated American letters for the previous fifty years: populism. As the Soviet Union’s ideological contortions narrowed and damaged Russian literature, the very same thing happened to American literature. That different kinds of writing were excluded only showed the two systems to be mirror images. As, of course, the opposing military complexes were built in opposition to, but were similar to, the Other.
One can study the education and career of the conforming working class American writer Raymond Carver to see how every shred of populism and activism was wrung from his mind and his work, leaving a compliant, beaten-down shell.
The problem, from an American standpoint, is that the Soviet Union and its moldy bureaucratic systems and decayed ideologies collapsed—but our literary system continued on, to this very day, more repressive of counter-ideologies, nonconformity, and dissent as ever.
Those Approved literary groups who try to break from their restrictive box face unresolvable contradictions. The elite (Ivy League-spawned) journal n+1, for instance, claims to want a return to populist American art. But its very intellectual foundations—Partisan Review and New York Review of Books major influences—are with the organs of past American liberal/neoconservative Cold Warriors. Their postmodernism philosophy in all its aspects, premises, jargon, and aesthetics, stems from the anti-populist camp.