Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Cold War Literary System


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.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Ivy League Breaks Quota!

In fact, the Ivy league exceeded its quota in literature many decades ago—yet we the American public still get novels written by this nation’s most favored sons and daughters crammed down our throats, out of all proportion to any possible interest in them. One of the latest is Penelope by Rebecca Harrington, a Harvard grad writing about—surprise!—Harvard. The book has been well hyped. Harrington deserves, I guess, every advantage. (See the music student in my recent e-novel, The Tower.)

What we have in America, particularly in the approved literary world, is a caste system, with the Ivy League securely at the top of the pile.

For background, check out this jokey article from last year by George Will:

Even conservative icon Will is able to admit, “It has been well observed that America’s least diverse classes are SAT prep classes.”

Ivy League grads themselves, of course, are invariably liberals who argue for democracy and change—while every fact of their privileged lives argues against their statements.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Attitudes Toward Literary Power

What accounts for the overwhelming conformity of today’s approved literary world? What are the motivations behind the obedience of the literary herd?

They’re varied. Some writers, such as Ed Champion, know the official literary system is thoroughly corrupt, but these writers are personally afflicted with an invertebrate condition which prevents them from going very far in speaking out. They’re spineless jellyfish.

Another category is that of ambitious opportunists, who simply don’t care about character and principles. The necessary pose is all. If American lit became dominated by populists, they’d become populists—and would be sure to network with, and accommodate themselves to, the new major players. Think of the Rod Steiger character in the David Lean movie “Doctor Zhivago.” Maud Newton comes quickly to mind—and Mr. Bissell. Perhaps Eggers himself is like this. After all, when he began McSweeneys he went after the Insider crowd; the Moodys and Minots.


The vast bulk of the established literary herd, however, are True Believers in the current system. Through the totality of their reading and literary education, they’ve never been exposed to anything contrary to the status quo. They’ve been trained to look down on anything else. One sees this not just with McSweeneyites themselves, but also at McSweeneys-affiliated web sites like The Rumpus, or tacit allies like HTML Giant. At no place in these realms, at any time, do you see a word of contradiction. No moments of questioning the current literary system and how it works, or their own art. Least of all the style of literary art that they all unquestioningly accept. Read Rumpus blog posts of their crew of wannabes and you see minds which never for a moment have stepped outside the conformist hipster “Urban Haute Literary Bourgeoisie” bubble.

If you’re not thinking independently, if you’re not questioning your world, are you even truly a writer? But not, instead, an unthinking regurgitating machine cog?

The Underground Literary Alliance was accused of many things. Those who were actually in the outfit know that dissent and debate among ourselves was constant. We offered a wide variety of viewpoints; ranged the gamut of extreme Left to extreme Right, and even our aesthetic ideas were never of a piece.


When you examine an outfit like McSweeneys you see, by contrast, an organization which in significant ways is straight out of George Orwell’s 1984. Care to dispute that statement? Anyone?

1.) First and most fundamental is the underlying philosophy of postmodernism, which, as did the totalitarians of the 20th century—spawned by the same intellectual influences—disbelieves in notions of truth. Truth, ultimately, is what power says it is.

2.) Related to this is the view toward history. History exists to be rewritten and distorted. We see this in the reprint of the mendacious Tom Bissell essay against the ULA. Curious additions were made portraying Dave Eggers as having been an authentic zinester. These additions surely didn’t come from Bissell himself. By the way, how hard do you think Eggers had to work to obtain them?

3.) Key in spotting the Orwellian nature of McSweeneyites and similar literary groups, such as HTML Giant, is reading the convolutions of their writings. The postmodern style is designed to destroy understanding and meaning. Clarity in thought and expression isn’t wanted. The literary works—see literary god David Foster Wallace’s final novel, for instance—are everything that Orwell in his essays and his fiction warned against.

4.) False democracy. I’ve well documented the phoniness of today’s Insider literary crowd. They pay lip service to “the 99%,” but their actions, their desperation to receive the proper approval and credentials, their accumulations of money, position, and power, reveal the opposite. Or as Orwell said in his fable Animal Farm, “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.”

There remain literary dissidents outside the walls of the Inside literary crowd. I’ve yet to find one dissenter inside the hierarchical, well-controlled castle—at least, not one questioning, dissenting soul brave enough to publicly (or privately?) speak up. Talking back to power is a concept not practiced there, or known.

Breaking Ranks

American literature won’t renew itself until system writers and journalists themselves gain backbones and begin speaking out about corruption within the rotten structure.

They need to reveal compromises made by writers in order to gain publication, in their integrity and their art. They need to disavow a clubby and elitist network that nurtures, publicizes, and protects a well-connected clique. They need to insist on character, honesty, and transparency within the literary realm. No more a Dave Eggers and his kind protected from questions and scrutiny, an unhealthy situation for any cultural activity.

Who’ll break ranks? Who’ll step forward? Who’ll speak out?

American literature needs independence and dissent if it’s to engage the bulk of the American population.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Power Used Against the Powerless


McSweeneys Books shouldn’t have included the smear essay against the Underground Literary Alliance in Tom Bissell’s Magic Hours. What was the point? Bissell wasn’t attacking and slurring the powerful, but the powerless—an organization which was already broken; many of whose writers are broken. This enabled various literary people in outlets as diverse as the New York Times, Kirkus Reviews, Los Angeles Times, and Guernica magazine to take ill-informed shots at the ULA and its writers. That they did so was revealing—showing that the liberal pose of these people is just that: a pose. McSweeneys included.

The truth of the matter is that McSweeneys IS the One Percent. Dave Eggers IS the One Percent. Vendela Vida IS the One Percent. Many of their good friends, Rick Moody, Daniel Handler, and many others, ARE the One Percent. These are writers of privilege—in some cases, extreme privilege—who are out of touch with the struggles of the bulk of the American populace. No doubt many of them this moment are vacationing at their summer resorts.

What did they attack in the Underground Literary Alliance—in 2003 and again in 2012? They attacked the ONLY American writers group which has never kowtowed to the One Percent, is not dominated or owned or paid by the One Percent, has no connections whatsoever to the One Percent. An organization which was founded to stand up for the underdog, against power. You’d have a hard time saying these things about any other writers group—including the most “liberal” of them, PEN among them, which in reality are little more than playthings for the very One Percent they pretend to stand against. The hypocrisy is mind-boggling.

History will judge the truth of the matter.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

To the Public Editor, New York Times

(The text of an email letter I sent yesterday.)

To the Public Editor, New York Times.
Here's one for you. In a review in the Sunday Book Review on May 4th of this year, Garth Risk Hallberg labeled the writers of the currently inactive Underground Literary Alliance as "unpublishable." I've sent Mr. Hallberg three emails asking him to explain exactly why he considers us-- all of us (by association every writer who was in the outfit)-- to be unpublishable. It strikes me as a blanket slur. I have not received a response.

The ULA was an organization that I in particular am associated with. As I explain in a post at a blog, here--

I don't consider myself to be a bad writer. In fact I have enough evidence and credits to show I'm not a bad writer. Many former ULA writers could say the same. If we're "unpublishable," it's for reasons other than the quality of our writing.

Unfortunately, that's not the impression given by Hallberg's casual use of the slur, as if it were an accepted fact. This is how readers will take it. Because the New York Times Book Review is read by nearly everyone in the book business, is hugely influential in the literary world, if we weren't "unpublishable" before the review, we certainly are now.

Have we been damaged? I think so. The ULA Press is still selling books by several of the ULA's writers. I myself  am trying to sell four ebooks of my writing. Perpetuating a false stereotype, as Hallberg has done, is detrimental to that endeavor.

We ourselves in the ULA always operated with total transparency. We never failed to document and justify our criticisms of the literary system. We made ourselves open to questions and discussion, including in person. Would that our critics had ever done likewise!

I believe that the minimum we're required from the New York Times is a public retraction and apology. Lacking that, then a reasoned justification for the slur-- and the opportunity to respond to it.

I look forward to hearing from someone at the Times.

Thank you for your time.


Karl Wenclas

(I received a quick response from someone there, who promised to forward my letter to the Book Review editor. Which, I guess, is like having a serial killer adjudicate his own case. But let's see what happens.)

Thursday, August 16, 2012



The occasion of the publication of the Tom Bissell book of essays, Magic Hours, lifted the ban of any public mention of the Underground Literary Alliance (ULA) just long enough for establishment apparatchiks to take gratuitous shots at the now-inactive dissident literary group.

The lowest blow came from Garth Risk Hallberg in the still-widely circulated, and hugely influential, New York Times: 

Garth Hallberg called the ULA a group of "unpublishables."

This came in a discussion of Tom Bissell's essay on the Underground Literary Alliance, which Hallberg called in his review "Bissell's best piece of writing about writing." Garth Hallberg also talks of Bissell's "discovery that the 'inside literary world' as such no longer exists."

I find this a curious statement, in that when the ULA criticized the "inside literary world" we found that it very much exists, as the members of that world closed ranks to blackball us. Whether deliberately or instinctively-- like members of a bee hive-- they acted as a unit to stop all mention of us, everywhere, in print, online, on blogs; anyplace the Approved raised their heads. It was as if a switch were touched.

An example of the bee hive might be the fact that no one from said hive-- not even fairly marginal wannabes-- will publicly debate this question. They're certainly welcome to do so here. For that they'd have to disobey the on-off switch. They'd have to pull themselves from the marionette strings attached to their minds, their pens, and their keyboards.


What, in Garth Risk Hallberg's eyes, makes the writers of the Underground Literary Alliance unpublishable? I don't think he'll tell us. After his Bissell review appeared, I sent Hallberg two emails asking him this very question, as well as pointing him to my series of posts taking apart "diligent researcher" Tom Bissell's essay on the Underground Literary Alliance. (See my four "Believer" posts to the left, under "Fun Stuff.") I never received a reply from Mr. Hallberg.

Maybe I'm too insignificant to deserve a response. Yet if I can receive no respect from members of the "inside literary world," then what level of respect do outsider writers who've not received my past attention; who've never been players on any level; hope to receive from them?

Possibly Garth Risk Hallberg is simply unable to reply, has no answer, or is unwilling to engage in the kind of free and open discussion one would think would exist in a free and openly transparent literary world.


The ULA's writers couldn't be unpublishable due to the quality of our writing. All one has to do is go to a chain bookstore and peruse shelves and shelves of trash fiction of various genres ("Fantasy" the worst) of no quality whatsoever. I could provide numerous examples and quote from them. Do I need to?

Maybe the ULA's writers were and are unpublishable because our populist writings couldn't find a market. This is curious reasoning, in that more than a few Insider writers known to circulate at Manhattan cocktail parties, or who have highly placed friends, from Jon-Jon Goulian to Ben Marcus, find publication and lavish press attention even though their books-- as Marcus himself will admit-- aren't at all marketable. Books which, despite the many positive reviews, register few sales. This statement, ironically enough, applies to Tom Bissell's widely reviewed Magic Hours.

The ULA's writers sought to find a populist middle ground between tepid literary writing, at one pole, and junk pop fiction cranked out by the Big Six at the other. We attempted to present a variety of authors, from Wred Fright to Wild Bill Blackolive to Steve Kostecke, whose writing is fun but also uniquely distinctive-- writing from outside the cookie cutter-- and which is also, occasionally, meaningful and relevant. We offered the true sound of America now.

As for myself, you'd think that I showed enough literary cred over the years to not be automatically "unpublishable." You could see my North American Review essays from the 90's, such as this one-- when I showed I could play the literary game. Unavailable is a much better NAR essay-- my "Denisovich"-- about Detroit and about class in America that found print only because of a daring NAR editor, Robley Wilson Jr.


Garth Risk Hallberg is in one sense correct. The ULA's writers are indeed unpublishable. We became unpublishable because we questioned the Insider literary game, and revealed corruption about several of its major players. The way we were and are treated has similarities to the treatment of literary dissidents in the defunct Soviet Union. No, we weren't sent to labor camps, but then, only the most brazen of Russian dissident writers found that fate. Most were simply shut out of access to the literary system. American writers are subject to other forces. This isn't a society, as the Soviet Union was, where writers are provided with funding and a house-- as Solzhenitsyn was provided. Writers who are at the bottom of society to begin with, as several of the ULA's writers were and remain, are subject to the brutalities of unhinged economic forces. For some, the writing life is a struggle to survive. Over the last few years a few of the ULA's writers haven't survived.

If you read histories of the Soviet literary world (see Giovanni Grazzini's book on Solzhenitsyn), you'll find that literary dissidents faced the same dismissive attitude from Insider apparatchiks there as the ULA faced from literary apparatchiks here-- including being classified as, and called, "unpublishables."

I welcome a response.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Demi-Puppet of the Millennium?


At some point before the end of the year I hope to announce a series of demi-puppet awards. Right now I'm still assessing who best qualifies for what.


The Demi-Puppet of the Millennium will be that literary "journalist" who best embodies everything gone wrong with the profession. Such as: refusing to look into literary corruption, or helping to cover up exposures of corruption; protecting establishment approved writers, or writing unquestioning fawning suck-up pieces of same; and so on.


The novelist who's received awards and attention most out-of-proportion to achievement and ability. Now, if you think Jonathan Franzen has this category locked up, you're wrong. For instance, what about Jon-Jon Goulian, who received a $700,000 advance for a novel absolutely no one wanted to read?

But there are very many candidates in this category.


The Big Six publishing world bureaucrat who exemplifies the System's clueless money wasting; who's most responsible for American lit's lack of relevance and excitement. For instance-- who is Goulian's publisher? Agent? But it could take me months to scrutinize the many candidates. By then, the entire top-heavy edifice may have collapsed in a heap.

I'll have other categories and candidates as I think of them. Keep reading.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Plagiarism? What’s Plagiarism?

From my distant position outside official literary culture and approved media, I hear talk of a journalist, Fareed Zakaria, exposed as engaging in plagiarism.

Plagiarism? What’s plagiarism? Wasn’t that declared an obsolete concept by establishment literary darling Jonathan Lethem several years ago in Harper’s magazine? Were not strenuous efforts made to silence a writer—myself—discussing blatant examples of same engaged in by another system-approved writer (fellow member of the same clique as Lethem as a matter of fact); to quickly shut down all debate of the matter—and debate was shut down, thanks to the efforts of tools of the status quo like Maud Newton. Forgive me for naming names, I know that’s not done in Approved literary society, but I’d like to get straight the system-enforced idea of whether or not there remains such a concept or thing as that previously known by the name plagiarism?!

I was told, as I was being simultaneously banned from all discussion and excluded by all mention in polite literary society everywhere, that such a ridiculous idea as “plagiarism” was now obsolete; the new approach had been mandated by literary Power, by the friends of the very same individual who seemed to me clearly in black-and-white words side-by-side to have engaged in the behavior now forbidden to be mentioned but once known under the outlaw word plagiarism.

Plagiarism! The Great Jonathan Lethem (he has a MacArthur grant proving his greatness or at least his feckless obedience) mocked the very idea of plagiarism in his renowned unprincipled essay in Harper’s magazine while the claque of his Insider peers chortled at his convolutions of words and arguments of sophistry with glee. Now suddenly I hear again that banned word plagiarism! From the very media system that had apparently banned it! I realize that it was not banned after all, only in the instance of the literary community, the one instance which I and the ULA the dreaded Underground Literary Alliance had sought to make moralistic ethical noise about—the instance involving the unscrupulous unnamed friend of power, Friend of Eggers (another banned phrase), which often enough amounts to the very same thing.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Good Guy or Bad Guy?


After looking at the literary machine and a few of its players, we come to the question: What’s the truth about Dave Eggers? Is he in fact the image he portrays? Or is there a more ruthless side to him, a la the character Fake Face in my ebook novella Crime City USA?

Saint or Cynical Operator?

I’ll say up front that as a past leader of the now mothballed Underground Literary Alliance (ULA), I’m not objective about the matter. But, unlike almost anyone else, I have nothing to lose, and so I’m free to speculate.

The answer to the question comes down to whether Eggers believes his own presentation. Has he swallowed his own bullshit? If he has, it would explain his anger at critics. It’d be natural that he’d become hostile toward anyone who gets in the way of his sainthood.

On the other hand, the way he sets up and manipulates charities, and thereby his flawless image, could indicate the other possibility. His famed “Heartbreaking” “Staggering Genius” memoir for example was psychologically manipulative; hugely effective with those naive bourgie writers immediately younger than himself. Anyone older than Eggers was immune to the narcissistic presentation—unless they lived in a bubble all their life.

Was the manipulation—which continues to this day, obviously—instinctive, or part of a conscious plan? This is important in knowing how shrewd he is. Maybe he really is a naive good guy who out of pure instincts has accidentally fallen into his empire. If true, this would be limiting. It would show him to be as strictly limited in intelligence and smarts as his narrowly focused acolytes.


Whether Dave Eggers is innocent good guy, evil bad guy, or a jammed-together psychotic hybrid of both possibilities, determines his attitude toward both colleagues and congregants. The Saint would feed on their worship and adulation. The Operator would have nothing but contempt for their gullibility and sheep-like behavior. I’d have to think that even the Saint would begin to question their unquestioning obedience. Who could possibly respect the stream of blindly sycophantic reviews—see Pico Iyer—which compare The Dave, marginalized but powerful cult leader, with the likes of Hemingway?

What do we make of the title of the gang’s current flagship, The Believer? Is that how the cult leaders see the magazine’s standard reader? Is it a tongue-in-cheek and very cynical mocking of the cult; the game?


While it’d be difficult for anyone who can see the world clearly to respect those who believe the p.r., Eggers’s colleagues are a different matter. Let’s take them in stages.

Jonathan Lethem and Ben Marcus. The gang’s front men “intellectuals,” a notion which, for anyone who’s actually read them and tried to decipher their “ideas,” is comical. They’re stooges propped up by today’s cronyistic literary system. They survive strictly on cronyism and a manipulated media. Moreover, the largesse, unlike that given to Eggers, is not of their own making. Do you think Eggers respects these guys? Really? I think Eggers knows that in a debate, say, with myself, the two stooges would be ripped into pieces. He’d have to know it, if he has the sense he appears to have.

Daniel Handler. Lemony Snicket’s attacks upon myself and this blog, using the name “Jimmy Grace,” including his crank emails and phony mail, were ridiculously childish. There’s a reason his friends recommended he become a children’s author. It’s clearly the way his mind operates. Despite how much money Handler has accumulated—no doubt more than Eggers—he remains secondary in any relationship with The Dave. Thuggish, simplistic, not very bright but with childlike malice, a one-dimensional thinker: Handler is easily manipulated. One sees him as an overgrown kid. “Hey guys! Let’s torture some cats! Let’s get our magnifying glasses and burn up some bees! Let’s throw rocks at Mr. Parker’s dog! No?” Handler frowns because the gang won’t go along with his own ideas. But Dave can certainly think of one or two things which will make his half-witted friend happy.

Hiram F. “Rick” Moody III. Moody is a different matter. Before Eggers came along, Rick Moody was the coming young establishment writer. He’s proved his adeptness at gaming the literary system. It took Eggers to take such machinations and shell games to another level. Eggers has to respect Moody, without seeing him as his equal. Dave Eggers has done things bigger and better. He also knows that Rick, who comes from Big Money on both sides of the family, has had an easier path. Moody doesn’t have Eggers’s will or energy. Like Handler, Rick Moody has fit naturally into a secondary position in the McSweeney’s operation. He offers, due to his passive personality, not a shred of a threat. Don’t think for a moment that people aren’t like animals—like a pack of dogs. Within his gang, Dave is the Big Dog and can only be the Big Dog. His associates are instinctively accommodating.

Vendela Vida. The Dave’s wife and closest colleague. I can’t say I know much about her. Only what I’ve heard. She seems to be ambitious, with a powerful ego. Whether or not The Dave is in fact very ruthless, she’s said to be. Perhaps Vendela is the “bad guy” side to his personality?


As I stated in the post previous to this one, only one literary figure has faced up to Dave Eggers and gotten away with it. (We in the ULA didn’t.) Eggers has since done nothing to remedy the situation, which is telling.

This causes us to wonder about his ultimate survival in the literary game.

I believe his prospects are better than those of many. With his emphasis on nonprofits, Eggers has built his empire to survive the loss of Big Publishing and Big Media. The future is bright, if he survives long enough to see it. It’s within the present shaky literary system that one questions his prospects, based on his old-fashioned gang leader personality. The system draws ever more toward consensus and integration, in reaction to the ebook chaos outside the establishment castle. Witness the Commisar-like arguments of Insider lit figures such as Leon Wieseltier issuing panicked screeds against individual economic behavior and the liberating freedom of ebooks.

Despite the stage scenery which justifies the fundraising, Dave Eggers appears to be apolitical and non-ideological. His recent actions bolster this viewpoint—including the Gunter Grass controversy. Particularly in his Saint side, he’s more interested in the cult of self—while other powerful figures on the literary scene are interested in power for the sake of power. Like him, they may want a benevolent “liberal” dictatorship overseeing literature, but they want a dictatorship of the machine. Could Eggers blend in as a low-profile cog in the larger operation? Not likely.

In temperament, Dave Eggers is Dutch Schultz, not Lucky Luciano. The consolidating, paranoid machine allows him his territory—for now.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

The Monolith


Timothy Garton Ash’s book Solidarity: The Polish Revolution is interesting for a number of reasons, not least that his look at Poland’s Soviet-style bureaucracy in the 1980s reminds me of today’s literary establishment in the United States. An extreme statement? Not really—not when you look thoroughly into things. Most interesting in Ash’s history is the “moderate” functionary Rakowski, who managed at the time to be all things to all people.

The U.S. literary world has a power elite. All divisions within that power elite—good luck finding any—are differences of tactics only. All sides have an underlying philosophy—postmodernism—whether tacit or acknowledged. All segments have one overarching principle: power. The belief in their power within the system and the need to hang on to that power. Everything else is secondary.


Would you believe that at one time, ten or twelve years ago, there existed journalists who criticized Dave Eggers and the Mcsweeney’s Gang? A few of them dared to ask questions at the Dave’s readings, and faced his hostility. There were evident signs, then, that he was a fierce control freak. There occurred even one or two controversies. This is all ancient history. Today no journalist dares take Eggers or his gang on. Those who did ten years ago were banished or destroyed. I can think of only one individual who butt heads with him and survived—the person had his own power base; support from an important part of the power elite. Even he though, these last six or so years, has been quiet on the topic. Once you’re ensconced within the system you don’t make waves.

No journalists will examine the McSweeney’s operation—though there are very many “journalists” on the order of Katie Ryder writing puff pieces about the gang’s authors. No real coverage—though there is much more to look at now than there was back in the day. For instance, the many relationships between McSweeney’s and Big Six publishing, or the proliferating profusion of McSweeney non-profits collecting funds and awards, establishing relationships with local governments, the overall effect of which is a massive, and very positive, p.r. campaign.

The problem is that within the literary machine, there’s no such thing as an independent journalist or writer. Every one of them is a Rakowski, with abject loyalty to the literary “party” which controls everything. To the machine.

Is Maud Newton, for instance, an independent journalist? In her hundred-thousands of words about the lit world, on her blog, or for outlets as prestigious as the New York Times, has she ever said anything significantly critical about the McSweeney’s gang? Maud was in fact one of their early acolytes. What I know of her is that she was instrumental in shutting down a debate about an uncomfortable aspect of the writing career of one Tom Bissell. The arguments used at the time to defend him were pure sophistry. Then the walls of protection about the matter came down entirely. Those who’d attempted to be open-minded about the matter (I never pretended to be) were silenced.

Or Bissell himself? He poses as an independent journalist. But of course, concerning literature and how it operates in this country, he’s not, and could never be. He wrote what was supposed to be a takedown of the Underground Literary Alliance (ULA), though he knew nothing about us and made little effort to learn about us. Why has he never examined, say, the McSweeney’s operation—a subject about which he knows a thousand times more than he did the ULA? An operation which is, after all, a vastly more significant target than we ever were.

Bissell could never write such an essay. He’s been published by McSweeney’s, and his recent book of essays is published by them. He remains what he was when he wrote the ULA essay: a functionary. Even were he not, he couldn’t say anything. The last ex-McSweeneyite who said anything critical about Dave Eggers—one of the gang’s early writers—in a national magazine, within a week issued a public apology. The effect of power and leverage. No writer who wants a career within the machine can afford to take on one of the machine’s major, and most ruthless, players.

The result, as I often say, is a literary world of no dissent; a world of conformity.


Is there competition within the machine, between the major players?

There’s a lot less than you’d think. For instance, the two most influential, and trendiest, literary journals in the country are the Brooklyn-based n+1, and in San Francisco, the current McSweeney’s flagship, The Believer. The two journals should be competing against each other aggressively. Coke versus Pepsi. If they were subject to market forces they would be—and the literary scene would be much livelier. Instead, a tacit truce exists between them. This is because they’re not subject to market forces. Both entities are tax shelters, which depend for their existence and their success on patronage from monied people. They may even both approach, for that patronage, that sponsorship, the very same people. What’s certain is that neither of them can afford to alienate any segment of the monied elite. Neither can afford to disturb literature’s power elite, which floats along most smoothly, like an old-style Eastern European dictatorship, in a sea of consensus, with no room for dissent or disagreement.

Monday, August 06, 2012

Inside or Outside?

Here's another example of puff piece journalism, by Garth Risk Hallberg, in this instance at the most powerful flagship of them all:

What can we say about the review, and where it appears, and so about Bissell and Hallberg themselves? (Or how the review is written?) Are these two writers Insiders or Outsiders? What do you think?

Are they not fully Insiders-- as Inside the literary power system as one can possibly get? Can we speculate that said book wouldn't have been reviewed-- and the review wouldn't have been so positive-- if the book weren't published by McSweeney's? When's the last time a writer or journalist took on the McSweeney's empire? What was the result?

Garth Hallberg of course is sympathetic to Bissell's book out of natural inclination. They're both members of America's intellectual "New Class." Their attitudes are similar, or they wouldn't be where they are. Their viewpoints are acceptable to the literary and media status quo. Hallberg is also at least subliminally aware of how power works in the literary world. He's making his way inside the system. One doesn't rise within the apparatus by questioning it.

We have in literature today not intellectuals, but bureaucrats.

(I invite either Garth Hallberg or Tom Bissell to comment. But you see, they can't. That's not allowed.)

Puff Piece Journalism

THE PROBLEM with the coverage of American literature by the establishment media is that both the writers given coverage and those "journalists" who cover them have the same mindset. The result isn't journalism, but unquestioning sycophancy. This was evident in coverage of the recent Tom Bissell book of essays. (I cover the accuracy of one of the essays in a series of posts linked to the left, under "Fun Stuff.") The reviewers at esteemed places like the L.A. Times and the New York Times questioned nothing. Hardly a peep was raised about Bissell's past controversies. The subject's own viewpoint-- Bissell's-- was accepted without question. This isn't journalism, but something else. it's important for what it signifies about the accepted literary world.

This was true even in the so-called "Leftist" journal Guernica magazine. Note the interview with Bissell by young "journalist" Katie Ryder.

Journalist? Is Katie Ryder the future of journalism? She swallows the Tom Bissell presentation of his work and himself wholly. Not one tough question is asked of him. Not even a mildly dissenting question.

What's really happening is that Bissell, Ryder, and the editors at Guernica are all members of the intellectual nomenklatura in the U.S. They make their way by going along with status quo power. Despite the presentations they make, the postures, not one aspect of literature and the literary world is questioned. Blind acceptance.

After some lobbying, Guernica did post two comments of mine critical of the interview. Two later comments were never posted. I suppose they went too far. Free speech? Open debate? A level playing field? These ideals don't exist anywhere in today's literary world-- which is why we find only conformity, accompanied by a stagnant art form.

Friday, August 03, 2012

Dream On, Sorkin


I’ve never seen the show, but I’ve read much of late about the Aaron Sorkin penned “The Newsroom,” which gets a ton of positive publicity from the mandarins of established media. Apparently the show has a Cronkite/Rather/Brokaw-style news anchor pontificating to the mass audience from high above. One can see why the elite loves it. Their dream is a continuation of cultural, intellectual, and political business-as-usual, with a select group of “New Class” authorities telling the rest of us how to think and what to believe. It’s the old-fashioned vertical structure which is swiftly vanishing, not just in the world of television, but the realm of literature also. The news anchor played by Jeff Daniels may be the status quo with a happy face slapped onto it, but it’s still the status quo. Aristocracy more than democracy. The elite believe they can have a warm-and-fuzzy aristocracy; a benevolent intellectual dictatorship. They’re scamming one another and they’re scamming us. They’re against the always-elusive 1%, they say, but they’re never against themselves.

The same attitude, of course, dominates the established literary scene. A “New Class” nomenklatura centered in a handful of intellectual flagships like New York Times Book Review and the New York Review of Books believe they, the authorities, can continue to determine the direction of literature, and decide who are the nation’s important writers. Their choices of late have been increasingly moldy and irrelevant. (See my recent remarks regarding Ben Marcus.) There can be no peace with this crowd. They’ll never willingly give up a scintilla of their position, their monopoly of thought, their lofty privilege.

As for myself, I’m in with the mob, down with the masses, eking out an existence on the streets, but hope to someday be back with a new rebel army to wipe the mandarins and their crumbly aristocratic castles off the map. That is, if market forces don’t level their world first.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Brains without Morals

Shocking! A New Yorker magazine writer caught making up quotes! An establishment writer without ethics or scruples! When has that ever happened before?

It's interesting that Jonah Lehrer is a neuroscientist. Not a good last few weeks for neuroscientists. Perhaps we should consider taking scientists off their pedestal.

Bureaucracy and the Left

FOR MANY YEARS I wondered why the so-called Leftist media in this country, centered most vociferously around publications like The Nation and Harpers, as well as flagships like The New Yorker, Slate, and Salon, never looked or acted very much the way Leftists would be expected to look and act. Their staffs are invariably from affluent backgrounds, and educated at elite institutions; bastions of privilege. Their cultural choices are always of refined gentrified taste and the causes they most care about involve individualistic bourgeois self-indulgence. No one in their ranks is authentically working class, and the working class for them, when not an afterthought, is simply a declared excuse to increase their own power.

Their solutions for every issue involve the creation or expansion of bureaucracy somewhere, with the attendant increased power of bureaucrats.

What exactly is “Left” about this? The leading Leftist theorists from the past century, from Lenin and Trotsky to Georg Lukacs, disdained bureaucracy. The bureaucratic state as we know it was the creation of Bismarck. The most successful builder of state capitalism was the well-known Soviet dictator known as Joseph Stalin. This is the model U.S. media “Leftists” ask us to follow. They’re proponents of a vertical, hierarchical structure. “Power to the people” is the last thing they want.

If such media-member ideologues aren’t really Leftist, then what are they? Based on their similarity to advocates of state bureaucracy last century, on the Right and the Left, one can legitimately describe such folks as totalitarian, albeit one of the milder versions.

This explains, as nothing else explains, their hostility last decade to the working class upstarts of the Underground Literary Alliance. We called for the leveling of hierarchies; for art from the populace upward, not imposed from above. We advocated horizontal participation in culture. This was as anathema to the apparatchiks of U.S. establishment media, as the horizontalists of Solidarity in Poland circa 1981 were to the political bureaucrats controlling their society then. There’s not much difference between the two examples of immovable out-of-touch power.

The struggle of mankind always is the battle of people against power.