THE TREATMENT OF U.S. LITERARY DISSENT
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-- www.jstor.org/stable/25125837-- 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.