Thursday, October 11, 2012

Response to Maria Bustillos

(This post is a continuation of a discussion with journalist Maria Bustillos in the Comments section of a previous post, "Was Tom Bissell's Essay Malicious?" I'm bringing the discussion here so I can post a link, but also because I think the issues discussed are important. Maria's review of Bissell's book is visible here:  Yes, the essay on the ULA is only one of fourteen essays in Bissell's book-- but it's prominently mentioned and applauded in Bustillos' review, as in many others.)

(In her most recent comment, Maria gives a variation of the standard "Be quiet and just write" motif, but also says this: "Your obsession with the ULA's 'activism' comes at a cost. Take this assertion in your reply, about my 'public stance'-- I deny having such a thing at all--.")

First, Maria, everyone who writes for public consumption, as you do, has a public stance. But I was referring specifically to you having signed the very public Occupy Writers petition. You also wrote an essay for them in support of the Occupy movement and the 99%, visible here:

I'm trying to square your review-- clearly scornful of the Underground Literary Alliance-- and your further comments in support of Bissell's essay, including your dismissal of the ULA's activism, with this part of your essay:

"Most of all, the movement is a public demonstration of ethics. It is making a new class of people with whom we can identify politically: one that offers sympathy rather than scorn to those who are suffering in this economic climate; that castigates the culture of greed, rather than championing it; that vilifies rather than admires those who want to grab everything that isn’t nailed down; that demands that wealth be shared fairly; that seeks to give everyone a voice, rather than trying to persuade us that there are important people who are to be listened to, as opposed to the many, who don’t count."

Is this not a public stance from you on the side of the underdog?

I agree with your statement about ethics. Those of the ULA's protests which gained us the most animus from the establishment literary world were those which exposed unethical behavior in the clubby halls of the literary world, particularly involving the arts grants process, when we found some of the richest and most successful writers in America receiving taxpayer or tax sheltered funds, in some cases awarded by cronies or friends. We can discuss the specific instances if you like. In his essay on the ULA, Tom Bissell treated that activism in a distorted manner, portraying us, bizarrely, as some kind of authority harassing a "Jean Valjean" who'd abused the system on numerous occasions, an individual who instead of being found on America's impoverished streets-- like some ULAers in recent years-- was more usually discovered at the center of swanky galas at $10,000 tables or at yacht parties, all of the affairs-- all of it-- paid for by tax-sheltered monies from some of the richest individuals in America.

We documented all of this, Maria. I can bring forth the documentation and details if you like. The connection between arts foundations and their plutocratic benefactors remains a scandal. Indeed it's contrary to every professed principle of the Occupy movement.

Our exposes were of course only part of our activism. We also engaged in some literary theater, such as popping a balloon at a staid Vanity Fair reading (heavens!) or speaking up in Beat fashion (no potato salad thrown!) at a phony "Howl" celebration, to draw attention to our cause. Everything we did seems minor today compared to Occupy actions. Our crime was to espouse Occupy ideals ten years too soon.

I'm amazed, Maria, that you could read Tom Bissell's essay on us and not see through its distortions, the way in the essay he turns reality on its head, making into the powerful the powerless (the ULA), giving us power we could never have. As well as the bizarrely inaccurate connections to Lenin and Stalin. As well as  the "class war" "don't look at wealth or background, or those tax shelters" accusations more expected of a Mitt Romney staffer, and not from another signer of the Occupy Writers petition like Tom Bissell.

Regarding the establishment lit world, which you defend. Yes, it's a tiny, tiny part of the market. Why is that, Maria, when it dominates media attention, getting the choice review slots in places like the New York Times and The New Yorker, and write-ups in mainstream mags like Esquire, People, and Vanity Fair? (See, for instance, the lavish attention given to a novel by "We're all MFAs now" author Chad Harbach.) Could it be that the public just doesn't want the establishment's precious/elitist/postmodernist style of writing, so self-involved and out-of-touch with the real concerns of the American populace? Sorry, but when I pick up a novel by a Ben Marcus, then look at the hard Detroit streets around me right now, I see no connection. Only irrelevance-- a talking to a very tiny privileged clique. Yet his is the kind of American literature which is approved and applauded by reviewers like you, Maria Bustillos, and represented in the academies as what American literature is about. The ULA message was and remains a call for a return to content over craft, substance over style, good old American literary populism, and its populist values, which happen also to be in many ways Occupy values.

As to why I don't just work on my own writing. Oh, I do. I have four ebooks for sale now, Maria, which in various ways look at the realities of America now. They're available under my King Wenclas moniker at Nook Books and Amazon's Kindle Store. I invite you to review them.

Needless to say, though, it's difficult to gain traction as a writer when reviews are circulated high and low, far and wide, that refer to a great populist literary group one is closely associated with as a collection of "untalented" "unpublishable" writers. It's a distortion. It's a blanket smear. I have no choice but to fight it, in every way possible. Thank you.


King Wenclas said...

Where's Maria? I hope she hasn't suddenly vanished. What I find curious about establishment writers is that they'll scorn the ULA as ostensibly a collection of dummies, yet when it comes to actual discussion, THEY're the ones who can't sustain an argument. (Cowardly anonymous attackers excepted.) Time and again I find their arguments, rationales, and justifications to be paper thin.
Needless to say, we couldn't expect Mr. Bissell to come on here and defend Ms. Bustillos, or his own essay. Ain't gonna happen.

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