Monday, October 08, 2012

Was Tom Bissell’s Essay Malicious?

Was Tom Bissell’s Believer essay about the Underground Literary Alliance, reprinted this year in Magic Hours by McSweeney’s Books, of malicious intent?

One way to judge is to look at reactions to the essay from recent reviewers.

The very influential Kirkus Reviews said this:

“Bissell can tear into his subjects with a ferocity and brutal wit that recalls Dwight MacDonald, as when he writes about the would-be literary provocateurs of the Underground Literary Alliance.”

In her review of Bissell’s Magic Hours in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Maria Bustillos calls the ULA “a bunch of noisy, not-too-talented zinesters who tried to form a literary movement.” Maria Bustillos goes on to applaud a Tom Bissell cheap shot against one of the best zine writers around, Urban Hermitt. I’m sure Bustillos has never read Hermitt’s work. Tom Bissell read only an excerpt.

By the way, Tom Bissell is listed on the L.A. Review of Books masthead as a Contributing Editor.

Lesser lights, taking their cues from the Bissell essay, also took their shots. For instance, video gamer Matthew Rickart, while applauding Bissell’s book, called ULAers “bitter children” and “hackneyed.”

Brian Wolowitz, at the site Spectrum Culture, first notes Bissell’s “ambivalent” attitude toward the ULA, then claims “he often attempts to understand or defend easily dismissible figures like the clownishly clueless ULA members. . . .”

If Brian concludes we’re merely clownish, then what kind of defense of us has Bissell made?

The answer is given in a Tom Scocca Bookforum piece on Tom Bissell, in which Scocca calls Bissell’s ULA essay “a masterpiece of tactics.” It’s exactly that, if the essay was able to convince some writers that Bissell was being even-handed at the same time he eviscerated us.

Part of the problem is that the natural sympathies of most of these reviewers is with Bissell, in that he’s placed himself where they seek to place themselves, within the approved literary hierarchy, accepting and defending the status quo. The other part of the problem is that their view of the Underground Literary Alliance is filtered through the prism of Tom Bissell’s biased and distorted essay. They accept his premises as a given.


Anonymous said...

Hello, Maria Bustillos here. I wouldn't dream of writing a book review without familiarizing myself with the subject(s) a bit. I'm not hard to find online: why not write and ask me, rather than baldly assert that you are "sure" of what you can't possibly know?

You're kind of making Bissell's point, here.

I take your point that the "literary establishment" such as it is can be cliquish and in-groupy, but in this case I found Bissell's assessment both accurate and (forgive me) hilarious.

Every writer there is has his detractors. With any luck we will have more and more of them!! Lord knows there are loads of people out there who can't stand my stuff, either. Who scream in agony at the sight of my byline, probably. Big deal!

All best wishes,


King Wenclas said...

My mistake. I thought I was emailing you, but I had the wrong email address. ("dorkism" instead of "dorkismo.") Unforgiveable sloppiness on my part.
But since you're here, perhaps you can tell us what research you did regarding the ULA? It couldn't have been even to examine our web site, because until two weeks ago, the ULA site has been unavailable for over a year.
Have you read Hermitt's zines? Any of my ebooks? Any titles from the ULA Press?
Have you met and spoken with ULAers, to discover what our ideas are, what we're about?
The no emails cuts both ways. I'm the most prominent ULAer, yet when you were doing your research on us-- such as it was-- I received nary a note or email.
Your public stance is to be on the side of the downtrodden; the 99%-- yet when given a chance to stand up for the only American writers group authentically devoted to the 99% you failed to.
You believe Bissell's essay is accurate. Really? Have you read my four-part examination of his essay-- a series available via links under "fun Stuff" on the left side of the main page of this blog.
You seem to think it's no big deal that a group of outsider writers are unfairly smeared in publications across the culture, from the New York Times on down. "Get used to it"??
Oh, we're well used to the distortions and put-downs. That doesn't mean we accept them.
At least the Times printed a letter from me presenting the ULA side of things. Will LA Review of Books do likewise?
Thanks for posting. I welcome a dialogue.

Anonymous said...

Hello King W., and thanks for this. In answer to your question: I spun out a few dozen links from a Google search and from the ULA's Wikipedia page--the interview with Hermitt, the NYT piece about the Amazon commenter glitch, etc. Everything I learned from my researches corroborated Bissell's essay. In fact, he was a lot more generous toward your group and its motives than I would be in his place.

Where you guys make your worst bloomer is in suggesting that readers of "establishment" works, like me, are mere sheep who will gladly consume whatever is put in front of them by traditional publishers. In reality, "establishment" readers and writers are gathered together for a legit reason: they're participating in a real culture together, with yes, its own standards of discourse. Though literary writing is a tiny, tiny market, even by the small standards of publishing. The only people who are making five cents writing nowadays are not literary writers, they are the Dean Koontzes of the world (and The Oatmeal, author of How to Tell If Your Cat Is Plotting to Kill You, today's Amazon No. 1.)

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, for starters. But anyway, I was supposed to be reviewing this Bissell book of 14 essays, the ULA being the subject of just one of those essays. Yet you make the grandiloquent claim that I failed in my responsibility to the 99% because I didn't email you to learn more about the ULA for this book review.

What I think is, if you get back to your writing, and work super hard and publish some great stuff that people want to read, that will do about a billion times more to further the ULA's stated objectives.

With best wishes,


a.b. said...

I am truly amazed that Bustillo was able to get a good idea of the ULA's writing from a few web searches. When I became interested in the ULA earlier this year, I ended up going to Amazon to purchase a couple of book and zines because the online content wasn't sufficient to give me any idea.

King Wenclas said...

It's especially inexcusable where Urban Hermitt is concerned. Bissell's was a cheap shot against this writer, and Bustillos reprinted the cheap shot without having read a single one of Hermitt's zines. Yes, Urban Hermitt plays with language, in the tradition of writers as diverse as Shakespeare and James Joyce-- yet at the same time is completely understandable, contrary to Bissell's false presentation.
I have nothing against Ms. Bustillos. She's the victim of Bissell's distortions and her own shoddy research. (A little digging would've made her realize the context within which Bissell's essay was originally written; the impetus behind it.)
Bustillos should be on the ULA side of things. Perhaps someday she'll wake up and see that the ULA campaign was a battle of literary ideologies; of populism vs. elitism; relevance vs. solipsism and intellectual nonsense. The People versus Power-- and Maria Bustillos is on the wrong side of this debate.
Thanks for reading.

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