Monday, December 31, 2012

More Inaccuracies


Johannes Lichtman has requested that I point out any inaccuracies about the ULA in his Oxford American review of Tom Bissell’s book Magic Hours, published by Believer Books in 2012. “—your issues are matters of opinion rather than matters of fact—“ Lichtman says. He asks “—if you can point to a specific sentence I wrote that’s inaccurate—,” and says to make it “a provable matter.” “—show me the specific sentence where I (not Bissell) wrote something inaccurate—“

Johannes Lichtman sounds more like an attorney than a writer. He sets the bar high. But as Lichtman crams more slurs into a single paragraph at the top of his review than I’ve seen, perhaps I can come up with something.

(The review:

Here’s a possibility. Lichtman says about Bissell: “—instead of simply eviscerating the ULA—which would be the simplest thing to do, given how obnoxious they are—“

Obnoxious? Anyone who seeks to make change is perceived as obnoxious by the defenders of a status quo. Was Occupy Wall Street obnoxious? The literary world embraces change, as long as it’s nowhere near their own cozy realm.

I’m more interested in the eviscerating part of the phrase. For months I’ve been inviting Tom Bissell to come onto this blog to defend his essay. This great essayist of “brutal wit” has had plenty of opportunities to eviscerate me. “—the simplest thing—“ Not so simple.

We’re talking about Bissell’s essay. Not mine. I didn’t write the article. He did. Tom Bissell thought highly enough of it to republish it in his book of essays.

That very same essay about the ULA, moreover, has been praised in the literary establishment’s most prestigious outlets. In places like the New York Times, Kirkus Reviews, L.A. Review of Books, and now the Oxford American. The entire great McSweeney’s organization continues to stand behind the essay, which must mean it’s a wonderful thing. So why won’t anyone defend it? “The simplest thing.”


Which brings us to another inaccuracy from Mr. Lichtman. He says about the ULA, quoting Bissell in part, “Most of them ‘could not write (his/her) way out of an issue of Ranger Rick.’”

Here Johannes Lichtman has amplified the original Tom Bissell slur, by adding “Most of them”—when Bissell was referring to a single ULA writer. Very sloppy for such an advocate of accuracy.

But the statement is false even when applied to Bissell’s original target. “Ranger Rick” appeared in the pages of The Believer with a letter responding to Bissell’s smear essay, and did so quite adequately. “Ranger Rick” held his own well against award-winning essayist Tom Bissell. It’s unfortunate the exchange is no longer available on the Believer web site. 

What of Lichtman’s “Most of” statement?

Johannes Lichtman’s statement is a lie when applied to the ULA’s six founders: the original team. “Ranger Rick” currently works as a professional journalist, as does another founder, who has worked as a staff writer for the Washington Times. Another founder worked as a staff writer for several years at the Chicago Reader, has taught English Composition or such at an Illinois college, and has a couple small press books in print.

That’s three. Half. We need only me to make a “Most”: four of six.

Before I became radioactive, I wrote several pieces for reputable literary publications, including two solicited 8,000-word essays in 1994 for an award-winning literary journal based in Iowa (America’s oldest literary publication), and in 2000, a solicited book review for Bookforum.

(Strangely enough, after the Underground Literary Alliance made waves, no one’s asked me to write a thing.)

Four of six. “Most” of our main people can be proven to write better than Ranger Rick.

Note: I’ve lost track of one of the six, writing wise, though I bumped into him in Philly awhile back, before I left to visit Detroit. This person was our token Ivy Leaguer, a Williams grad. He’s an intelligent, sober, competent writer.

The sixth? That would be swaggering Steve Kostecke, whose health problems, wild lifestyle, and unwillingness to compromise compromised his potential as a writer. Founding the ULA, and achieving as a result a host of mendacious and cowardly demi-puppet enemies, may have been a mistake. Steve died in 2011, in the spring.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Power of McSweeney’s


WHEN I discovered the Johannes Lichtman review of Magic Hours in the Oxford American, a review which smears the Underground Literary Alliance in its first paragraph, I sent Lichtman a brief email asserting that Tom Bissell’s essay was dishonest and filled with distortions. Lichtman’s response was, predictably, filled with condescension, defensiveness, and hostility. He said, “—show me the specific sentence where I (not Bissell) wrote something inaccurate—“

I found the sentence he’s looking for at the very outset, before Lichtman’s review itself, before any Tom Bissell quotes, when Lichtman describes Magic Hours as “—a book from a small, independent publisher.”

How small and independent—how “indie”—is the McSweeney’s outfit?

I could write a book on the matter, but I don’t have the space here for a book. I made a brief examination of the McSweeney’s organization. I found:

-McSweeney’s chief Dave Eggers is published by one of the biggest book companies in the business, Random House, which in turn is owned by the gigantic media conglomerate Bertelsmann. All paperback versions of Dave’s novels are published by Random House.

-Dave Eggers is celebrated by the literary establishment, as evidenced by his having won a Literarian Award from the National Book Foundation, and been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

-McSweeney’s is regularly involved in joint publishing ventures with these huge outfits. For instance, the yearly Best American Non-Required Reading series is a joint project with Houghton-Mifflin. The relationship has been ongoing for ten years.

-Eggers wife Vendela Vida, co-editor of McSweeney’s flagship The Believer, is published by HarperCollins, owned by the Rupert Murdoch media empire.

-Believer co-editor Heidi Julavits is published by Doubleday, part of Random House, which is part of Bertelsmann.

-Regular Believer contributor and long-time ULA antagonist Daniel Handler is a hugely successful author estimated to be worth a few hundred million dollars. His books are cranked out by two corporate publishers, HarperCollins and Little, Brown. Here’s an article about the author, from the New York Times, which discusses Handler’s immense wealth:

-National TV celebrity Amy Sedaris is regular contributor to The Believer. She does a monthly column for the journal entitled “Sedaritives.”

-Other regular contributors to The Believer are successful, award-winning authors published by the “Big Six,” who also carry clout within the halls of literature. Rick Moody and Jonathan Lethem are two of them.

-McSweeney’s cultivates relationships with international celebrities who are themselves controlled by conglomerates. In 2010, McSweeney’s published a collection of writing edited by famed movie director Judd Apatow. Contributors included Jon Stewart, David Sedaris, Adam Sandler, and Steve Martin, as well as big-name dead writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald. Most recently, McSweeney’s published a book by internationally known rock musician David Byrne.

-Big name authors published by flagship boutique journal McSweeney’s include Jonathan Franzen and Joyce Carol Oates.

-The McSweeney’s gang has a business relationship with at least one of the influential media outlets which review their books. Note this announcement at from 4/15/10 in which Salon editor Kerry Lauerman announced “Our new partnership with McSweeney’s.”

Incidentally, in 2012 Tom Bissell, himself a former Salon writer, was the subject of a gushy profile by Salon writer Katie Ryder titled “Secrets of Creation,” about Bissell’s McSweeney’s-published book.

-Dave Eggers and McSweeney’s books are regularly reviewed and lauded in America’s three main establishment book review outlets, New York Times Book Review, the New York Review of Books, and The New Yorker. This is evidence of a large profile and major media approval. Eggers is regularly profiled in large circulation glossies like Vanity Fair.

-McSweeney’s has established relationships with city bureaucracies not just in San Francisco, their home base, and Brooklyn, but across the country. For example, the City of Philadelphia named Dave Eggers’ What Is the What the selection for its “One Book, One Philadelphia” celebration for 2008, the novel the centerpiece of lectures, panel discussions, exhibits, and other activities throughout the city.

-One of the fundraising arms of the McSweeney’s empire is 826 National, founded by Dave and Vendela, an educational service with chapters in Los Angeles, Ann Arbor, San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, Seattle, Brooklyn, and Washington D.C. These outlets include boutique retail stores.

Supporters of 826 National include notable public figures James Franco, Robin Williams, Zadie Smith, Phil Jackson, Ira Glass, Jon Stewart, Spike Jonze—who co-authored a movie screenplay with Dave Eggers—and many others.

Board members of 826 National, in addition to Dave Eggers, include a Director of Corporate Communications at J.P. Morgan; an “Investor” at Comatus Capital; a California Deputy Attorney General, the Deputy Counsel to the Mayor of New York City; a Vice President at Time Warner Cable; a Senior Vice President and Senior Portfolio Manager at Morgan Stanley Smith Barney; and others.

Major donors to 826 National include Google and Microsoft.


These aren’t slurs, Mr. Lichtman, though Dave Eggers and his gang may take them as such. They’re documented fact.

“Dave Eggers is the most powerful individual in today’s U.S. literary world,” is an opinion.


Here’s another take on the McSweeney’s organization:

Note that this piece is from 2002, when journalists and writers were still free to express truths about the literary world. Yet hints about “backlash” from the literary establishment’s media lapdogs are present in the article.

Since 2002, McSweeney’s has grown only more influential and powerful.


When Johannes Lichtman, at an Oxford American blog devoted to indie literature, designates the McSweeney’s organization as “a small, independent publisher,” is this accurate?


(Buy the satirical novel The McSweeney’s Gang at Nook or Kindle.)

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Reasons to Defend the ULA

Why do I continue to defend the Underground Literary Alliance against overwhelming odds?

Maybe only in memory of key co-founder of the ULA, Steve Kostecke, who died last year. I’ve heard he’d been looking forward to the group’s revival. He always strongly believed in the ULA’s ideals.

Can I allow those ideals to be ruthlessly crushed into the ground?

Those who continue to attack the ULA are attacking a defunct organization. Over a year ago, the citizen journalist site iNewp published a report from me titled “A Tale of Two Literary Worlds.” The brief essay outlined the ULA’s fate. No date is given at the post. It went up some time in the fall of 2011. Note that I pointedly used as reference point not the McSweeney’s crowd, but another group of writers.

2011 was a bad year for the remnants of the ULA organization.

Was 2012 much better? It witnessed the republication of Tom Bissell’s essay on us, an essay filled with untruths and misrepresentations. This reappearance was an excuse for segments of the established literary world to engage in their own slurs against the ULA, beginning with a Kirkus Reviews piece in February which applauded Bissell’s “ferocity and brutal wit” against us. Many shots from other reviewers followed. Even in the New York Times.

Possibly the worst of them is a recent (11/27/12) hit piece by Johannes Lichtman at the esteemed Oxford American. Lichtman’s short review is loaded with smears and inaccuracies, including at least one outright lie.

Without realizing it, Johannes Lichtman has done us a favor. In condensing many (by no means all) of Tom Bissell’s slurs against the ULA into a short piece, Lichtman emphasizes the mendacity of Bissell’s essay, revealing it as the hit piece it was intended to be. I’ll have more to say about this review and the motives behind it.

A year-long assault against a defunct organization for downtrodden writers—the detractors backed by great power and money. What was the ULA’s great crime? Exposing corruption in the literary grants scene, involving those at the highest levels of establishment literature. You don’t disturb those kind of players and easily get away with it. We find the tools of such players acting with malice again and again against the slightest evidence of the memory of literary dissent, using the lit world’s most prestigious mouthpieces.

The McSweeneys Gang is mild satire indeed when confronting this crew.

I have no choice but to fight for dissent’s memory.

Hemingway Would Love this Book!

After all, Hemingway wrote a fairly good literary satire himself, The Torrents of Spring.

The McSweeneys Gang follows in this tradition. But which satire is better?

Read The McSweeneys Gang by King Wenclas, affordably available at Nook or Kindle, and see for yourself.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Buy The McSweeneys Gang!

If the Phillie Phanatic creature could read, I’m sure he’d tell all phans of phun reading to buy the new ebook, The McSweeneys Gang. Literary satire at its wildest.

(DISCLAIMER: Use of Phanatic image is unauthorized. This animal doesn’t endorse The McSweeneys Gang in reality, nor any writing. After all, Phanatic creatures can’t read!)

Monday, December 17, 2012

Novels of Ideas

There are more ideas per page in The McSweeneys Gang than in any other contemporary novel you're likely to read. Ideas about literature and today's literary scene.

When I was writing my famed newsletter of the 1990's, New Philistine, two name literary personalities attempted to enlighten me on the "rules" of contemporary writing. I was told that -one shouldn't impose ideas on the narrative; -one shouldn't use characters as mouthpieces for ideas.

The only problem with these rules is that they exclude the greatest novelists of all time, giants like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, whose works overflow with ideas, many of them expressed by the characters themselves.

What literati want in reality is a lobotomized literary scene in which no one makes any waves. Where the literary neighborhood is forever undisturbed because nothing is happening.

Read The McSweeneys Gang, a novel in which free thought and literary dissent remain alive.

Friday, December 14, 2012

McSweeneys Gang Now on Sale!

State of the art literary satire hits right now. The action-packed dramatic novel The McSweeneys Gang is on sale—just in time for last-minute Christmas shoppers. Gift your friends. This is balls-to-the-wall literary criticism in the guise of a pop novel, like nothing you’ve read. See the links to the side for Amazon and B&N to purchase your copy. Read it ahead of the crowd.

Literary gang wars. Bold satire.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Remember This?

Have you read this story before, from ten years ago?

The author, Dennis Loy Johnson, is a supporter of traditional literary writing and the current literary establishment. He’s no fan of the ULA. But he’s also an honest person.

His is quite a different take on ULA actions against corruption than Bissell’s. Nowhere in Tom Bissell’s essay, first published in 2003, then again earlier this year, is there used or implied the word whistleblower. Yet whistleblowers is exactly what ULAers were.

Did Maria Bustillos read the “J-Franz” story? Did Garth Risk Hallberg, David Ulin, Brian Wolowitz, Katie Ryder, Maria Popova, or the many others who praised Bissell’s ULA essay when they reviewed Bissell’s book?

What about the great advocate of social justice, Dave Eggers. What did he think? Did he applaud Johnson’s story, or others like it back then, as he should have? Or did he instead think, “Destroy the ULA”?

Literary history has been twisted, dissent has been squelched, voices against corruption in the literary scene have been silenced.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Where’s Bissell?

Why doesn’t Dave Eggers prod brilliant essayist Tom Bissell to come on this blog to defend the accuracy of his Believer Books essay on the Underground Literary Alliance? For Eggers and his cult, er, crew, that would solve a lot of problems.

That is, unless there’s no accuracy to defend. I’ve yet to discuss the most vulnerable part of that essay—Bissell’s dishonest handling of the ULA’s exposure of grants controversies.


I intend to show that the essay’s original purpose was to defend a handful of well-connected writers known ten years ago as “The New White Guys” who, in the ULA’s eyes, were abusing the arts grants process. I intend to stick that essay to its promoters and defenders like a tar baby.

How will Eggers, and reviewers like Maria Bustillos, feel knowing they’ve backed a reactionary essay? An essay which took the side of powerful writers against a writers group that was always completely powerless; against a writers group which represented the underdog because it consisted of literary underdogs? What will Eggers and company think knowing they supported and approved an essay which targeted for abuse indie writers, the most indie writers around, writers divorced from the conglomerate monopolized machine, including trannie zinester Urban Hermitt and other harmless free spirits? How will advocates of social justice like Eggers look backing an essay that trashed an outfit whose purpose was to advocate for social justice in the literary realm?


Very bold, Mr. Bissell. Very brave. A look at your book of essays shows you prefer easy or acceptable targets, whether a low rent writers group, or a low rent filmmaker, or an easily smeared neo-con villainous (“Boo! Hiss!”) travel writer. Would you ever choose for examination a literary group with actual sources of funding and a high profile—a group you actually know something about—such as the McSweeney’s organization? A target with which you’d have to buck the approval of the literary crowd?

But that’s not how you play the game, is it?

Monday, December 03, 2012

The Art of Propaganda

Is it madness to obsess over the Tom Bissell essay on the ULA?

Yes and no. Yes, in that the ULA campaign was pure madness from its very beginning. If you want to change anything in this world, it involves a level of madness.

No, in that when you examine an object from all sides, break it down like a watch into its parts and put it together again, you begin to understand how the thing operates—which also gains you understanding of the mind of the object’s creator.

Bissell’s essay, for instance, is a collection of dishonest statements and presentations surrounded by empty assertions. Yet journalists bought this presentation.

I have a fictional character in my new satirical ebook named Mr. Empathy. He’s based loosely on Bissell. In the sole chapter he’s in, Mr. Empathy describes his propaganda techniques to “Boss Eggers,” a fictional character based loosely on Dave Eggers.

How did I learn Bissell’s techniques? When I reread the essay, I was struck by the disconnect between Tom Bissell’s presentation of the ULA, and the reality. I was well placed to know the reality, having founded, with a few others, the organization, and been with it throughout its history. I know the entity “ULA” as no one like Tom Bissell could possibly know it. In the essay Bissell presents distortion after distortion AS IF these distortions are reality.

The distortions then become exaggerated by others. For instance, in the ULA essay Bissell says that George Plimpton had gone into his debate with the ULA “with high hopes and fellow feeling but grew swiftly disgusted” by what the ULA was about. First, Plimpton had corresponded with me for several years, had been a reader of my 90’s zeen, and well knew what I and the ULA were about. Second, at the debate everyone had a great time. We left on good terms. Ask anyone who was there—including the CBGB’s bartenders. Plimpton’s purported disgust had to have come later.

Bissell’s distorted, ill-informed remark is then distorted further by others, such as Ed Champion-- “Bat Segundo”—who in his interview with Tom Bissell this year presents Plimpton as having invited us to an event (we invited him to ours) and then been treated rudely—when in reality we treated the old dog with utmost respect. Those who heard the Segundo interview will likely distort events further.

Slippage between truth and presentation.

Bissell’s distortions have been accepted by the literary world as a true narrative, AS the reality. Again, the same question: Why have intelligent journalists and writers bought the false presentation?

The essay becomes a Rosetta Stone for understanding the entire mainstream media. Bissell is an integral part of that media. In no way does he stand outside it. He’s embedded himself within it. His distortions then aren’t simply a conscious attempt to smear the ULA—though that’s part of it. He’s channeling the literary world’s herd mind; expressing that mind; to do this, acting not like objective commentator, so much as a ventriloquist’s dummy. This is why the essay receives unquestioning acceptance by its Insider audience. That audience, through its unconscious wishes, wrote that essay. Bissell is giving the audience exactly what they already believe about the ULA—or about writers like those in the ULA. He’s expressing what they want to read.

Case in point is the unfair slam against underground writer Urban Hermitt. Bissell takes an excerpt of Hermitt’s writing out of context, then bolsters his presentation with an excerpted comment by myself, adds a few snarky words—and his audience applauds because he’s cutting down a writer who ostensibly doesn’t belong; who presumptively doesn’t belong; who couldn’t possibly be a good writer. (Urban Hermitt in fact is a terrific writer, though one who, yes, colors outside the acceptable lines.) One of the reviewers, Maria Bustillos, literally applauded in her review of the Bissell book at this point. The everpresent question: Why?

Bissell wasn’t giving her the watch—the object being examined—with his essay on the ULA. He wasn’t giving Maria Bustillos a bad two-dimensional photograph of the watch. He gave her a scribbled sketch of a distant glance of the watch. For Bustillos and others, this faked glimpse was all that was required for her approval, and more than approval, enthusiastic commendation. A mere fragment of reality thrown into a mix of dishonesty and fakery. It’s the essence of propaganda to connect with the herd mind, with the presumptions, premises, and prejudices of that mind, to stimulate the preconceptions in a happy way so that they know that their mind, their beliefs, their herd, all the totality of their world is well and fine, so the herd continues along untroubled not thinking about anything.

(Upcoming: a note about the physics of propaganda.)