Sunday, February 23, 2014

More Evidence on Awl Article


Two months ago I examined an hysterical essay by ULA foe Maria Bustillos, about the 2008 financial crisis, which was receiving much promotion from The Awl, as if the essay were the best thing they ever published. (Maybe it was.) In a post, I showed the shakiness of the Bustillos argument. See:

Now, we have more evidence, in the form of the actual Federal Reserve transcripts from that critical year. Read about them in this Wall Street Journal piece by John Hilsenrath. 

The discussion makes clear that how the crisis developed depended upon the behavior of those in charge of the Fed at that time—their ability to spot the crisis and prevent it, then react to it. To blame the crisis on past Fed chairman Alan Greenspan—and then by extension on Ayn Rand!—is ludicrous. Only a literary propagandist would—not a serious journalist.

I urge Ms. Bustillos or the editors of The Awl to respond.

Thursday, February 20, 2014



It’s impossible to take the established literary world seriously. By “established,” I mean the critical/review/p.r. apparatus based in New York, bolstered by the academy, which decides what writings and writers are an approved subject for proper discussion by the proper crowd, and so, regarded as “literature.” It’s a tiny bubble world far removed from the hectic noise of America-at-large.

The Bubble Literary World has been marked by a fear of contention and conflict. No clash of ideas among this crowd. The goal has been to become as innocuous as possible.

In a recent New York Times Book Review article, (, two Bubble writers take tentative steps toward questioning the prevailing norms. Their words, when put into context—literature’s non-standing among the greater populace—are comical.

Francine Prose, an unexciting author and uncreative thinker, affirms the right to disapprove in her reviews of “bad” writing. She doesn’t define “bad” writing, but it has something to do with how sentences are crafted. She gives the example of “His eyes were as black as night.” Not done! If Tolstoy or Shakespeare or Dickens ever used such a phrase, you’d have to dismiss their entire body of work. Ms. Prose is locked into a single standard of value for literary work: “the well-written sentence.” This is chief value for the MFA set. Characterization; plot; pace; ideas; dialogue; form—everything else which goes into the creation of a compelling work of fiction is of secondary value, if considered at all.

What does Francine Prose make of a Debra Webb from Alabama, who has written 100 novels, the last several of them best sellers? On the first page of one of Webb’s novels, Webb talks of a character’s “piercing blue eyes.” I winced myself when reading it, because it seems like cheating—making it too easy for the reader to see the character. The larger question, though, is: Does it work?

Debra Webb is doing something right in her novels. They have an avid readership. Far more than Francine Prose (or myself), Debra Webb is keeping the art of fiction alive in this country. People purchase her books and her ebooks. The task of a critic is to figure out what Debra Webb is doing well. What compels her audience to read her books? To understand this is to take a real step toward saving literature in America; moving toward the elusive hybrid novel which can be popular and significant BOTH.

I’m not saying Francine Prose or Zoe Heller shouldn’t attack such work. I’m saying they should be open to an equal amount of attacks on themselves. It’s the only way the art can improve.

The literary scene needs contention and controversy. By such contention in this loud age, literature will be noticed. Myself, I’m from a background where we would argue just to argue. I enjoy debating. Try to do this with stuffy literary folk and you’ve broken their rules. No conflict. No contention. No noise. Everyone please get along. (Turn out the lights when you go home.)


(For a satirical look at Francine Prose and a few other writers, buy my ebook novel, THE MCSWEENEYS GANG, affordably available at Kindle or Nook.)

Friday, February 14, 2014

More About the Great Literary Change


Has the Eric Bennett article in Chronicle of Higher Education opened a debate about the nature of American literature? Don’t count on it. This is a debate which I’m sure even Bennett’s backers at n+1 would not want to have—because inevitably they’d be caught on the wrong side of it.

Here’s a post I made on another blog about the matter:

And another post I made here:

There are many connect-the-dots leads to be followed, for those with the time or interest. This includes others in George Plimpton’s generation like William Phillips and Robert Silvers. It includes other publications, and important literary conferences of the 1950’s and 60’s whose intent was to direct the course of American literature into acceptable channels.

Keep in mind that American populism is a style of literature, probably best embodied in the Frank Norris novel The Octopus. The style can be characterized by large themes, characters caught up in sweeping historical currents and changes, and polemical speeches. It represented a large land and broad voice. Also with a trace of old-fashioned American romanticism. The viewpoint is usually against monopoly and/or centralized control. Organic, from the people, not tops-down. It’s a style which once defined American literature and its difference from the European variety. Sadly, that difference now is gone.

In his Chronicle essay, Eric Bennett posits Jonathan Franzen as a novelist of ideas. Maybe—but his recent anti-freedom novel Freedom is more anti-populist than populist. It has more in common with By Love Possessed than The Octopus.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Seven Years Late

I NOTE there are many articles out recently about how the CIA changed the direction of American literature, including via the rise of MFA programs. Here's one of the articles, by Brian Merchant:

Hmm. Where was Brian Merchant, Eric Bennett, and these other folks when the Underground Literary Alliance was pursuing the story? Here's one of many of my own posts on the matter:

My posts were follow-ups to a ULA "Monday Report" on the matter by essayist Richard Cummings.

Cummings made a lot of accusations in his essay. The ULA presented his essay for informational purposes, letting readers judge for themselves. The key point-- CIA involvement in the world of literature-- is what we stressed. This was seven years ago.

What happened? The ULA was attacked and ostracized by the established lit-world. Because of the flurry of pressure, five key members of the ULA resigned, virtually overnight. NOT ONE established or semi-established literary person defended us-- or even the idea that the matter needed looking into. This issue, more than anything else we did, turned the ULA and its members into pariahs.

Dare I say that the Underground Literary Alliance was right all along?

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

About Short Stories

THE ONE THING which can rescue literature as a cultural force is the revival of the short story. By revive, I don’t mean continuation of same. The pattern of the system “literary” story encouraged in hundreds of writing programs needs to be blown up. On every point, the new writer needs to do the opposite of what’s acclaimed today. Across-the-board rule breaking. The objective should be to present a short story which looks unlike any ever created. This is how to create excitement—the excitement of art.

Is it doable? Are there writers alive today who want to do it?

A handful, by my reckoning. If they pull it off, they’ll be artistic trailblazers. Creative revolutionaries.

Saturday, February 01, 2014

The Writer Stereotype

We see the writer stereotype in the movie, “Her,” with Joaquin Phoenix playing a character named Theodore Twombley. Wimpy, weepy, withdrawn, “walled-off,” crying at the drop of a hat. Reclusive. Soft. Dependent. To call him feminized would be an insult to women.

We’ve come a long way since the days of Ernest Hemingway and Jack London!

In the 1940’s and 1950’s, Hemingway was like a rock star. He had a greater cultural footprint, as a celebrity and personality, than any actor, singer, or sports figure. That’s when literature still mattered.


Since those days, the position of writers in the culture has become marginalized. We had a recent example of this with the announcement of nominations for the NBCC awards. NBCC? What’s that?

Meanwhile, awards for the feckless and untalented, Golden Globes and Grammies, grab the TV space and headlines. Writers don’t try to compete. They’re, uh, withdrawn. They’re absorbed with the personal. Such careful, cautious, and withdrawn thinking is why literature in America is a declining cultural phenomenon and a dying art.


The writing game is well-regulated. If you try to make noise, the mandarins who control things can’t stand it. The entire system from top to bottom, MFA programs to editors and agents in New York, is designed to screen out dynamism and noise.

Philadelphia novelist Lawrence Richette didn’t fit the stereotype. He was, yes, egotistical and outspoken. He believed in himself. He didn’t make artistic decisions according to the whims of the Insider literary crowd. Book editors wanted nothing to do with him, despite his talent. Imagine if this philosophy were practiced in the worlds of movies, music, and sports!


One of the objectives of the Underground Literary Alliance was to turn the writer stereotype on its head. That’s why I brought larger-than-life macho roots authors Jack Saunders and Wild Bill Blackolive into the outfit.

To me, to be any good, and not just a mass of solipsistic sensibilities, the writer needs to be MORE engaged with the world than the average person. Outgoing and out there; amid human society and the organized chaos of nature. A public figure. The lit game needs public figures, of greater personality and larger presence than Jonathan Franzen and Alice Munro!


Sixty years ago, professional American football was a niche sport. On Superbowl Sunday tomorrow it will be the centerpiece of the nation—focal point of the economy. What happened?

It’s not that football is very intrinsically exciting. A few minutes of action punctuated by constant breaks. Football gained prominence through:

A.) New outlets; chiefly television.

B.) Unparalleled marketing.

C.) The creation of striking characters and storylines. Richard Sherman to Wes Welker to Peyton Manning. Quick: name one character from Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom.

But as I’ve said, the literary world doesn’t even try to compete.