American Literary Apparatchiks

THE BUREAUCRATIC MENTALITY is a known phenomenon. Put a collection of otherwise disparate individuals within hierarchical institutions, give them influence and power, and their attitudes and behavior become predictable. And so, to understand today’s cultural commissars it’s useful to examine arts bureaucracies of the past.

Today’s literary intelligentsia—the unofficial but real lit establishment—feels under siege. The pillars of their power have cracks in them. Even the mighty New York Times is losing money, its circulation and ad revenue dropping. The products of the intelligentsia have never been moldier, their influence in the society dwindling, trendlines flat, condition stagnant. The literary intellectuals haven’t had a new idea in decades. Their minds are too walled-up to create or accept a new idea now.

Like the literary apparatus of the Soviet Union during the Cold War, our apparatchiks are becoming more defensive and monolithic, closing ranks against every perceived threat real or imagined. This explains their behavior toward the noisemaking of the Underground Literary Alliance in the decade of the 2000’s. ANY dissent or strong criticism, no matter from how small, weak, or underfunded a source, can’t be tolerated. Much energy was expended to isolate, infiltrate, and break the ULA.

In so doing, the threat was blown up to absurd proportions. The reality of the all-powerful apparatus was projected onto us, a tiny band of rebels creating an American version of samizdat. This is how a PBS radio interviewer in 2007 could worry that I and my few colleagues would shut out the likes of Jeffrey Eugenides, simply because one of us wrote a review mocking his work. This is the reaction of a monolith. The members of the literary intelligentsia have become cultural reactionaries—an elephant afraid of a mouse.

The leading members, those who’ve gained the most largesse through Insider membership—those at the center of the galas and yacht parties—are the most worried. In this sense they’re like Soviet writer Mikhail Sholokhov, who wasn’t a bad writer, only a mediocre one, but whose attitude in defense of the system that fed him and lauded him was warped. All unapproved literary happenings—the appearance of Solzhenitsyn one of them—put Sholokhov into reactionary attack. There was room only for HIS, Sholokhov’s, style of literary art.

The Soviet system’s logic against the Solzhenitsyns of lit became contorted; the demands made on the rebel writer more ridiculous. Solzhenitsyn was criticized for not showing the positive aspects of the Stalin era, for not bringing EVERY point of view (especially that of the apparatus) into his work.

This is similar to the demand that I approve the current U.S. lit-system’s moldy writers. That I promote the writers I know and like isn’t good enough. I have to approve THEM, the apparatchiks, as well. I can’t do my own thing—I have to do their thing, like every other conformist; accepting THEIR aesthetic, their dictate in effect. Otherwise I’m somehow the dictator who must be squelched. This is how the monolithic mentality works. Solzhenitsyn inside his tiny hut many miles from Moscow was thought to be dictating to the mighty Kremlin! Such is the fear of a walled-in bureaucracy, and the power of a dissenting voice.

I’m no Solzhenitsyn, not in any way. I’m a minor dissenter—which causes me to wonder why I’m viewed as a threat. I worry that there are American Solzhenitsyns out there, potentially great writers so discouraged by the nature of our own literary Kremlin they won’t even bother with it, or with the literary art.