The Believer ULA Essay Part IV


That Tom Bissell’s biased and inaccurate essay is allowed to define the legacy of the Underground Literary Alliance, while reviewers applaud or look the other way, shows the importance of connections and standing in this society. A democracy? Not hardly. Bissell is backed by power and money, so his becomes the accepted version of the story. I could correct his distortions here for a year, and it wouldn’t change a thing. My response will be hardly read, and will be steadfastly ignored by those with literary influence who do read it. Falsehood wins the day. My Crime City USA ebook isn’t just a fictional story.

The irony about Tom Bissell’s false accusations against the ULA is that literary classocide has taken place in America. Populist styles of writing have been delegitimized and marginalized by the so-called literary mainstream. As I’ve already pointed out, naturalism, once the major stream of American letters, is one of those styles. The Underground Literary Alliance, which advocated a wide variety of literary populism, from the humor-pop of Wred Fright to the east Texas dialect outlaw tales of Wild Bill Blackolive to Michael Jackman’s pure naturalism to many other kinds. Tom Bissell’s distorted essay was one of the tools used to derail our movement.

Former ULA writers are around. They could be spotlighted now. Where are the many “liberal” lit outfits who constantly beat their chests about the 99%? Tom Bissell’s refined style of lit—so, so obsolete in the marketplace and among Americans generally—receives reviews and write-ups.

Where are the authentic populist writers? Where are their profiles and write-ups? Why are not Salon, Slate, n+1, Guernica Mag, and all the others, in this day of Occupy, covering populists? Bankers sons only need apply. The only style these sites and magazines seem to like is the style of urban haute literary bourgeoisie. Brooklyn hipster lit, if you will—refined and irrelevant. The same-old same-old. True mediocrity, because for all its refinement it has little to say, has few ideas, is largely pose.

All the Underground Literary Alliance asked for was a level playing field. Because we won the arguments we engaged in with the refined crowd, they panicked. All coverage, all debate, all discussion by us or about us was shut down. The false narrative about the ULA became the dominant narrative.

The result? Writers from the bottom levels of American society, without certifications, connections, or funds, who write in unfamiliar ways about little glimpsed realities, who present ideas which are contrary to those of the literary establishment and sometimes offensive to them, and who’ve documented financial corruption and cronyism within the literary system, are never heard. Bissell has ultimate gall calling the ULA “authoritarian,” when the system he defends—with the way it deals with alternate ideas and alternative writers—defines the term.

Tom Bissell has scorned the idea of an organized literary system. Yet to me the system moves in lockstep, as unconsciously organized and compliant as a beehive. Look at the example of the Underground Literary Alliance and our brief but contentious rebellion. What was the result? The Machine that Bissell insists doesn’t exist embraced in totality the corruption of our targets.

Was there, say, 20% of the literary scene that took our side of the story, and 80% the side of the McSweeney’s Gang? 5% our side? 1%? No. The established lit scene became 100% opposed to us, though the facts and the truth of the matter were on our side. The members of the literary beehive knew that to do otherwise was suicide. I call that a monolith. The reason for it is that in literature today, money and power, which Bissell’s backers have in abundance, wield enormous clout. Established literary folk can sign all the Occupy Writers petitions they want. It means nothing. I know and they know it’s bullshit. In their clubby little world, such gestures will change nothing.

The journalists who’ve interviewed Tom Bissell or reviewed his book have failed to ask the obvious questions. For one, questions about additions to the essay’s original version. Who wanted those changes? For what reason?

The changes consist of phrases or arguments portraying Dave Eggers as, of all things, a zinester. We’re brought back to the ULA’s original conflict with him. With the ULA a virtual corpse, Eggers can do now what he wanted to do then—namely, appropriate the authenticity and credibility of the independent zine scene for himself. Isn’t this how it’s usually done in American culture? The genuine article is wiped out, while the big money boys move in to play the role.

This is the ultimate question that preening literary folk, in Brooklyn, San Francisco, or elsewhere, need to answer. The motto of the zine scene, as expressed in the pages of Zine World (aka A Reader’s Guide to the Underground Press) has long been, “Free Speech Belongs to Everyone.” Does it? Or does it belong only to those with the biggest megaphone? To whom does American literature belong? To self-appointed mandarins in ivory towers cut off from the living currents of American culture? To Big Money power boys sustained by relationships to the Big Six? Or does not literature belong to all of us?

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