Literary Nomenklatura

(Originally published August 7, 2012.)

Timothy Garton Ash’s book Solidarity: The Polish Revolution is interesting for a number of reasons, not least that his look at Poland’s Soviet-style bureaucracy in the 1980s reminds me of today’s literary establishment in the United States. An extreme statement? Not really—not when you look thoroughly into things. Most interesting in Ash’s history is the “moderate” functionary Rakowski, who managed at the time to be all things to all people.

The U.S. literary world has a power elite. All divisions within that power elite—good luck finding any—are differences of tactics only. All sides have an underlying philosophy—postmodernism—whether tacit or acknowledged. All segments have one overarching principle: power. The belief in their power within the system and the need to hang on to that power. Everything else is secondary.


Would you believe that at one time, ten or twelve years ago, there existed journalists who criticized Dave Eggers and the Mcsweeney’s Gang? A few of them dared to ask questions at the Dave’s readings, and faced his hostility. There were evident signs, then, that he was a fierce control freak. There occurred even one or two controversies. This is all ancient history. Today no journalist dares take Eggers or his gang on. Those who did ten years ago were banished or destroyed. I can think of only one individual who butt heads with him and survived—the person had his own power base; support from an important part of the power elite. Even he though, these last six or so years, has been quiet on the topic. Once you’re ensconced within the system you don’t make waves.

No journalists will examine the McSweeney’s operation—though there are very many “journalists” on the order of Katie Ryder writing puff pieces about the gang’s authors. No real coverage—though there is much more to look at now than there was back in the day. For instance, the many relationships between McSweeney’s and Big Six publishing, or the proliferating profusion of McSweeney non-profits collecting funds and awards, establishing relationships with local governments, the overall effect of which is a massive, and very positive, p.r. campaign.

The problem is that within the literary machine, there’s no such thing as an independent journalist or writer. Every one of them is a Rakowski, with abject loyalty to the literary “party” which controls everything. To the machine.

Is Maud Newton, for instance, an independent journalist? In her hundred-thousands of words about the lit world, on her blog, or for outlets as prestigious as the New York Times, has she ever said anything significantly critical about the McSweeney’s gang? Maud was in fact one of their early acolytes. What I know of her is that she was instrumental in shutting down a debate about an uncomfortable aspect of the writing career of one Tom Bissell. The arguments used at the time to defend him were pure sophistry. Then the walls of protection about the matter came down entirely. Those who’d attempted to be open-minded about the matter (I never pretended to be) were silenced.

Or Bissell himself? He poses as an independent journalist. But of course, concerning literature and how it operates in this country, he’s not, and could never be. He wrote what was supposed to be a takedown of the Underground Literary Alliance (ULA), though he knew nothing about us and made little effort to learn about us. Why has he never examined, say, the McSweeney’s operation—a subject about which he knows a thousand times more than he did the ULA? An operation which is, after all, a vastly more significant target than we ever were.

Tom Bissell could never write such an essay. He’s been published by McSweeney’s, and his recent book of essays is published by them. He remains what he was when he wrote the ULA essay: a functionary. Even were he not, he couldn’t say anything. The last ex-McSweeneyite who said anything critical about Dave Eggers—one of the gang’s early writers—in a national magazine, within a week issued a public apology. The effect of power and leverage. No writer who wants a career within the machine can afford to take on one of the machine’s major, and most ruthless, players.

The result, as I often say, is a literary world of no dissent; a world of conformity.


Is there competition within the machine, between the major players?

There’s a lot less than you’d think. For instance, the two most influential, and trendiest, literary journals in the country are the Brooklyn-based n+1, and in San Francisco, the current McSweeney’s flagship, The Believer. The two journals should be competing against each other aggressively. Coke versus Pepsi. If they were subject to market forces they would be—and the literary scene would be much livelier. Instead, a tacit truce exists between them. This is because they’re not subject to market forces. Both entities are tax shelters, which depend for their existence and their success on patronage from monied people. They may even both approach, for that patronage, that sponsorship, the very same people. What’s certain is that neither of them can afford to alienate any segment of the monied elite. Neither can afford to disturb literature’s power elite, which floats along most smoothly, like an old-style Eastern European dictatorship, in a sea of consensus, with no room for dissent or disagreement.

No comments: