Dan Green has weighed in with a thoughtful post about the Underground Literary Alliance, that ragtag bunch of frustrated writers-cum-Yippie wannabes that I have, until now, remained silent and nonpartisan upon. I have not exactly sanctioned this “organization,” but, because I am sympathetic to alternative and underground voices, I have at least tried to acknowledge them to some degree. However, after watching the ULA antics for several years, I must now conclude that, unless they change their tune, these folks are no longer worthy of my attention or yours.
The recent Birkets-Peck whinefest, which essentially had King Wenclas complaining that the new wave of literary hatchet men had appropriated the ULA review style, left me with a queasy feeling of sour grapes, almost as if I was reading a puling adolescent’s diary. I felt momentarily obliged to offer Mr. Wenclas a cookie, if not a hug and a comp ticket for the clue train. Because the professional writer and the responsible thinker knows that, given the rampant generation of ideas in the universe, inevitably another person will draw from the same associations and respond to the universe around them in a similar fashion. It happened to me once when a writer for a major news outlet used Ferdinand de Lesseps as a comparison for the dot com bust, about a few months after I had written a similar piece. The insecure writer will kvetch about it. The secure writer will realize that there are plenty of other pitch ideas floating within her head to lay down for a query or a piece.
Whatever the case, as Dan quite rightly points out, “‘saying something’ almost always turns out to be itself a matter of saying something that’s been said many times before, or something everybody already knows, or something of great interest to the writer but of no conceivable interest to any readers, or something with which those readers already agree, or something that seems of burning urgency today but tomorrow will seem as prosaic as the newspaper article it was taken from, or something as tedious and doctrinaire as almost all ‘revolutionary’ statements ultimately are.” The ULA’s myopic intolerance to the revolution of, say, finding the edge within midlife crisis as John Banville does in Eclipse or attacking John Barth without offering a single example why the summation of his works are completely invalid (particularly, since, as I noted back in April, he was one of the few writers to expose 9/11 transitionary life in fiction) is comparable with that of a frustrated undergraduate. Certainly, all readers go through a stage where they see easy dichotomies and evil in every grey corner. But it’s hard to take an “organization” seriously when they are prepared to damn a writer without offering a constructive argument.
If anything, the ULA comes across worse than the Dale Pecks of the world. For one thing, they aren’t nearly as witty. And, if it can be believed, the ULA is even more Manichean in declaring certain authors as evil. Take Michael Jackman’s slam of Middlesex, where he writes, “One might ask Mr. Eugenides why he is able to get away with making such idiotic comments as, ‘Why is a hermaphrodite not the narrator of every novel? It’s the most flexible and omniscient voice. Every novelist has to have a hermaphroditic imagination to get into the minds of men and women.’ Note the emphasis on imagination, as opposed to experience. Note the emphasis on getting inside the mind, as opposed to out into the world. In such comments we see his limitations, coming from a rarefied culture addicted to gender studies and obsessed with the self and sensitivity. Like a college streaker, he is willing to look ridiculous if he thinks it shows off how he has no hang-ups.” The complete inflexibility here to imagination makes one ponder whether King Wenclas could ever enjoy something as joyously harmless as the Oz books, which is nothing but the purest invention. And what’s with the college streaker comparison? To offer a metaphor in return, that’s like a jock circa 1987 being transplanted to contemporary Queer Eye-loving America, trying to apply his harsh homophobic language where it no longer cuts the mustard.
It is the skilled individual who will try and find something redeeming within an author they despise. (Speaking personally, as far as I’m concerned, Dave Eggers may be the most overrated author of the past decade. But the first third of Heartbreaking and Eggers’ story in the mostly disappointing McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales are enough for me not to completely dismiss him.) Likewise, it is the skilled organization that will recognize that promoting literature is about gathering the best ideas of the whole group, using an invitational approach rather than a harsh procedure that destroys alliances. Granted, the ULA is one of the few literary-related groups around that takes a confrontational stance, and, given the safe and staid atmosphere, they deserve some credence on that score. But confrontation as an approach should be as well-timed and justified as silence or diplomacy. And when you’re confrontational all the time, well, frankly, you’re just not that interesting.