Someone Give Wenclas & Co. Hugs

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.

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  1. I, too, was peeved at their attacks on Barth, but I decided not to haul it into my own post. I’m glad you mentioned it. You, Mark, and I are now on record as being relatively unimpressed with the ULA. I wonder if they’ll send out a broadside against us, as they have with most of their critics?

  2. “You, Mark, and I are now on record as being relatively unimpressed with the ULA. I wonder if they’ll send out a broadside against us, as they have with most of their critics?”

    I’m sure at least Wenclas will. This is a major reason why I dislike him so much. He has absolutely no tolerance for anyone who criticizes him or the ULA. The “discussion” he took part in over at the Atlantic online forum was a perfect example of this. Anyone who disagreed with him was promptly barked at. He just strikes me as an authoritarian with no regard for nuance or dissent. You are either with him or against him. Hmm, kind of reminds me of a certain president.

    Also, isn’t there something cowardly about attacking a guy like Rick Moody? I mean, what’s Rick Moody going to do? I dislike Moody’s writing, *intensely*, to be frank, but I wouldn’t pick a fight with someone I know isn’t going to fight back. Isn’t that more or less bullying?

  3. Pete: I’ve only just read your own post on the subject, which is very good. You’ve probably set your self up as well.

  4. Well, I’m going to defend my organization and myself. It’s called free expression. There is nothing wrong with debate. It’s healthy for literature. Before the ULA arrived on the scene there was too little of it.

    The truth is that literature is marginalized in this culture, because for much of its recent history it’s been the property of stuffy professors genteely drinking tea in faculty rooms. (The tea to keep the enervated creatures from nodding off.) Contention is healthy– even when it’s over-the-top, the way the ULA does it. A little noise might remind the general culture that literature isn’t completely dead.

    At the same time we’ve done way more than anybody else to expose genuine corruption in the literary world, while everyone else has preferred to remain quiet. Or does anyone believe that Mr. Moody, mentioned on this thread, who lives on Fishers Island, really should be receiving so many financial grants? We circulated our Protest about that to 300 literary people and not one would sign it. (40 zinesters did.) What does that tell you?

    Are we really picking on him? We, a rag-tag group of zine writers, and he sitting at the center of many of the major centers of cultural power (PEN, Young Lions, NEA, major magazines, etc.)

    My point about Peck is that in his review about Moody he ignored any main issues, giving readers smoke without the fire. And yes, the ULA has been effective in circulating our message (including numerous write-ups in Page Six) so that Peck (who taught at the New School at the time we were making noise; a school where much of the writing faculty are Moody’s friends) and Sven Birkerts could hardly not be aware of us, and the contention we generated.

    I don’t think this is a difficult issue to understand. Birkerts writes an essay about contention in the literary world. Much of said contention was raised by the ULA. (Why The Believer covered us in one of their early articles– and put it at the front of the issue. Then later ASKED us to submit a letter to them to continue the matter.) Dave Eggers and Jon Franzen were certainly aware of us; witness February’s Amazon fiasco. It’s not a case where someone is inventing the telephone in America while someone is inventing it in France. In this case the telephone was already invented and operating, coming through loud and clear.

    Either Sven Birkerts intentionally left us out of the story, or he’s clueless about what’s happening in the lit world. That’s all.

    Am I too vociferous in making these remarks? Should I soften them, water them down, so they’re acceptable to the Princess-and-the-Pea denizens of the literary world? Should we return to before, “where never is heard, a discouraging word”?

    I don’t think so.

  5. Another quick note. “Mabuse” quotes ULAer Michael Jackman, then attributes the quote to me. We’re not the same person.

    The ULA contains a variety of viewpoints, not all of them the same.

    IF, though, I can speak for Michael Jackman for a moment, what he may be complaining about is the predominance of writing of the self– taking place inside the author’s head. We’re advocating for a balance.

    The ULA wasn’t created in a vacuum, you know. I for one have some experience publishing in literary journals, and the attitudes encountered; being told “one should never use characters as mouthpieces for ideas,” or that one “should not impose one’s ideas upon the narrative.” Gee, someone forgot to tell Huge, Dickens, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky about this! (Look up an essay I wrote about Detroit in 1994 for North American Review, and the editor in his introductory remarks admits that he took out the most polemical passages. But at least he published it, though it’s much stronger than most “literary” work.)

    Where do writers like myself, or Wild Bill, or Jackman, or Jack Saunders, go? Whining? Not really. Instead we’ve taken our work into our own hands, and are printing, distributing, and selling it ourselves. The ULA was created as a promotional vehicle for this array of publications. We want people to know what we’re doing– and we’ve had to be loud and contentious in doing so. (There are hundreds of lit groups which are safe and polite. I notice we’re not discussing them.) It is, after all, an extremely noisy society, and one has to shout to be heard– especially when you’re near the bottom of the pyramid.

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