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.
First off, I thank Wenclas for his fairly civil response (at least with the first comment), which is always a good place to start when having a discussion.
Certainly, I can agree with the sentiment that quality literature is often outside the grasp of the commonweal. The question is whether getting in everyone’s faces about the problem is the right way to elicit awareness. We’re talking books here, after all, not foreign policy. I have a significant problem with where the ULA’s crosshairs are targeted. Rick Moody may very well be an overrated writer or “the worst writer of his generation,” but it’s the industry that publishes his books. It’s the educational system that determines literary standards and, as a result, has a formidable influence in forging literary tastes. Factor in teachers tied to mandatory reading lists of dead white guys, dingbat mandatory standards, and inner city school libraries reduced to ancient crumbling texts housed in asbestos-laden cinder blocks, and you have an atmosphere that’s about as nuturing to reading as a certified massage therapist bluntly pummeling his client with a gunrack between rubs. Consider, for example, the case of Philadelphia, a state where federal funding has not been allocated to school libraries since 1976. Or, for that matter, how Tennessee’s blurry state guidelines have allowed school libraries to remain out-of-date and far from eclectic.
The unilateral assumption here is that authors are to blame for this predicament. But that’s only part of the problem. Without even scratching the surface, one would have to uproot the whole of American life to (a) promote reading in a way that doesn’t bore the pants off the next generation, (b) encourage the current generations to develop their own literary sensibilities, and (c) maintain a publishing equilibrium whereby “real” literature (still, a curiously nebulous definition from the ULA) is published hand-in-hand with tales from the privileged. The idealist in me would like to believe there are answers to these problems, but any pragmatic-minded person can agree that they certainly won’t be had overnight. Perhaps if ideas and solutions were bandied about with the confrontational hijinks, the 300 literary figures might have signed the petition. (In sifting through the ULA’s site, I was unable to find any copy of this purported petition or even an detailed platform of the ULA’s position, save through the four general points seen on the main page. Even the Black Panthers had a platform. Call me crazy, but it seems very counter-productive for any movement to disrupt without having a clear-cut set of goals and an agenda available for the people whom it wishes to convert. What we do find, however, is a bunch of hoodlums flipping us the bird.)
And while the publishing industry certainly is problematic, without specific examples, the “genuine corruption in the literary world” sounds like one of Nixon’s paranoid fantasy, particularly since it comes graced with the implication that the ULA represent the only group of rabble-rousers. Has Wenclas not observed some of the stuff that the literary blogs have uncovered in the past few months? Ron and Mark questioning the Book Babes’ limited definitions of publishing on CSPAN? The Zoo Press scandal uncovered by Laila? The Academy of Art student expulsion scandal reported here and at Neil Gaiman’s? Au contraire, Wenclas. There are more than enough people who care about literature out there, many with the same goals and feelings, all putting in the work that the New York Times Book Review should be committing their considerable resources to. The difference is that they aren’t out there demonizing their targets. They’re collecting information and trying to report it as fairly and accurately as possible.
Furthermore, as I suggested in my previous post, ideas are far from exclusive. Any professional writer knows this. It’s about how one articulates and argues the idea. That’s what’s going to create the impression in the reader’s mind. But to insist that a writer is “clueless” because he decides to ignore the opinions of others, let alone fail to recognize all 6,000 takes on the same idea in a 2,000 word essay, is unreasonable and baseless. A critic like Birkets prioritizes what s/he deems the most valuable offerings of the bunch.
And if literature is the territory of the rich and should be damned accordingly, then where do we place the noble gesture of Jonathan Saffran-Foer, who announced on these pages that he had given back his award back to PEN? By almost any assessment, that’s a magnificent gesture — one overlooked by the ULA, despite the fact that the ULA’s very antics may have helped in some small way to make authors aware of the disparity between the starving novelist barely getting by and the bestseller making a fortune.
Again, as I said in my previous post, I’m not completely damning the ULA. I’m just offering some possibilities why the ULA may not be getting the press it desires. Personally, I find it infinitely tragic that the ULA’s basic message (which I agree with) is dwarfed by its inability to articulate, its frequent Manichean damnations of writers, and its recurrent incivility.