Wenclas Responds, Reluctant Rebuts

King Wenclas has responded to the criticisms hurled his way. He writes (in the first of two comments):

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.

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5 Comments

  1. Peck’s review was many things, but it certainly did not lack fire. Despite his “worst writer” hyperbole, my reading was that Peck was ultimately reviewing The Black Veil and Moody’s writing in general, not Rick Moody the guy, his politics, or his rarefied place in literary fiction.

  2. OK, DrMabuse, no one in the ULA asserted that lit is outside the grasp of the commonweal. We (I’m a member) say the literati have abandoned the commonweal and kept out those who would enter. There’s a difference. There is good lit out there and the public appreciates it. It’s just not recent, not much of it anyway. However, the dryspell has been going on so long that the public has indeed lost a taste for reading and the bigger things reading can do.

    The ULA gets in people’s faces because we are ignored otherwise. Our triple impact on NEA/grants funding in the past year or so would not have been felt unless we’d been noisy about it. Obviously, the marginal has to make noise or it gets ignored. However, we’re asserting that today the mainstream is being marginalized by lit and that literature is creating an ever-smaller enclave for itself among an out of touch elite. We aren’t advocating for some isolated interest group. We’re saying that’s who has the big strings right now. And we’re saying that street lit offers wide access and relevance and that it needs to be included from here on out in literary discussion, exposure and funding.

    Saying that we’re talking books not foreign policy here is a pitiful involution. Books determine foreign policy. Books are where the noise is, is where the burden of the noise is. If writers and publishers neglect their duty, a huge weakness is brought onto a civilization. Foreign policy is the boring paperworking out of the ideas of the books of a time. If the books aren’t there then TV will do. The TV people don’t mind that, do they.

    We use the names of literary elites, obviously, as examples. But we don’t overly single them out for duty other than as poster kids. We also agitate strongly against the MFA stranglehold that brings writers like these to the fore. Our readings have been more often held in bars than libraries, but I’m not sure that today’s academic-library complex would result in more kids reading better stuff if they got all their funding requests or not. Could be that new buildings would get more admin space and videos and even less book space, like what happened with the new San Fran library. How best to explore this kind of thing?

    I’m not sure we’d have to uproot all of American life to revive literature. But there may well be uprooting that would occur as a result, and it’s the kind that those in power don’t want to see happening. I don’t think that relevant lit has to do any tricks to engage the public. I’m not sure that ‘literary sensibilities’ need to be developed. Getting at the truth in writing will do. We’re not fetishizing books or writers. We’re putting people first, then what books do especially well next. We’re putting nothing else on it. When you do this, you get work that plays in the big league. When you don’t you get “frosting fit to put ’round cakes.” Or niche-marketing. Same thing. I’m mad about niches, too. But they work so good! Everyone loves them! They have serious downsides, I say. –Being a publisher and bookseller of 20 yrs experience and online/web since ’93. My experience includes 250K-sellers along with the micro-marginalized. I have hundreds of store acc’ts. You think I don’t have a sense of the pulse out there? The only diff is I’m willing to talk candidly about my trade, to push it beyond its comfort zone, to question the ideas behind niches and trade-group and interest-group behavior.

    The ULA doesn’t say there are answers. We say there is exposure, light, engagement…noise. The noise of the street. It’s not just a blur of sound. There are amazing voices out there not heard, not permitted, not said to exist.

    We protest again Bob Gottlieb saying there are no undiscovered geniuses writing away in the hinterlands. He said he’d reject Confederacy again. And that the system works.

    We make noise about this. All aspects of this.

    Indy music, indy film: all thriving. Indy lit? –Pigeonholed. Moribund. But we’ll change that.

    There’s folk art. Why no folk writing? Does folk art need the ‘other’? The supposed primitive? What if there is no us/them. What if folk have satellite dishes today. And Harvard degrees.

    Idealistic? No. That charge is part of the backwardness I see in reaction to us. We play hardball. We’re competitive on the street. We are actually tearing down protections that a racket has enjoyed. This is manual labor. It’s real and we’re doing it. Yes, by force. The market is thirsty. They know they suck. The NYTRB admits they needed a makeover, that they were sinking in bad MFA work. They’re just on the wrong track for a rescue. (Airport lit and nonfiction is the answer? Ouch!)

    Let a millionaire accept an NEA grant now. Just let him/her try it. JFS did not give up his cash just for fun. He did do it for the principle of it. We do give him props. But it took us to WAKE up these ideas, both within and without. We say that the real world often does work on principle. People do need to look themselves in the mirror. And they do need waking up. This is not a game of answers or perfection. We’re simply using an effective engaging approach to getting some important work done.

    You allege that if we offered a solution that literati would’ve signed our first protest against millionaire Moody getting tax-free cash. Ha. It was a simple protest. Zinesters didn’t need no steenking solutions. The solution was obvious. Give it back. Like JSF did. It’s on HIRAM, not us, to solve the problem. Let him be creative about it. Accept the title but say “Hey, there are starving underground writers and zinesters out there. Give the cash to one of them.” Use his bully pulpit to reveal that the system doesn’t work.

    DrMabuse says he/she can’t find info at our site. C’mon, our platform and method is right there and pretty obvious. But we are a loose bunch of independents. We offer lots of elbowroom. We offer info, event notices, protest items, news, PR impacts, samples of work, links to kindreds. It’s probably enough. We could do better, I’m sure.

    DrMabuse asks about our respect for lit-blogs. Well we’ll give more respect when we see them impacting lit at the street level. Bully is definitely fiesty and we’re happy to interact with him. Moby Lives used to be a good thing that we encouraged. Maybe other blogs are shaking up inside the scene. More power to em. We’ll try to connect to them as it seems relevant. We provide a connection between the public and the lit-scene. So our focus is different. We hit decisionmakers and the public more than we do the members of the MFA scene. But if we can work together, great. We’ve done good things on other forums already, such as the Atlantic and Charlie Rose. But we’re a little slow sometimes: our webmaster gets an hour a day at the public library to run several sites of his. It’s amazing the impact a ragtag bunch can have, eh?

    In the end, DrMabuse says we could do some things to improve the press we get. Ah… Our press situation is fine, thanks. (Who has caused more of a stir?) As for the incivility, ya know, we get loud in bars sometimes, or at a party with beer, or on the sidewalk. That’s hardly uncivil. Mostly we just ask questions that no one else does, in forums where there’s mostly brown-nosing. That’s what gets us in trouble. There are plenty of rude people in the lit scene that folks are happy to kowtow to. We’re not rude per se—situationally brash, perhaps. If you read in a bar, or perform in general, you can handle candor, improv and heckling. These people are just *playing* dismay to pull the crowd. They’re pro’s. It’s showbiz, right? We’re part of the show. A new part, but an important one. They aren’t really out of their element when someone speaks up at a bar, are they?

    We get confirmation we’re on the right track by the true incivility we get in response to our challenges. –Tons of obscene anonymous threats, some which include violence. If you want to see incivility, challenge the MFA system or some of these fancy lads and see what happens. We’ve had many online engagements that show the real contrast. We post civilly and get the obscene anonymous threats in turn. Many are in private mail but plenty have been in public forums.

    A hilarious example of this was Dave Eggers’ paranoid attack on Amazon. I replied politely and signed my name. At the time I had no idea who it was who posted so bizarrely about us in the context of their own fake book review. The NYT outted him. I doubt they would have done so if I had responded rudely or gave credibility to his post: they would have let him defend his secret friend. (There were other celebs they could’ve exposed, eh?) Instead both he and Franzen were exposed as seeing us behind bushes everywhere where we weren’t. They should’ve known we stand up for what we do and are happy to engage on any remotely socially acceptable level. But, no, they were blinded by…their own incivility.

  3. This is all a very nice and fine discussion on these two blogs, even civil and polite– but would interest for three seconds the vast mass of the American people.

    God, are you people clueless. Writers have GOT to be loud and contentious and uncivil and anarchistic, have to destroy audiences with the intensity of their rhetoric (as the ULA has been doing locally of late) or we’re not going to interest any one at all. That’s where zine writers are way ahead of the rest of you, including the hundred or so literary blogs, because we’re reaching readers no one else is. Zines started, after all, being sold at punk rock shows.

    As for myself, I’m getting extremely tired and impatient with being polite and indulgent and bending over backward trying to explain to you rarefied folks what the ULA is doing– when I should be crashing readings and raging in open mics to stir things up. I’m from Detroit and was raised on the MC5 and Iggy Pop, who knew how to communicate immediately and viscerally, and those are my models. “Raw Power.” Have a good day.

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