Liberal Morality Play

NBF

The National Book Foundation finalists have been announced. We plan to present some quick examinations of the choices. We intend to ask questions. We may not have answers– the National Book Foundation is a puzzle. A mystery. A morality play.

For instance: This year’s Non-Fiction finalists, all from “Big Five” conglomerate publishers. The list:

  • Erica Armstrong Dunbar, Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge
    (Atria / 37 INK / Simon & Schuster)
  • Frances FitzGeraldThe Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America
    (Simon & Schuster)
  • Masha Gessen, The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia
    (Riverhead Books / Penguin Random House)
  • David GrannKillers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI
    (Doubleday / Penguin Random House)
  • Nancy MacLean, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America
    (Viking / Penguin Random House)

Skewed heavily politically one way, we’d say– as were the other nominees. But after all, this is not a time for competing viewpoints. No– this is a period of crisis. Of outright hysteria! No room for objectivity. Except here.

What’s the reality? Are we seeing from the publishing industry a scripted liberal morality play?

The National Book Foundation is an appendage of the New York publishing industry. A nicely-concealed publicity campaign for the industry. Funding comes from New York publishers in various forms– including the awards and accompanying Benefit Dinner. Publishers whose books become finalists are required to help publicize the book and awards. It’s a win-win situation. Each side publicizes the other. The Dinner, at tres chic, tres expensive Cipriani Wall Street in Manhattan’s financial district is a major fundraising event for the foundation. Attendance appears to be by invitation only. One can believe it will be a collection of New York publishing insiders.

The National Book Foundation’s Board Chairman is David Steinberger, CEO of the Perseus Books Group. Vice Chair is Morgan Entrekin, Publisher of Grove-Atlantic. The Treasurer at NBF is Chairman of W.W. Norton & Company, W. Drake McFeely. (NBF’s Board Secretary, Calvin Sims, a long-time internationalist, former Ford Foundation executive, former Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, former New York Times overseas bureau chief, brings rather different qualifications to the table.)

steinberger and weinstein

(David Steinberger and Friend.)

Power! The National Book Foundation is an extension of cultural and societal power.

Conflict of interest? No one is watching. Nobody cares. Least of all journalists at NYC media outlets like the New York Times and The New Yorker. Fellow Members of the Club, most with novels in drawers they’d themselves like to someday have published. Most attended the same Ivy League/Oxbridge/Stanford elite schools as did the scions of publishing.

Thirteen years ago the price of a table at the Awards dinner was $10,000. What is it today? There’s no way of knowing. The information is available nowhere on the NBF website.

Everything about the event reeks of money. Publishers and high-salaried employees sit at high-priced tables and applaud the politically-correct, even radical, selections, which for the most part are window dressing. (A couple bonded-and-bred Insiders are included among the various finalists, along with one outright professional propagandist– attack dog for American Empire.)

New York publishing after all is a prime example of privilege and hierarchy. Centering publishing– and the literary world– in a single overpriced city is the antithesis of democracy, in the view of this commentator.

The Awards– the nominations, finalists, medallions– are theater. An elaborate and gaudy show absolving the ultra-affluent attendees of complicity in any crimes outlined in the books celebrated. Absolution. Pontius Pilate washing his hands. Penance and forgiveness in a one-evening ritual, tasty dinner included.

Is more than this happening?

Stay tuned.

K.W.

 

Questions for National Book Foundation

CiprianiWallStreet

(Pictured: Cipriani Wall Street, location of 2017 National Book Awards Ceremony.)

NOTE:  We requested an interview with National Book Foundation Executive Director Lisa Lucas about their upcoming awards, but never received a response. Here are several questions we would’ve asked:

1.)  Does New York City exercise too much dominance over American literature?

2.)  Would you say the National Book Foundation is a promotional arm of Big Five publishing? Are New York publishers the foundation’s chief support?

3.)  Is it a mistake for all ten of your 2017 Non-Fiction nominees to be slanted politically one way? Should a tax-exempt arts organization be open to a variety of viewpoints?

4.)  We note the National Book Foundation is sponsoring a reading program in Pakistan. Is this done for political reasons?

5.)  How does one attend the awards Benefit Dinner at Cipriani Wall Street on November 15th? How much are tickets? Is the event not open to the public?

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Turmoil at New York Times?

new york times

The mighty New York Times getting its facts wrong?

Or is the real turmoil within the media establishment itself?

Controversy erupted this week between two wings of Insider media. Between the Times with new op-ed writer Michelle Goldberg, and Vanity Fair contributing editor Vanessa Grigoriadis.  The controversy, over Vanessa’s book Blurred Lines, is described here.

Questions:

1.) Are New York p.c. mandarins siding with Grigoriadis because of Michelle Goldberg’s statements in the review, like this one:

“Campus rape hasn’t become a major political issue because college students are more vulnerable than their peers, but because they are more powerful, able to demand an institutional response to their traumas.”

Or was Goldberg’s review truly as botched as said?

2.) If Vanessa Grigoriadis were an outsider writer whose ideas were distorted– and was not herself a well-connected member of New York’s literary “In” crowd– would there have been any blowback at all? Are distorted reviews and hit pieces the norm, and we simply don’t know about it?

OR: This matter has become an issue because Vanessa Grigoriadis herself is “more powerful, able to demand” a response than the typical author.
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NEXT: “The Wise Men: Origins of Establishment Literature.”

 

New Hemingway-Fitzgerald Discovery?

basil and josephine cover

Is New Pop Lit about to make some literary history?

We had assumed someone else had written about this– maybe someone has– but it seems that in the answer to our Hemingway-Fitzgerald Trivia Question lies a different take on the relationship between those two giants of American letters. It’s important because the two talents stand today as THE largest personalities dominating the field of American letters– in particular, the novel and short story. Iconic figures.

The new take is this: Ernest Hemingway took some obvious shots at F. Scott Fitzgerald over the years. But what if Fitzgerald had been creating some snarky portrayals of Hemingway, in his fiction, first? This appears to be the case.

We’re readying an explanation of all this. . . .

The Other Two

OUR OTHER TWO writers selected as top (#1) bracket seeds for the Tournament ARE:

C.) Herman Melville

Melville

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D.) Mark Twain

Mark_Twain_by_AF_Bradley

We’ll explain our choices tonight at New Pop Lit‘s “Fun Stuff” Interactive blog.

Let the catcalls begin!

Granta’s Young American Novelists

A CONTRARY VIEW

Granta cover

LITERARY ARISTOCRACY LIVES!

At least, it lives within tiny literary circles in London and New York. The aristos exist in small rooms with mirrored walls which make their numbers and clout appear greater– to themselves– than they actually are.

And so, Granta Magazine‘s “Best of Young American Novelists 3” has sent shock waves through the clubby room, if nowhere else. Which well-connected New York-based writers should have been included? Which had better been left out?

We’re not talking the 1920’s, when there were a host of culturally-and-artistically significant young American novelists to talk about– Hemingway/Fitzgerald/Faulkner/Wolfe/Dos Passos– giant names, talents, personalities, personas.

No, there is no young Tiger Woods waiting to revive the literary sport. What we get is what we get. The Granta 21.

One can assume the presented writings of the Granta 21 will appear daring to established literati. That everything said by them will appeal to the New York literati mindset and the greater literary mob. They wouldn’t have been included otherwise.

But enough of this rant. What are the facts?

THE FACTS

17 of the 21 novelists are captives of New York-based “Big 5” conglomerate publishing. (Random House with the most.) Of the other four writers, two live in New York City. Which proves that, for establishment lit people, New York remains center of the universe.

Most, if not all of the Granta 21 came up through the system– jumping through the required hoops at select writing programs of Stanford, Columbia, Iowa, or Brown. Most have been awarded with lavish non-profit (tax shelter) largesse: MacArthur Genius awards; grants from PEN, Young Lions, Guggenheim, National Book Foundation– large pools of well-protected wealth. Fellowships as well: MacDowell, NYFA, Fulbrights. There remains a truly massive system in the United States for creating approved writers; the greatest ever seen in world history. Huge bureaucracies. Enormous expenditures via sprawling real estate-gobbling universities, and Manhattan skyscrapers bursting with agents, editors, and publicists. The Granta 21 is what the giant behemoths have produced. Best of the best of system art, for whatever that’s worth.

Our contention is that the 21 aren’t representative of America, so much as a well-screened, well-indulged fragment of America.

IMPERIAL LITERATURE

union jack

Even more than New York City, London– where Granta is based– has an ingrained imperialist mindset. The point-of-view is always tops-down, with the rest of the world there to be colonized by those with the proper tops-down mindset. Everything stems from the ivory towers of Cambridge and Oxford. (In the U.S.A., Yale, Harvard, Columbia, Brown et.al.) Those from outlying territories can join the club by coming to the Imperial City or going through one of the elite academic screening centers.

The sun never sets on the Anglo-American cultural empire.

This isn’t bad or good. It just IS.

EXCEPTIONS

There are a few ringers thrown in. or at least one, in the person of Halle Butler, who lives in Chicago and is published by an indy, Curbside Splendor Publishing, based in Chicago. Hail Halle!

There are two African-born writers who may be American, or may not. Dinaw Mengestu was educated in the U.S., but now lives in Paris. Close enough. Chinelo Okperanta was shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African writers. In this day and age, editors get diversity any way they can. Everything is global, after all. (Globalism has always been a euphemism for Imperialism.)

Then there’s Mark Doten, published by indy Graywolf Press; fiction editor at indy Soho Press. Doten teaches English at Columbia University, as does one of the four Granta judges, Ben Marcus. Mark Doten straddles both worlds.

QUESTIONS

We have two questions.

1.) Is any one of the 21 “best” novelists under 40 qualified to be in the All-Time American Writers Tournament? They’re the future, after all. The present. Is forty years enough time to show outstanding talent?

garth2

What about Garth Hallberg? Hallberg received an enormous advance for his novel, then a tremendous publicity blitz behind the book from the Manhattan publicity machine. Ever hear of Garth Hallberg? Does he deserve to be ranked with Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Morrison, and company? (Uh, no.)

2.) Are any of the Granta 21 even as talented as the four young writers, under the age of 30, that we recently profiled? See our Overview, which contains links to their work.

Granta‘s 21, or our four? Judge for yourself.

-K.W.

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New Pop Lit is at New Pop Lit.

 

 

 

Hyper-Talents Part II

courbet-gustave-self-portrait

PORTRAITISTS: Part II of Hyper-Talents of the New Literary Age

We’re not into solipsistic convolutions of words, the postmodern linguistic games many status quo writers use to justify their funding and station. We prefer writing which is clear and direct, so that emotion and meaning hit the reader straight on, between the eyes.

We believe art is about meaning and emotion. We believe if done right, good writing can be appreciated by almost anyone. That’s where “pop” comes into the equation.

Many new writers are portrait painters. Their stories are usually short. Their words are brushstrokes, painting an image which enters the reader’s head.

These do not give you every last detail of the setting or experience. They’re impressionists, in which simplicity achieves a more intense version of reality. Less truly is more in their art. “Bang. Bang. Bang.” The tale is suddenly over. The reader is surprised. Moved. In some cases, devastated.

gaugin-self-portrait

Their work is the heritage of late-nineteenth century painters via literary interpreters like Sherwood Anderson and Ernest Hemingway– the past fifty years of postmodern game-playing passed over. To everyone’s relief, except French intellectuals and American professors needing tenure. But at least as great an influence as painting is American popular music, starting with rock and roll. The direct expression of emotion, culminating in the hyper-fast, hyper-simple expression of punk. Granted, most of the new writers don’t look like punks! We believe they’ve been subliminally influenced. (Sneering guitar-destroying DIY-focused Elvis Presley in the 1956 movie “Jailhouse Rock” has been said to have been the first punk.)

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Who are the best of the literary portrait painters?

anne-leigh-parrish

Near or at the top has to be Anne Leigh Parrish. While Anne Leigh lauds lit-establishment story writers like Alice Munro, she doesn’t quite go in for the long sentences, the lengthy descriptions and paragraphs which characterize the typical New Yorker magazine writer. The John Updike model where the sentence is all. What for a more literary-minded critic might be a handicap, we see as a plus. A new story by Ms. Parrish shows what we’re talking about: “Picture This.”

The story sneaks up on you. It begins simply. It’s a nice little tale about a couple in Maine. An artist trying to “make it,” and the woman who supports him. Then, suddenly, bang, bang, bang, emotion kicks in. Simplicity has become art.

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Another talented literary portrait painter is Sonia Christensen, whose second story for us, “Dry Bones,” was featured at our site a few weeks ago. As you can see from the story, Sonia similarly deals with relationships.

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Among other literary portrait painters is our own Kathleen M. Crane, a Detroit-area writer recruited into this project as a result of her first short story with us, “Donnie Darko,” a short tale about a shelter cat. Could anything be simpler? Her follow-up story presented at our main site, “Sam,” about a young musician fighting addiction, characterizes our pop-lit ideas. Indeed, Kathleen has helped define our ideas, pushing New Pop Lit in a Hemingwayesque direction– daubs of style and sophistication added to a pop core.

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I asked my consulting editor Kathleen how she writes her stories.

“I imagine I’m taking a visual snapshot of a moment or person in time. I use details, but not all details. Instead, the important details. One can get lost in too many details.” (This said with a deadpan expression but a wry glint in her eyes. Like her stories, her words carry a an underlying sense of humor which says the world can be cruel, but also absurd.) “I want my writing to be clear and concise.”

The Pop-Lit philosophy in a sentence.

We’ll present a new short fiction piece by K.M.C. in a few weeks to further illustrate our points and the kind of writing we look for– understanding that we want writers to outdo our own work. We’re mere literary travelers, seeking for stars and superstars.

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New story writing today is characterized by a large wave of flash fiction writers– who by the nature of the form are required to get to the point! No long digressions. No endless descriptions. No attempts to display for academy profs the well-written sentence. They have only so many words to use. (Flash fiction can be as brief as six words. We generally look for stories that are a bit longer.)

We’ve published some of the best of the flash fiction writers, such as Ana Prundaru and Andrew Sacks. Two new flash fiction pieces we’ve accepted from Mr. Sacks exhibit the way flash fiction gets quickly in and out. Tells the story and closes down. Like a quick, cutting pop song. We’ll be presenting Andrew’s latest in a month or so. Please watch for them!

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NEXT UP in our Overview of today’s new writers:

III. “The Lost?: A New Generation.”

IV. “Underground, Popsters, and Other Fronts.”

Or, much excitement to follow. Stay tuned.

-Karl Wenclas

(Self-portraits by Gustave Courbet and Paul Gaugin.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

PLRKNIB: A Book Review

“Stand-Up Comedy and Writing”

A REVIEW OF ALEX BERNSTEIN’S PLRKNIB

Is stand-up comedy a good training ground for becoming a writer?

The question comes up after reading Alex Bernstein’s new memoir, Plrknib. Plrknib is about Alex’s days as a 17 year-old stand-up comic at a comedy club in Cincinnati, Ohio. One gets the impression this is an experience Alex had to write about. It’s a necessary prelude to his becoming a writer.

The book is a primer on stand-up– or at least, a great introduction to it. Despite this, the narrative is insightful more than humorous. Bernstein cautions the reader about this at the outset. Jokes aplenty are scattered throughout the pages, but he makes clear that the effectiveness of a joke depends on the delivery. On how it’s told, the confidence behind it. Confidence communicated to the audience.

(Has Jay Leno ever– ever– told a truly funny joke? Leno is adept at selling a joke, with his big grin and big jaw, hand slapping into the other when the joke’s finished as his eyes scan the audience for confirmation.)

Like a comedian’s joke, Plrknib is the kind of narrative you fight against when you start reading it, but it pulls you along despite yourself. Like most of Bernstein’s writing, it’s irresistibly absorbing. Where is this book heading, you ask? What does “plrknib” mean? You’re skeptical, but you continue reading.

The connection is made: good stand-up operates on the same principle as good writing. The first task is to keep the listener listening. The reader, reading. Alex Bernstein does this in his writing with hooks, but most of all with clarity of style. His voice is infectiously engaging. The effectiveness of any narrative depends on its delivery.

Which doesn’t limit Bernstein to stand-up routines, but sets a foundation for studies of situations and character. In Plrknib Alex Bernstein’s lead character– himself– finds himself again and again in real situations. The kind with which we can all identify.

This is the real punchline.

(Buy Plrknib here.)