How to Save Literature

THE PROBLEM with so-called serious literature is that it’s pitched at a narrow audience, and not at the vast bulk of the American public. (Pitched really, at upscale editors at desks in London and New York.)

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Occasionally establishment writers give the game away, as did renowned young novelist Sally Rooney in Issue #30 of The Moth Magazine:

A lot of what (literature) does, to me, is reassure bourgeois readers by saying, you read fiction, you are a member of a particular class. . . the question for writers who have a social conscience is, how do you challenge that in some way while still working within the same industry that produces it, and I don’t really know what the answer is.

Then there’s the recent rant in Paris Review by esteemed short story writer Peter Orner, explaining why he will not defend the short story– his remarks making clear he doesn’t believe the story art is for the general public– and no apologies for this from establishment writers are needed, thank you.
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boxNeither Rooney nor Orner consider a way out of the box in which the literary art is trapped, currently accessible only to “a particular class.” They have no incentive to seek an alternative.

We at New Pop Lit do, as we and our modest literary project exist on the margins of what has become a marginal art. We’re thinking of ways to change this.

ONE WAY is the multidimensional (“3-D”) short story, designed to be faster and more thrilling than the standard literary model, answering those attention-span questions Peter Orner scoffs at.

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One prototype example of this kind of story has been released by us, “Vodka Friday Night.” More are coming.

CAN THE ART BE SAVED?

elvis-60-years-of-rock-and-roll-1(Early Elvis and friends.)

Business history of other arts shows that it can. I’ve given often the example of the music business and the rise of rock n roll– which multiplied the size of that industry many times over. This is well explained in this article by Johannes Ripken. Can writers duplicate that outsized success? Maybe– if they create more exciting short fiction that’s even faster and more direct than our prototype. Moreover, what’s needed are young writers who can connect with a new generation of readers via personality, talent, and attitude. In other words, stars.

Screaming_Jay_Hawkins(Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.)

Is this do-able? We’ll see.
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-Karl Wenclas, New Pop Lit NEWS

 

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WHO’S NEXT at New York Review of Books?

IN HINDSIGHT–

A man at a writing desk, by Rembrandt

In hindsight, the appointment of Ian Buruma as Editor of the New York Review of Books was a disaster. Buruma was daring enough to court controversy, but not strong enough to fight for the integrity and independence of his publication.

Ian Buruma (2015)

(Ian Buruma.)

A fighter would’ve done a better job of explaining why he ran the Jian Ghomeshi essay. Why recovery and redemption are important. Why editorial autonomy is necessary– especially in a climate of rush-to-judgement lynch mobs and unthinking hysteria.

A fighter would’ve gone to advertisers– one by one if need be– to make his case. Instead, Ian Buruma became one more casualty of today’s Literary McCarthyism.

WHAT KIND OF EDITOR?

What kind of editor is needed as Ian Buruma’s replacement?

Someone who could replicate the daring intellectual excitement represented by the New York Review of Books when it arrived on the media scene in February, 1963.

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NEEDED: A large personality.

A contentious, voluble writer akin to Norman Mailer. A person willing to be aggressive in taking on and dispersing any unthinking mob– willing to use the momentum of intellect and power of voice to restore sanity to today’s literary world.

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WHO?

WHO WILL New York Review of Books choose instead?

One of two safe alternatives.

1.) Almost certainly, a woman. Knee-jerk reaction to appease the angry mob. In this time of MeToo mania, it would be too risky for their risk-averse publishers to choose otherwise. Have to remember those advertisers!

(The result: A completely neutered intellectual journal.)

2.)  IF they were to choose a male editor, it would be someone properly screened and defanged, without a shred of volatility. Fully establishment and left-leaning, on the order of smiling Keith Gessen. Ready to appease everybody. Affable, innocuous, and bland.

gessen smiling

Someone who’s had a relationship with New York Review of Books. Whose own publication, n+1 magazine was in many ways made by them.

Or someone of that kind.

(Painting: “Scholar at His Desk” by Rembrandt.)
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-Karl Wenclas, New Pop Lit NEWS

Junot Diaz: Captive of the System

THE HARASSMENT CONTROVERSY VIEWED FROM A DIFFERENT ANGLE

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IF all men are monsters, then that psychic grievance needs continual proof in the form of visible examples. Junot Diaz fit that need.

THE NARRATIVE

Evidence shows the accusations against Junot Diaz to be flimsy– more a case of bruised egos or a dismissive personality than sexual harassment. Junot Diaz fans blame the accusers themselves for the controversy. (Two accusers, in fact, are ambitiously eager to exploit every opportunity to gain publicity.)

For me the matter is caused more by a politicized literary scene– and by the media which covers that scene needing a steady supply of victims and guilty. The accusers are the Id of that media– the realized expression of their beliefs and needs. Without encouragement behind the scenes, the matter would never have become a story in the first place.

THE MACHINE

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One has to write outside today’s New York-centered literary system in order to see it AS a system. Those inside it have no perspective on it.

THE PRISONER

Junot Diaz’s reaction to the accusations against him has been constrained by his membership in the club. He became successful as a creature of the machine, but now the bill has come due and he’s paying it.

MUCH has been made about Diaz hiring a PR firm, and by appearing at his Boston Globe interview accompanied by a lawyer– but these are shackles on no one so much as him.

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Did you see the expression on his face in the photo by Suzanne Kreiter which the Boston Globe used? The expression of a prisoner. What you didn’t see are the invisible handcuffs chaining him to that lawyer. Said attorney and said PR firm exist to keep Junot Diaz from speaking his mind. From being himself.

That’s a hell of a position for any artist to be in.

BUSINESS

What was the quote from the Hyman Roth character in the movie Godfather II?

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“This is the business we’ve chosen.”

Junot Diaz chose the world of establishment literature when he signed up for the MFA program at Cornell University he was later to write about in his 2014 essay “MFA vs. POC.”

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Diaz was one of the few writers of color in that writing program. He also may have been the only non-bourgeois person in it.

MFA programs teach students how to write in the proper upper-middle class “literary” style of long slow paragraphs of finely-detailed descriptions expressed in well-wrought sentences and it’s all very impressive to the cognoscenti but it’s also removed from the fast-paced real world lives of 95% of the American populace– a big reason why the short story, once the most popular American art form in the vulgar days of O. Henry and Jack London, is today only the delicate captive of writing programs, MFA grads, and New Yorker magazines sitting unread on Manhattan-or-the-Hamptons coffee tables.

manhattan c of alexkotlickDOTcom(Photo c/o AlexKotlik.com.)

It’s to Junot Diaz’s credit that his talent rises above the limitations– the handcuffs– of that very same refined writing style.

NOW he’s being judged by the same people he loathed when he was in those classrooms. Yes, those perfect beings currently staffing Buzzfeed, The Cut, Slate, The New York Times, etc. etc.; almost all from privileged backgrounds and in their Resistance daydreams looking for purpose, looking for causes, looking for harsh macho misogynists looking for anyone they can accuse hang and shred on the altar of their virtue signaling. Someone to nail to the wall for offending their sensibilities with too much reality brushing indelicately and intolerably against the fragile bubbles of their sterling New York City lives.

pelt on wall

-Karl Wenclas, New Pop Lit News

System versus Zeitgeist

TWO SIDES OF THE JUNOT DIAZ BOOK WORLD CONTROVERSY

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I SAID at the outset of this examination the conflict was taking place within the established, New York-centered literary world. A narrowly exclusive yet still-powerful tower of connections, money, and power. The conflict has little effect on writers outside that world.

The impact, however, on those writers existing within the established system, and those who aspire to be there, is potentially enormous. The questions become, “How politicized is the literary world?” and, “What is the correct stance to take?”

SYSTEM

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Junot Diaz made his way as a writer as a creature of the established system, with all that entails. Compromises and rewards. Involvements with long-time flagships of status quo American literature like the Pulitzer Prize committee and The New Yorker magazine. When accusations against him arose, he looked for resolution and support from the institutions which sustained him. Chiefly, Boston Review, where he’s Fiction Editor, and MIT, which employs him as a professor. That those two substantial entities cleared him should have been enough. But wasn’t.

The matter was never going to be resolved by institutions, but within the court of public opinion and by media. It’s not an institutional struggle, but a PR battle.

The maneuvering continues– Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great attempting to overlap the other’s lines.

ZEITGEIST

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Junot Diaz’s main accusers placed their faith in the ongoing zeitgeist animating today’s established intellectual community– the political spirit and emotion existing inside institutions but also outside them. The #MeToo wave energizing journalists and writers across the nation. The Junot Diaz defense is static. His opposition, dynamic. Which puts him at a disadvantage. That he has long been himself a key part of the ongoing cultural revolution– the zeitgeist– only served to tie his hands when the rules of ideological judgement changed and the winds of correct thought and behavior shifted.

IDEOLOGUE AND APPARATCHIK

mbandlililoof(Monica Byrne and Lili Loofbourow.)

EVEN THOUGH her history of making shaky allegations was quickly exposed, accuser Monica Byrne didn’t flinch, confident in being on the correct side of the issue. Her instinct has been to follow the larger intellectual herd– more, to get in front of it, as she’s capably done the past several years, with hardly a misstep. The idea being that emotional outrage is a stronger force than evidence, facts, and truth.

So, also, is having the right politics. Interesting that Byrne’s baseless allegations one year ago about Melania Trump– about which she cannot give the slightest detail about how she was in a position to receive such information– has protected her from the scrutiny of the press. Not even the Boston Globe, which Byrne has accused of enablement, will discuss those unsupported allegations, or the rest of Byrne’s history.

Byrne’s chief technique in the Junot Diaz matter, as one year ago, has been the spread of gossip and rumor.

It creates hysteria for your side.

Reading this, who would not be worked up into a frenzy against Junot Diaz?

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Monica Byrne finds supporters everyplace.

One of them is Lili Loofbourow, whose Slate article I examined in my last two posts. If Monica is the full-bore ideologue, Lili is the media apparatchik whose ability to write articles for a variety of establishment publications depends on her knowing the zeitgeist.

That the commissioned article carries a slant is a given. Objective journalism is an extinct species in the realm of establishment media. Everything from a person’s writings and life can be thrown into the mix to paint the picture of villain. The emotion becomes so strong, readers don’t notice or care about the absurdities in the piece.  Notably when Loofbourow concludes it with, “Everyone is guilty.”

Everyone? Are we talking about collective guilt– or a secular version of original sin?

What, then, is the solution to the stated problem of collective patriarchy? Destroy society from top to bottom? Eliminate men? A matriarchal society with test-tube babies? Loofbourow never says.

But does she really mean what she says and implies? Or is it posturing? Following the zeitgeist? Loofbourow herself, by all accounts, is in a happy monogamous relationship with (gasp!) a man.

ANOTHER BUREAUCRAT

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ANOTHER typical example of herd follower is Adam Morgan of the Chicago Review of Books, who has announced on Twitter his support of the accusers of Junot Diaz. Just so everyone knows. “Chicago’s premier literary critic,” Morgan, like Loofbourow, knows which side to be on in order to sustain his career. He has the bureaucrat’s talent for spotting the ascendant power, and accommodating himself to it.

An example is this article on “5 Books That Changed My Life.” For Adam Morgan, all five life-changing books were written by women. After he tweeted out a link to the article, his next tweet gave the game away: “Honestly, these were the first 5 that came to mind.”

Honestly. Adam Morgan didn’t expect anyone to believe his selections, because he didn’t believe them himself. (Glancing sideways as he sends the tweet to see if he’s fooled anybody.) He knows how the game is played. Jane Austen said, “In every power, of which taste is the foundation, excellence is pretty fairly divided between the sexes.”  Not in 2018!

THE MOB
Have we reached the point of what this old movie trailer calls “vigilante bloodlust”? Or a better question might be, “Who are the good guys and who are the bad guys?”

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NEXT: Conclusions.

Karl Wenclas for New Pop Lit News

Who Controls Literature?

THIRD IN A SERIES ON THE JUNOT DIAZ CONTROVERSY

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WHAT MAKES the Junot Diaz controversy interesting is the way it illustrates an establishment literary scene that today has become thoroughly politicized.

YET WHO STANDS BEHIND this scene– and behind the controversy? Who controls literature and the presentation of literature, and political changes within literature?

When you examine U.S. intellectual journals you find many of them take strong anti-capitalist stances yet are financed by wealthy capitalists. A puppet show where the behind-the-scenes puppeteer controls all sides of an issue.

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Is this the case with the Boston Review?

The two biggest donors at $100,000 each are:

1.) Derek Schrier and Cecily Cameron.

Schrier is a former managing member of Farallon Capital. Currently he manages an investment portfolio valued at $600 million. Cameron was Vice President of Strategy and Business Development at Old Navy. They keep a low profile, but made the news in 2010 for selling a home in Pacific Heights, California for $5.9 million.

2.) The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

This is a foundation worth $9 billion-with-a-b, managed by Walter B. Hewlett– the tax-sheltered fortune of the Hewlett-Packard business empire.

(NOTE that for Boston Review editors Joshua Cohen and Deborah Chasman there are good billionaires and bad ones. Until recently Elon Musk was a “good” capitalist in progressive circles, but for some reason has fallen out of favor.)
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SIMILAR SITUATIONS exist for most of the trendy literary publications on both coasts. Here’s a recent photo of the editors and backers of Los Angeles Review of Books. Several of the individuals in the photo are big money investors. What do those in the photo represent? Wealth. For such people, self-image is vitally important.

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LET’S NOT FORGET the big book publishers themselves, the so-called “Big Five” media conglomerates with attached publicity arms and media outlets, and the sycophantic literary journals lavishly promoting Big 5 books (The Millions; Electric Lit; et.al.)– all of them with progressive postures and all of them based in and around the imperial city of New York.

QUESTIONS OF TOKENISM

One of Junot Diaz’s accusers, Alisa Valdes, wrote a blog post about him, portraying Diaz as– among other things– “a social striver who pretended to be about the ‘hood, for the street cred he’d need to become a Latino lapdog for the New Yorker.” This raises questions of tokenism– a term also used by the VIDA website in their petition against him.

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(Still from the 1957 movie “Twelve Angry Men.”)

IF the standard affluent white liberal still sees minorities as tragic victims, then have Junot Diaz’s narratives– and his recent New Yorker essay about his past– fed into that sense of virtuous power? It’s a question which has to be asked.
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The world sees only the players on the stage– and not those who control the production. It’s like the 1961 movie “The Hustler” in which Minnesota Fats, top pool player, is seen as a dynamic, powerful character– until the end, when we see he has no real power at all; is controlled by the gambler who backs him. In the same way, writers and readers alike want to see only the authors whose face is on the book jacket– they seek no knowledge of how that book is made, and the many compromises made along the way.

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THE TRUTH is that all writers are tokens, in the sense that few have any real power within the world of letters. This is a point I made in the first part of this series covering this topic. In the recent National Book Foundation awards, most of the writers nominated and awarded were women and/or persons of color. It’s the face the book world (which sustains NBF) chooses to put on its product at the moment. From the standpoint of those behind the scenes, it means little– as long as they remain the ones pulling the strings. As Junot Diaz is finding out, the power of a successful writer is tentative, qualified, and can be taken away at any time.

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EVENTUALLY: “Ownership: Are There Solutions?”

-Karl Wenclas