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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Literary Lynch Mob Locates Another Villain

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WORD today is that Ian Buruma is out as editor of New York Review of Books after fallout from his allowing accused sexual batterer Jian Ghomeshi to write a mea culpa complaint for the publication. Some past accusers like Jesse Brown counter-complained  that Ghomeshi’s essay was filled with “inaccuracies, omissions, evasions, and mischaracterizations.” Other literary persons and activists were outraged simply that Ghomeshi’s name appeared in anything.

Ghomeshi, yes, gave his viewpoint. Distorted? Probably. Surely fair game for attack and debate.

BUT– that wasn’t enough for these hysterical times. For the mob, Ghomeshi and anyone who enables him– though he was already judged by the legal system– needs to be obliterated.

New York Review of Books was founded under questionable circumstances during a newspaper strike with Random House money. Yet, over the decades it’s had quite the glamorous history. Has been contentious, and to this commentator’s knowledge has never before caved under pressure– at least not so immediately.

SOME OBSERVATIONS:

-WRITERS themselves seem to be leading the literary lynch mob, which conjures up images of approved apparatchik scribblers during the halcyon days of the Soviet Union.

-WHETHER Ian Buruma resigned or was fired, someone at NYR of B caved into mob pressure all too quickly. Another blow to the integrity and independence of literary magazines.

-THIS is another in the ongoing castration of classically macho establishment literary publications. (See Paris Review.)

WHO’S NEXT?
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-Karl Wenclas, New Pop Lit NEWS

Literature and Foreign Policy

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THAT key Anglo-American literary figures during the Cold War used literature as a tool of foreign policy, through journals like Paris Review and Encounter, raises a host of questions.

-Has literature been used as a tool of U.S. foreign policy at other times during the past sixty years?

-During this year’s renewed Cold War, the West versus Russia, are segments of the establishment literary world being used as instruments of foreign policy NOW?

-To what extent do U.S. intelligence agencies support current journals or institutions of literature?

 

n+1 Revisited

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(Photo of rich girl Dayna Tortorici, Editor of n+1 magazine.)

We’ve already covered one of New York City’s chief literary mags, the pretentiously named n+1 magazine. See our Op-Ed.

In recent days, editor Chad Harbach has been the subject of a lawsuit which claims he plagiarized another author’s novel for material for his own. See this story.

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(Photo of the questionable Chad Harbach.)

ARE n+1 editors icons of truthfulness? There’s the fact that Chad Harbach is listed at wikipedia– and until recently at their site– as one of six founding editors. Neat– except that anyone who read their first few issues knows there were actually four founding editors– Gessen, Greif, Kunkel, and Roth. One can speculate that the change was made to include a woman– Alison Lorentzen– as a founder. Harbach then thrown in also. Very Orwellian. One can speculate that, with Harbach now the subject of controversy, he’s apt to become any moment in the n+1 histories a nonperson. As the old joke in the Soviet Union went, the future is certain but the past is always changing.
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What does n+1 have to do with the “wise men” we profiled here in a recent post?

At its beginning, the n+1 editors’ professed model was William Phillips’ Partisan Review. One of their early mentors was Robert B. Silvers, who worked for Paris Review and founded New York Review of Books.

These facts and others raise more questions about the magazine, about its mission and its funding– questions we won’t address now.

 

The Wise Men

American Masters: Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself

Who steered the direction of American literature after World War II?

Editors like George Plimpton, Robie Macauley, Reed Whittemore, Robert Silvers, and William Phillips. Men on a mission who, as much as they professed no artistic ideology, very much pushed an artistic ideology. They’d been formed by various factors, whether by privilege, or the war, or by disillusion with Communism. By 1950 all were Wilsonians out to save the world by making it “Safe for Democracy”– their own special internationalist version of democracy.

Literature was their tool– they fully believed in the importance of the art. Paris Review (like Encounter magazine in the UK) was founded as a cultural ambassador for Anglo-American liberal ideals– presenting an intellectual alternative to the twin totalitarianisms of fascism and Communism. Liberal Cold Warriors, these editors disdained– or had rejected– the populism of the American past. John Steinbeck and his kind were out. Henry James as the ideal cosmopolitan author was in.

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For our cultural aristocrats, literature, to be safe, must never engage too strongly in ideas. As an editor at New York Review of Books told me in a note in the late 1990’s, characters must never serve as mouthpieces for ideas. George Plimpton told me essentially the same thing on the one occasion I met him, at a literary debate held at CBGB’s in 2001. To these people, burdened– as they saw it– with the task of preserving literature, a broad view of the world was considered dangerous. An Ayn Rand or Frank Norris wrote beyond their well-regulated lines.

Focus moved instead to the delicate sensibilities of the bourgeois self. American literature became gnostic: insular and solipsistic. Cleansed, nuanced, refined; denuded of its loud voice but also much of its energy. For prose: John Updike. For poetry: John Ashbery.  Aesthetics was not the only weapon. No longer could a writer appear off the street like Thomas Wolfe or Jack London and be taken seriously. Writing programs and markers of breeding ensured all who entered the Halls of Approval were thoroughly screened.

Did these men and their journals have influence? Tremendous influence. They understood the concept of leverage; that a publication with a readership of 10,000 could determine who did or did not receive a large book contract– chiefly because that small readership was powerful and elite.

The change in aesthetic direction made the wise men– as well as their sources of money– very happy. Literature came under the control not of the unpredictable American people, but of themselves. The Elect.
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American Masters: Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself

The thing to know about these men and their journals is that the faces they showed the world were misleading. George Plimpton was a smiling bon-vivant but also much more than that. The notion that he didn’t know the source of Paris Review‘s original funding is an absurdity.

Likewise, New York Review of Books, founded by Robert Silvers and Barbara Epstein, postured for a long while as a radical Leftist publication– yet it was started with Random House money during a New York newspaper strike as a way for the giant book companies to advertise their new releases. It’s always been an extension of New York-based Big Corporate Publishing. Sophisticated PR for them, one might say.

In the New York literary world, nothing is ever as it seems.