Tom Bissell Gives Good Essay

A while ago, Quackenbush asked me to write up an article on The Underground Literary Alliance, a bunch of anti-elitest, indier-than-thou curmudgeons who do things like organize protests of literary writers. I said that I could not say anything about The Underground Literary Alliance that Tom Bissell didn't already say better. In fact, I think Tom Bissell may be the best literary critic around, and I'm eagerly waiting for him to come out with an essay collection. Here is the full text of his essay on the group, courtesy of The Believer magazine:




I've just noticed that in our rotating advertisments an ad for's "amateur poetry contest" pops up.

I'm not saying that they're criminals or anything, but I think that anyone to whom that 10 grand looks enticing, a quick googling of the phrase " vanity press" might be a good bit of due diligence to do.

Neal Stephenson on "Beowulf" writers versus "Dante" writers

While I'm finishing up this week's Reading Versus Watching column, go read the second question in this interview with Neal Stephenson conducted by SlashDot. In it he talks about the traditional division between popular ("Beowulf") writers and literary ("Dante") writers, and towards the end mentions how they seem to be converging these days.

Of course, what Neal Stephenson doesn't mention is the fascinating flipside of the situation as he outlines it, which is that while fans of Dante fiction, the high culture taste makers also known as literate readers (ourselves included) don't pay much attention to the stuff readers of Beowulf fiction like, it's even more telling that Beowulf readers don't pay any attention to the stuff that Dante readers like. I mean, I like Neil Gaiman as much as the next guy, but he's hardly of the same caliber as, say, David Foster Wallace or Colson Whitehead. But you'll never see Wallace or Whitehead swarmed with 18 to 32 year old males who want their autograph. I'd be willing to bet that not as many of their fans are overweight computer programmers willing to shell out fifteen hundred bucks on a leather trenchcoat so that they can look like Neo from The Matrix, only to shoot the whole project in the foot by capping off the look with a pair of ten dollar faux leather velcro sneakers, or worse, sandals, that their mom bought them at payless when they were fifteen. Which is to say that as much as we like the idea that there's no division between patrons of "high" and "low" culture, in modern day America, the fact of the matter is high culture has become valued by bohemians with refined tastes whereas the patrons of "low" culture are a bunch of overfed hayseeds. What's interesting in this is that all of a sudden good taste is, and has been for some time, disconnected from socio-economic status in America, giving the lie to many Marxist culture studies analyses imported from Europe. I mean, alright, I'm generalizing, but it seems to me that we've reached a cultural moment where it is no longer sufficient to either view the state of things as a polar spectrum and it's also no longer good enough to collapse the one end into the other and say it's all the same thing. There are differences here, and they are important, and they need more teasing out than these simple sorts of analyses can offer is, I think, the point. --J F Quackenbush

Im Riddim and the Reading of Poetry Silently

I've never studied verse formally. I've read a few books and a lot of essays, but never in any sort of systematic way. For a long time I've struggled with the various ideas about rhythm in English language poetry as much of what a lot of poets say about rhythm doesn't really make a lot of sense. Ultimately, I've been left with the definite suspicion that much of what poets believe about rhythm is largely unconnected to what they practice when they're writing. Most important, there is a flaw in the concept of poetic rhythm being regular in the same way that music is regular. Existing systems of scansion that attempt to regularize poetry rhythm are therefore flawed at root and make for a dull and difficult tool for the analysis of poetry. Far more systematic and interesting is, I think, the study of prosody from a linguistic point of view and there is a great deal of very good literature available on phonology and phonetics which is illuminating when applied to poetry...

About the ads

So Sunday evening we got linked to by Warren Ellis (hi there, Warren Ellis readers!) and got slammed with so many hits that it brought down our server. I'm going to pay some more money for more resources so that won't happen again, which is as good an excuse as any to put some ads up on the site. Previously, our only source of income was people buying stuff through our Amazon links. Wet Asphalt will almost certainly still be a money-losing venture, but hopefully it'll be less of one.

Thanks everyone!

EDIT: I also wanted to point out that the article WE linked to was the Reading Versus Watching about Jin Yong's wuxia novels.

Reading Versus Watching: Whither Superman?

What a joyless, uninspired, heavy-handed and dead thing this new movie turned out to be. What we wanted was something that returned the franchise to its solid foundations, both corollary and flip-side to the excellent Batman Begins. What we got instead was one scene after another lifted directly from the original movies in what seems intended to be an homage, but instead comes off wearyingly unoriginal. Scene after scene of Superman bearing things cross-like on his shoulders, overdubs of Marlon Brando from the first movie ("And so I gave my first born son..." et al), Superman getting stabbed in the side, falling through space in a crucified posture, dying and being reborn, the whole Jesus analogy so unsubtle it's almost surprising the movie isn't in Aramaic. Scene after scene of long, drawn-out shots of characters on the verge of tears. We get Superman as a creepy guy who loiters outside Lois Lane's house, spying on her and listening in on her conversations. We get a "mad genius" scheme from Lex Luthor that doesn't even pretend to make sense. We get at least a dozen tiny plot-holes. About half-way through I just wanted god-like Superman villain Darkseid to show up out of nowhere, laugh at this annoying pussy calling himself super and lay waste to the Earth.

Want to know what's wrong with American Letters?

Read Silliman's blog and his complaints about the School of Quietude. Read anything critical John Hollander or Robert Pinsky have ever written. Read Dana Gioia's infamous essay "Can Poetry Matter?" and the various responses to it. Hell, read the complaints of my co-editor Eric Rosenfield about the decline of readerly culture in North America. Read any number of complaints on various blogs and in various book arts pages of the nation's newspapers, liberal or conservative. One thing they all agree on is that something is wrong with American Literature. They all have their various candidates, be it conservative forces within academia or the encroaching politically correct daintiness of the academic left, the decline of free verse or the exclusion of the post-avant poets from mainstream publication. I would like to take the next 60 seconds of your life to present my candidate: the fact that idiots are in complete control of public education.

The policy states that acceptable books should provide a "Fair balanced socially appropriate portrayal of people with regard to race, creed, color, national origin, sex and disability."[sic]

I think that "Fair balanced" clause is the tipper.

I give you their agenda:

Books now cannot depict drinking alcohol, smoking, drugs, sex, including "negative sexuality," implied or explicit nudity, cursing, violent crime or weapons, gambling, foul humor and "dark content."

These people are sour faced bigots who want sanitized, boring, vanilla culture full of productive, mindless worker bees. And if they can't have that, and they can't, then they want to make damn sure that everybody else is as miserable, ignorant, and awful as they are. Toward that end they have hijacked public education while the rest of us were asleep and are now busy bleaching out anything that they consider "naughty" or "unseemly" from the world. American culture is under attack by a group of rabid reactionaries hell bent on a form of cultural cleansing intended not to achieve their disingenously stated aims, but rather to drag us all kicking and screaming back to the nineteenth century world in which these deluded fools believe that everything will be better. These people are the enemy. This is red America.