Friday, July 27, 2012

Folk Heroes

Most striking about the 1963 film “Bye Bye Birdie” is that it treats Elvis Presley, through the satirical character Conrad Birdie, as a living American folk hero, which Elvis certainly was. Elvis remains as mythic a cultural icon as Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett. Key to the rise of popular music as the essential American art form was that so many early rock n’ roll characters were larger than life, presenting unprecedented energy and personality.

Literature will never regain a central position in American life until it likewise presents writers who are not only readable and exciting—whose writing gives the sense of a new creation—but who back up the art with compelling, even striking, personalities. The presentation of the artist is inseparable from the presentation of the art.

I attempted to find such writers when I was running the Underground Literary Alliance (ULA) last decade. I rejected the notion that writers have to be withdrawn nerds with negative personality, on the order of overhyped stooges of the mainstream like Jonathan Safran Foer or Jonathan Franzen. My thinking is that the writer spends a period of time in the silent wilderness creating the artwork, but by the time he or she finishes, is ready to explode, to release pent-up energy and make noise. After all, I’ve been not only a dynamic promoter and performer, making commotions and causing controversy, but I also write. I know both sides of the coin.

The most charismatic individuals I’ve known have been introverts part time—their charisma is a reflection of their innate hostility to human society, their vulnerability with people; a reflection of their internal pain. (An idea I pursue through the main character of The Tower, my latest ebook.)

The striking writer is able to present striking personality and voice to the outside world as well as putting it onto the page.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Those Who Attack Amazon

THERE WAS A COVER STORY in the June 18 issue of The Nation magazine which was an assault on Amazon, with a clear worry over what Amazon is doing to publishing-- “The Amazon Effect” by Steve Wasserman:

How objective is the article? Does Steve Wasserman have an axe to grind? Here’s his bio:

Quite extensive, isn’t it? Steve Wasserman has been involved in every aspect of mainstream literature and publishing, from teaching classes at universities, to sitting on grants panels, to literary agent, to publishing. He’s the quintessential literary apparatchik; his extensive career happening inside the System: the Machine. He gives the viewpoint of the Machine. What we can judge from what he says is that the Machine is terrified, because their clubby monopoly on literature is crumbling.

The reality is that ebook writers, using outlets like Amazon, are creating the horizontalization of literature. They’re destroying a tops-down hierarchical and costly system which puts the writer at its lowest point. In their system, the writer looks upward at the tower as supplicant, and begs, “Please publish me!” Who actually gets published—or more, who gets promoted—in such a world has to do more with cronyism, connections, and school ties than ability. The System is no less insular and corrupt than were the top heavy bureaucracies in Eastern Europe during the heyday of the Soviet Union. The mentality is the same.

Of course the stagnant status quo publishing system, existing in high-priced Manhattan skyscrapers, is going to be undercut in price. If not by Amazon, then by somebody. Everything involved in the system adds layers of expense. Look again at Wasserman’s bio. You can bet that in every stage of his history, in every prestigious position he occupied, he was amply rewarded. As no doubt he is today as literary agent. Care to guess at his salary? It’s money that would otherwise go to the creators of the art. To writers! Not to the System’s arrogant priests.

The System at some point had to be streamlined. It was too vertical, too undemocratic, too overburdened by go-along-to-get-along bureaucracy to locate truly exciting writers. The apex of the System right now is: Jonathan Franzen, whose prose is as plodding and enervated out-of-touch as his bird-watching personality. Yet he’s the face of the established literary scene.

No one knows how this will shake out—but the shake out is beginning.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

America Invented Pop Culture

While other countries like Japan and India have a great sense of the fun of pop culture, the style originated here in the good old U.S.A. I was reminded of this watching the 1963 movie "Bye Bye Birdie" on the big screen at the Suzanne Roberts Theater in Philadelphia last night. With its nonstop energy and candy-color photography, the surprisingly satirical film is "pop" from start to finish.

The premise is an Elvis Presley-like rock singer, Conrad Birdie, drafted into the army, who's to give a "last kiss" to a randomly selected teenage girl on the Ed Sullivan Show before going away. The girl, significantly, is played by Ann Margaret in as dynamic a movie appearance ever.

The direction by George Sidney still has verve and style, with split screen effects and sight gags. Everything is satirized, from teenagers in "The Telephone Hour" to Russians to small town America to, of course, Elvis and rock n roll. As gold jumpsuit-wearing Conrad Birdie, Jesse Pearson has to be swaggering, boorish, buffoonish, lustful, and sexy-- to mock Elvis yet show his backwoods allure-- and somehow pulls it off, in part because against the rest of the cast he appears to be seven feet tall.

Though everyone in the plot is supposed to be chaste, the subtext of sex is everywhere. It proves Slavoj Zizek's point that movies were sexier when sexual repression was the norm. Four scenes in this regard stand out. One, when Birdie destroy's the small town's entire girl population by performing a song in the town square. A bit later, a quick shot of the mayor's wife in heat from the encounter with the rock star. Later on, the character Rosie (Janet Leigh) sexually destroys a room of Shriners in a night club. Finally, Dick Van Dyke and Janet Leigh satirize the mores of the time when he tells her, "You've never seen me in my pajamas before!" It's a G-rated film, but sex is everywhere.

No more so than with Ann Margaret. She plays a wholesome all-American girl-- yet in the big dance scene that includes herself, Pearson, and her boyfriend played by Bobby Rydell, she caused an audible reaction from last night's audience when she started dancing. Explosive is the only way to describe it. Few performers have been so hyper-talented. She dominates a movie that includes the talented scene-stealing likes of Van Dyke and Paul Lynde, who have large personalities of their own.

The audience, which included many college students as well as older folks, a few people just escaping the summer heat like myself, was in hysterics for the last ten minutes. Would that movies were that much fun, had that much verve, now.

I'd like to write a pop novel sometime with that kind of energy and edge. It'd reinvent the form.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Tottering System

I sense among writers a fear of dissent-- of saying anything which might possibly piss off anyone in today's literary world. It's as if we're all required to get along-- that literature shouldn't be a clash of ideas and movements, but a place "where seldom is heard, a discouraging word, and the clouds are not cloudy all day."

This mindset leads to a stagnant art scene and a stagnant art-- a stale literary art that writers have the obligation to move beyond.

It's obvious to me-- why not to others?-- that with one good kick the entire house of cards that is approved "literature" will implode upon itself. This will happen anyway, with the rise of affordable ebooks, but it makes sense to speed up the process. Those at the forefront of change stand to benefit most from that change.

Can the literary System win the battle of ideas? It can no longer even engage in such a battle. Those tasked with maintaining the System are as intellectually helpless as dumb animals to any criticism of the monolith. They can only stare, or whisper amoing themselves, "What is this about? Why is that person saying those unapproved words?" It marks a system that's as stagnant and decrepit as the Soviet-style systems of Eastern Europe after World War II, manned by bureaucrats merely going through the motions, having forgotten the reasons for the system and therefore having no words or energy with which to defend it-- other than a blind instinct for the preservation of their positions, their turf.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Best Short Stories?

While googling for something online, I stumbled into this revealing post by one Michael P. Nye, who’s managing editor at the university lit-mag The Missouri Review--

Michael Nye gives his version of the “Ten Best” short stories of all time. What do his choices have in common? Two things.

1.) They’re all workshopped stories.

2.) The writers listed, Alice Munro, Charles Baxter, Raymond Carver and company, dominated the American short story during a period of the art form’s decline. They were, in effect, the form’s caretakers while the short story disengaged itself from the American public. The short story was once the popular American art form, wildly and eagerly read far and wide.

Why would anyone think at least a few of the “best” short stories should not come from the short story’s golden age? (If not all of them!)

What would be my choices?

In 1998, in an issue of a lit zeen I was then writing, New Philistine, I gave my list of the ten best “pop” stories of all time. My criteria included significance and meaning—but most of all I looked for what the short story, at its best, does best—what the form needs to do first—namely being sharp, fast, fun—entertaining. Only after it achieves that should we look for the subtle deep chords of meaning a story slips in to the reader, as if accidentally.

I recall that my first choice was “The Man Behind the Looking Glass” by the French detective writer George Simenon, because it accomplished more things in a short space than any story I’d ever read. It first appeared in this country in New Black Mask. Fast, mysterious, sophisticated and sexy, with the “detective” part of the tale serving as a metaphor for the chase to discover one’s true mate. Within the story are layers upon layers—yet it’s told with perfect clarity.

Other names on my list were writers who should be on any short story list—F. Scott Fitzgerald (his “The Captured Shadow” my favorite); Jack London (“Lost Face”); Edgar Allen Poe (“William Wilson”); Robert Louis Stevenson, and Stephen Crane.

I also included a story by the man who I claim was the best short story writer of them all, strangely enough, because he long ago fell out of favor. O. Henry. Yes, believe it. I base that assessment not on his widely anthologized stories (see the excellent “The Last Leaf”), but his lesser known tales like “A Municipal Report” and “The Moment of Victory,” whose endings aren’t so much surprises as revelations.

O. Henry’s apex was the apex of the short story, and that was attained in two amazing, emotionally powerful works, “The Renaissance at Charleroi” and “The Church with an Over-shot Wheel,” in which O. Henry goes beyond the here and now into the metaphysical, searching for, and maybe finding, ultimate meaning.

In conclusion, we can only say that Michael P. Nye’s “Ten Best” list reveals the narrowness of the university “literary” viewpoint. Any art form goes in cycles. The short story has been in a steady downtrend for decades. With the rise of pop ebooks, it’s time to resurrect the pop short story—to produce and promote short tales which the general public will enjoy reading, instead of the endless slog of slow-paced overly-detailed solipistic works smelling of mothballs and the academy, which have suddenly become, if they weren’t already, sadly obsolete.

Just my two cents worth. (Buy my  affordable ebook Ten Pop Stories—new short works signifying an artistic revival. For slightly longer tales, check out my Mood Detroit.)

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Breaking Literary Monopoly

Blaming Amazon for the shaky status of the “Big Six” book giants is akin to blaming the 45 rpm vinyl disc or the portable record player for the sudden onslaught of low-rent rock n’ roll music in 1955.

At that time, the Big Four record companies controlled 85% of the market. Over the next several years they lost half their market share to hundreds of unlikely self-taught artists produced by scores of hypemaster entreprenurial hustlers like Alan Freed, Sam Phillips, Dick Clark, and Berry Gordy Jr. Yes, much of the music was very crude, especially from a learned and “serious” musical standpoint. But the new music, played on cheap discs, enlivened the music industry, and with it, American culture.

Likewise, most of the new 99-cent ebook novels intruding onto prestigious sales lists are plotted, readable, and little else. They’re the first wave of a revolution in publishing which will lead to a transformation of literature—to better novels that will be readable and entertaining, but also significant and meaningful art.

New models for the novel are needed. New exemplars of value. The finely-detailed slow-moving “literary” novel is dead.

Right now Amazon is the chief delivery system for DIY writers and publishers. Amazon is the current-day record shop making new fiction accessible and affordable to all. To those who truly value reading and writing, isn’t that what literature is about?

Read THE TOWER by King Wenclas. The better e-novel. No-overhead literature. A revolution unto itself.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Literary Direction

What direction should literature take?

Literature’s ideas need to catch up to economic realities. The ebook revolution will be more potent if explained by strong artistic arguments.

What does official “Literature” give us now?

1.) Standard “literary” narrow realism from writing programs is tame, uninteresting, and stagnant.

2.) Postmodernism, a more extreme version of #1 from the academy, is undemocratic, antiquated, and regressive.

Literature of the future will be “pop”—some improved blend of popular genre and populism. The hallmarks of the fiction will be readability, pace, emotion, and plot.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Fighting the Monopoly Mindset

NEITHER SIDE in the health care debate is capable of stepping back and seeing the system in its totality. It’s a verticalized system designed to be as expensive as possible, centered around institutions. Expensive institutions (universities) create the chief health care providers (doctors). The doctors then go to work for similar giant top-heavy institutions, called hospitals, whose motivating credo is to utilize as much advanced technology as possible. The system builds-in expense and cost, and it builds-in scarcity. There are never enough giant hospitals and never enough doctors to serve the entire population without denied access and long lines. Switching to a government-run system won’t change this situation. The solution, it seems to me, is to free up the system and horizontalize health care, by cutting down the artificial monopoly of doctors and hospitals. Maybe by having an interim category between nurse and doctor, without the hyper-brains and hyper-technology, and without the enormously expensive hyper-education, which sets up the artificial scarcity of “experts.” Open up the market for health care and allow a wide range of low cost clinics to proliferate. Drop the “one-size-fits-all” mentality geared toward treating the symptoms and effects of disease, allowing alternative ideas which focus on causes and lifestyles into the equation. These are stray thoughts. What we know for certain is that the present system isn’t working. A 2,800-page law requiring tens of thousands of regulations, with corresponding expansion of bureaucracies, is hardly the solution—there’s too much regulation and bureaucracy already.

America fights war in the same way it provides health care: as expensively as possible, with the focus on enormously expensive bureaucracies, hierarchies, and costly advanced technology. Our trillion-dollar force was sent to Afghanistan to fight—and has found failure against bands of low-rent fanatics, who exist and fight with no supporting superstructure of expense whatsoever. The horizontal has outmaneuvered the vertical.

The situation of book publishing and literature in this country is similar to that of war and health care. Once again, enormously expensive vertical institutions—the “Big Six”—operating in as costly a fashion as possible, with large high-rent offices in the planet’s highest rent city, manned by “experts” who are the products of hyperexpensive, questionable education which has only served to enforce a “one-size-fits-all” narrow-minded mode of artistry. American literature, based within the Big Six and within equally overlarge educational institutions, has tied itself to this monopoly mindset—and as a result has stagnated. As I experienced when I ran the Underground Literary Alliance, those who question the system are ostracized and banished from the high priests’ sight.

Signs of hope exist in the form of horizontalized low-rent pop writers, operating like insurgents under the radar—writers like J.A. Konrath and Barry Eisler, who are defeating the monolith of monopoly at its own game.