The ULA Talks; Mr. Lee Klein Comments - a Scuffle of Sorts
as produced and promoted by Pitchaya “Don King” Sudbanthad
You may have heard of the Underground Literary Alliance. They don’t think much of the publishing conglomerates. They can’t stand writers like Jonathan Franzen and Rick Moody. They definitely don’t like Dave. You know which Dave I’m talking about. The ULA has been known to disrupt readings. They like to go in, all liquored up. They were involved in a literary wrestling brawl outside of the Housing Works Bookstore. Getting thrown out is part of the fun for the ULA. It makes people look their way. That’s why I said that you might have heard of them. They’ve been discussed on the Atlantic Forum, in the Village Voice, and even in Dave’s own The Believer.
Recently Karl “King” Wenclas pulled an Ari Fleischer and stepped down as the public point man for the ULA. In came Michael Jackman and Steve Kostecke. To see if they can continue the tradition of rabblerousing, we thought we’d ask them some questions and then run commentary by Eyeshot’s Mr. Lee Klein.
The ULA was formed in 2000, after all the decadent economic partying of the late 90's began to wind down and everyone's puking up stuff they wish they hadn't drunken. In a sense, people were waking up from a mirage into disillusionment. Was there a correlation?
MJ: I feel as though I've known a few of the people you're talking about, but my '90s partying was decidedly non-economic. I spent the '90s as an office flunky, or a messenger, or a truck driver, or in the mailroom. There was no economic miracle for me. I feel crummy about that too. I missed my chance to do cocaine off Grace Jones' ass. This question really is for those "people" you're talking about. I was already disillusioned then. But you must be on to something, because I think disillusionment is in ascendancy these days. And if that means not having any mirages, then I'm all for it.
Mr. Lee Klein’s commentary: My mothers hairdresser went out with Grace Jones; he also did lots of coke. Not only is he responsible for both Grace Jones and my moms early-80s flat-top, but he probably also did lines off her ass. (Thats Grace Jones ass, not my moms.) He now cuts hair in Greenwich, CT, to make ends meet. I mention this because all things go in cycles. One minute youre doing coke off a rock stars ass, the next youre cutting a Connecticut homemakers hair. Which means the ULA should be the dominant literary force in 2010. Further, I think Perry Farrell once said, were all deluded and disillusioned. This is absolutely true and total bullshit, like everything. Also, it seems that times of so-called disillusionment (like in the 1930s, in Germany) tend to produce some of the most scarily deluded movements. Disillusionment and delusion, theyre totally intertwined, especially for me.
Honestly, the chance of any reforms happening in the publishing industry's almost zero. Is progress possible for the ULA?
MJ: Ever listen to the song "High Hopes"? What's the matter with you? Is this America? What happened to rooting for the little person? Doesn't anybody cheer the underdog anymore? Now it's smirked at and dismissed as "tilting at windmills" by people who've never read Don Quixote. Where have you been? Everybody's reading Tolkein again and I'm trying to sell you on being a dragon slayer! Obviously, not everybody thinks idealism is passé. Philosophically speaking, to me it's less important than whether or not my goal is possible, but that I'm able to get closer to a worthy one.
As far as our shit-stirring goes, we stand behind our record. We've exposed controversial grants from government agencies and tax-exempt foundations that were accepted by successful authors. We've been able to make noise about this, which starts a public dialogue going. And I do think that the grant-giving world gets the message and is actually being more vigilant right now.
I also get the sense that writers feel some greater inclination to show at least a meek social conscience. It's very cautious, but it's there. It's nothing like Hollywood. They won't do anything crazy like oppose the war openly, but they'll editorialize about citizenship or "empowering" people or something. It's nothing like thirty years ago when Norman Mailer ran for mayor of New York City. Where are all the loudmouth writers? Where has all the excitement gone?
Mr. Lee Klein’s commentary: A few writers opposed the war openly. There was a page in the New York Times with all their names. As far as reform in the publishing industry goes, Id say it comes down to taste. Some people have silly taste, from the perspective of other people, and some people in publishing might project taste onto people out in the world, maybe based on past sales, which is a crazy thing for a publishing company to do, especially since most literary publishers dont even make any money, but instead are written off as the prestige division of the larger company within the international conglomerate. Which means no one really reads what is published; no one when compared to the millions who see movies and buy music. And maybe most people dont read because theyre not so well educated. Or too well educated. Or cant sit still. Or maybe theyre longing for ULA-style writers to get their shit published in quality hardback. Or maybe they dont read so much because theyre leading active lives filled with video games, DVDs, high-quality recreational drugs, and blogging. I think the real enemy (that is, the common enemy) is the blog. People who once were content to read books now spend their time posting tidbits online and reading and re-reading and re-re-reading what theyve written, over and over, day after day, rather than buying zines or mainstream literature. Otherwise, I love the ULA the most when they make noise. Ive had a few amiable/enjoyable talks (over All-American bottles of Budweiser) with the late King Wenclas about how it all should be more like the World Wrestling Federation. If King grew his hair out, hes a dead ringer for The Iron Sheik, right? Personally, I would like to be Jimmy Superfly Snuka, if it ever came down to it. The way he stood on the ropes, then flew through the air to pin his opponent, if only the ULA had done something like that to Mr. Beller, leaping from the balcony at Housing Works, looking all Polynesian and shit . . .
So is the qualification of a good novelist by your standards partly an application of a background checklist? Let's check to see if he's got street cred, if he's been screwed over enough to qualify for approval. In that sense, aren't you also elitist in a snobbery-by-disadvantage way?
MJ: Actually, as writers, we come from the print underground, the zine scene that's been flourishing as the stranglehold of big publishing has tightened. These are mostly people who've never even sought approval from anybody but their readers. This freedom grants much of the writing a freshness of perspective, and there is often intelligence without intellectualization, a beauty without glossiness. It's a punk press where a zine can show more raw common sense and character than one of today's baroque postmodern novels.
It takes a certain breed of person to weather the bias against self-publishing, to do the collating and mailing and printing, and to still take a loss doing it. They're a rare breed but we admire them. And it's no surprise that those are the people we most want to work with, those with energy and talent. Please don't labor under the misapprehension that we are a "frustrated writers' group" or anything like it. We are actively publishing. But that doesn't mean we won't be launching crusades against corruption in publishing and for authenticity in literature. We need prominence to have any impact on the larger cultural debate, and that's why we're making so much noise.
Mr. Lee Klein’s commentary: Laboring under the misapprehension. Launching crusades. Impacting on the cultural debate. Talking about authenticity. This is where the ULA bores the fuck out of everyone, when they weather the bias to write sentences. Sorry. I really dont intend to critique or nitpick. But when you talk like this, when you talk about authenticity, you make me want to clean the wax out of my ears and eat it. Anythingd be more fun, more pressing, than to hear the ULA talk about anything other than busting up boring readings and exposing rampant back-scratching, all of which are exciting and noble and make me think of the leopards in that Kafka aphorism: Leopards break into the temple and drink to the dregs what is in the sacrificial pitchers; this is repeated over and over again; finally it can be calculated in advance, and it becomes a part of the ceremony. To an extent, I think the ULA, or at least the idea of the ULA, is becoming a part of the ceremony. But when the language the ULA uses is so dull, the whole enterprise falters, since no could possibly believe in the ULA leopards fangs and spots. Sleepy puppycats, no more.
MJ’s Commentary on Lee Klein’s Commentary: That's pretty good. I see Lee has at least the pose of righteous indignation down, but it's not enough. It's like a rich girl with a fresh mohawk and brand-new ripped-up jeans clambering into her parents' luxury automobile to go squawk in a punk band at CBGB's just before going back to Oberlin to start the fall semester. It's just a pose, and without authenticity, experience, and ideas to back it up, the anger comes off as amphetamine-induced irritability. If we're not exciting, why are we answering questions? Is this all just a ritual? My advice to those who feel that way is, "Go to the leopards and tweak their fangs."
Tell me more about your zines. Compare it to McSweeney's.
SK: My zines are handmade, get reviewed in "A Reader's Guide to the Underground
Press," and are part of the zine scene community. McSweeney's hifalutin booklets are printed in Iceland, come icily packaged in an expensive box set, and have nothing to do with the zine scene. (What kind of cronyism led to them getting a Firecracker Award for "best zine" in 2001--think on that.)
Then there's the content card. My "tendency" is towards writing zines about experiences like: eking out an existence in a forest in West Germany while laboring at a Burger King; partaking in a bad throw at a brothel in Southwest China; downing booze to create a hurricane in my head to match the one surrounding me on the main island of Fiji; and so on and so forth within that vein.
I attended a Mc"S" event in Philly in 2001: Neal Pollack barked a poem about how Jewish guys got big cocks; Matthew Klam reflected on a ritzy wedding he went to on the East Coast; a black guy gave details about having sex with a white chick; and Eggers read from a sitcom pilot he wrote about a serial killer who converses with a tiny Kazoo-esque (Flintstones allusion) side kick. It was anaesthetizing as an hour of prime time tv.
MJ: Steve seems to be pretty right on. I'd add that zines have a sincerity, an authenticity, that the precious humor of McSweeney's never really approached. To us, zines are an effective way to talk about our world, our neighborhoods, our lives. I've been doing this for over fifteen years now. Every once in a while, big media would pick up on zines and send a features stringer to do a story on the phenomenon, which usually ended up being a pat on the head for those "quirky" little guys doing publications on the Brady Bunch or cereal boxes. What happened was, Eggers lifted the quirkiness and left the content for dead.
Mr. Lee Klein’s Commentary: I cant really think of any reason to dis McSweeney’s journals. Theyre not zines. Theres no reason, other than the Firecracker thing, to consider them as such. Theyre not even on the same level as most literary journals. Theres so much formal experimentation. The most recent one is bound in leather and includes a DVD. I dont have the cash to buy them all, but as carefully designed, handsome objects, their value will continually rise, which means that people will collect copies for a long time, and so the journals will span time. And as one more thing out there in which writers can publish stuff, it seems certainly more like a positive addition than a serious handicap for the so-called ceremony. Anyone publishing anything (in print, online, with or without the inclusion of a DVD) should probably be supported. And if your taste runs contrary to the taste of the editors, simply ignore what they do, and then, very late at night, when everyones too drunk to remember, talk shit about them. And by the way, Steve, fuck off for dissing Matt Klams Issues I Dealt With in Therapy, easily one of the best short stories Ive read in recent years, one that pretty much shares the ULAs spirit. Also, I too was at that reading in Philadelphia, where Eggers also read "People Should Not Laugh At Savings, a story that made everyone laugh and feel good for a few minutes, which is a pretty fine thing to do to people, considering Noble Truth #1: all life is suffering.
All groups, invariably, at some point, support their members for terms other than merit. If the ULA were to be better equipped in production and distribution, how would it avoid its own form of literary cronyism, as well?
SK: Avoiding it--that smacks of ethics. And morality. So forget that. What we'd do is give it a lukewarm hug. We wouldn't bend it over and abuse it in the way the current literati are doing, in such a shameless fashion. But we'd grope a little, sure. That's only natural.
MJ: Look, I think I see what you're getting at with your question here, and I'd say that you have to look at the ambient ethical background that's out there. An old friend of mine writes for the New York Times Book Review every now and then. How does she manage that? She does it because one of the head honchos of the weekly supplement wants to bed her. This is just one instance at the Times, and these are the people who run an article called "The Ethicist" in their magazine every week.
I think it was Eugene Debs who said reward your friends and punish your enemies. I think that sentiment makes sense. But I also think it's good to have ideals, and not to just be concerned with expediency.
Mr. Lee Klein’s commentary: Wake me when the interviews over . . . Actually, these last statements demonstrate that the ULA, a group thats very wonderfully exposed literary cronyism, would quickly max out their own cronyism card, given the chance. This is the sort of hypocritical talk that makes the ULA appealing to all those who like to argue. I like to argue, but I believe time can be better spent either being as authentic as one can be or inserting chocolate-covered espresso beans up ones roommates cats asshole.
SK on Mr. Lee Klein’s commentary: Back to the figurative sex speak: the ULA's twist is that our love feast would be much more inclusive than their (those current literati's) love feast. We of the ULA sleep with practically anyone, dig. And this ideology makes for an overall much more happening agape.
In an alternate universe, you are a successful, well-reviewed author who has been showered with awards and grant money. You are at a bookstore in the Upper East Side. You give a reading. It's your hundredth time reading this passage. You are drunk and are reading with affected vitality. Polite applause follows. Then some guy gets up and heckles you. Then another. Imagine what's going through your mind.
SK: I get nauseous just thinking of this "alternate universe"--so make it three hecklers, with guns, who turn the event into a turkey shoot. (Bye bye "alternate me.")
MJ: Steve means he's getting "nauseated." I think the scenario is an excellent opening for a book. I think Steve's scenario is an excellent ending for a book.
Mr. Lee Klein’s commentary: It is quite clear these boys have very active imaginations. In the immortal words of AC/DC, We salute you: fire!
You've compared what the ULA's trying to do to a rock n' roll revolution. What'd be your anthem?
SK: Iggy Pop's "Raw Power."
MJ: That's a good one. In a tongue-in-cheeck sort of way I think of Twisted
Sister's "We're Not Gonna Take It".
Mr. Lee Klein’s commentary: These boys are very punk rock. King Wenclas, he of the most gorgeously formed nose in all of modern literature, would have suggested some tasteful song by The Band, like To Kingdom Come:
“Tarred and feathered, yeah, thistled and thorned,
one or the other, he kindly warned,
now you look out the window, what do you see?
I see a golden calf looking back at me.”
Read more about the ULA at their website.
Read more about Mr. Lee Klein at his.
Mr. Lee Klein is viciously familiar with the ULA. They go way back.