SWIMMING AGAINST THE MAINSTREAM
"Obviously, mainstream publishing is largely mercenary publishing for a profit, with magazine and advertising writers working to grab increasingly jaded consumers by the nose. It's different when it comes to literature. Strangely, lit keeps fumbling badly, relegating the book to hipster art object or membership card in the smart set. They spend millions to reach solvent people in dentists offices with things they can buy, but can't connect with the vast majority of the American people. It's impossible for them, I think. It's like trying to imagine Terry Gross yelling at a cab driver."
Andrew Stevens interviews Michael Jackman of the Underground Literary Alliance
COPYRIGHT © 2004, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
MJ: I'm paying close attention to Banksy's antics at the Tate. A very ULA-like "crashing" -- unfortunately for his artwork, literally. From what I read in The Guardian, I'm delighted to see that mixing agitation and art provokes a sense of wonder in London. It touches a darker, rawer nerve here.
3AM: The ULA have clearly made some waves of late, but how and why?
MJ: Most of us in the ULA come from the print underground, the network of underground chapbooks and fanzines that is more commonly associated with punk, science fiction and comics. My first experience with zines was in the eighties, in the Detroit punk scene, when I wrote a comic for an undistinguished publication called Beef Rag. I was fifteen. I ordered copies of the seminal meta-zine Factsheet Five and started sampling the underground press. I got very serious about underground publishing in about 1994. If you want readership, you have to be more than an interesting storyteller; you have to spend a lot of time at the mail desk to get reviews from other zines and communicate with other author/readers. Publishing is organizing.
We get asked this question quite a bit but seldom find it prominently mentioned. Our underground roots are important to us. We feel that in an increasingly insincere world, zines are the last bastion of authenticity, a medium that still manages to support divergent views without corporate or government largesse. I can't think of any other medium with such broad representation as the underground press, where you hear from people in the trenches: poets living in basement apartments, prisoners cadging stamps through the mail, broken-hearted teenage girls, volcanic political polemicists, and even the occasional upstart literatus. The medium attracts rebels, people opposed to censorship and meddling middlemen and the crushing respectable mediocrity of monopoly media. It's a long explanation, but it's an important part of our background.
As for me, I went to New York to go to film school, but dropped out because I didn't want to be a technician. I had a job managing a pool hall near Times Square and I just started writing stories behind the counter. I developed a friendship with Doug Holland, the pseudonymous author/publisher of the San Francisco zine Pathetic Life. I joined the staff of his review zine, Zine World, in about 1996, and have been their news editor since 1997 or so. My now-dormant zine, inspector 18, was a perzine, a long personal narrative about my life.
And so, reviewing zines in my spare time, I kept scanning for titles from Detroit. In 1996 I sent for a subscription to King Wenclas' long-running zine of blistering lit crit, New Philistine. He came out to New York and we went to a party Tom Beller (editor of Open City) threw in a loft, and I didn't know what to make of the crowd. But King had done his homework. He knew who everybody was, pointing out the billionaire's daughter, introducing me to the editor who would be featured in a publishing column the next month, and, of course, Beller himself.
And that's the sort of dope Wenclas put in his zine, which he mailed out generously to New York literati and press contacts. He could scan a list of grant-getting fellows, recognize the names of already-successful writers, and then expose them. New Philistinealso featured demolition rants against postmodernism, deconstructionism, minimalism, the American fear of ideas, the retreat of mental workers into the academy, and any effort to put literature under glass. He advocated for a popular literature, like London, like Dickens, instead of the clever, colorful books we have from the cult of the big, brainy writer. Are today's books are so super-intelligent, so advanced, that nobody can read them? He harangued the world of letters for the in-jokey references, the rudderless "creativity," the Lotus-munching solipsism, the authorial self-love, and the sneering Anglophilia.
I would visit Detroit a few times a year and meet with King at a bar for a night and talk until closing time. He told me of his plan for a literary movement that would challenge the literary elite. King's a convincing speaker. He cited precedents, like rock 'n' roll and punk, when small labels were able to break out nationally with a new, fresh sound. He proposed that we could force a similar breakthrough of authenticity if we got organized.
And so King wrote an essay entitled, 'How to Start a Literary Movement' and it was published in Zine World. We first met in Hoboken, NJ three years ago this month. We signed a protest against Rick Moody (aka Hiram F. Moody III), a successful writer and tenured professor from an old-money family, against his acceptance of a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation. And then all hell broke loose.
3AM: The DIY ethic obviously runs strongly through what you do -- why do you think the mainstream discourages such things?
MJ: Well, it's almost hilarious how different the two worlds are. In another sense, their destinies are interconnected, riding the same forces.
Obviously, mainstream publishing is largely mercenary publishing for a profit, with magazine and advertising writers working to grab increasingly jaded consumers by the nose. It's different when it comes to literature. Strangely, lit keeps fumbling badly, relegating the book to hipster art object or membership card in the smart set. They spend millions to reach solvent people in dentists offices with things they can buy, but can't connect with the vast majority of the American people. It's impossible for them, I think. It's like trying to imagine Terry Gross yelling at a cab driver.
On the other hand, though, it's a zine cliché to speak of publishing for passion, not for profit. What's integral to the zine scene is that there's this deep unfulfilled hunger for the kind of plain-speaking that's going on in underground print. All through the nineties the anarchist press was in full bloom in the US. And this was all going on simultaneously as the government power-sharing with media trusts was kicking into high gear. I think the two trends are interconnected, with talented writers, thinkers and artists rejecting mass media and getting ink on their fingers, making their own access. The underground, or any samizdat medium, is sought out because of what it provides: a black market for ideas.
This is all worlds away from New York publishing circles, where everybody is an accredited "professional." They paid a good deal of money for their degrees and they'll have no truck with people who are "amateurs" -- let alone zinesters.
And the critical-academic complex that has a lock on breaking new writers is heavy with all the stultifying, regressive effects of sacerdotalism. In this case, it is a priesthood of intellectuals. In the underground, it's all basically direct action. It's not about waiting patiently and trying feverishly to be anointed by the chosen few.
I'd say the big business of publishing seems to delight in crushing truth and beauty in language. The most talented copywriter can be a high-paid liar, calculatedly twisting the truth while affecting the guileless facade of a cheerleader. The academics, too, debase language, thickening it with theory and cargo-cult buzzwords. In the mainstream, if you start out saying something strong, the meaning can be polished away by dismissive editors, go-getting marketers, cautious lawyers, and meek publishers. The search for truth is smirked at. But the underground press isn't laughing at the search for truth and beauty -- and doesn't have that self-incriminating irony.
The difference between mainstream publishing and underground publishing is basically the difference between a closed system and an open system. And it's getting starker all the time.
And I get this sense that people in mainstream publishing cry in horror, "That's an oversimplification!" The US publishing elite could have done anything with their lives. They could, like their social peers, have gone into law or finance or insurance or real estate, but, unlike the bond traders and entertainment lawyers they date with equanimity, they chose literature.
There are major differences between the two, but the ULA is looking for both a breakthrough and a synthesis. We believe that if the underground can break through the barriers set up for it and steal readership, it can reinvigorate literature, it can change the world.
3AM: Could you briefly expand on "sneering Anglophila" you mentioned? Though, as an English person, I'm not really offended…
MJ: The American establishment has tended to ape the British gentry. I sense that the American upper crust really feel a few IQ points smarter when talking to a Brit with a posh accent. And our oligarchs' love for mannerisms has translated into a cultural establishment that looks away from the American experience. This whole sense that listening to people speak British English and talk into white telephones is culturally edifying is pervasive. I often think PBS could change their motto to "Recycling British Television for Your Betterment."
There are some positive things to the phenomenon. For instance, American elite culture grudgingly accepts American roots phenomena when they come bouncing back from Britain, as seen in the British Invasion. Still, it makes me ill at ease that for the New York Times to write about a film on working-class themes it has to be made by Mike Leigh! Americans botch their Anglophilia badly, aping the gentlemanly mannerisms and fashions but attaining little of the magnanimity associated with civility.
Anyway, flip through almost any glossy American magazine and you'll see what I mean. Tina Brown spent years filling up the New Yorker with Brit writers like Martin Amis. The Vogue editor is Brit Anna Wintour. Liz Tilberis was editor of Harper's Bazaar until she died, only to be replaced by old-money Katherine Betts, fourth-generation Ivy Leaguer who was groomed by Wintour and former W London Bureau Chief Patrick McCarthy. New York publishing is riddled with Brits: Harold Evans, Grace Coddington and Plum Sykes at Vogue; Chris Garrett, Anthony Haden-Guest, and Christopher Hitchens at Vanity Fair (thanks to Canadian editor Graydon Carter); Andrew Sullivan, James Truman, Will Self, etc.
It gets irritating after a while. Why does the New Yorker send Brit Rebecca Mead to do a story on the effect of workshops on American literature? Or why have Anthony Lane cover Hollywood, an American institution? Why put Alexander Chancellor, essentially a foreigner who knew little about New York, on the 'Talk of the Town' beat?
3AM: How have the literary 'establishment' reacted to your tactics and existence?
MJ: I think mostly with tar and feathers. The late George Plimpton compared us to Nazis, likening our "crashings" at literary events to a "kristalnacht." Writing for Dave Eggers' magazine, The Believer, Tom Bissell compared us to Soviet revolutionaries-turned-reactionaries. I also recently became aware of somebody comparing us to mullahs. These are hysterical reactions. And they get worse all the time. This year we rather politely spoke to some New York writers at a reading and the evening ended with a near fistfight provoked by a drunken Tom Beller.
Then we get word through channels that -- because of our exposes of successful authors getting tens of thousands of dollars in "philanthropy" -- the grant-giving world is going to be a bit more careful. So we're getting results.
I guess the major public reaction is fear. I hear, though, that plenty of publishing insiders privately agree with the ULA, although they are uncertain about the tactics.
I guess I'd just ask how anybody is supposed to publicize these issues. Many insiders agree with us. Many insiders want to change the system. But should we, cap in hand, politely petition the powers that be for reform? What success would that meet with? It's ridiculous. It's as though insiders agree with the ULA, are excited about the feistiness and ballyhoo, but want us to behave just like every other sleepy literary group that toils away in obscurity with no effect on the culture.
3AM: The ULA have specific demands -- "put populists on funding panels; publish about real life; support our starving real writers; admit that today's system ruins art" -- can you comment on how you visualise these being achieved?
MJ: Well, the most important thing is starting a public dialogue about our national literature by asking tough questions and exposing unethical back-scratching. These are not so much demands as they are dares. The hypothetical reader can ask, "Why not publish about real life?" or "Why not support our starving real writers?"
Also, we're an alliance, so we all feel a little differently. I've said before that I regard non-profits as tax shelters for the super-rich that dabble in social engineering, and I am not interested in reforming them. But, at the bottom of it, I'm pleased to hear anybody question the legitimacy of a closed, corrupt system in any way, reformist or radical, based on our activities.
3AM: The world of zines has existed for years as a subculture devoid of mainstream support, yet of late we've seen films such as Ghost World and American Splendor take it into the mainstream through Hollywood depiction, albeit on the indie axis. Do you welcome this or view it suspiciously?
MJ: King had a brief chat on the phone with Harvey Pekar last year, and told me that Harvey didn't sound very good. It's something that I personally both fear and resent: the way America treats its working-class intellectuals. So, when American Splendor came out, I was happy to see that Harvey at least is getting some recognition.
Likewise, Zwigoff's work with Crumb and Clowes turned out well, and I enjoyed seeing both pictures.
Then again, it's galling that the underground press gets prominence when represented as "quirky" people doing "comic books" and "cult" movies are based on them. That's when the establishment is comfortable with the medium. That's when Terry Gross of NPR's 'Fresh Air' will bring you on and talk culture with you. You can be irreverent, but not subversive. You can be edgy, but not radical. No polemics allowed. In that sense, the movies have been failures: they haven't translated what makes the underground unique into a larger cultural experience.
3AM: The ULA have attacked Dave Eggers/McSweeney's [McSweeney's won 'zine of the year' at the 2001 Firecracker Alternative Book Awards, despite, erm, not being a zine] and the New York Public Library's 'Young Lions' project in the past -- why?
MJ: Dave Eggers and his little publishing empire pretend to offer an alternative, but what they really offer is the same old literary insiders repackaged as outsiders. It's mostly irrelevance and irreverence with some of the trappings of zine style.
As for the Young Lions, put New York literary insiders in the company of Hollywood celebrities and you have the most out-of-touch people in the world throwing a glitzy party for themselves while the homeless trudge about Bryant Park outside. It's an idea so offensive the William Morris Agency could have thought of it. It's bad enough to imagine the police "moving along" the street people when Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke come to rub shoulders with Rick Moody. It's disgusting, though, for an American group to award prizes to precocious, young globe-trotting insiders like Jonathan Safran Foer and Anthony Doerr, who mine their overseas sojourns for books ostensibly produced for the American public.
3AM: Finally, zines and zine editors occupy a crepuscular world purposefully away from the mainstream -- why then should the mainstream take them seriously?
MJ: Because we're they're only competition anymore! And we are hopeful that our crepuscular world is going to dawn into a new morning. The question is, will the carefully tended hothouse flowers of big publishing be able to take the sunshine?
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Andrew Stevens is a Chief Editor for 3am Magazine and lives in London, England.