The Macho Fifties


James Jones

In the wake of Ernest Hemingway, who made the idea of the Great American Novelist respectable– even macho– the 1950’s was the heyday of the male American novelist. The decade showcased a score of ambitious new male authors, if no great ones, all pursuing the traditional novel.

Among them, James Baldwin, Saul Bellow, John Cheever, Ralph Ellison, James Jones, Norman Mailer, James Michener, J.D. Salinger, Irwin Shaw, William Styron, Gore Vidal, and Herman Wouk. At the end of the decade but ably writing about it, J.F. Powers and Richard Yates.

(Throw in playwrights Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, William Inge; poets from John Berryman to Kenneth Rexroth to the Beats; and short fiction writers like Truman Capote, and the list becomes more impressive.)

The role of novelist was thought of not as an effete pursuit but as masculine as working construction– and as fast a road to celebrity as pop singer or baseball player. A legion of men leaving military service in particular wanted to be novelists. They wanted to be Hemingway.

Not every one of these men can make the tourney brackets.

Should any of them?


What’s Wrong with New York Literary People?

empire state

WHY have not New York-based literary people rallied in defense of one of their own? An author’s book is blackballed by U.S. publishing for content reasons yet all we see from the brave writers and commentators in Brooklyn and Manhattan is SILENCE.

If even a staff writer at The New Yorker magazine can be casually censored, what about other writers?

New Pop Lit is here to break the silence. Read our interview with novelist John Colapinto here.

The Most Privileged Writers in America Are Whining

keith and emily


Why are New York lit-media’s glamor couple, Keith Gessen and Emily Gould– Scott and Zelda without the charisma or talent– always whining?

First we saw Emily Gould in an essay early last year complaining how she spent a $200,000 book advance on a $1,700-a-month Brooklyn apartment and cat expenses.

An inadvertently hilarious tale of arguments with Mom; the health problems of her cat, Ruffles; envy of Lena Dunham; crying at high-priced Broadway plays; and the like. Woe is me!

THIS is the essay which caused lit critic Ed Champion to blow up his mind and career last summer in an 11,000-word rant which called Gould a literary narcissist; prelude to the first of Ed’s two nervous breakdowns.

Or maybe it was Emily Gould’s essay collection, And the Heart Says Whatever.


Now we have Keith Gessen adding to the Insider whine with an essay in the newest issue of his literary journal, n+1. The essay is titled “Brief History of a Small Office.” It chronicles the amazing fact that an intellectual journal written in dense prose and containing a ton of academic jargon per page isn’t swimming in bucks. The attitude is akin to Emily Gould’s: We’re special. Somebody pay for us! (Realities of the market are unacknowledged, because n+1‘s editors are, er, “Marxists.”)

Meanwhile, in just the past few months n+1 magazine has received splashy write-ups in both the New York Times and Washington Post. Merely one of n+1‘s staff of well-bred and well-connected editors, Keith Gessen regularly writes for America’s best-paying magazines. In just the past year, for The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and New York magazine, among other outlets. Things couldn’t conceivably be better for these folks.

Keith Gessen and Company are apologists for Big Five publishing as well as recipients of its largesse. Yet it’s not enough! Maybe things aren’t quite as cushy in the posh New York literary world as we’ve been told.


Spinning Ursula K. Le Guin

Media accounts of Ursula K. Le Guin’s speech at the recent National Book Awards portrayed it as a full-out assault on Amazon and new publishing. They also gave the impression that the speech was received with general acclamation.

Watching the speech, one sees that Le Guin’s remarks were as much an attack on Big Five publishing as against any alternative. She mentions “all the writers who were excluded from literature” (Underground Literary Alliance, anyone?) and speaks of “the producers who write the books.”

Well, yes! The writers ARE the chief value in literature. DIY publishing is one way to give the writer full control over his-or-her art, which isn’t the case in legacy publishing. The old way of doing things puts the writer as supplicant, subservient to the agents, editors, and others who wield power in the Manhattan skyscrapers.

Le Guin spoke of “writers who can remember freedom.” We’d argue that writers OUTSIDE the established publishing system have more freedom over their words. There’s no “go-along-to-get-along” game playing involved in Do-It-Yourself.

Even Le Guin’s much-talked-about critique of capitalism might be better understood as an attack on old-fashioned crony-style capitalism; gigantic oligopolies like publishing’s “Big Five” than on individual entrepreneurs– those who use Amazon merely as delivery system for their art. Should Amazon ever try to exercise the monopoly power they’re accused of having, fresh alternatives would quickly be found. As Amazon itself likely knows better than anyone. This is a changing world– where power belongs to the artist. If said artist is willing to take it!

It must also be said, in looking at the video of Ursula Le Guin’s speech, that audience response during the speech was nervous; the applause when it was over, tepid. Members of the apparatus aren’t as brave as they portray themselves– certainly not when their bosses are in attendance!

We’ll give the final words in this post to Ursula Le Guin, adding only that truer words couldn’t be spoken: “–resistance and change begin in art, and often in our art.”


Latest Big Literary Scandal


Handler Suspicious


We assume our readers have already heard about Daniel Handler’s questionable racial remarks at the National Book Awards black-tie event Wednesday night. We want to place Handler and the controversy within a larger context.

The first thing to know is that Daniel Handler is a much more powerful individual in the establishment publishing system, and by extension, in the approved, New York-based literary world, than the subjects of other recent literary scandals.

For one thing there’s Handler’s immense wealth, as outlined in this New York Times article by Handler himself in this New York Times article:

Daniel Handler “Lemony Snicket” series of children’s books have sold upwards of 60 million copies and counting, by two separate giant publishing companies, HarperCollins and Little, Brown. This gives Handler enormous clout in the world of legacy publishing as well as New York literary media, whose members will be reluctant to take him on.

Daniel Handler is also not just friends, but good friends, with many of the most powerful authors, most connected authors around, men like Dave Eggers and Neil Gaiman.

Which means, with this scandal we’re dealing not with relative small fries like Ed Champion and Tao Lin. Or even rich brat Lena Dunham. We’re talking, with Daniel Handler, about one of the biggest, most powerful authors in the entire business.

Which further means, every effort will be made to rehabilitate Daniel Handler as soon as possible.  (For one thing, he knows where too many literary “bodies” are buried.) The established publishing system and the literary media have the reach and clout to rehabilitate him.

Yet there’s at least one good reason why they should consider not doing so.


When controversies like this arise, there’s always much debate about the difference between racism and simple bigotry. Distinctions are made between the racial animus of an individual, and that of an institution. Or an entire institutional system.

This is where what Daniel Handler said– and his comfort in saying them in that setting– takes on greater importance.

When Daniel Handler stood at the podium at the National Book Awards banquet, he was the face of established “Big Five” publishing, of establishment literature in general. As I’ve outlined, he hosted the awards ceremony for a reason– because he’s one of the established system’s most powerful and best-liked personages.

Inadvertently or not, with his remarks Daniel Handler was speaking for establishment literature and publishing. Were his comments emblematic of larger attitudes? If Handler was comfortable making his ill-advised racial jokes in public, we’re forced to ask: What’s said behind closed doors?

The established institutional literary system is classist and elitist, as has been well-documented, including at this blog. Is it institutionally racist as well?

After Daniel Handler’s comments, at the legacy system’s centerpiece, the burden is now on said system to demonstrate that it’s not.


Inside Out or Outside In?

empire state

Here’s a question for everyone: Why did Tao Lin receive an advance from Random House for $50,000, while Lena Dunham received one from RH for $3.7 million?

As with most questions, there are likely multiple answers. One of them is the location/ background of the authors.

The trick with New York “Big Five” publishing is to look at New York as an Imperial city; practicing Imperialism in regard to writers and literature. Most of the Imperialism practiced is within country.

This is a theme I play in my satirical ebook novel The McSweeneys Gang. (Not recommended if you believe in the current literary scene.) Other cities across America, even literary centers like Iowa City, are treated like outposts by the core city, which must be thought of as akin to Rome circa 100 AD or London circa 1890. The east coast, from Washington D.C. to Boston, is the nation’s power corridor. Literature’s home country. If you’re raised and/or educated within this corridor, you’re part of literature’s native population. All else is strange territory populated by barbarians.

The attitude, then, from within the power corridor is always Inside Out. Big Five apologist Evan Hughes will travel to Detroit to write a book about this exotic spot’s more violent and bizarre happenings, like a Victorian reporter curious about the unknown and, for him/them, the unseen.

A host of journalists traveled to Alaska in 2008 to cover the quaint and barbarically exotic Palin family.

Again: Inside Out. The Imperialists covering the world, they the only acceptable voice.

Outsiders like Tao Lin or Ed Champion who travel to the Imperial City to join the establishment literary scene have reversed the viewpoint. They’re Outside In. One wonders if it’s possible for them to truly fit in, to be accepted as equals.

When it comes to publishing clout, and the attached-at-the-hip New York-based literary media, the Imperial City with its near provinces has had more influence over what’s determined to be literature than the rest of the nation/empire combined. The rise of indy ebooks gives the opportunity to balance this equation.

(Read’s Opinion page for more thoughts along these lines.)

-Karl Wenclas