Modern literature sucks. Gifted writers suffer to near extinction because a handful of conglomerates ignorant of craft, narrative and suspense own America’s publishing houses, leaving a dearth of great novels since the 1950s that can hold a candle to Dickens, Hemingway, Woolf, Fitzgerald. The literary world headquartered in New York City is elitist, nepotistic and self-propagating, handing out grants to sophomoric bluebloods.
So goes the rant of the Underground Literary Alliance, a self-styled guerilla organization of zine creators bent on democratizing literature and creating a cacophony everyone can hear. The Detroit natives leading the group are kicking off ULA’s “National Breakout Tour” in Hamtramck this Thursday with an appearance from novelist “Wild Bill” Blackolive, a quintessential underground writer who refuses to be edited.
As I drive to Union Street to meet these characters — both derided and celebrated in the New York media — I am prepared to like them and to get battered as a promulgator of corporate trash via Metro Times, a mainstream rag to those on the left bank of culture.
I’m greeted by the charming Leah Smith, a thespian who toils at the Music Menu to pay her bills. She leads me to the “Michigan Room,” perfect for conspiring. I’m introduced to head rabble-rouser King Wenclas, who’s not the wild-eyed Unabomber savant I expected, and his associate, Michael Jackman, who looks like a manicured Brit-punk and is quick to point out he’s neither been to Paris nor graduated from any institution of higher learning.
The group cheerily discloses that a mysterious underwriter in Korea is paying for the junket, therefore booze and food must be consumed.
It’s supposed to be a press conference to advance the national tour. But I’m the only reporter present.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with your JOA people,” says Wenclas with a sneer, speaking of the antitrust waiver enjoyed by the Detroit Free Press/Detroit News. “I blitzed all of them with our press kits, releases and information. We’re unknowns from Detroit. Yet we go to New York and get CBGBs (the historic music club) full of reporters, editors and literary people. That’s what ULA has brought to New York. They’re starved for anything new going on in the literary world.”
Jackman: “We’re about making noise and creating a forum for alternative ideas.”
“We’re about provoking people … I’m banned from the Philadelphia Public Library,” Wenclas says with gusto. “We’re populist. We want to publicize underground writers. We want literature to get back to its roots.”
It becomes clear I will not witness anything that might become legend. I can’t decide if I’m relieved or disappointed. I want to say something insulting but I can’t think of anything.
The group, you see, is its own show. It disrupts literary events wherever possible, kicking bottles and loudly denouncing well-heeled authors as passionless boilerplates.
“Literature used to be the one place where you could find the truth, find contention, find passion,” says Jackman.
“Modern literature is dead, lifeless,” says Wenclas.
At a recent reading at Manhattan’s KGB bar, Wenclas, Jackman et al popped balloons and blew cigarette smoke in the face of the reader after her recitation of finding oneself in France.
They regularly hound author Rick Moody, Wenclas’ nemesis. Moody, son of a banker, authored The Ice Storm and lives in an island mansion off Connecticut. He got a $35,000 Guggenheim grant in 2000, inspiring the ULA to furious action. The group went further berserk when the National Endowment for the Arts this year gave grants to Donald Antrim and Jonathan Franzen, associates of Moody’s likewise celebrated by the mainstream and unlikely to need the money like “thousands of starving writers who can’t make rent,” says Wenclas.
Smith says the group’s message inspires her to press on with her RAT (Real Alternative Theater) Productions troupe. “Literature and theater are dying arts. We all need to stick together. These guys inspire me. RAT’s going to stay alive. I don’t want to be a waitress when I’m 40.”
Sitting to the side is Yul Tolbert, who intermittently interjects something barely audible. Tolbert’s been doing zines in Detroit for 11 years — one was titled Virgin Commandos. He says his best year was 1995, when he sold about 50. Now he can’t sell five a year. The McDonald’s employee joined ULA in April in a last-ditch attempt to save his craft.
“They conveniently express opposition to mediocrity in creativity,” says Tolbert of ULA. “That’s my agenda too.”
Anca Vlasopolos, professor of comparative literature at Wayne State, says in a phone interview that ULA is “largely right.”
“If you look at who owns the publishers, you only have a handful of independent presses in the country,” says Vlasopolos, who published a memoir with Columbia University Press in 2000. “The rest are owned by large corporations. They do not care about quality — of writing, of literature. They care about making money.”
Vlasopolos says writers must prove to publishers their book can sell, which “goes against any notion of groundbreaking or original work.”
She instructs aspiring writers to attend high-profile programs to get requisite connections.
Vlasopolos agrees with me that there have been great novels published in the past 50 years, such as Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Song of Solomon and One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, among others. But she scoffs that Jackie Collins of pulp prominence sits in the literature section at Borders.
That’s the kind of swill ULA wants to eradicate. All they need is a star.
“We need a zine Elvis to take the culture to the next level,” says Wenclas. “Someone with such passion, integrity and creativity to bring the whole movement up and make it popular, to bring it out. Someone who will never sell out. Someone who can do for underground writers what Elvis did for rock ’n’ roll.”
ULA’s rabbit-eating, shack-dwelling “Wild Bill” Blackolive will read Thursday, Sept. 26, at 8:30 p.m. at The Raft, 2363 Yemans in Hamtramck. Check out more from ULA at www.literaryrevolution.com.Lisa M. Collins is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail email@example.com