It was something that would normally have gone unnoticed: Rick Moody won a literary award.
Except that soon thereafter — in October of 2000 — a group of five writers and ’zine ("small" press or personally distributed magazines or newsletters) publishers from around the country met in Hoboken, New Jersey. They were there to 1) conduct a two-day pub crawl in a city legendary for its bars, and 2) figure out what, exactly, would be the first activity of a new group they’d just formed — the Underground Literary Alliance.
"I had stumbled upon the fact that Moody had received that Guggenheim grant," recalls the ULA’s director, Karl "King" Wenclas. "And at our Hoboken meeting we discussed whether we wanted to use that as a focal point to stir things up."
A Philadelphian who only admits to being in his early 40s, Wenclas is a customs-house broker and fundraiser for environmental groups who also publishes several ’zines, such as Zeen Beat and Slush Pile, that have a small but dedicated following. In fact, the founding members of the ULA first connected through what began as fan letters to one another.
And at their Hoboken get-together, they did indeed decide to go after Moody about the Guggenheim. Moody, Wenclas explains, was not only a successful author, whose novel The Ice Storm (Little, Brown, 1994) had been turned into a successful motion picture. He was also a millionaire already, the scion of a banking family so rich he lived on a private island. That he’d not only applied for, but been awarded, a $35,000 grant intended to enable writers to write without having to take on a day job, Wenclas says, was "an example of what’s wrong with the whole system. The New York literary world is an incestuous system, a very small, cliquish world."
So Wenclas and the ULA drew up a protest petition and circulated it to "300 of the biggest names in the New York literary world — writers, agents, editors." No one signed it, he admits, but a reporter for the New York Post’s Page Six gossip column got wind of it at a cocktail party when "a writer bigger than Rick Moody" brought it up, castigating Moody for accepting the award. The story soon appeared in Page Six, then in the San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.
A similar story made Page Six last December, when the ULA protested the fact that Moody was named a judge of the National Endowment for the Arts literary fellowships — after having won the $20,000 award himself.
But Moody isn’t the only writer the ULA has gone after. Last March, while in New York to stage a reading featuring some of the ULA’s favorite writers and ’zine publishers, Wenclas and ULA cohorts Michael Jackman, Steve Kostecke, Douglas Bassett, and Ann Sterzinger disrupted a reading at the KGB Bar (one of the Big Apple’s most popular reading venues) by fiction writer and Vanity Fair columnist Elissa Schappell. "She writes for Vanity Fair, so she’s very much an insider, and we thought maybe a lot of inside people would be there," Wenclas explains.
He also says, "I was drunk by the time we got there, so it’s kind of hazy." What he does recall is that "Elissa Schappell is a church-sermon reader. It’s like you’re sitting in church, and everybody’s polite, and you’re obligated to pretend that you’re interested. To me, it was just a façade, a hoax. So we just livened things up a little bit."
The group heckled Schappell and clapped at inappropriate moments. Jackman, says Wenclas, was also "blowing up a balloon, but it sort of popped accidentally and everybody got in an uproar, and it sort of went downhill from there." Eventually they were forcibly ejected.
More recently, the ULA has attacked Dave Eggers on a number of counts, accusing him, for example, of using his influence to kill a profile piece in the Atlantic Monthly and to prevent bookstores from carrying ’zines that are critical of him.
The ULA also granted Eggers a "Wet Firecracker Award" after he won a Firecracker Alternative Book Award for best ’zine for his McSweeney’s magazine. It "features big-name writers ... is composed on a state-of-the-art computer, printed overseas," comes shrink-wrapped with "a compact disc with compositions by Philip Glass and They Might Be Giants," and costs $25, wrote Wenclas in a special-edition ’zine. "We ... recoil with no little horror at the idea that this slick and dandified product has been called a ’zine."
So what, exactly, does the ULA hope to accomplish with such personal attacks?
"The ULA is a PR campaign, sure," says Wenclas, "but it’s also a kind of advocacy group to stand up for writers and the interests of underground writers, number one, but maybe writers in general also. You do have writers’ organizations out there, but they revolve around writers who don’t need help."
He cites PEN, the writers’ advocacy group, as one example. "They don’t represent the interests of you and me," he says. "Really, PEN exists to hold swanky parties that are attended by the Norman Mailers, Susan Sontags, Joan Didions, and Rick Moodys of the literary world. And it’s really just for successful writers, as all these organizations are."
Wenclas says the main idea is to cut through modern literary pretensions and foster writing that’s more in touch with a general audience.
"Take the great writers of 100 years ago," he says, "Frank Norris, Jack London, Stephen Crane, Rex Beach, who most people haven’t even heard of. It’s hard to find his books, but he was hugely popular. He was writing novels on the issues of the day, the same thing that Charles Dickens did. I mean, Dickens to me is so head-and-shoulders over the writers of today, because he really moved the public, he really engaged the public with passion and energy and emotion, but he was writing about really serious things through fiction. He showed the possibility of fiction.
"I think to be a writer now in this society, you have to prove that you can jump through hoops of some type, that you can conform," he says. "You have to play the game to at least a modest extent. But that’s not what real writers do."
Wenclas makes no excuses for the ULA’s tactics in achieving its ends. "Most of us are broke, so a lot of our tactics are formed out of necessity," he explains. "We don’t have the money to put ads in magazines or newspapers, so we try to get free advertising through the articles."
Philadelphia, he says, is also a unique place from which to observe the mecca of literary culture. "It happens to be an ideal city from which to assault the New York literary scene," he says. "We’re not part of it, we have distance, but it’s only a short train ride away. We’re like an enemy army camped outside the gate."
So what’s next?
"We’re thinking of confronting the New York Public Library’s ‘Young Lions’ program," he says. "To be a member of the Young Lions, you have to be what to me is a fairly substantial donor to the public library — at least $300, and without that you cannot attend their functions. And it’s really an elite group — Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman ... and I think Rick Moody is one of the ringleaders."
This article appeared previously on AlterNet.org.