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April 30th, 2003 Art Chenoweth | Books
 

Fighting Words

The Underground Literary Alliance attempts to out-bully the bully pulpit.

     
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A street brawl. That's what the New York Post's Page Six called it. On Jan. 30, members of an aggressively confrontational group, the Underground Literary Alliance, descended on an NYC literary reading. They came to disrupt the gathering of several hundred literati, and they succeeded. Their arguments irritated Tom Beller, author, publisher and boyfriend of actress Parker Posey, as well as writer Ben Greenman. Greenman had just read a short story about a tree, and Michael Jackman, executive director of ULA, demanded he explain its social relevance. Insults were exchanged, leading to the ULA being invited to the street.

Outside, a tussle ensued that resulted in no more serious injury than a few bruised egos. Now the ULA gaggle of maverick litterateurs threatens to invade the Northwest later this year to stir things up. So what is the ULA?

Chris Zappone, ULA New York bureau chief, described the alliance to WW as "a nationwide network of literary activists who want to make fiction matter again. We crash literary events and challenge published authors to get more relevant instead of indulging in all their postmodern nonsense."

While achieving notoriety in New York and Philadelphia, the ULA remains something of a mystery here, but it does have a Portland connection, as recounted in the ULA zine, Slush Pile.

March 2001 saw the ULA avengers invading a Manhattan bar, KGB, for a reading by Elissa Schappell, New York-based editor-at-large for Tin House, the Portland-based literary quarterly. As Schappell began reading from her novel, Use Me, Karl "King" Wenclas, ULA publicity director, blew up a balloon until it burst, then followed it with a second pop, disrupting the event.

After the pops, Schappell restarted again at the audience's urging, at which point Wenclas shouted, "Look at you! You're so fucking civilized, aren't you?" Wenclas was finally interrupted by an older gentleman who challenged Wenclas to a fight outside. "King got all frustrated, as did his comrades," recalls Schappell. "They were sort of pathetically screaming stuff like, 'You're all so privileged and spoiled!'"

The outdoor confrontation ended when the older gentleman returned, shutting Wenclas out. The King, Schappell says, stood outside yelling obscenities while the rest of his menage milled around. Schappell says she would have been glad to yield the podium to them, but "their main point seemed to be, 'You are published and I am not and it's not fair.'" Schappell's verdict: "This is what the revolution is all about? Maybe they should spend more time writing."

The ULA takes particular umbrage with such literary magazines as Dave Eggers' McSweeney's and Eyeshot. Other targets include Jonathan Franzen, author of The Corrections, and Rick Moody, whom the ULA accuses, with some justification, of chicanery in obtaining grants.

A ULA show in Portland may resemble one presented recently in Detroit. Wenclas says he "opened with introductory remarks--a short rant in my thundering voice--to shock the crowd awake." This was followed by humorous pieces by three performers, plus readings and more rants for better literature.

Is the ULA for real or merely suffering from boredom? Watch this space.


Check out the ULA's website at www.literary-revolution.com .




The ULA's zine, Slush Pile, is available at Powell's Books.




The ULA's case against the wealthy Rick Moody receiving NEA grants can be found on the group's website.
 
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