Start Making Sense


Eighty miles southwest of here, a small group of writers is plotting to overthrow a common enemy: the monolithic, ever-oppressive New York Literary Establishment. Tired of McSweeney’s, M.F.A.s, and literary mooning, the Underground Literary Alliance (ULA) promotes a straight-talking, street-smart prose of yesteryear (think Dickens) designed to supplant the perceived products of postmodernism (think Foster Wallace) that flood our bookstores. ULA founder and promoter Karl “King” Wenclas disdains the “literati” for being like “French kings and Russian czars”–out of touch and producing work that’s irrelevant beyond New York City. He boasts that his “lowest of the low” ULA-ers (dishwashers, army enlistees, skid-row dwellers) write with a “raw power” that’s absent from literature today. On March 21, Wenclas and Co. will try to prove it with the “Underground Invasion,” a reading at the Lower East Side’s Amato Opera House, which promises not only “the best underground writers in America” but “laughs, drama,” and “raging charisma,” too.

We’ll see. “Underground Invasion” follows two other “actions” formulated to get mainstream attention: an ongoing protest of Rick Moody’s recent Guggenheim grant and a press conference at CB’s 313 Gallery this past February. For the protest, the group sent 300 flyers to NY publishing folks, arguing that Moody, an established writer from a moneyed family, hardly needs a Guggenheim. At the press conference the ULA was more aggressive, making “a Declaration of War on establishment literature.” With lots of rage and little charisma, it felt more like a declaration of war on small literary magazines; nearly half of the 20-odd-person crowd hailed from Open City or The Paris Review, both of which the ULA has lobbied heavily for attention, and both of which have published Wenclas. Even George Plimpton–whom Wenclas repeatedly pointed to as “an example of what’s wrong with New York’s elite literary world”–was sport enough to attend. “We went down there hoping these people really did have something to offer,” says Plimpton. “But I was so disappointed by it. I’d hoped to make some sort of connection with them.”

Wenclas is a working-class guy, middle-aged, who’s been active in the zine world for the last 10 years; he put out a newsletter called New Philistine in the ’90s, then a zine called Pop Literary Gazette, and now Zine Beat. He first promoted his idea for an alliance in 1999 with the article “How to Create a Literary Movement: Nine Reflections on Zine-ing,” which originally ran in The Reader’s Guide to the Underground Press. In his essay, Wenclas described the advantages of zines over mainstream work (they’re not “homogenized mass market novels or lobotomized lit stories”), explained the necessity of having a home base (“Philadelphia is a candidate–the city is close enough to Manhattan to allow assaults on the seat of the cultural empire”), and issued a few directives about what should be promoted through a writer’s alliance (“No unreadable postmodern crap. Zine writing must rant and it must rock”). Zinesters from all over the country responded. A short time later, Wenclas left Detroit to attack NYC from the City of Brotherly Love.

Though he describes “the movement” as a “core of eight or so,” there are three closest to Wenclas: Michael Jackman, a reluctant hipster (lives in Williamsburg, yet professes nerdiness) who puts out a zine of his own (Inspector 18) and contributes to the Reader’s Guide and Shout; Doug Basset, an arrogant ex-grad student whom Wenclas describes as the “theoretician” of the group; and the sultry Ann Sterzinger, a young, exhibitionistic, Wicker Park–based dishwasher/mud wrestler—she wore a see-through dress with nothing underneath to the ULA press conference—who’s the purported prize-writer. (“She’s somewhat psychotic,” Wenclas told me, but “in personality and energy she blows away any writer out there.”) Beyond this circle lies an outer ring of supporters and sympathizers—those who might sign the Moody petition or send a kind note to Wenclas but would rather not join “the cause.”

But why not? Some zinesters active on the alt.zines list dismiss Wenclas as a hack publicity hound with little experience; others disagree with the claim that ULA writers represent the best in underground writing, or see banding together as counter to the independent, alternative nature of zines. Jeff Koyen, a critic and author of a zine called Crank, calls the ULA “a bunch of buffoons” and questions the legitimacy of its members. “They have zip to do with anything underground,” says Koyen. “And true alliances don’t have acronyms or brand themselves. The level of self-consciousness involved in forming their movement defeats the very idea of a movement.” Though not a zinester herself, Open City managing editor Joanna Yas echoes Koyen’s point: “They think they’re so punk. But the least punk thing in the world to do is to invite the cheerleaders and the jocks [i.e., Plimpton and the literati] to your party! Why do they care?”

Indeed, it might be wise for the ULA to redirect some of the energy it’s putting into stunts back into writing. True to their purpose, Wenclas, Jackman, Basset, and Sterzinger do write clearly. And though it’s doubtful that any of the four will be the next Dickens or Orwell, Jackman and Wenclas are entertaining writers, who at times even “rant and rock.” Open City editor Thomas Beller speaks of Wenclas with great enthusiasm, but he’s wary of the King’s recent efforts to attract attention to the ULA. “In New Philistine, he would take a piece of writing and really go at it. Now, his going on about the ‘general truth’ isn’t that interesting. I’d rather see him going after the Esquire fiction issue—or me.” And it goes without saying that launching an attack on the “New York literary establishment” is insane, especially if you can’t identify your targets. Despite Jackman’s fighting words—”We will use any means necessary to achieve the intended goal of liberation”—it’s unclear what exactly the ULA is aiming at.

Still, there’s strength in numbers. And while taking down the Moodys and Eggerses of the world is part of the bigger picture, the ULA’s immediate goal is to promote their own writing. “We want to use the New York media and the literary world to bring attention to ourselves,” Wenclas told me. By that formula, they must be doing something right. After all, I did write this article.

Underground Invasion will be held on March 21 at the Amato Opera House, 319 Bowery, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $10.