(From "A MANIFESTO")
TO BETTER UNDERSTAND what I mean by literary revolution, look again at what happened with the music industry in the 1950's. At the very moment Elvis Presley was exploding onto the scene, Frank Sinatra, a starkly different kind of singer, was at his artistic peak, his recordings winning critical awards and universal accolades. 99 out of 100 musical experts then, and possibly today, would say that Sinatra was the more important singer musically. It would've been considered ludicrous at the time to put the two men in the same league.
Sinatra, despite his tough background, was a product of institutional music, in the same way Mary Gaitskill is the captive of institutional lit. He performed with orchestras consisting of the "best," most skilled musicians in the country; well-screened and highly paid. Recordings were well-controlled, expensive happenings. Sinatra's smooth, perfectly controlled voice manifested the smooth and sophisticated polish of the industry. Though Sinatra was to be given his own label, Reprise, he was connected to-- remained part of his entire career-- the giant record labels. He was DIY only in the sense that Dave Eggers, through his intertwining relationships with both the conglomerates and with status quo lit-talent of today, is DIY. Or, not hardly.
Unlike Sinatra, rock n' rollers weren't produced by the music industry already in place, but came from hundreds of fly-by-night new outfits, most producing a hit or two, spots of color in the overall rock mosaic, before vanishing. A high school student, Phil Spector, recruited a few coeds at his school, called them "The Teddy Bears," and recorded them-- and had a surprise hit. The industry giants were like slowly turning battleships attacked by scores of low-budget patrol boats. They didn't know how to compete.
Ironically, rock's biggest name, Elvis, was immediately co-opted by RCA, one of the giants, who quickly sought to polish him and tame him in the smooth Sinatra way.
That the established music industry demonstrably had commercial and artistic success at the time roots music, so long dormant, was bursting into public awareness, as if overnight (though the gestation period lasted decades) is no argument against the fact and power of change.
To see which was more important not musically, but culturally, one can look at cities like Detroit today, where exist hundreds of rock bands who all look and sound much like the garage bands of the early 1960's; all hoping to be the next Jack White. (Who played Elvis in a recent movie!) Hopelessly retrograde, they are, but that's a different story. Meanwhile, there is nowhere to be found, on any stage in the area, a singer publicly modeling himself after Hoboken Frank.
What meaning does this history hold for lit people today?
It tells me that literary renewal will come not from on high, but from below; that it may be extremely crude, carried by "cretinous goons" (see Sinatra on early rock), but it will definitely be populist. The simultaneous presence of smooth machine artists good and bad, Gaitskill to Franzen to Lethem, will be no argument against it.