WHEN YOU study the herd mentality, you find that being a stable member of the herd—for example, the established literary herd—comes at a severe price. The price of stability is narrow-mindedness. The herd needs to proceed on its steady path, its members focused on that path. Only disaffected members of the herd, or those outside the herd, see the herd, and the herd’s path, as they exist in reality.
The inability of the established literary world’s best and brightest to engage me about the Tom Bissell Believer essay, or about anything, is a sign not of strength, but weakness. The system gives off vibes of unmistakable weakness. It’s only their constant affirmations to one another about how special they all are which keep them from seeing their shrinking world as it exists in reality.
Tom Bissell is praised far and wide by system writers and wannabes as “great” and a genius. Everyone believes this. The one person in the herd who doesn’t believe it is Bissell himself. He and his patron, Eggers, are like Montezuma’s Aztecs. They still carry the trappings of their corrupt civilization, but at heart they no longer believe in it, nor in themselves, not really, so in the face of any strong and fearless opposition they can only shrink away. Putting their shallow literary ideas and insular art to a test is unthinkable. The title of one of their flagships, The Believer, then becomes a bluff, a boast, an empty affirmation. An irony.
Bissell gave the game away as far back as 2003, in the original version of his ULA essay. The talk of “lots of tombstones,” the allusions to the crimes of the Bolsheviks, is an image sprung from his unconscious mind. The image is a metaphor for the ULA’s (or somebody’s) coming victory, a victory of art and a victory of ideas. An occurrence which will indeed wipe system writers from the scene. It may not be the ULA leading that revolutionary change, but it’s happening regardless, as system newspapers and magazines continue losing money; as indie ebook sales increase; as the scope for the favored few of the literary establishment to operate becomes narrower and narrower.