Friday, June 15, 2007

The Janissaries of Lit: An Essay

BACK in the days of the Ottoman Empire several centuries ago there existed a vanguard of willing soldiers always sent first into battle by the Turks to battle their foes: Janissaries. The Janissaries were Christians recruited or stolen in youth from conquered populations in southeastern Europe.

John Stoye: "Educated as Moslems, drafted into the army or the administration, they were the well-paid servants who upheld the supreme power in its miraculous, isolated splendour."

After conversion Janissaries received modest perks, but were cut off from the seats of real power.

Stoye: "They were themselves cut off from the social order which they helped to control."

The literary establishment today maintains itself through the use of consciousness-warped Janissaries. There aren't ENOUGH true aristocrats on the order of Moody, Minot, Miranda July to maintain the system. In a hierarchical layer beneath them stand their obedient soldiers.

The ULA's toughest, angriest foes have been those working or lower-middle class writers who've been bought out.

The classic example of a Janissary is Joyce Carol Oates. From a poor rural background, in her late teens Oates was taken into the academy and has never left. Over the years Oates has presented, for the edification of Overdog readers, microscope slides which they can study from a supreme distance: distorted pathologies of lower class life. Oates herself has been socially neutered; a pampered house cat rescued years ago from the gutter, now maintained with ribbons and bows; staring outside from behind the window glass of the house and imagining what life out there is like, drawing for her impressions on vanishing memories. She's not OF the outside world, would never survive if thrust again into it. Her work reverberates with a dark stereotyped shuddered fear of ever going back.

She has gone completely over to the other side-- witness her promotion of the likes of Jonathan Safran Foer. The transformation was irreversible a long time ago. As the world she came from finds its authentic voice of literary rebellion, Oates stands as an absurd relic in the halls of Princeton; an anachronism.

A problem for the ULA in Philadelphia is that much of the local literary scene is subservient to New York. Most of them are Janissaries. Their literary world-view since their college days comes from INSIDE the walls of the literary castle. They have little understanding of the untamed barbarians camped outside their gates. Too many of them have surrendered their artistic minds to sameness, which means they've surrendered, period, to the stagnation of the status quo. They've surrendered any notion they may have once momentarily held of literary rebellion and renewal-- real renewal, not a simulation of it.

We see throughout the country laudatory reviews of local manifestations of the Same-Old Same-Old; of utterly stale MFA-style periodicals which mimic the New Yorker-Paris Review produce of New York; whose entire body of work could've been published forty years ago without disturbing a soul: a well-crafted bland kind of poetry and fiction which was boring then and remains so.