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January 20, 2005

The Literary Ecosystem Is Not Without Its Parasites

by Ron Hogan

A story has been floating around the blogosphere the last few days concerning a self-described literary revolutionary's accusations that Tom Bissell's Chasing the Sea contains uncredited borrowings from another text--accusations made without the disclosure that Bissell had written an article quite critical of the accuser and his ragtag crew. (I mention neither the man nor the movement for two related reasons: I don't want to give him any more Google credit than he's already got, and I don't want to do that because I've seen the asshole up close, and he's nothing more than a leech trying to make a reputation for himself by sniping publicly at his betters. If you really want to know, see Mark or Maud.)

The charges themselves are easily dismissed; most of the examples cited fail to meet a critical standard, and in any event, Bissell not only cited the source of the material, but went back and re-emphasized his debt to that text for the paperback edition. A brief look at the accuser's blog confirms Ed Champion's impression from last summer that the man's efforts at criticizing the literary culture resemble "a puling adolescent's diary." Even moreso his final analysis of this man and his pals a few months later:

"They are a first-class literary sham. They're the assholes you encountered in high school who wanted divisiveness for the sake of divisiveness, fools who would spend a whole lifetime making enemies, rather than truly 'fucking up the shit from the inside' like the best of subversive novelists. And as such, they deserve no respect: not from you, not from me, and certainly not from anyone who seriously cares about literature."

Already, the aforementioned asshole is trying to frame the negative reaction to his attack on Bissell as knee-jerk elitism by entrenched literati who believe "what matters isn't if the work contains emotion and truth, but whether the 'proper' person wrote it, and if the work is correctly polished and clean." As if unediting ramblings constituted "emotion and truth," or for that matter that the two are inherently yoked together. Ed's gone to town on this, too, and if his site weren't down I'd link to the passage in question, but I'll summarize it thus: there's a different between raw prose and bad prose, and these yahoos fall on the wrong side of that line. One suspects that in their hearts, they know this, and it makes them bitter.

(Full disclosure: Since writing the PW review that described him as "a front-runner in the next generation of travel writers," I've met Tom on several occasions, and am planning to attend at least one of his upcoming readings in New York, not just to report on it for Beatrice but because I like the guy. You're welcome to think that my opinion in this matter is colored by that fact, and the fact that the writer whose reading this asshole disrupted is another friend, but, hey, keep in mind that I'm upfront enough to tell you where all my interests lie.)

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