Underground Literary Alliance
Among many other activities, they have gained considerable attention for their exposure of an insular literary practice whereby establishment authors serve on juries to award monetary prizes to their writing friends. In particular they have been able to point out cases where the prizewinning authors are in fact already wealthy, and thus can be seen as taking money from other authors who actually need it. In general the ULA favors direct, vernacular writing over the more cryptic and mannered styles of the present-day academy. They present their literary aesthetic in their communal lit-zine, Slush Pile. A quote from Karl Wenclas, the organization's Publicity Director: "The Underground Literary Alliance is the most controversial writer's group in America. We stand up for writers, expose corruption in the publishing world, and work to create a fun & exciting alternative to the literary mainstream."
The Underground Literary Alliance has its roots in the independent zine scene that flourished in the 1990s. The founders of the group were zinesters who connected with each other through A Reader's Guide to the Underground Press or through other underground writers. These founders, and their zines, were: Karl Wenclas, New Philistine; Michael Jackman, inspector 18; Steve Kostecke, Seoul in Slices; Joe Smith, The Die; Ann Sterzinger, Bottle-Fed; and Doug Bassett, a literary theorist. The six of them met in Hoboken, New Jersey, in October, 2000, in order to launch the group and commence their activism by signing a statement of protest against a Guggenheim grant given to Rick Moody, an already-wealthy writer. The text of the statement read as follows:
We the undersigned protest the year 2000 Guggenheim grant to well-known author Rick Moody, because it exemplifies the practice of giving financial assistance to already successful and affluent writers, well-connected, who clearly don’t need the help—while other writers abjectly struggle—and because this runs counter to the implicit charitable purpose behind the tax-exempt status of a foundation like John Simon Guggenheim.
In addition to the six who met in Hoboken, this protest was later signed by over 30 other zinesters. It was also sent out to approximately 300 of the American lit world’s biggest-named writers, editors, and agents—but none of them signed.
Since its founding, the ULA has constantly engaged in its own brand of “literary activism” which has gained the group a notoriety for exposing what they see as corruption in the American literary world and for harshly criticizing corporate-promulgated literary fiction.
The ULA launched its own independent press in 2006.
Criticism and Controversy
The ULA is not without it's critics within the zine community. It's first protests were marred with expecting agreement and cooperation by all zinesters without presenting much of an argument or background for what they were asking zine publishers to sign their name too. And their initial declaration and written materials had no mention of zines at all and were targeted more towards the alternative lit community. Long drawn out arguments between ULA members and other zine editors were common-place on alt.zines for the first four years of the group's existence.
Guggenheim Grant Protest
In late 2000, the six founders of the ULA signed a protest against the $35,000 Guggenheim grant awarded to Rick Moody, an already-wealthy author.
In early 2001, the ULA held a press conference at CBGBs in New York City which was attended by George Plimpton, staffers at The Paris Review, and staffers of Open City magazine. The ULA debated with those who attended about what they perceive to be the irrelevancy and lack of integrity of the current realm of corporate/academia-sponsored literature.
In early 2001, the ULA crashed a literati reading at KGB in New York City. The members present disrupted the reading with arguments about how literature has died under the current corporate system – and were then thrown out of the venue.
Cronyism in the Lit World
The ULA protested the 2002 National Endowment for the Arts award of $20,000 to Jonathan Franzen, an already-wealthy author and highly-publicized best-selling author of The Corrections. Rick Moody was on the NEA panel, and the ULA contested that this was an example of the literati insularly awarding each other.
In early 2003, members of the ULA were kicked out of a reading at Housing Works in New York City after confronting the writers about the relevancy of the topics of their readings (one reader reciting a story about being a tree).
Amazon.com & the New York Times Article
In early 2004, a glitch at amazon.com revealed that David Eggers (of McSweeney’s and The Believer magazine) had posted an anonymous response to reviews he believed were posted by ULA members (as reported by the New York Times). David Eggers suggested that a series of negative reviews at amazon.com were the result of ULA members retaliating against an article about them in The Believer. As a policy, the ULA does nothing anonymously, and says the negative reviews were not posted by members of the ULA.
Howl Protest & the Associated Press Podcast
In April 2006, the ULA protested against the reading of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl at Miller Theater at Columbia University, which they say was hosted by the elite literati and had no representation of the "underground," from which the Beat Generation had sprung. The AP covered the protest and reported on it by means of a podcast.
- Associated Press podcast of the ULA protest of the Columbia University reading of Howl
- Audio of ULA poet Frank Walsh discussing the ULA on public radio station WNYC
- Literary Activism of the ULA (press archives)
- Underground Literary Alliance website
- King Wenclas blog
- Interview with Karl "King" Wenclas
- Swimming Against the Mainstream an interview with Michael Jackman
- Writers Beware! an interview with Steve Kostecke
- A Reader's Guide to the Underground Press