Underground Literary Alliance

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The Underground Literary Alliance is a Philadelphia-based, but internationally membered, group of zinesters and DIY writers who seek to expose what they see as the corruption and insularity in the American book-publishing establishment while providing alternative avenues for writers who don't easily fit into mainstream institutions and agendas.

They have gained attention for their criticism of a literary practice whereby establishment authors serve on juries to award monetary prizes to their writing friends. They have emphasized cases where the prizewinning authors are independently wealthy. The ULA has also criticized the aesthetics of modern literary fiction. In general, the ULA favors direct, vernacular writing over the cryptic and mannered styles taught in some academic programs. They present their own 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 others. It was also sent out to approximately 300 established writers, editors, and agents, although none of them signed.

The ULA has engaged in what it calls "literary activism," both online and in public protests. Its critical writings are often harsh and aggressive, while its protests usually incorporate elements of comedy and performance art.

Current ULA members include Patrick Simonelli, editor of litvision.org, Leopold McGinnis, author of Game Quest, Tom Hendricks, creator of the Zine Hall of Fame, and poet Frank Walsh.

The ULA launched its own independent press in 2006.

Criticism and Controversy

The ULA has received passionate criticism from inside and outside the zine community. Some have been put off by the group's aggressive approach to debate and self-promotion. Some ULA members have or continue to publish zines, but self-publishers outside the group have criticized its focus on establishment literature, or taken offense at its position that the zine community, as it stands, cannout be self-sustaining. Wenclas, by far the most consistently vocal member of the ULA, has engaged in drawn-out online arguments (including some on alt.zines) and alienated some who disagree with his views.

ULA opponets have argued that the organization's stated emphasis on "spin" and promotion contradicts its condemnation of openly narcissistic "post-modern" writing. Several former members are now vocal critics of the ULA.

Literary Activism

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, a successful author from a wealthy background.

Debate with George Plimpton & The Paris Review

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.

KGB Crash

In early 2001, the ULA crashed a reading at KGB in New York City. The members present disrupted the reading with outbursts and arguments, and were then thrown out of the venue.

Wet Firecracker

Late 2001, the ULA protested against McSweeney’s being awarded Best Zine of the Year by the Firecracker Alternative Books Award. McSweeney’s does not fit the ULA's definition of the word zine.

Cronyism in the Lit World

The ULA protested the 2002 National Endowment for the Arts award of $20,000 to Jonathan Franzen, a famous and successful author. Rick Moody was on the NEA panel, and the ULA contested that this was an example of establishment insularity.

Housing Works

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 their material. (One story was told from the point of view of a tree.)

Amazon.com & the New York Times Article

In early 2004, a glitch at amazon.com revealed that David Eggers (of Might, McSweeney’s and The Believer) had posted an anonymous response to reviews he believed were posted by ULA members (as reported by the New York Times). Eggers suggested that a series of negative reviews at amazon.com were written by ULAers in retaliation against a critical writeup in The Believer. As a policy, members of the ULA do not communicate anonymously, and all of them denied writing the reviews.

Howl Protest & the Associated Press Podcast

In April 2006, the ULA protested against a tribute of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl at Miller Theater at Columbia University, which they say was hosted by elitist academics 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.

External links