Great Lit Is Based on Principle: Letter To ULA


Most of the greatest works of literature are based on principle and driven by it, whether the principles are humane/political, scientific/technical, or sacred/idealistic. Closely observed details carefully selected and issues of inspiration and energy, style and structure all come in to play but are based on the driving, purpose-giving principles. For populists, these principles are rooted in the values of the people, values such as freedom, justice, loyalty (or solidarity), equality – in other words some of the key values this country was founded on, and key values of democratic movements and struggles the world over – values and principles that are spelled out in much more detail in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which aims to guarantee what we all want: meaningful employment (and leisure), real education and educational opportunities, guaranteed health care, adequate standard of living, personal safety and security, and so on.

These principles go far beyond those laid out in the ULA manifesto, which in its main focus dissents from the style, manner, and general corruption of the literary establishment but does not express much solidarity with the great historic and current populist movements and ideals of humankind. This is a severe limitation of ULA, it seems to me.

ULA is highly political when taking on the lit establishment. But outside of lit politics, it has no formal commitment, and not much specific expression of solidarity, as revealed in the manifesto and other official statements, and not much spontaneous political direction toward progressive social change, as laid out, say, in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As Karl has emphasized ULA is an officially apolitical group, whose members are free to be political without organizational commitment. And the vast majority of the ULA writings that I’ve seen also reveal very limited commitments to anything political beyond lit politics–which is a fairly marginal area of human activity. Does ULA really want to be officially relegated to these margins? As Stephen Duncombe has pointed out, to this point, the zine “movement,” or phenomenon is by and large not organizationally strong–and by and large doesn’t want to be–and is not very political either, and by and large doesn’t want to be. So while, call it, grassroots “people’s lit” like ULA and zines are worth supporting and fostering in general (as long as it’s not Nazi wacko stuff of course), the zine movement and the ULA is formally depoliticized–which can only make the powers that be extremely happy.  And so I think the depoliticization is unfortunate–and likely even undermining of potential ULA success. Why would ordinary people who are working and struggling for their human rights and basic dignity on the job and elsewhere, or who are dying to do so, why would they, why should they bother with a group that won’t itself officially express much of any specific solidarity with the common, popular struggle? Why would they, why should they join forces with such a group?  

I think the underdog ULA can only benefit from an infusion of a more broad and more basic political element, including the political ideals and life basics, say, as laid out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Frank Norris and Jack London, etc., were all for incorporating such vision and life, ideals and principles in lit. They were very strongly focused on it, far more so than ULA, it seems to me. Who needs another bunch of narcissistic or retrograde writers, of any class, with no vision much larger than their own individual often largely asocial selves? A danger most any writer or group of writers may run. Fortunately ULA in its declared official standards rises above this, including even a few broad political principles, as laid out in its manifesto. But the manifesto doesn’t begin to adequately address common populist principles and basic human standards that have long been central to a rich and vital literary tradition, prominently including Norris and London themselves, a lively, fascinating and powerful tradition that has never been more needed or gripping than it is and may be today.

ULA, where do you stand? ULAers, what great projects of principle–inspired by the people and given wing by the muses – are you working on? What compelling works are you prepared to undertake today?

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