War of the Words
20 Years of Writing on Contemporary Literature
edited by Joy Press
Three Rivers Press ($14)
by Laird Hunt
Once upon a time, the Voice Literary Supplement was capable of busting balls and warping minds. Writers like Dorothy Allison, Gary Indiana, Kathy Acker and Lynne Tillman inhabited its gritty anti-uptown trenches, and explosions of definitely downtown trend-setting brilliance were rife. So, at any rate, goes the legend (legend to those of us who came to the tamer VLS of recent years), one that War of the Words, a collection of 40 pieces culled from the supplement's 20 years of existence goes quite some distance towards bearing out. This is a welcome reminder, as today's VLS seems a shrunken thing, a slender hodge-podge of articles that, while still capable of publishing the occasional terrific piece, has lost its edge and celebrates much the same work in much the same way that the uptown venues do.
No doubt this has a lot to do with the fusion of uptown and downtown sensibilities that occurred over the course of the '90s, when articulate writers with both brains and scruff (e.g. David Foster Wallace, Rick Moody, William T. Vollman, Mary Gaitskill) were on the ascendant and began to seem relevant to the denizens of the East Village (or Williamsburg) and those on the Upper West Side. As current VLS editor Joy Press, who put the collection together, writes in her introduction, "Today, of course, it's much less clear what 'bohemia' or 'underground' signifies than when the supplement was founded. From music to films to the literary scene, left-field ideas cross over with disconcerting speed, a process that depletes them of content while sapping the community that originally nourished them." One might have hoped, however, despite such obstacles, that given its mission to treat "literature as something intimately entangled with the conflicts and confusions raging outside the realm of paper and ink," the VLS would have found a way to stay restive, lively, cantankerous, brash.
War of the Words certainly is. Press has chosen well--the book abounds with razor-sharp, sweet and sour gems. Take Peter Schjeldahl's prescient essay on the importance of Denis Cooper's proem Safe; C. Carr on Kathy Acker's Don Quixote; Thulani Davis on Buppie writers; Greg Tate on inveterate mind-blower Samuel Delany; and Jeff Yang on Chang-Rae Lee's terrific Native Speaker, and you'll get some idea of the spice and riches on hand. Not to be missed either are Dorothy Allison's investigation of smarts and eros in Anne Rice's work; Paul Elie's skewering of John Cheever; Guy Trebay's breezy but poignant look at The Andy Warhol Diaries; and Lynne Tillman's brilliant precis on the future of fiction.
Press has organized the essays into five sections, each demonstrating a different aspect of the VLS mission. Thus in section one, younger writers take on classics like Gertrude Stein, or some day classics like Don Delillo, and in section two, we get essays on deserving writers whose reputations have become a bit musty or need recasting (e.g., Zora Neal Hurston, Thomas Bernhard, Angela Carter). Sections three, four and five are devoted to general cultural issues, pop culture and emerging writers, respectively. Prefacing the essays is an engaging "Short but Sweet Oral History of the VLS", in which a host of key players talk about their relationship to the publication over the years and give testament to the powerful impact it had on them and the wider literary scene. Something one wishes, perhaps selfishly, that the once mighty VLS could have again.