A casual society of underground/alternative-minded writers calling themselves The Unbearables have been spreading joy and literary wisdom around downtown New York City for as long as I can remember. They protested the cravenness of the New Yorker magazine and the growing commercialism of the surviving Beat Generation writers during the 1990s, and now they’re back with The Worst Book I Ever Read, a diverse collection of essays about terrible reading experiences that, I think, many literary folks will relate to. I interviewed ringleader Ron Kolm about this book.
Levi: The Worst Book I Ever Read shows a really eclectic range of choices. We’ve got the Bible, a dictionary, a 5500 page autobiography by Henry Darger. Michael Carter hates John Locke, and Sparrow picks a psychology book. Were you surprised by the range of responses?
Ron: Well, the Worst Book I Ever Read anthology was assembled over a long period of time; ten years to be exact. When we first asked for submissions we tried to impose a format on the pieces – we asked that they be of a certain length and only deal with real books; in other words, no fiction. And we did get a number of texts that followed the guidelines; most of the Bible pieces, the David Ulin piece, etc. But the result was boring — it was as if we were putting together some sort of holiday gift book, something that any publisher could do. Then, about three years ago, I heard Carl Watson read his Henry Darger piece at the Bowery Poetry Club, and I was knocked out by it. Carl posits the notion that anything he read in the Darger manuscript would then occur in the real world – when he read about a bridge collapsing in the Midwest, then turned on his TV, he’d find out that a bridge in Minnesota had in fact crumbled into the river. It hit me in a flash that this made the Darger manuscript a ‘bad’ book; that is, a piece of writing that did ‘bad’ things in the world. This meant that other forms of writing could also be ‘bad,’ the same way Fox news is ‘bad.’ A court transcript could be bad if it was filled with lies; even a book that fell off a shelf and conked someone on the head could be naughty in this light – we didn’t have to simply list books or writers we didn’t like; we could range far afield. The only constraint we worked under was that all of the ‘members’ of the group had to be included, no matter what they did, and this is why the book is so eclectic. So, no, given who the Unbearables are, I’m not surprised by the range of responses.
Levi: Several of the best entries in your book failed to seriously answer the main question. I loved Arthur Nersesian’s piece, but the fact that he glanced at a biography of Stalin at the moment that somebody kicked over his book table does not constitute a good reason for him to pick that book as the worst book he ever read. Sharon Mesmer’s poem is good but doesn’t identify the poet she hates. Both you and Hal Sirowitz pick your own books, which really shouldn’t count, because we all love/hate our own books. Why won’t all these people really tell us what book they hate?
Ron: Part of this question is hopefully answered above. My unpublished manuscript was ‘bad’ because it wrecked my first marriage. There were several other things we were trying to do in our book; one of those was to further the myth of the Unbearables. The Mike Golden piece and the Jose Padua and Michael Randall pieces all do this to some degree or another. We also sought to archive or document some parts of the downtown scene in New York City we saw, or were part of, in the past. The Nersesian story tells the reader what it was like to sell books on the street, and the Scutti piece gives one a taste of the downtown art scene of that time, and that place. The book also has a hidden story arc, in that the critical pieces dealing with real books are mostly in the front, then it segues into other forms of bad literature, then it devolves into fiction, crumbles into bits in poetry and then, phoenix-like, Jim Feast’s concluding piece is about a book he loves! We tried to take the ideal reader on a trip; to actually go from A to B, rather than just get stuck on A. In the end, our book is hopefully praising ‘good’ writing — that’s certainly what we were trying to do, anyway …
Levi: James Joyce’s Ulysses gets a lot of abuse (by LA Times critic David Ulin, among others). Aren’t there really a lot of books worse than Ulysses? Do you think the James Joyce cult needs to be taken down a couple notches?
Ron: Well, Ulin’s piece is what it is. Personally, I love Mr. Joyce. You have to read the erotic letters he wrote his wife, Nora, in the Selected Letters to get a real taste of where the dude is coming from! The other thing most folks don’t know about Joyce is how hard he pushed his own work, and his own myth. He was relentless. The Ellman biography is terrific in this regard. There are other writers I like more; Flann O’brien, Roberto Bolano, Samuel Beckett, Javier Marias, etc.
Levi: I know you feel passionate about Gerry Nicosia’s crusade against the Jack Kerouac estate, but don’t you think he kind of missed the point of this book by focusing his essay on this crusade, instead of on the topic at hand? Regardless of who’s right or wrong about Kerouac’s legacy, why do you think Nicosia’s battle is relevant to readers today?
Ron: Nicosia’s piece was actually one of the early ones we got. We got to know Gerry during our Crimes of the Beats era. He and Jan Kerouac joined us in our mock protest against the Beats selling out, but they definitely had a different agenda from ours; we were just trying to ‘kill off daddy.’ We’ve always tried to do that; that’s why we did our New Yorker protests. We feel that all people are equal, don’t worship anyone — love beat writing but don’t worship Ginsberg; he’s just a person like you or me. Same goes for James Joyce. Enjoy his prose, if you wish, but don’t put him on a pedestal! My fascination with the Nicosia-Kerouac-Sampas affair is how much money is involved in the Kerouac estate, and what people will do to keep it, or get it, etc. This is raw capitalism, and most of the kids who buy On the Road would be surprised and perhaps saddened by the Sampas family machinations. So yes, I think the dose of reality doled out in Nicosia’s piece is still germane — and he does feel that the book he’s trashing is ‘bad’ in many ways, so it dovetailed with what we were trying to do.
Levi: I enjoyed Michael Randall’s contribution, especially since he picked Michael Chabon’s Adventures of Kavalier and Klay which most closely resembles the book I would have picked if I were in this book, Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn. How can you explain a book with a title like The Worst Book I Ever Read that doesn’t include a book by either Cormac McCarthy, Philip Roth or Jonathan Lethem? I’m just saying.
Ron: Jeez, there I agree with you. Personally, I detest John Updike — I always felt that he was an ugly misogynist filled with self-loathing; he got famous to get laid, and then hated women for having anything to do with him. Now there was a person who knew how to use literary power! Someone pointed out that he was one of the few famous writers who continued to write reviews of other writers’ books right up to his death. Updike’s problem with women is manifested near the opening scene of Rabbit is Rich, if I remember correctly. So I would say that that book is the worst I’ve ever tried to read –- I was unable to finish Blood Meridian by McCarthy as well. As Vince Passaro notes in his piece, most readers don’t finish books they dislike. He had to slog through to the end of the book he slams because he was being paid to review it.
I enjoyed Ron’s answers so much that I went on to ask him a few more questions, not about the book, but about literature, the New York City scene and life in general. Stay tuned for that interview next week!