The subtitle of Userlands is 'New fiction writers from the blogging underground'. What we have is a collection of short stories, edited by Dennis Cooper.
By my count, there are 41 different writers represented here. The editor says that they range in age from sixteen to early forties. Only two of them are women. Five of them are Brits, and the rest, I guess, American.
OK. Let's try to provide a lead for the time-short, so that they can decide whether to read any further. Userlands is made up of literary short stories, urban, hard-edged, very masculine in tone, dealing, very often, with violence, depression, street life, drugs, homosexuality, sado-masochism, and suicide. There aren't many laughs in it (Justin Taylor's study of a group of anarchists being as near as you get to humour). The writers seem to take themselves, and life, awfully seriously.
The publisher is Akashic Books, a firm which describes itself as dedicated to the 'reverse-gentrification of the literary world'. Well, judging by Userlands, it's doing a pretty good job. The cover illustration, which appears to be an image of some particularly unattractive microscopic bug, seems to me to be guaranteed to discourage any gentrified person from going anywhere near the book.
Dennis Cooper, the editor of this collection, is himself a writer with a track record and some reputation. He has written eight novels, most recently God Jr. (Grove Press) and The Sluts (Carroll & Graf). His novels have been translated into eighteen languages. Indeed he is sufficiently eminent to be the subject of a collection of critical essays: Enter at Your Own Risk, subtitled 'The dangerous art of Dennis Cooper'. It's a snip at $49.50; which means, of course, that it's intended for the academic-library market. So Mr Cooper is a man with some prestige in literary circles, and to be selected by him, for inclusion in a collection of new work, is doubtless thought in many quarters to be a distinction in itself.
I wish I could say that I enjoyed this display of young and new talent, but I'm afraid I didn't. It's all relentlessly self-centred, for a start, with little interest shown in the welfare of the reader. Some of these writers remind me of a stroppy child, jumping up and down and demanding attention. You need a strong stomach for some of the stories, and many of them reveal despair, anger, and disgust.
I have the very strong impression that all these writers yearn to be admired and famous in what they perceive to be the only circle of any consequence: namely that tight coterie of young, city-based, hard-edged, largely male and often university-based coffee-shop highbrow discussants. Unfortunately, there isn't room at the top for all of these writers to make it, so some of them are going to end up even more disenchanted than they appear at present.
Dennis Cooper's introduction makes some interesting points. 'It's not exactly a revelation,' he says, 'that book publishing in the United States is in a gentrified, conservative, and economics-driven state.' He adds that the graduating classes of the university writing programs 'have formed a kind of official advisory board to the large American publishing houses.' (Which could be why some of them are having a hard time making any money out of fiction.)
Userlands, says Cooper, offers 'one alternative to the status quo, one unobstructed view of contemporary fiction at its real, unbridled, vigorous, percolating best.'
He's dead right. Up to a point. That point is reached at the word 'fiction' in the sentence quoted in the previous paragraph. What Cooper offer us is, as he says, one alternative to the status quo. What he provides is, reasonably enough, a collection of the kind of work that he admires and enjoys, and which he considers the 'best'.
It would, however, be perfectly possible to put together a dozen other anthologies of work produced by 'bloggers', to use a generic term for anyone who puts their stuff on the web. You could, for example, make a book out of stories and articles by cheerful young women rather than thoroughly bad-tempered young men. Ignoring copyright problems, you could do a volume of Star Trek fan fiction, or Wodehouse pastiche. Or whatever. There are many worlds out there.
Any one of those other collections would, I suspect, entertain the average reader rather more effectively than would Userlands. However, if you want to know what the angry young men of today are up to, Userlands is definitely the place to go.