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In the week before the Brooklyn Book Festival, Brooklyn Magazine published its “Essential Guide to Brooklyn Literature in 2012,” which consisted of sub-sections like “Which NYC MFA Program Is Right for You?”, “10 Brooklyn Books That Should Be Movies”, and “101 Secrets to Indie Lit Success.” It also featured interviews with nine Brooklyn Writers who were visited in their homes “in order to find out how they do what they do.” The results, as I’m sure you can imagine, were riveting. Did you know that Emma Straub writes “from 9-12ish, and then again until about 3 or 4”? That Emily St. John Mandel doesn’t eat while writing? Or that Joshua Henkin checks the Internet “compulsively” while he writes? My favorite piece was an interview with Ben Greenman on “Being a Brooklyn Writer.” Asked how living in Brooklyn affects his writing, Greenman no doubt turned the editorial offices of the Brooklyn Magazine upside down when he responded: “I think it doesn’t.”
Brooklyn Literature, so called, is a load of crap. It doesn’t exist. Or rather: it exists only as a species of literary real estate, willed into being by artistic uniformity and writers who frequent the same dry cleaners. It exists to comfort and congratulate those of us who live and write here; to cloak us in a complacent sense of community, as if by dint of proximity to Paul Auster and Jennifer Egan and Colson Whitehead we are all somehow part of a larger artistic project. (On each of the two occasions this summer when I attended a reading by newfound Brooklynite Martin Amis, the English novelist was asked by some panting hometown maniac to reassure us all of how special and unique and wonderful we are.)
This is obviously a collective fantasy — at best, a harmless one that I am a curmudgeonly bastard for bothering to harp on; at worst, a reeking swamp of toadyism and shameless self-promotion. I suppose your take on this depends on your temperament and your standing within Brooklyn’s faux literary community (i.e. which dry cleaner you frequent). But at the risk of echoing Jacob Silverman’s Slate piece on the “epidemic of niceness in online book culture,” I ask you to consider Ms. Straub, Brooklyn’s beloved new young writer. In February she published her story collection Other People We Married. This month she has a novel out, Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures. The week before it appeared, Riverhead announced it would also be publishing Straub’s second novel, The Good Face, in 2014. On top of that, Straub runs the design company M+E with her husband, tweets incessantly, and can be seen in videos online discussing the influence of her cats on her writing. I would not be surprised if tomorrow someone told me that Emma Straub will be writing, directing, starring in, and composing the score for, the adaptation of Laura Lamont.
The problem with all this posing and publicity is that writing becomes a secondary activity. No one now writes to inspire words like Andrew Marvell’s on Milton and his Paradise Lost: “Where couldst thou words of such a compass find? / Whence furnish such a vast expanse of mind?” Like Balzac’s Lucien Chardon descending on Paris, America’s young litterateurs scurry to Brooklyn and, like Lucien, write nothing of consequence. If this seems gratuitously harsh or creakingly unfair it is because the Brooklyn literary scene is a smog of velvety pleasantries and neighborly bonhomie: it is in need of bad behavior. Reading the interviews in Brooklyn Magazine, it transpires that most writers in Brooklyn are amiable people with liberal opinions and cute cats, dogs, or kids. None, it seems, are megalomaniacal cranks who write in moth-eaten robes with the curtains drawn. This is a shame. Like Wall Street bankers or members of the Ladies Garden Club, the Brooklyn writer socializes and mingles, gossips and guffaws. He grooms himself for his online admirers and exchanges blurbs with fellow writers. He wants to fit in. But why? What for? We need the cranks and the weirdos; the writers who are not interested in respectability and social status and who say ‘fuck you’ instead of ‘thank you’ when you tell them you just absolutely loved their latest book. We need writers who can wrench us from our homey caverns and unsettle and offend us. “All endogamies are suffocating,” writes Claudio Magris, a great writer not from Brooklyn. “Colleges too, and university campuses, exclusive clubs, master classes, political meetings and cultural symposia, they are all a negation of life, which is a sea port.”
Literature doesn’t benefit from being the product of a preening social scene, especially not one that is essentially just carry-over from our online behavior (as Silverman said, we “like, favorite, and heart all day”). One of my favorite literary anecdotes concerns James Joyce and Marcel Proust. On 18 May 1922 both writers attended a dinner party at the Hôtel Majestic in Paris, hosted by Violet and Sydney Schiff, a cosmopolitan English couple who loved the arts. This was the first occasion on which the two great innovators of the modern novel were to meet; the other guests were anxious and excited. But by all accounts the evening was a palpable fiasco. Joyce, for his part, showed up late and drunk (he was nervous); Proust, who had not left his bedroom for two weeks, showed looking, in the words of Clive Bell, as “pale as a mid-afternoon moon.” When the two writers were finally introduced, an irrelevant and somewhat absurd exchange followed. Proust: “Do you like truffels?” Joyce: “Yes, I do.” That sort of thing. Neither had read the other’s work, and Joyce later said their conversation consisted entirely of the word “No.”
That’s a word the Brooklyn literary scene might want to add to their vocabulary.