What Does It Mean to Be a ‘Brooklyn Writer’?
What Does It Mean to Be a ‘Brooklyn Writer’?Members of the Brooklyn literary scene try to figure out what “the Brooklyn literary scene” even is, in part 2 of our oral history
The Brooklyn Letters project is a series of oral histories of literary Brooklyn from 1999 to 2009, presented by Electric Literature with support from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs.
This installment of Brooklyn Letters is a two-parter; if you missed part 1, read it here.
The meaning of Brooklyn, to outside observers and to those who’ve lived or were born here, has swung wildly over time. Once a metropolis of its own, after what Brooklynites termed “the Great Mistake” the proud city became an amalgamated part of Greater New York on January 1, 1898, taking the unhappy and slightly neglected role of one of Manhattan’s stepsister boroughs. With its port and numerous factories Brooklyn was an industrial center through the 19th and 20th centuries, and home, across its far-flung neighborhoods, to a variety of ethnic enclaves.
But it was the cheap rents that first began attracting artists, from Manhattan and beyond, to the borough. At 7 Middagh Street in Brooklyn Heights lived the bohemian commune Anaïs Nin nicknamed “February House,” because a number of the artists who lived there happened to have February birthdays, and which Truman Capote called an “ivory tower boardinghouse.” Presided over by George Davis, literary editor at Harper’s Bazaar, between 1940 and 1945 the house took in and let out Carson McCullers, W.H. Auden, Benjamin Britten, Richard Wright, Klaus Mann (Thomas Mann’s son), Jane and Paul Bowles, Lotte Lenya and Kurt Weill, and the burlesque entertainer, actor, and mystery-thriller author Gypsy Rose Lee, as well as a revolving door of sailors, bedbugs, and circus performers. The house was razed in 1945, as it unfortunately stood right in the path of Robert Moses’ Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.
For other artists, Brooklyn was a place to escape from. The author and editor Norman Podhoretz, who was raised in the Brownsville neighborhood of east Brooklyn and strove to be a part of Manhattan’s literary elite, wrote in 1967 that “[one] of the longest journeys in the world is the journey from Brooklyn to Manhattan — or at least from certain neighborhoods in Brooklyn to certain parts of Manhattan.” Thirty years later, he might only have had to make the journey from Brownsville to Park Slope. By then artists were once again moving to Brooklyn in great numbers — motivated at first by the steeply increasing rents in Manhattan, until Brooklyn itself became the place people wanted to be, rather than the place they were backing away into.
Hand in hand with the rise of hipster culture in the borough came the so-called “Brooklyn Lit movement,” exemplified by such seemingly disparate authors as Jennifer Egan, Colson Whitehead, Jonathan Safran Foer, Jhumpa Lahiri, Jonathan Lethem, Paul Auster, and Edwidge Danticat. Despite their dissimilarity, the concept of the “Brooklyn writer” (and its brand-like phrase) has nevertheless persisted, applied to a succession of other authors who’ve fallen within its geographic scope. But as Dinitia Smith asked in 2006, in a New York Times article anticipating the first-ever Brooklyn Book Festival, “are they really part of a distinctive Brooklyn literary tradition? Is there such a thing as a Brooklyn aesthetic? A Brooklyn voice?”
In an article for the New Scholar in 2007, making a survey of novels by Foer, Dave Eggers, Nicole Krauss, Myla Goldberg and others, the critic Melvin Jules Bukiet defined their work collectively as “Brooklyn Books of Wonder”: “Take mawkish self-indulgence, add a heavy dollop of creamy nostalgia, season with magic realism, stir in a complacency of faith, and you’ve got wondrousness.” The main fault of these novels, according to Bukiet, is their evasion of the emotional reality of the traumas they purport to depict, using enormity, wonder, and momentousness as a way of concealing their inability to grapple with actual human experience. It was a similar criticism as that lobbed by James Wood in his 2000 essay “Human, All Too Inhuman”, in which he describes a trend in contemporary “cabinet of wonders” novels (not strictly limited to Brooklyn authors) where “[the] mode of narration seems to be almost incompatible with tragedy or anguish.”
But their criticisms don’t seem to apply, for instance, to the work of Jhumpa Lahiri, or Edwidge Danticat, or Jennifer Egan. If not a “book of wonder,” what is the voice, style, tradition, spirit, or concern that inflects or defines the Brooklyn novel? Is there something beyond simple geography — or the fact that it’s not Manhattan — which distinguishes Brooklyn’s literary culture? In this second part of a two-part oral history (if you haven’t, read part one here), we’ll hear from some of the figures associated with the Brooklyn Lit movement as they talk about what characterized the movement for them, what happened after, and what comes next.
Elissa Schappell [author and co-founder, with Rob Spillman, of Tin House magazine; together she and Spillman moved from Manhattan’s Lower East Side to Brooklyn in the Fall of 1998]: I would be interested to know what other people think of as being the Brooklyn aesthetic, because that’s interesting to me. How does that happen? Why did it become one thing, and not another?
Rob Spillman [co-founder of Tin House magazine, which operates bicoastally in Brooklyn and Portland, Oregon]: There’s a pride in Brooklyn, and a pride in working outside the big five [the country’s largest literary publishers, based in Manhattan. Formerly the big six: Macmillan, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, and prior to their merger, Penguin and Random House], and trying to truly be indie and to publish new voices, to publish people of color and women. We all pride ourselves in that. But frankly, if the Lower East Side were more affordable, maybe we would all still be there?
Then again, there’s a lot more space here, there’s a lot more cultural diversity. And for a while, 9/11 shut down Manhattan as book country. There was this void. Then there’s the physical barrier of the bridges and the river that gives the feeling we are separate. But for a lot of us I think also there’s a collective attitude of trying to avoid Manhattan, especially avoiding anything above 14th Street. Like, anything above 14th Street is suspect, and if it’s produced above 14th Street it’s probably commercial garbage. There is that collective attitude; there is a disdain for that, and maybe a collective resentment of their continuing power and reach.
That’s always been in evidence since I’ve been in Brooklyn: that spirit of wanting to band together against the Manhattan establishment.
That’s been in evidence since I’ve been in Brooklyn: that spirit of wanting to band together against the Manhattan establishment.
Eugene Lim [author of Dear Cyborgs and co-founder of Ellipsis Press]: I got to Brooklyn in 1997ish and moved to Queens in 2009. I was never part of the commercial publishing scene, and my whole experience and aspiration then, and to a great extent now, was for the small and independent presses (because like the Coffee House Press motto correctly states, “Literature is not the same thing as publishing”).
Mira Jacob [author and co-founder, with Alison Hart, of Pete’s Reading Series in Williamsburg; with Hart she ran the series out of Pete’s Candy Store bar from Fall 2000 until 2013, though it continues to run today]: The publishing industry was only choosing its favorite players to forward. We had editors and agents whom we loved and relied on, and we would ask them, “Who do you have to send us for the series?” They would always forward the same kind of person. It was very rare that they’d say, “Oh, here’s somebody that’s a little unheard of and a little bit different.” They would only give us what they thought of as their surest bets.
Alison Hart [co-founder of Pete’s Reading Series]: If you looked at the publishers’ catalogs of what books were coming out that year, it would be the same type of thing. It just wasn’t a good system for finding people who weren’t already chosen.
Lim: Three New York City indie novels I remember making a tremendous impression on me during those years were: 1) The original black-and-white edition of The Fuck-Up by Arthur Nersesian, which I think he must’ve published himself in the mid ’90s and which I found at the St. Mark’s Bookshop’s small-press-spinny-rack around then, 2) Boy Genius by Yongsoo Park, which Akashic published in 2002, and 3) Eileen Myles’s Cool For You, published by Soft Skull Press in 2000. The first “micro” press book I saw that inspired me to try to start a press was Peter Markus’s The Singing Fish, from Derek White’s Calamari Press, which I found at Spoonbill & Sugartown [bookstore in Williamsburg] in 2005. Not long after that Anthony Antoniadis ran a brilliant reading series called Littoral at the original ISSUE Project Room space in a silo on the Gowanus Canal. One night he had a reading that included the [Gordon] Lish-school writers Norman Lock, Gary Lutz, and Eugene Marten. I think Lish was even in the audience that night.
I list all those titles and names to very quickly gloss a scene of alternative writing that perhaps grew out of the East Village/Downtown Manhattan avant-garde writing scene, and which was admirably defiant of mainstream publishing but was, with notable exceptions, nonetheless, as others have noted, largely male, white and straight.
Jonathan Lethem [author of Fortress of Solitude and Motherless Brooklyn; a Brooklyn native, Lethem was raised, through the ‘60s, ‘70s and early ‘80s, in the industrial, pre-gentrified neighborhood of North Gowanus, now called Boerum Hill]: I made Brooklyn a subject, and I didn’t exhaust it as a subject because I’m immersed there forever. I think there’s a book about literary Brooklyn [Literary Brooklyn: The Writers of Brooklyn and the Story of American City Life], and my face is on the cover. I have a tremendous amount of sentiment and connection to the place, but I also have some pretty loaded feelings about it. And literary Brooklyn, from which I was greatly benefitting at the time, also irritated the hell out of me; the idea you would wear a Brooklyn t-shirt around is still pretty uncomfortable. My own framework, by comparison, is almost a primordial one; growing up there I was a witness to a lot of primordial stuff. The raw displacement of entire cultural spaces, and economic spaces, and the destruction of communities.
One reason I write crime novels, even when I’m not writing Brooklyn novels (and even my books that aren’t crime novels have crimes in them) is that I came from a world of crime. Of graffiti artists, and shakedown artists. Spike Lee made it into a brand name: “Crooklyn” was a word that meant we were in a crime zone. Hoyt Street was the corridor between the A train, the Hoyt-Schermerhorn subway station, and the projects. There were so many muggings on a daily basis of the first white commuters to Manhattan who’d moved into the neighborhood. On the kid level, being yoked — having my bus pass extracted from my pocket — was just a way of life. And I wanted the hell out of there.
But I wrote Fortress of Solitude when I came back, after living in Berkley for almost a decade and not returning for a long time, and then being in Greenpoint which didn’t feel like my Brooklyn at all. What then happened was that I had to move out of that apartment in Greenpoint quite suddenly, because of a breakup. A friend of mine in Manhattan — someone who grew up in California, someone with no relationship to the old neighborhood (and don’t forget, it was hard to get an apartment in New York in those days) — said, “I heard of a great apartment in Brooklyn that is just opening up, from someone who lives right underneath it. Call this number.”
Literary Brooklyn, from which I was greatly benefitting at the time, also irritated the hell out of me; the idea you would wear a Brooklyn t-shirt around is still pretty uncomfortable.
The apartment was on Bergen Street! And I took it! Suddenly, I was back in the old neighborhood, and I wondered, “Am I really doing this?” In a way it surprised me that I ever circled back and used it as a subject. But it worked. For a little while I was in my own stewpot of self, and I was tolerating it just fine. I was angry and conflicted about that, and all those feelings go into the latter half of Fortress of Solitude, where the character comes back and is incredulous and alienated, and feels implicated but also totally dispossessed. All of those were feelings I was having. I was living in my own source code.
Naima Coster [author of Halsey Street; also a Brooklyn native, Coster grew up in Fort Greene when it had a reputation as a rough neighborhood and as it subsequently became the borough’s “cultural district”]: To me, my roots in Brooklyn have shaped my voice. The quality of my mind, that’s how I tend to think about voice, because it’s the mind that is uttering these things. I feel like my upbringing in Brooklyn gave me a couple things that shaped my sensibility and my mind.
I really value and see the interdependence of people, which is something that growing up in Brooklyn really taught me. You know, we live in close proximity to our neighbors, to our family. It wasn’t a sprawling suburb where there’s lots of space. People really turned to and relied on one another for things. For example, there was a carpool that got me to my elementary school; I went to an elementary school in another zone, because it was a stronger school that my parents were able to get me into, along with a couple other kids in my building. So I really think about and value that interdependence.
On the other hand, there’s also a kind of mental toughness that was a part of growing up here. My mom tells this story about how the bus broke down when it was snowing, and she didn’t have good winter boots and she had to carry me and my brother underneath her arms through the snow back to our house. It’s not a romantic story; it was painful and difficult for her. She has lots of stories like that, of Brooklyn life not always being easy or convenient. It requires that interdependence, but it also requires toughness, adaptability, and resilience. That’s a part of my voice when I write.
Brooklyn requires that interdependence, but it also requires toughness, adaptability, and resilience. That’s a part of my voice when I write.
Lethem: But I don’t think there’s any “Brooklyn Lit style” that’s unified enough to actually mean anything.
The whole nature of Brooklyn is that it’s a mongrel identity, and it’s assumed that anyone can participate in identifying that place. What really defines where I came from is that it belonged to everyone and no one. The claims were so rival and so multiple, so intersectional — in Downtown Brooklyn, in Gowanus, and what became Boerum Hill in particular — that to make any kind of claim of authenticity or ownership was to be full of shit from the get-go. It also belonged to someone else in a different way that made your way look paltry or silly.
Spillman: Having lived on the Lower East Side in the late ‘80s, I think that legacy from the ‘70s into the ‘80s, of Patti Smith, [Allen] Ginsberg, Richard Hell — all of that was much more focused on being transgressive and anarchist and revolutionary, more overtly leftist. I think you could make a strong claim to a Lower East Side kind of writer, more so than a Brooklyn kind.
There was this literary magazine based somewhere between Avenues C and D [in the Alphabet City neighborhood in the East Village] which was named Between C & D, and they printed it on a dot-matrix printer and put it into Ziploc bags and distributed it like drugs. Their mission was explicitly fuck you. It was all centered around The Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church, where Patti Smith would always read her work. Here, there just wasn’t the same center.
Lethem: I felt in those years that people always had this image that the seven young Brooklyn writers had gotten together and planned something. It was very much this idea of, “if only we could get into that clubhouse and see what they’re saying to each other, we would know what their plans are.” But it just wasn’t a coherent thing.
Once Brooklyn became safe, it was a cheaper, more spacious, slightly calmer place to live. Most of the neighborhoods we’re talking about were two, three, at most five subway stops from people’s publishers or their jobs in Manhattan, if they had jobs in Manhattan. It wasn’t that much harder a life to make then living on, say, the Upper West Side. Structurally, it wasn’t that different going from a Tribeca apartment to something in Midtown, if you needed to be in Midtown. Being in Brooklyn was just a hell of a lot more pleasant, and the dollar sign was a lot smaller. It had a kind of dumb logic that precedes literary thinking. Why wouldn’t you do that, once the word was out that you weren’t going to get mugged on Hoyt Street?
Suddenly there was a next Brooklyn cultural note that sounded. It wasn’t Saturday Night Fever anymore. Get out, you know? We’re the bridge-and-tunnel people, but maybe you can cross that bridge and stay in Manhattan if you can dance well enough. It was another idea. Brooklyn promised a more bucolic version of a New York life. Maybe a slightly more authentic one, with a little tiny bit of borrowed street cred. I don’t mean that as a huge dis or anything, but if you could feel like you were participating in something a little grittier, but it was also pleasant, why wouldn’t you? Prospect Park is just as nice as Central Park, but so much less populated. There’s so much more space available. And you could live next to Prospect Park; you can’t afford to live on Central Park West. You could get an apartment and walk your labradoodle in a park that was designed by the same guy! This was just an almost impossibly appealing recipe. But I don’t think it originates in us writing in a different way than those Manhattan people. I can’t really believe that that thought occurred to any individual in an important sense, let alone to some collective body of people, let alone to these imaginary seven young writers in a clubhouse who were like, “We’re going to create Brooklyn Lit now!”
Brooklyn promised a more bucolic version of a New York life. Maybe a slightly more authentic one, with a little tiny bit of borrowed street cred.
Hart: That level of the establishment felt very distant from what we were doing. It was great, but it had nothing to do with where we were.
Jacob: That stuff was like a gala, and we were at a bar having a raucous party. It was like, “Oh, those are the gala people doing the gala thing and giving each other prizes.” It was great, but we were just there on a Thursday night, laughing and talking about the work.
Hart: You watched how the sausage got made from this weird distance. And over time you’d see how someone would start here, and then end up there.
Someone who read for us a bunch in the beginning was Gary Shteyngart. He would come every year, and it was great. And then you saw him be taken. Like this Lion King moment — you see them sort of pass into the mist.
Jacob: Into the distance. And you’re like, “Oh, there he goes!”
Hart: “I wish you well!”
Spillman: Colson Whitehead was definitely roped into that Brooklyn writer notion, as someone who was semi-outsider and indie. But I think it’s a little mythic, and just comes from looking back at the past. I really don’t think any of us identified with it at the time.
Lethem: Who are we talking about? I know who I’m thinking of: Colson [Whitehead] and Myla Goldberg. I’ve seen [Jonathan] Franzen credited as part of the Brooklyn Lit moment, and I know that’s wrong! Michael Chabon? I’ve seen him on that list. That’s not anything. Dave Eggers lived in Park Slope for a little while, but he’s a Chicago guy who’s now been a Bay Area guy for the vast majority of his adult life. So that’s not really a coherent story about anything. Then it’s just about, “Oh, we want to announce” — we meaning some sort of collective yearning on the part of an exhausted literary culture — “we want to announce that there’s a new thing. We want to say we’re tired of John Updike, and we’re going to say it by claiming that there’s a Brooklyn Lit movement, and that anything we like right now is a part of it!”
I think the idea of a Brooklyn writer is a little mythic, and just comes from looking back at the past. I really don’t think any of us identified with it at the time.
Well, it just happened that a few of the writers that anyone would get excited about were living in Brooklyn right at that moment. It wasn’t untrue that at certain points Christopher Sorrentino and Shelley Jackson and Myla Goldberg and Colson Whitehead and I were all, on a nice day, living in walking distance of one another, and some of us were regularly having a drink. But the idea of some sort of clubhouse or street vibe, where we were all writing in kinship because of physical proximity to this important place, just seems so propositional to me.
Then again, the proposition becomes real. To latecomers or aspirants, it became that thing. That ‘thing’ attracted writers; that attracted bookstores; that created reading series; that created anthologies. You have to give it up to the myths at some point, when the legends become the truth.
I asked everyone what’s next, both for their personal relationship with Brooklyn and for the Brooklyn literary scene.
Lim: I’m almost surprised that it’s already time to historicize those Brooklyn writing scene years, as for me it seems like it all just happened. But I also recognize a new phase. It was great to be in Brooklyn then, but I think the national moment (hopefully a sustained and not momentary one) of discussing more openly matters of identity and class must, as everywhere, create a more inclusive scene. Or, to put it another symbolic way––and should a gauntlet-throwing gesture be useful––as the mural on the Jackson Heights’ handball court used to say/says: “Queens Is the Future!”
Lethem: I’ve probably finished living in Brooklyn. It’s weird to say that.
Schappell: It’s not hard now to be taken seriously when you’re in Brooklyn. But in the beginning, people thought it was kind of goofy. Their reaction would be like, “Brooklyn? Huh.” They would joke about having to get their shots before they crossed the river.
It took a while. But there were lots of other things happening in Brooklyn at the same time. You had stuff happening in the arts, you had stuff in dance and music — it’s not like it was just in one place. You had all these different factors coming together to make it what it was.
Spillman: Portland is much smaller than Brooklyn. So if there’s a big literary event, or any kind of creative event, everybody’s there. And there’s a lot more collaboration across forms. There, visual artists work much more with writers. That Portlandia gag of there being projections at every single event — it’s all true! You just can’t have a literary event without projections, and also some kind of sound artist…
I miss that here. We’re pretty Balkanized.
Lethem: In the pre-internet era there were physical community spaces. The reading series, the party, the fundraiser, the bar — the place where evenings would start or end up among writers who were conscious of wanting to be with each other, with other writers. I know I’m often committed to poking little holes, but honestly, in that New York City literary culture — among young readers and aspiring writers and fledgling writers and first novelists and so forth — if there was one place that was the actual physical equivalent of the internet, it was the KGB Bar in Manhattan. That was where you would go to see and be seen, to figure out what was going on among young writers in the city. And it wasn’t in Brooklyn, so go figure. But we’re a diminishing number of people that know what life was like before the internet.
Spillman: In the literary community now, I see everybody I want to see at AWP [the annual Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference]. We live literally a block apart! Why are we having a drink in Tampa?
That’s why I’m encouraged by places like Pioneer Works in Red Hook. They’re really merging and mixing different kinds of artists, so you get to see what other people are doing. And also National Sawdust in Greenpoint — it’s another multi-genre space. They do theater, performance, visual arts and music, but they also do literary events. That’s hopefully the way of the future.
Lethem: When journalists call me from faraway places or send me an email saying, “I’ll be in New York. Can we meet for an interview?” I feel really sad that I have to disappoint them with, “Uh, I’m not in New York.” People loosely expect me to be found there. There is this idea I am partially responsible for circulating that I would never feel complete unless my feet were touching those sidewalks. But I don’t know if I’m ever going to live in Brooklyn again. And anyway, I’m kind of priced out myself. Everyone is. Everyone but the movie stars.
Then again, that story is also untrue. It is only a very tiny block of Brooklyn to which this whole narrative applies. There are vast, vast precincts where the kids are still playing street games like I did when I was growing up, and like Henry Miller did when he was growing up. The reason that phrase “only the dead know Brooklyn” exists is because it is too much to put any single definition or claim on it.
Schappell: You know, nothing would make me happier than that all of this is now happening in the Bronx or something. Where people are saying, “that paradigm, that process, that machine, that way of doing things no longer suits me. We’re going to change it, and we’re going to do this.”
I’m ready to do something else. Where’s the next thing? It could be a Brooklyn thing, but I don’t know. It was very exciting, but it will be nice to see what happens next, once people feel like, “Oh yeah, Brooklyn is so done.” I mean Brooklyn is never done, in the same way that Manhattan is never done. But I will be curious to see where people go next.
Lethem: There was no stylistic center to what happened, and there wasn’t actually a geographic center to it. It was just an idea. It was just a series of successful myth-makings that were enjoyable until they curdled. It’s been propositional all along.
But like I said, through proposition it came to have psychic capital. Young writers for a while, before the image became obnoxious, they were flocking to Brooklyn. And it’s kind of neat in a way too, if I put aside my own personal, weird, bitter ironies. Why shouldn’t there be a place where people feel like there’s literary magic in the streets? Okay, let it be Brooklyn.
Brooklyn Letters is supported by a grant from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs.