Perhaps this fundamental disconnect between the balance implied by its title and the economic realities of literary life circa 2014 explains the underthrob of panic that courses through a number of the essays in the new collection by writers outside the orbit of Planet MFA. Harbach, who edited this new volume, has tapped his stable of n+1 writers, a fair number of whom, like him, went to Harvard and earned six-figure advances for their first books. Whatever is ailing these folks, it isn’t lack of chutzpah or unwillingness to do what it takes to succeed, and yet what was clearly intended as a series of artsy-smartsy essays examining the state of play in literary America too often comes off as an extended moan of self-pity from a once-cosseted corner of Brownstone Brooklyn.
#LitBeat: Bookworms Go for a Walk
By Greg Cwik
On Sunday, August 19th, I got to Lark Cafe in Flatbush maybe ten minutes before noon. Only one other person was there waiting for the Walk. I checked the Tumblr account again to make sure this was the place: it certainly was. I checked the time, to make sure I wasn’t too early/late: I certainly wasn’t. Right place, right time. But writers aren’t really known for their punctuality, so I got a coffee and kept the anxiety at bay. (The coffee, by the way, was excellent; other places I visited that day, none of which will be named here, were considerably less excellent.)
The walkers began to gather a little after noon, quite abruptly, as if materializing just around the corner en masse, and by ten-after the sidewalk in front of the cafe was replete with bookworms and bibliophiles. The walkers varied in age—from college students to grandparents— and occupation—booksellers, journalists, writers, editors. They wore t-shirts adorned with Moby Dick illustrations and carried tote bags sporting literary references. A handful of (thankfully obedient) dogs accompanied the group; by the time the walk reached its midway-point at the Brooklyn library two-and-a-half hours later, the exhausted pups were passed out on the steps, and everyone else was flocking to the food trucks for sustenance.
The Morley Walk was engendered by Dustin Kurtz, marketing manager for Melville House Publishing, to bring attention to Christopher Morley’s 1919 camp-classic The Haunted Bookshop, recently released by Melville House as part of their ongoing Art of the Novella series. The novella spends a robust amount of time discussing literature; it’s almost more literary criticism than fiction, a verbose profession of adulation for all things biblio. (“I love this guy,” Kurtz said a few times.) Conrad gets multiple shout-outs while the Tarzan books take a beating, and, in a bit of proto-Dave Eggers sass, Morley warns readers that all non-booksellers should skip selected sections because they’re boring (we read all of those parts).
The sky was dark and ominous most of the day, with sinister-looking clouds mottling the air and the threat of rain constantly looming. When the first few drops began to fall, umbrellas bloomed and everyone tucked their books under their jackets: “Don’t let the books get wet” was said quite a few times by quite a few people. But the rain held off, for the most part, and no books were ruined.
The nearly six-mile walk circumvented Prospect Park. It hit four bookstores, plus the library: the new Terrace Books, powerHouse on 8th, Unnameable Books and Greenlight Books. I got Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer for a buck at Terrace (I’m on a pretty tight budget). Walkers read aloud from The Haunted Bookshop while walking, which was sometimes difficult beside the obstreperous streets of Brooklyn but always amusing—the looks we got from confused passersby were beguiled and wonderful. Reading continued outside of each bookstore while walkers perused the many shelves inside. (Books were supplied by WORD Brooklyn, whose event coordinator, Jenn Northington, was the first reader.)
For me, a newbie to the independent bookselling/publishing world, the walk elucidated the entwinement of Brooklyn-based booksellers and publishers and writers and readers—the Lit community almost felt like its own weird little world. The real-life mingling of booksellers and publishers and writers recalled their Twitter interactions, with rewteets and 140-character conversations rendered corporeal. I could see how personally invested everyone was— how deeply embedded into the undulant community. Michael de Zayas, owner of the spatially tiny and often-packed coffee shop Little Zleda’s in Crown Heights, made a brief mention of his embryonic bookstore, Hullabaloo, before the Walk commenced. He said his Kickstarter project was ending at six, ending his comments with an ellipsis. While not the subtlest of pitches, Zayas’ announcement symbolized the symbiotic relationship between local writers and publishers and booksellers. He summarized what I was about to experience and we hadn’t even started to walk yet. These bookstores rely on booklovers—like the walkers, like myself—and events—like readings, like the Morley Walk— to exist.
(Photos by Wah-Ming Chang)
Where the New York publishing houses are
I can see some publishing houses missing. Some academic publishers aren’t there, Springer, McGraw Hill, etc. But it’s kind of fun to look at the map and imagine how your commute would be easier if you worked at such-and-such house.
Not quite a TARDIS, but close enough to entice New Yorkers.
Brooklyn, with its swarms of goateed hipsterati making artisanal cheeses and tapping out novels at corner coffee shops, is easy to mock, and in truth, the place is a little precious. But for every stay-at-home mom writing imaginary novels between trips to the yoga studio and every coffee house poseur stroking his beard over his battered Penguin edition of Crime & Punishment, there are three or four young, talented writers and editors hard at work on actual pages of actual novels. Mock all you want, but for the moment, if you want to write literary fiction or poetry, Brooklyn is still the place to be.
While I stared out over the acres of independent presses all housed in Brooklyn, there was, too, the humbling knowledge that the last thing the world needs is yet another Brooklyn press. We moved to Ohio shortly thereafter for family support in raising our daughter…There were positive aspects to being socially isolated: we were able to focus on crafting Two Dollar Radio into the publishing house we always hoped it might one day become. For a while I managed a Lebanese restaurant chain, and then I managed a frozen custard shop. I would rise early to work on Two Dollar Radio, before putting in hours scooping hummus or custard, and then come home and work more on Two Dollar Radio. To unwind after the kids were in bed, my wife Eliza and I would sit on our front porch and drink and talk about the books and the company. We no longer felt like just another Brooklyn press. I’ve thought this before; I’ve written this before: in the process of becoming what you want to be, you realize who you are. We had to move to Columbus, Ohio, in order to discover our identity as a press.
Smitten and unrequited, Paul Legault offers up translations of Emily Dickinson’s ‘complete poems’ – all 1,789 of them as presented in R.W. Franklin’s definitive edition. He transports Dickinson into mostly fortune-cookie length snippets of contemporary English, more specifically into a dialect of American English spoken widely in urban pockets like Brooklyn, where increasing numbers of the highly educated and literary classes live, procreate, keep each other amused, and make their own cheese.
Tonight at 7pm, come out and see Hari Kunzru at WORD Brooklyn! We’re co-hosting the event!