In honor of this digital lit extravaganza (and, you know, friendly collaboration), who better to join forces with than the team at Full-Stop, Brooklyn's self-described online home of literary "Reviews, Interviews, and Marginalia." Since launching in January 2011 the site has garnered attention from various corners of the internet including McSweeney's, Flavorpill, and Bookslut for their refreshingly grounded, original take on online literary critique, and rightfully so.
"We really wanted to create a space where young writers could write legible pieces that would be taken seriously, and not just another site that was about freaking out that college was over," explains co-founder and Editor-in-Chief Alex Shephard of the site's initial launch. "We were writing for other magazines, feeling frustrated by the constraints that came along with that, and wanted to have our own thing—if we weren't going to be paid anyway, why not at least control the means of production?"
Of course, creative control tends to come at a literal price, and to date, the site's editors have committed to unpaid positions until they can afford to pay their contributors, many of whom are scattered across the U.S. in spite of the site's base in Brooklyn. Their widespread writership "keeps us feeling like outsiders," Shephard explains, "which I think is a good thing, so long as you can prevent yourself from becoming bitter. So far, we haven’t, though, and I think that the fact that very few of us live in New York (and very few of us are from New York, for that matter) and even fewer of us have paying jobs in the arts industry gives us an interesting perspective."
Alongside long-form reviews and interviews, the site has more recently expanded with a new series of current events-targeted essays and interviews, and their blog has branched into a good amount of satire—for instance, a recent post on Mitt Romney's (arguably?) fictional "nut-tapping" tour of Europe. "The humor pieces we’ve written have become a really important part of who we are. They can be pretty low brow, but I think that’s fine—we’re ok with high brow and low brow, just not middle brow," explains co-founder and blog editor Max Rivlin-Nadler.
As such, when putting together this issue, we asked them to work on an (again, arguably) fictional look at the Brooklyn lit world, and they did not disappoint. And so, courtesy of the Full-Stop Editors, we present Game of Tomes: An Alternate History of Literary Brooklyn, 1960-present. We trust that you will find it to be 100 percent factually accurate on all fronts.
Despite displaying some postmodern tendencies of his own, Mailer outwardly abhorred the movement, denouncing it as “nothing more than bells and whistles for the effeminate masses.” And with that, postmodernism and its “cheap magic tricks” were relegated to the outskirts of the borough, though rumors of cloistered experimentation persisted—it was said that if you passed Jonathan Lethem’s bedroom window at a certain hour you would see an “otherworldly glow.”
Through savvy and brute force (mostly brute force) Mailer maintained and expanded his power as the borough gentrified in the 1980s and 90s. At the advent of the new millennium, Mailer hosted a party for the writers of Brooklyn and, toasting himself, declared “Forty more years!”
Mailer was tough—he would not let you forget it, much less doubt it—but he was not invincible. Three years later, U.S. troops invaded Iraq and writers poured into Brooklyn in greater numbers than ever before and Mailer, now in his eighties, was simply unable to keep up: the iron grip that had held Literary Brooklyn for so long had begun to loosen.
Sensing greater strength in numbers, these new residents quickly coalesced into battle-ready tribes and by the middle part of the decade there were four prominent clans: The Twee-ny Boppers, The Mensheviks, The Deceptively Middle Brow, and The Middle-Aged Dirt Bags (plus Gary Shteyngart, who lived in Manhattan but was basically a Brooklyn writer). For the first time since Mailer had taken power, a number of writers whose talent rivaled his own called Brooklyn their home.
This is not to say Mailer’s power was ever questioned—he was still too tough, too scary—but something had clearly changed. Once Mailer could alter the status quo of Literary Brooklyn with ease. Now, all he could do was maintain it.
Knowing what we know now, however, those years seem positively idyllic. These groups attended each other’s parties, reviewed each other’s books, and only rarely quarreled, lest Mailer butt them with his head or whip them with his belt.
Mailer died in November of 2007 and conflict soon followed, though rumor has it that it didn’t erupt until a fortnight after Mailer’s death, as he was still able to choke dissenters from beyond the grave.
But Lethem was not Mailer—he understood violence, but abhorred it—and the petty conflicts that Mailer had quelled for a generation soon began to consume the borough. So, in August 2010, three years into his reign, Lethem called the flag-bearers of each literary clan to meet deep below the Brooklyn Public Library, where Mailer had long ago fought the mythical Balrog (Gore Vidal).
·The Twee-ny Boppers: Jonathan Safran Foer (notable members: Emma Straub, Nicole Krauss. The Jester, John Hodgman).
· The Quasi-Marxist Mensheviks: Keith Gessen (notable members: Emily Gould, Siddhartha Deb, Justin Taylor).
· The Deceptively Middle-Brow: Jennifer Egan (notable members: Jhumpa Lahiri, Joshua Ferris, Colson Whitehead).
· The Manhattan Slobs: Gary Shteyngart (notable member: Sam Lipsyte).
· The Middle-Aged Dirtbags: Jonathan Ames (notable members: Rick Moody, Chuck Klosterman, Paul Auster)
Lethem, dressed in his finest leather, rose to address the collected clans. Stressing the need for cooperation and solidarity among the beleaguered group, and maybe, like, thinking about how writing for e-readers could be an exciting challenge and push things in a cool direction, he asked: “CAN YOU DIG IT? CAN YOU DIG IT? CAN YOU DIIIIGGGGG IT?”
The assembled clans could. A great cheer rose up. Perhaps they didn’t need a squat old tyrant to keep them in line by periodically head-butting them and whipping them with belts. Perhaps Lethem was just what they needed. Yes, now that they thought about it, Lethem was a little bit like all of them: highbrow and lowbrow, bawdy and cerebral, crusty and well-kept.
It lasted but an instant. The cheering was broken by a shot, then a dull thud: Lethem’s body hitting the marble floors of the Brooklyn Public Library. His last, choked words reverberated among the stacks, “I will never have a moment to sit down and write 400 pages about the quiet dignity of Troll 2 and have it published by a small press in an attractive chapbook. There are still yet genres unrecovered, sub-genres unrevered, and Brooklyn writers unremembered.”
Though rumors of his continued existence persisted—every few months some lost soul claimed to have spotted him in Southern California—he was never heard from again. The true identity of his killer was never discovered, though it is often suggested that James Wood had some part to play.
As Emma Straub led the way to the BookCourt observatory, high above their vaunted skylight, she curtsied to Safran Foer. “Surely, you have every right to the throne, sir.”
Foer arched his eyebrows, “Why?”
“Because you wrote your first story about being 13 when you were 13.”
Hodgman, looking through his tattered books of lies, seconded Straub’s reasoning. “She’s right, you know. You are our new king.”
In ceremony, they exchanged good reviews, bottles of sugary wine and talked about whether they would have been friends when they were teenagers (if they had had friends). “Coronation,” hummed Foer. “What a beautiful, bell-sounding word!”
Gessen moved to a desk in the corner of the room, toward a long brown robe decorated with Cyrillic glyphs that appeared to glow and dance in the low light. An intern moved from the shadows to help clothe the editor, “it feels as heavy as lead!” she squeaked, scurrying back to a dusky corner of the office as Gessen brushed dust from the fabric. Suddenly, a pale fire sprung from his palms. “Tonight, my friends, all that is solid turns to air.”
Perplexed, Shteyngart recalled a stocky spectral presence, hovering about the fracas at the Brooklyn Public Library—“This is for getting that pretty boy James Franco’s book published,” the curly-haired Godhead had sarcastically intoned. At the time it seemed like another one of Shteyngart’s fever dreams, but it suddenly made sense. Mailer, always quick to enforce his heteronormativity on other artists, had cursed Shteyngart for the professional assistance he had given the heartthrob actor. “Mailer! I curse your name!” But the impassioned rage sounded comical and forced. Mailer had put the old “Don’t Make That Face Or It Will Stay Like That” curse on him. He would never speak in his normal voice again.
Sounding like Yakov Smirnoff was the least of his worries, though. Shteyngart had taken his time fleeing Brooklyn. He had stopped at every hot dog stand and street meat shop between Prospect Park and Soho and had eaten over 14,000 hot dogs in just under 12 hours. By the time he reached Manhattan, he was enormous, he was sweating profusely, and his pants, once artfully pleated, were now coated with a mysterious film—congealed ketchup, he hoped. Shteyngart had dreamed for years of the day when he would wipe out the other members of his clan harnessing the intense power of his seemingly fathomless self-disgust—only Sam Lipsyte would be allowed to survive, as they were pretty much the same person anyways.
Shteyngart sniffed his finger and smirked. “Soon, soon...” in his ominously cursed Russian accent."
The Middle-Aged Dirtbags Go Underground
Whether you live in Brooklyn or not, you’re probably aware that dozens of miles of caves run beneath its rapidly gentrifying surface (hence its nickname: the “Cave Borough”). Few people, however, know that there is only one entrance to the caves: the basement of Book Thug Nation, the Williamsburg used bookshop famed for its silly name. Actually, only one person knows of the entrance to the subterranean network: Jonathan Ames.
As soon as Lethem’s body hit the floor, Ames knew the caves were the one place where he could keep himself and his trusted lieutenants safe. It was his sole thought; it consumed him. And, in the chaos following Lethem’s assassination, Ames did everything possible to get there: he shoved, he clawed, he stabbed. If he was to claim the crown of Brooklyn, he had to reach the caves.
He fought through his rivals and escaped the fracas with Auster, Klosterman, and Moody. Hours later (Auster wouldn’t pay for a cab; they had to take the train), they reached Book Thug Nation and entered the caves.
Ames led Auster and Moody through the darkness, lighting their passage with the spec scripts for the cancelled fourth season of Bored to Death.
“Just a little farther,” Ames croaked, his beady eyes bulging out of his bald skull. After traveling for what seemed like miles, descending deeper and deeper into the earth, through narrow, curving passages, the paunchy quartet rounded a bend and entered a vast chamber. Auster and Moody gasped.
The Great Hall they entered was Ames’ secret fortress, which he called, with more than just a hint of irony, “THE MAN CAVE,” and in it he housed two of his darkest secrets: the corpse of Hubert Selby Jr. (which he had won in a bet with an HBO studio executive and kept in a glass coffin in the center of the chamber) and his hundreds of illegitimate children.
“It’s time,” Ames told his huddled progeny, who formed around Selby’s corpse, creating a giant human pentagram. Ames then pulled a wad of papers from his distressed leather satchel and began reading the lyrics of every Velvet Underground song aloud (carefully omitting all parts sung by Doug Yule) while bleeding from a self-inflicted wound onto a picture of William Burroughs. For hours, it seemed as though nothing would happen. Then, just as Ames concluded speak-singing “Train Round the Bend,” Selby’s hand shot from its glass prison, giving a stiff thumbs up. “Afaewuh‘aw,” the corpse grunted. Ames boomed with laughter—laughter, he soon realized, that he had not heard since the cancellation of his beloved HBO program.
He does not stop laughing. Ever.
At this point, Egan is suspended ten feet above the floor of the Barnes and Noble coffee shop. A customer looking at the right angle might mistake her for a figure in the “great writers” mural that runs above the coffee counter—a hip, progressive addition, really on the pulse—but no, Jennifer Egan is floating in the air because her telekinetic force field, and the store’s customers, reduced to quivering lumps by the psychic spillover, aren’t having any thoughts at all. Even in this vegetable state they inch ever closer to the display featuring discounted copies of I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell.
“I can’t believe I left Manhattan for this,” Jonathan Franzen thought across the room at Egan, gazing morosely out of the cafe’s window, eyes searching in vain for the tail feather of a Northern Bobwhite or the delicate, fluttering breast of a Scarlet Tanager; instead he found only mistakes, various facets of the American delusion. “Can you sense their locations? It would probably be easier without all the electromagnetic radiation caused by cell phones these days...”
Egan ignored Franzen’s thoughts (though they were immediately blogged about by The New Yorker’s Page-Turner) and continued to crunch the massive amounts of data she was downloading from the internet with her mind. “That’s odd,” she thought to herself loudly, “someone keeps crashing McNally Jackson’s wi-fi by torrenting huge amounts of Hustler.pdfs. Shteyngart for sure...”
As 1s and 0s streamed through Egan’s mind, Joshua Ferris sat in the corner, quietly making an intricate tower out of Dilbert books, also with his mind.
The Twee “Friday Followed” Gary Shteyngart and Sam Lipsyte, preceding their #ff hashtag with, “will u be the bestest ever and attend our war council?” Shteyngart and Lipsyte, responded simultaneously with “ASL?”, before cravenly rubbing their hands together and sending one another short, dirty poems about sailors.
The Middle-Aged Dirtbags exited their underground network from beneath a stack of discarded copies of Middlesex in Community Bookstore. The tunnel collapsed under the weight of the unsorted books. The laughing Ames raised a hand, and Auster, Moody, and the undead Selby Jr. came to a stop. Egan hovered near them, balancing on a levitating collection of The Secret. “Fall is coming,” She spoke through Selby Jr. “Our new books will be in the high double-digit demand among the literate masses—perhaps an alliance between us, the living, and you, the almost dead, will be amenable for both parties.” To prove their fealty to one another, Ferris made Auster young again. Auster, however, still felt old.
But with such tenuous alliances, a betrayal was inevitable. Shteyngart’s bottomless outfits, as well as libido, proved to be too much for the Twee camp. “As a sign of your loyalty, I demand a tribute of all your young daughters in order that they become courtesans in my harem,” with a wave of his hand he gestures to an empty parking lot behind him. “On top of that... on top of your daughters...” Losing himself in a giggle fit, he finished by breathlessly demanding a contract for seven books about a character named Barry Shteynovitch, an overweight Russian immigrant who accidentally pens the Great American Novel despite being a functional illiterate.
The Twee hung their heads in silence. They refused outrageously disgusting demands by not saying yes. This they did in unison. “I see... I understand now... you all haven’t seen the last of me! Old Shteyngart will have his day! For starters, I’ll blurb every book published in this wasteland of a borough! No book shall go untouched! If I can’t have your daughters, by God, I’ll have a slice of your publicity!” The first alliance was in tatters. The war had begun.
As news of the diplomatic collapse spread over Twitter, the Mensheviks sprang into action. To his artisanally cracked bathroom mirror, Gessen said, “First things first, we need to publish a Kindle Single about the phenomenon that was the Twee/Manhattan Slobs alliance. We enter into this project accepting that all descriptions of the alliance are doomed to fail, because the alliance itself was composed of people who, through an everyday dialectic so intimate as to render itself esoteric through its overly-insistent familiarity, are no longer the same members of the alliance that once existed. They have changed. At their most extreme, both members of the former alliance present rival ways of rejecting bourgeois modernity. This shared sense of being outsiders that initially brought them together couldn’t be sustained against their oppositional stances on sex and cleanliness. Because of historical conditions, and the F train, it had to happen. But it also had to dissolve. We will hold a public symposium on the phenomenon: What Was The Alliance? We will make it clear to the public, in no vague terms, that we’re doing everything we can to win the war. With our rhetoric, we can’t appear to lose!”
Horrified that something in Brooklyn was happening without them, each group stormed into the bar, aiming for a hostile takeover. What followed was not a bloodless coup, but the first major engagement of what would soon be known as The War of the Midlist Novelists. There would only be two major engagements in the three month conflict—beautiful Brooklyn Bridge Park was the unlikely scene of the second and final skirmish of the war.
It was a short war, but it was an astonishingly bloody one. The sides—anyone who has read their books knows they could not be more unfamiliar with combat—held fast to brutal, ineffective tactics. One noted military historian described the war as “The Battle of Pelennor Fields as fought by middle-aged LARPers.”
Though generally unskilled in combat, each camp committed to its own idiosyncratic methods. The Twee prefered an ancient art called “Sad Magic”, which consisted mainly of subtle guilt trips, soft crying, and cloying praise. The Slobs, of course, used martial techniques that conjured images of The Garbage Pail Kids. The Middle Brow used archery and battle axes to dispose of their enemies, after first accusing them of being “self-indulgent and willfully obscure,” while Jennifer Egan used her powers of telepathy to implode the brains of her enemies. The Dirtbags wielded their Selby corpse, along with their nearly endless army of Jonathan Ames’s children. Their numbers were matched only by the seemingly inexhaustible horde of n+1 interns, who were only armed in the back ranks so as to kill deserters (“You should want to intern here. This is a privilege.” - Keith Gessen).
Both battles were spectacles of filth and degradation. All alliances fragmented in the manic scenes of fire, blood, and human waste. The empty screams of innocent bystanders were indistinguishable from the guttural howling of the bloodthirsty artists responsible for the tragedy. When the fighting finally ended, the two battlefields were ruined wastelands devoid of anything save pestilence, the occasional corpse, and the nightmarish grins of rag and bone men picking their way through the broken fields. There were survivors, of course. There always are. But with all the blood spilled and all the lives lost... as night fell on the battlefield, no definitive resolution had been reached on these windswept fields.
But one person, all the way over in Britain, was paying very close attention. You see, when Martin Amis signed his first book deal as a young man, he did not receive riches—hence his continued affiliation with The New Statesman—but three dragon eggs. The editor at Faber & Faber who had given to him the gleaming eggs had thought they were artisanal stone, but Amis knew that not all that glitters is gold: sometimes it is real dragon eggs that will hatch baby dragons.
Eight years later they hatched, and Martin Amis suddenly possessed three baby dragons, which he named for his friends: Hitch, Rushdie, and McEwan. Initially, he thought he would use them to expose the “fairytale” of religion—for if St. George had slain ALL the dragons, what were these beasts?—but he soon set on a more daring and ambitious plan: when the dragons matured he would ride them into Brooklyn, claiming the borough for his own.
Dragons, of course, take decades to mature and train and Amis’s were not truly battle-ready until very recently. Though he considered invading the borough following Mailer’s death in 2007, he still feared that an invasion would weld the disparate groups into a group powerful enough to fight off three atheist dragons and their 60-year-old rider.
So, when war finally broke out, no one was happier than Amis. For months, he observed the chaos and the carnage from afar, waiting for the right moment to strike. As the sun set on Brooklyn Bridge Park, Amis knew it was time. He rode through the night and arrived on the battlefield with the slowly rising sun.
The surviving authors, carrying profound physical and psychological wounds, wouldn’t have been able to defeat Amis and his coven of dragons even if they had wanted to. Blank faced and drooling, they acquiesced to his wishes. “Bloody good show, chaps. But as they say, the hens have come home to roost. Or, more accurately in this instance, dragons,” Amis snidely soliloquized.
But to Amis’s surprise, the bloodied and broken authors weren’t angry or afraid—they were grateful. “Thank God!” shouted Lahiri. From the Dirtbags, a chorus of “Hallelujah!” rang out. At long last, an end to their strife! A worthy successor of the firm but just Mailer had arrived!
“Thank who?!” roared Amis. “Do you think me some genocidal maniac from a Bronze Age fable? You are not worthy of me!” His brow furrowed with rage, the Englishman pointed a single crooked finger over the span of the East River. He didn’t need to say another word; his thoughts were clear, and not just because Jennifer Egan had announced them to the survivors.The word was exile. Slobs and Middle-Brows, Mensheviks and Twee, they shuffled in a long line to the L train. They traveled to Grand Central and Penn Station, to JFK and LaGuardia, and from there shot out across the country. Shteyngart bid a weepy farewell to his old haunt in the semen-encrusted bowels of the Port Authority Bus Terminal.
Scattered to the winds, the survivors of the War of the Midlist Novelists wandered the earth, their clothes in tatters and their voices reduced to moans. Those who did not die for want of ‘real’ bagels gratefully ate the scraps from the table of American academia. It is rumored that they now teach freshman writing seminars at small colleges in Indiana and Iowa, Nebraska and North Dakota. They have no hope of tenure. They are the lucky ones.
Philip Levine (noncombatant attending in the hopes of being commissioned to edit a collection of essays about the conflict): shot by a compound crossbow.
Colson Whitehead: speared in the side, by one of Jonathan Ames’s Bastard Child soldiers. Somewhere Richard Ford was smiling.
Simon Rich (mercenary, fighting for Twees): mistaken for an Ames’s Bastard Child soldier, killed in retaliation for Colson Whitehead.
Jonathan Safran Foer: quietly wept himself to death while thinking about his fourth brother, Isaac Safran Foer, who owned a car dealership in Jersey City but was uninterested in writing a novel—or even a book of pop psychology—about it.
Hubert Selby Jr.’s Reanimated Corpse: Overcome by n + 1 interns, though he took 177 of them with him back to the grave. They did not receive college credit, as they did not complete their internships. They died penniless.
Benjamin Kunkel: mortally wounded when a battle-ax ripped through his “Free Gessen!” t-shirt.
Emily Gould: Riddled with arrows after appropriating the microphone to read selections from her upcoming work “Yoga for Nihilists”.
Jonathan Ames: Turned on and killed by his army of bastard children in an Oedipal blood-orgy.
John Hodgman: Scared to death when James Boice told him a joke ending with the punchline “It translates to ‘wrong hole.’”
Siddhartha Deb (mercenary, fighting for Mensheviks): Victim of Shteyngart’s diaper bomb.
Teju Cole (mercenary, fighting for Mensheviks): His final tweet “Mr. Cole kept his head on the battlefield, only to lose it moments later. “