Michael Lindgren is a veteran book reviewer with The L Magazine and has long been a dissenting editorial voice on the subject of the nascent Brooklyn literary scene. We thought our Brooklyn Lit issue was as good a place as any to give him a chance to make his case...
Yes, well, “hate” is such an ugly word, isn’t it? So maybe we could go with "despise." As in: I despise Brooklyn literature, because it’s phony, pretentious, insular, coy, smug, and fundamentally dishonest. Now, sure, there are exceptions. Some of the writers I would exempt from this attack include… er… well, there must be someone? Little help, here? Okay, we’ll come back to that one. Anyway, of course one ought not to generalize about a whole borough and the thousands of writers who live and write there, because that would be unfair and contrary to, um... ah, fuck it. Enough of these half-hearted qualifications. The place should be forcibly depopulated, its residents remanded to work camps and forbidden to write, or publish, or blog, or tweet, or otherwise further foul the air with their gibberish. Either that, or they should have to work the customer service desk at a Barnes & Noble in Peoria, Illinois, just to give them a sense of how the other 90 percent of the country works and thinks and lives.
Because that’s the heart of it, isn’t it? Most of the literature that comes out of Brooklyn has this… scent… of privilege to it… this fey, self-absorbed myopia that could only be produced by a community that badly needs to let a little air and light into its psychic rooms. A test: Name one piece of Brooklyn literature from the past ten years that features non-satiric depictions of any of the following: a) manual labor; b) churchgoing; c) the military; d) sports. You see, out there in actual America, that vast plain stretching away, Steinberg-like, beyond the towers of New York, there are a lot of people whose whole lives, believe it or not, exist within those four categories of experience, categories that are almost completely absent from the concerns of those whose ZIP codes begin with “112.” The late John Updike, he of Harvard and the New Yorker, nevertheless understood this; he envisioned himself “as a literary spy within average, public-school, supermarket America” because “it was there I felt the real news was.” Brooklyn literature has lost touch with the real news, with the savage beating heart of the country. It produces no coolly analytic Joan Didions, moving like wraiths through the chaos of the Haight-Ashbury; no poets of working-class despair, like Joyce Carol Oates; no Richard Fords peering into the dark heart of the male soul; no Cormac McCarthys conjuring visions of blood, mud, death, and violence. “I am an American, Chicago-born,” begins Saul Bellow’s Augie March, with cheerful swagger; “I am an American, not from anywhere really, but I live in Greenpoint, where I have a cat and an Italian-made coffee maker and a blog” just doesn’t cut it.
This odd sense of displacement, of anomie, this unsettling sense of placelessness, is an inevitable by-product of a community that is, essentially, a self-selecting mass bohemia. To be a writer is in some sense to be an outsider, looking skeptically at the world. The problem with Brooklyn is that there’s nothing there to be outside of; in a milieu where the right to self-expression is held sacred, aggressive individuality becomes, paradoxically, the most conformist stance of all. If we’re all hip, then none of us is hip. This is why Brooklyn writers hew to such a finely-honed caste system, always searching, with diminishing returns, for the style, the word choice, the aesthetic philosophy, the intellectual turn of the screw, that will differentiate them from the bearded, bespectacled, flannel-clad horde. As the poet Meghan O’Rourke puts it—writing of Brooklyn ur-noodler Paul Auster, no less—“the postmodern toolbox has grown more elaborate, demanding greater complexity of its users than ever before…” You say your novel has footnotes? Endnotes? A flip-book? Mine had a whole chapter written in PowerPoint! Top that! In a recent Tin House essay Evan Hughes writes cannily, if more generously, of this spiral of tribal judgement, locating it in “an impulse towards self-violence… an expression of self-loathing.” Well, shit. That’s a nice thought… but maybe they could execute their self-violence and self-loathing in private.
These are the noises that an exhausted, in-bred society makes when it’s running out the clock. The tired feeling of late-imperial decadence—decadence in the original sense of the word, not the Rolling-Stones-at-Nellcote variety—clings like a bad smell to Brooklyn literature. And there’s no hope in sight, really; we can wait for the Mongols at the gate to overrun the orgy-jaded centurions and inject some vitality, but it turns out that the Mongols want a Dumbo co-op and a three-book deal and a launch party at BookCourt too. So, maybe it’s me who’s out of place, and wrong, again, and needs to move on. Maybe I’m just too old for this shit. Forget Manhattan; I’ll keep moving west, reversing the reverse-migration that doomed Nick Carraway and his crowd, tracing the footsteps and tire tracks of my younger, hungrier forbears. I might just do that. I’ve heard Peoria’s nice.