Does Manhattan still have a literary scene? Critic Dwight Garner took to the pages of the Times to find out whether or not Manhattan still has a viable lit culture, whether or not slam poetry exists anywhere other than Dwight Garner's mind, and exactly how many miles of books the Strand really has.
Garner poses the question, "Is Manhattan’s literary night life, along with its literary infrastructure (certain bars, hotels, restaurants and bookstores) fading away?" I mean, sure, it is. This is New York. We tear things down and build new things in their stead. But Garner isn't really interested in looking for the new things. If he was, obviously, he'd have come to Brooklyn. No, instead Garner goes to some of the most iconic—and now anachronistic—places in Manhattan, trying to find some semblance of former literary glory.
First up: the Algonquin, "the Midtown hotel where Dorothy Parker, Alexander Woollcott and others once traded juniper-infused barbs." Ah, yes. Dorothy Parker. What's she up to these days? Garner uses the hotel as "a launching pad to crisscross the island for a few days, looking to see what’s left." Hmmm...Matilda, the Algonquin cat didn't do it for you, Dwight? What more do you expect from the Manhattan lit scene?
Poetry! Garner visits the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, which, I remember when slam poetry was a thing—at least it's of a slightly more recent vintage than Dorothy Parker—but I was unaware that it still had any sort of cultural relevance anymore. Apparently, though, inside the cafe, the mood was "warm and jubilant. Cheap bottles of beer were to be had." Which sounds pretty great. Not the jubilance, the cheap beer. At least, I think that's what's so appealing to Dwight Garner.
Because, really, when Garner talks about a "lit scene" all he is really doing is looking for the best new places to get drunk. That's what writers do! They drink. Occasionally, they drink themselves to death. But not always. Not always. All the places that Garner visits, supposedly in the spirit of recapturing some glorious past, are infused with alcohol. He stops by Lolita, Dalloway, the White Horse Tavern, KGB Bar, Kettle of Fish, and McSorley's Ale House. He visits the Library Hotel bar and the NoMad Hotel bar. Desperation, thy name is the Manhattan hotel bar scene. Or, as Mark Greif, n+1 editor, tells Garner, "Whenever I’m invited to meet anyone in a hotel bar or lobby, it means I’m in for a rough hour, because it means my host has more money than sense.” Yes.
Garner doesn't only hit up bars. He also goes to the few remaining Manhattan independent bookstores and browses around. Perhaps Housing Works is where he picks up the Martin Amis biography that he later bring to the Dalloway, "a new restaurant and cocktail lounge on Broome Street in SoHo that channels the spirit of Virginia Woolf." That's right. Garner is so in tune with modern lit culture that he brings a Martin Amis biography to a lesbian bar. I am not being sarcastic here. I think that's amazing.
Garner speaks to friends of his in publishing who reassure him that the problem isn't Garner himself, rather, it's the horrible reality of New York today. According to Daniel Halpern, publisher of Ecco Press, "The passion my generation felt about poetry and fiction has gone into food, I think, into making pickles or chocolate or beer.” Halpern also blames the Internet. And just about everyone blames "Brooklyn, where rents are cheaper." Yeah, cheap Brooklyn rents...shhhh! Don't tell. Soon all the writers will come out here.
Perhaps this is just my melancholic take on the piece, but I felt an extraordinary amount of sympathy for Garner as he wanders around from bar to bar, alone in his search for an elusive literary scene. He mentions stopping by places like Cafe Loup, where he used to hang out with Susan Sontag (deceased) and Paul Auster (Brooklyn) in the late 1990s, only to find that the lit scene has moved on. Sloane Crosley gently tells Garner, "New Yorkers have a delightfully narcissistic habit of assuming that if they’re not conscious of a scene, it doesn’t exist.” Which is basically the nicest possible way of saying, "Dwight, everybody you used to party with is dead. Probably of cirrhosis of the liver."
But Garner is apparently an optimist (which is a weird thing for a writer to be, but okay) and still believes in the possibilities of New York. He quotes novelist Walter Kirn, who once wrote, "My advice for aspiring writers is to go to New York. And if you can’t go to New York, go to the place that represents New York to you, where the standards for writing are high, there are other people who share your dreams, and where you can talk, talk, talk about your interests." And if all else fails, Garner advises, look up Gary Shteyngart. Apparently, Shteyngart knows that all you need to party is a bottle of shampoo. At least, that's what I took away from this particular Manhattan literary odyssey—all you need to have fun is a guy named Gary and a bottle of soap.
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