Suspend Your Disbelief

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Jane Smiley vs New York writing scene

This may be last week’s news, but the issues it raises are still worth a jaw.

From The Daily Beast (via some friends who were at this event: a reception and Q&A with the Man Booker International Prize judges, who met to discuss the finalists for this prestigious biannual award):

The book world is generally so polite and civilized, that it’s sort of fun when a kerfuffle breaks open as it did last night at the New York Public Library. […] Up on stage were The Daily Beast’s Tina Brown, acting as moderator, and the three judges: novelists Amit Chaudhuri, Andrey Kurkov, and Jane Smiley.

Midway through the question-and-answer session, Brown asked the judges if the deaths in recent years of major literary figures such as Updike, Bellow, and Mailer represented the end of an era. With fewer readers, straitened times for book publishing, and less coverage of books in the media, could such literary giants ever emerge again?

Smiley’s answer was tart: “When those figures died, they were colossal—in New York. They were not colossal in San Francisco or Minneapolis.” She went on to argue that the literary world is more dispersed than it used to be, “but it’s just as passionate.”
The novelist Jay McInerney, however, wasn’t having it. He spoke up from his seat in the audience, addressing Smiley directly. “Were you insulting San Francisco or Minneapolis? Or Updike and Mailer?”

Apparently things heated up from there, and Smiley argued that authors like Frederick Manfred remain a bigger deal in the Midwest than Updike or Mailer (though BookScan reveals that the combined sales of all of Manfred’s books last year was 39 copies, and a Google search for “Jane Smiley Updike” yields quite a few thoughtful, admiring quotes from Smiley on Updike’s work).

Smiley’s point — that the New York literary scene is not the only one the US has to offer, nor is it wholly representative of our rich variety of experience — is a good one, and even though it’s far from a new complaint, it doesn’t often get discussed in such a public forum.

BUT it’s odd that she chose to call out Updike, of all writers, for this reason–both because he so recently died and because he was decidedly not a New Yorker. Just a few weeks ago there were at least several articles devoted to why Updike didn’t live in New York (beyond a very brief stint here) and never warmed to this city’s particular rhythms. He was a New Yorker magazine man, but not a New York one. It’s unclear, I guess, what Smiley felt the need to reckon with — the East coast superiority complex? the fact that most mainstream publishing happens in New York? Is this about where writers live, where readers live, or is it about wanting to shake up assumptions? Is she bristling at that occasional tendency at New York literary events for New York-based writers to stick together and accidentally say rude things about Kentucky, or to ask the writers who have traveled from academic jobs or writing lives elsewhere when they’re “coming back” to the city, as if being anywhere else is a symptom of failure? And did she take into account the tendency of writers from smaller towns to remark in mock-admiration, how do you do it?!, as in call this city home…that they could never really live here, and how do these New York writers find time to write with so many distractions and evil publishers breathing down their necks and cocktail parties and being so damn full of themselves and in love with their own highly romanticized history?

**deep breath**

Of course most of this is rarely said aloud, at parties or elsewhere; much of it is probably not even thought. And often this supposed NYC v. Rest of Country division is actually expressed as flattering envy by both parties…the desire to, at least for a short while, live in a writers’ hub or get the hell away from it. Many writers, successful or lesser known, would probably scoff at such divisions; most embrace variety of experience: they don’t just hunker down in one place and never leave. But then there are the (often more vocal) exceptions, those who dread the tunnels and bridges that take them away from New York and those who hate leaving the beauty and familiarity of their own town–which almost certainly has its own highly romanticized, if less globally known, history.

If we were talking about larger political issues, I wouldn’t highlight New York in this way, but it really is the only publishing center in this country. There are great houses throughout the US, and there are certainly other equally notable communities of writers — San Francisco, Chicago, Austin, Boston, Ann Arbor, Boulder, Portland, Iowa City, Missoula, Irvine, and so many more… — but nowhere else where so many agents and editors and authors share such little space, meet face to face and know each other so well.

So my questions for you are: Does this really harm writers and writing from elsewhere, and if so, why and how much? Conversely, what are the benefits to there being such a centralized New York scene? If you’re living in or from New York, how do you feel about making your home here and being a writer? If you’re not living in or from this city, how often — if ever — does this place figure into your consciousness? Does hearing about New York and all it connotes make you feel ambivalent, annoyed, nostalgic, thrilled, connected, disconnected?

Tangential question for everyone: Do you like reading books set in New York, are you tired of doing so, or does it depend entirely on how good the book in question is?

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