Radically cutting a path from the past Throwbacks to a literary life
NEW YORK -- Is it possible to lead a dedicated literary life in the billionaire-filled, media-crazed New York of today? To be heedless of the material world as you burrow into novels and ideas the way the old Partisan Review gang did in the ‘40s and ‘50s, to come up with notions that rock the intellectual landscape? And if so, who exactly is still paying attention?
Those are questions three reasonably young men are asking now in much-awaited first novels that emerge over the next few weeks. Each novelist takes a very different position toward rendering literary life in a city where bohemian writers have been forced out by hedge-fund guys. And each co-edits a journal that is proud, almost defiant about its print status -- in a nation where the image has been replacing the word for at least half a century now, and even some well-funded publications are in free-fall.
Outside of a few college towns, perhaps, it’s hard now to embrace the cerebral unapologetically without a sense of irony, of operating a bit out of time. But that didn’t stop Keith Gessen and some Ivy League-educated friends from launching, in 2004, the ambitious and pugilistic journal n+1, which was greeted by some as a kind of knowing, intellectual stunt. “Oh, no,” Gessen, who has heavy brows and a wide Russian mouth, said one recent evening. “It wasn’t a joke.”
That first issue was dedicated mostly to outlining what it opposed. “We were against the New Republic, we were against McSweeney’s, we were against the war, we were against exercise,” Gessen continued, sitting in a dive bar on the Upper West Side, where he once lived in an illegal sublet before decamping for Brooklyn, like most of the city’s other literati. “And to this day we’re against many things.”
At this point he’s kidding, but he’s a serious guy: His journal is dedicated first and foremost, he said, to bringing “a fighting spirit” back to a conflict-averse literary culture.
The Moscow-born Gessen, 33, may be the end of the line, the last of the bold, hungry, text-based thinkers, a throwback to the heyday of Dissent, the quarterly at which he once toiled. His semi-autobiographical novel, “All the Sad Young Literary Men,” came out last week to mostly strong reviews. His journal, meanwhile, takes what might be called the hard-line position on intellectual life: We don’t need more creativity, it says, we need more rigorous argument and political commitment. With Nathaniel Rich, a Paris Review editor whose surreal novel, “The Mayor’s Tongue,” came out last week, and Ed Park, the Believer co-founder and author of the upcoming “Personal Days,” which takes the glamour entirely out of the world of literary journalism, Gessen shows the pleasures and perils of taking ideas seriously in a city attuned more to Dow Jones than Irving Howe.
Greenwich’s golden era
“It was like Paris in the twenties, with the difference that it was our city,” critic Anatole Broyard wrote in “Kafka Was the Rage,” his memoir of post-World War II Greenwich Village. “The Village was charming, shabby, intimate, accessible, almost like a street fair. We lived in the bars and on the benches of Washington Square. We shared the adventure of trying to be, starting to be, writers or painters.”
These were also the days when the brilliant young sons -- and much more rarely, daughters -- of immigrants from the shtetl rolled up their sleeves and developed a brand of criticism both modern and vital. It was a tonic to the genteel tradition that held sway in the academy.
As the title of Alfred Kazin’s 1995 recollection had it, “Writing Was Everything.” Literature and ideas were akin to religion.
But that was a long time ago. “I always kind of cringe when I hear people talk about literary things as if they’re separate from everyday life,” said Rich, who’s also interested in old movies and indie rock. “Some specialized, rarefied region of the mind or something.”
Park, Gessen and Rich -- who as editors and novelists serve as gatekeepers and creators simultaneously -- show how the idea of the New York Intellectual has fragmented.
Rich, who wears blazers and has a mop of dark hair and delicate features that make him seem almost elfin, has the smooth manner of someone born into a tradition and trying not to take unfair advantage. (He’s the Dalton-and-Yale-educated son of New York Times columnist Frank Rich.) He’s the intellectual as gentleman: Rich spent a full five years writing his novel before telling anyone but his closest friends.
“I didn’t want to be the guy at the party,” he said from an airy TriBeCa cafe near his office, “where everyone was saying, ‘When’s Nat’s novel coming out?’ ” He’d rather talk about his favorite obscure writers -- the cynical and obsessive but also compassionate Italo Svevo, the wildly comic Irishman Flann O’Brien -- or the hills of Italy, than discuss himself.
Park is the eldest of the three at 37 but also the one with the most contemporary sensibility: He’s a fan of postmodern authors and what he calls “the outer edge of realism,” especially slipstream -- fiction that blends literary ambition with genres like horror and fantasy. (He also writes a monthly science-fiction column, called Astral Weeks, for latimes.com.)
While many people live around the world and draw their paychecks from New York -- still the nation’s financial capital -- Park lives the reverse: His day job is with the Poetry Foundation in Chicago, which he visits several times a month. The Believer, which he co-edits, is based in San Francisco.
A literary celebrity in an old-school way, Gessen is well enough known in the New York media world -- he broke into the New York Review of Books while still in his 20s -- that his novel went through the entire cycle of hype and backlash before publication. The media blog Gawker has been rather unhealthily obsessed with him and his co-conspirator, novelist Benjamin Kunkel, describing Gessen as having “the soulful looks of a Greenwich Village bohemian and the oh-so-erotic arrogance of a Russian-Jewish intellectual.” The site chronicles his love life as though he were George Clooney, not a largely untested writer who spends most of his days hunched over a computer.
Inside the literary media swirl these days, the books can seem beside the point. Does literature retain any of that old prestige? Rich, for his part, takes a pragmatic approach.
“I think there are more people engaged with literature than there ever have been,” he said. “When people think about the golden age of the novel in the 19th century, literacy rates were absurdly low. There wasn’t electricity to read by: People weren’t just sitting around reading all day then either.”
Rich may be living a charmed life in a sense: Despite some post-college drift, he managed to intern at the New York Review of Books, live in San Francisco and write a book on the city’s noir cinema, all before his 25th birthday. His time at the Paris Review, which he joined in June 2005, has coincided with a renaissance of the quarterly under editor Philip Gourevitch, with circulation now at 16,000, exceeding its early ‘60s apogee. He’s come by his optimism honestly.
Is it becoming more difficult, with the incredible cost of living, to live the life of the mind? “I don’t really know what it means to live the life of the mind,” Rich said."It’s becoming a lot more difficult to live in Manhattan. The things that were great about New York are still here, they’re just in different places.”
Finding his own voice
For a sense of a spell that’s broken, talk to Ed Park, whose novel comes out at the end of May. With his rumpled-preppy dress and pointy glasses, Park, sitting at an eatery near his West 95th Street apartment, could be one of the geek-chic protagonists in Adrian Tomine’s “Optic Nerve” comic. Inspired more by the hip taste and fanboy ethos of the alternative press than the intellectually striving postwar “little magazine,” he worships Philip K. Dick instead of Philip Rahv.
In the years after he started at the Village Voice in 1995 -- first as a copy editor -- he thrived on the paper’s cerebral and politically progressive tone. But as he rose through the ranks over a decade, eventually heading the Voice Literary Supplement, things turned dour.
“Whatever romantic view I had of what I was doing,” he said of the period around ’05, “I started to see it was all driven by money and profit.”
“Personal Days,” much of which he wrote right before and after being fired by the paper’s new owners, New Times Media, in 2006, looks at the curdling of that young writer’s dream: We see the hyper-intellectual workplace of the Voice -- never identified as such -- with all its literary or political idealism burned off. With its gossip and minutiae, elevator flirtations, Orwellian e-mails and looming layoffs, it could be the Dunder-Mifflin paper mill of television’s “The Office” -- the Village as Scranton, Penn.
“I never say what they do,” he said of the office’s employees. “I wanted it to stay focused on the universal workplace environment and interactions. Everybody knows what an office is like.”
But Park also burns, in his gently obsessive and sometimes tongue-tied way, with a bit of Rich’s optimism. In 2003, as things were going from bad to worse at the Voice, he and some of the McSweeney’s crew started the Believer, an impassioned and sometimes precious magazine that, with its retro typefaces and eccentric illustrations, seemed to revel self-consciously in its identity as printed matter.
“It was an interesting year to launch a print magazine,” Park said. “It’s really something you can’t get on the Web. The beauty of each issue isn’t simply cosmetic -- a ‘cool design’; the attractiveness also has to do with a marriage of form and function.”
Under the radar
The old office for n+1 -- which, notwithstanding its detractors, has also been hailed as the most important new journal in decades -- sat in what Gessen called a “dank dungeon” in the no-man’s land between SoHo and the Lower East Side. Staffers would descend for entire days at a time to write, edit and think deep thoughts.
“In the time we were there,” Gessen recalled, “all these clubs opened up. We would sort of emerge from the office on a Friday night, and there would be velvet ropes . . . people in line, drinking.”
It was a startling way to end a day spent contemplating the Frankfurt School. But n+1’s soldiers were undaunted.
“With n+1, there was a time when people thought we were kidding: ‘This is just a way of drawing attention to themselves.’ But we weren’t kidding. About two years ago, when we were putting out Issue 5, people really started hating us a lot. Because it really became clear that we were not kidding.”
The journal, which has since moved, to Brooklyn, is often seen as a manifesto of elitist, male-centered high culture, living off the fumes from bound copies of Dissent. Gessen admits he and the gang were “perhaps too conscious” of their forebears.
But his war against mediocrity and for seriousness in writing and thought, he insists, does not require living in the past. “I think it’s very much a living culture,” he said over his Brooklyn ale. “There are a lot of people who really share these values, who were raised on this literature but who have talked themselves out of it.”
It’s what drove an attack on the website Gawker in the latest issue.
“These are people who were raised on print culture, everything they know they know from print culture, who now say, ‘Those values are dead. You and I,’ they say, ‘believe in them, but those people out there do not.’ And I’m telling you, they do! There are a lot of people who believe in this stuff, and they don’t think it’s a joke. They don’t think the only way literature can survive is as this whimsical plaything of the upper class, which is frankly what McSweeney’s is doing.”
He’s aware of the threats, the problems in publishing and elsewhere: Gessen doesn’t want insularity and chumminess to kill literature and ideas as they killed poetry, “where really nobody but poets read poetry.” The forces antagonistic to intellectualism, he insisted, usually come from inside.
“It’s a self-inflicting kind of thing: ‘Only we who are so privileged can indulge in this thing.’ ” He sees reasons for hope in Oprah Winfrey choosing Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” for her book club, in the people from India and Turkey who want to write for n+1.
“For people from that part of the world,” he said, “high culture is extremely democratic, it’s not elitist! It costs $2 to buy a paperback classic; they’re the cheapest things in the bookstore.”
This struggle to engage with the world of ideas animates “All the Sad Young Literary Men.” His model, he said, is Bellow, “who was able to make his intellectuals ridiculous at the same time” as he took their ideas seriously.
“This is where the humor of the book comes from, the collision of those ideas with the actual living world. ‘How do I become part of this world I’ve been reading about?’ It turns out that the process of wondering how you do it, is how you do it. . . . What I’ve witnessed happen is the people who stick to it, who believe in that, end up creating that culture -- either poorly or well. And the people who say, ‘That culture doesn’t exist anymore,’ go off and do other things.
“But those people have always existed!” he said, really getting rolling. “Read Balzac! There have always been people who went off and did other things!” --
Keith Gessen will appear at Vroman’s Books on April 28; Ed Park will appear at Book Soup on June 20; Nathaniel Rich appears at Skylight Books tonight.