SATURDAY RUMPUS ESSAY: The Tyranny of “Brooklyn”


Tomorrow is the Brooklyn Book Festival, which means everyone in Brooklyn will gather in auditoria and listen to writers speak. Because many of these writers will be from Brooklyn themselves. Because, as Colson Whitehead remarked, “Google ‘brooklyn writer’ and you’ll get, Did you mean: the future of literature as we know it?”

We might, at last, be hitting the exsanguination point on Brooklyn. Jim Behrle’s very funny instruction manual on “How to Write the Great American Novel” from a few months back went straight for the jugular. “1. MOVE OUT OF BROOKLYN.” Said Sheila Heti on her book tour, a few months back: “I think all of contemporary literature shouldn’t be about Brooklyn. That seems really bad.”

But not all contemporary books are about Brooklyn, not by any means, and it certainly isn’t the case that you have to write about the place you live in. And Brooklyn contains multitudes that are never discussed in the indie-lit Brooklyn narrative, which is a bit of an emperor’s move in itself, the imaginations of a few writers cancelling out those of thousands, even tens of thousands who live there. Nevermind that even within the confines of what I’ve come to think of as the Brooklyn We Talk About When We Talk About Brooklyn — “Writer Brooklyn” — there are gradations. Small press/big house, readings full/empty, poets/bloggers/essayists/novelists. All of these distinctions matter a great deal to the people who observe them.

Empires, the better intellectuals have taught us, are not places. They are ideas. To verify that you’ve only to test the minds of people who agree that Brooklyn is not the centre of the universe, that it is gentrified, that it is now more expensive than Manhattan. I live in allegedly-more-authentic Queens, a place o one mocks for gentrification, and increasingly one people don’t openly mock at all. and every once in awhile I try to convince some Brooklyn friend who is complaining about rent and the hipsters to move up here — admittedly out of self-interest pure as locally-sourced mineral water from the Gowanus — and it all goes okay until someone asks where the bookstore is. And then I have to say “Oh, there isn’t one.” That usually ends the conversation. To live in a neighbourhood without a bookstore is unthinkable, I suppose, though I’ve been able to do it, and keep writing to boot. And I usually don’t get to the part where I tell them there’s no Trader Joe’s, and the only place that draws the designs in the cappuccino foam is so many blocks away that I almost never go. This, to many people, is an irreplacable loss.

The easy name for that is pretension, bourgeois indifference. The truth is something else again.

This is the part where I admit that I am an economic refugee from Writer Brooklyn, and one with more than her fair share of bitterness at that. In another life I lived right near where the Book Festival is held. I rented a loft apartment in an old sailing factory and it had a dishwasher and a washer-dryer. The ceilings were very high, sloped to a 24-foot high point, exposed beams. There was a lot of room for thinking in such a place. I still dream about it, two years after I moved out. It was terribly expensive for Brooklyn at the time, but even then I had an intuition that I would never be able to afford to live in a loft again — it was already clear to me that being a lawyer, which is what I was, was Not Sustainable — so I took it on and wrote the money off to How I Live With Myself In This Profession Which Is Wrong Wrong Wrong. What I wanted most from it was to be the kind of person who lived in a loft, so I took the easiest and most direct route there. It made me Of Brooklyn by default. I thought: I can write here.

But mostly what I did there was thinking about what I wasn’t writing, and why, and whether I could change anything, even one little thing, about the life I was living. Most days I concluded that I could not.

Last week an official entity nonetheless declared me a Real Writer. It was more of a bureaucratic designation than anything else, but it ended a long period of stress. I’d been worrying for weeks and months and said I could stay in New York and work as one, and the touch of that fairy wand meant yes. I became a child whose clapping had just saved Tinkerbell. I could not control my happiness. So off I went to the social networks and said to all my friends, Oh my gosh! I don’t have to be a lawyer anymore!

This would have been a more elegant and self-abnegating thing to do if many of my friends were not still lawyers.

My inbox filled with missives from people who were doing all sorts of things, all of them more delicate and better-mannered than I, many of them comfortably and happily entrenched in lives of great privilege, to all outward appearances. They had houses and children and solvent bank accounts. And all of them wanted to know: how did I do it? Said one, who obviously hadn’t been in touch recently: “So, living the Brooklyn dream, huh?” And could I tell them how they could do it, too?

It’s easy to make fun of the rooftop-cured cheese and the artisanal window-grate grapes, the fair-trade Chardonnay and the books bound by hand by Etsy-ambitious, quasi-corporate overlords. It’s easy to mock all the wanting and the longing for something that that represents, and necessary too, because let’s be honest, I don’t put it past anyone that we won’t find a way to farm oysters from the Gowanus, pack them in a Moleskine-inspired gift box, and sell them to people too distracted to think about it.  The crassness of marketing is not limited to traditional capitalism; it can be there in the DIY economy too. And there are real, serious economic consequences to be discussed.

My point is simply that those factors aren’t all that’s there. People who work jobs, who do not call themselves Writers or Artists or Filmmakers, do not lack imaginations. If anything theirs are hungrier for lack of being fed. The food fetish is just a way of putting that in the world, the desperation to be something, anything else, and not a small amount of conviction that no other life is in the cards. Perhaps the anomie is grating, but it is also real.

I haven’t written back to anyone yet, because I was embarrassed at what now felt like an unkind brag, even if my self-aggrandizement was hardly reflected by net-worth. But I think that what I will say is this: the second I gave up on living in “Brooklyn” was the moment all of this began to work out. But that doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t, in time and with money, end up back there.

Michelle Dean has written for a variety of places, including The Awl, ELLE and Bitch. More from this author →