I’ve always wanted to live in New York at some point, even before I wanted to be a writer. Writing came early on for me; it slipped into my childhood activities quietly and easily. I started a parody newspaper called The Notte News about a fictional town called Notte and its citizens’ successes and failures in local politics, sports and beauty pageants. Under the pseudonym of Karen Bolevsky — the newspaper’s eccentric editor — I provided tidbits on Notte’s insular, small-town happenings and cultural ephemera. I don’t know where the concept of Notte came from, or why I had to write as Karen Bolevsky. I just know that all of a sudden I was inventing stuff and it was fun.
At 18, I found that I still enjoyed and pursued writing; I majored in English in college and took as many creative writing courses as my schedule would allow. Having stuck with the English major, I’ve grown used to pessimistic, often disheartening commentary on the “doomed” state of print today, as well as the publishing, editing and writing fields. Since graduating, I’ve received dire warnings about moving forward with said doomed career paths, and have been the recipient of much unsolicited career advice and many well wishes in my endeavors.
Such solemn well wishing, sincere as it may be, has at times put somewhat of a damper on the prospect of writing. This is not to say that my desire to write has lessened; it’s just that it all seems a bit harder to realize — like pushing aside an extremely heavy curtain in order to enter the murky, gray chamber of my possible career.
To my pleasant surprise, coming to New York has changed that. I’ve observed a certain energy in the New York literary scene. Though it’s possible this energy could be the city itself rubbing off on everything, everywhere, all the time, I believe that it makes New York as good a place to write as ever. Did you know there are individual poet laureates for every borough?
I currently intern at a Brooklyn-based arts and literary magazine that’s been around for years, where I enjoy being exposed to the inner workings of a successful, vibrant magazine. Since moving here, though, I’ve always kept an eye out for entry-level jobs in publishing or editing to go alongside my internship. As a recent college graduate with little experience, however, finding this kind of job proved difficult, and I ended up taking a position as a barista in one of Brooklyn’s many cafes, sporting a hat and making cappuccinos for Maggie Gyllenhaal.
Those days at the coffee shop have made my time in the literary world feel even more worthwhile. I’ve enjoyed events like the Brooklyn Book Festival and the massive NY Art Book Fair, both of which have served as bright windows into a scene that appears to be alive and thriving. The Book Festival, New York’s largest free literary event, took place at Brooklyn’s Borough Hall Plaza, on the first genuinely beautiful day of the season. With three days of readings, panel discussions and writers’ talks, the festival was bustling, and there were no heavy curtains to be seen. The NY Art Book Fair was peppered with small, independent presses (Ugly Duckling Presse, The Center for Book Arts) displaying gorgeous, letter-pressed books, as well as larger presses and a whole host of venerable magazines.
Everything, of course, is relative. If one lives and writes in a time of economic turmoil and joblessness, a “thriving” literary scene will naturally be different than it was 10 years ago. The nature of reading has changed; many publishing presses are hanging onto the edge of their existence. Some magazines have struggled from financial strain and lack of readership, some have gone online, and some have gone out of print completely. While I can’t deny certain harsh realities of our age, however, they’re not the only realities to be had.
This past week, after attempting to contact various New York publications for an interview, I spoke with Isaac Fitzgerald, managing editor of the immensely popular, ever-growing online magazine The Rumpus, about online publications as forums for writers and readers everywhere. Founded by the writer Stephen Elliott and based in San Francisco, the site focuses primarily on culture, although it has a thriving book club and even a poetry book club (100 members so far), all conducted through the website.
“The book club is going really well,” commented Fitzgerald. “We’re getting readers who feel like they’re a part of a conversation that they couldn’t necessarily be a part of before. Online magazines provide a chance for so many more people to get into this world [publishing], and I think that’s fantastic.”
I asked Fitzgerald about The Rumpus’ relationship with New York, and if he thought having the magazine’s headquarters in San Francisco grounded them there. He responded that in fact, a large percentage of their viewers are in New York, but that they’re constantly making efforts to expand their readership all over. All the same, I couldn’t help wondering about the magazine’s California connection. If location is for the most part irrelevant when it comes to online publications, why San Francisco?
On living, working and writing on the West Coast, Fitzgerald said, “There’s an openness in San Francisco that lends itself to this kind of publishing,” as opposed to New York, which is the home base of so many major publishing houses and literary magazines. However, Fitzgerald was still wildly enthusiastic about New York as a city, and expressed his personal love for the place. He lauded McSweeney’s and Melville House as examples of publishing houses that continue to produce beautiful and delightfully innovative books.
This conflicted vision of New York was realistic to my experience — despite the energy surrounding this city’s literary scene, I found it extremely difficult getting in touch with all of the publications I contacted for this article, and I think that New York could do with a little of the general “openness” Fitzgerald spoke of.
Fitzgerald had no lack of eloquent things to say about the current state of writing and literature. He fittingly described The Rumpus as “a big backyard picnic,” as opposed to a ticketed wine soirée: “We’re drinking beer at this picnic. And maybe it’s mediocre beer, but there’s a lot more room at the table now.”
Fitzgerald also described himself as a kind of “glorified bookseller,” and talked at length about the website’s communal atmosphere. As the managing editor, he helps with everything from publishing and blog writing to hosting events and packing books. “We all pitch in wherever we can because of a mutual understanding that what we’re doing is important. Nobody’s ever going to stop writing, just like people aren’t going to stop making music. That drive will never go away,” he said.
To me, this was an important sentiment. The desire to invent can’t just disappear and it won’t — no matter what city you live in, there’s just too much to write about. It made me think of something the poet Harvey Shapiro said in an interview I stumbled across recently: “Any poet in New York has to write found poetry because there’s so much of it around on the street.”
It’s the “has to” of this statement that interests me, the ever-present sense of obligation that seems to come hand in hand with writing. Print may be endangered, but ultimately, writing is not. Perhaps this is true most of all in New York, where energy is infectious and there’s always something new to uncover, though writers have pecked away at the city since its beginnings.
Inspirational, multi-faceted cities aside, however, sometimes one simply gets the urge to write, and often there’s no telling where such an urge could have come from. This past winter, after a stagnant period of about 12 years, I came out with another edition of The Notte News. I rolled up each “issue” in plastic newspaper sleeves from the recycle bin and stuffed them into family members’ Christmas stockings, along with the usual chocolate oranges.
Looking back on it, I’m sure that last issue wasn’t nearly as good as the ones I wrote in the fourth grade. Perhaps my writing style has become too self-conscious. Maybe I’ve outgrown the voice of Karen Bolevsky. Whatever the reason, I like knowing that I can always sit down and try again, or even invent someone else entirely, should I ever have the desire. Even better knowing that I can try this in New York — a place I’ve always wanted to experience, where anything goes and the very idea of self-consciousness is a little bit silly.
New York, it seems, is not an easy place to be a writer, but that doesn’t make it a bad place to be one. It’ll probably be some time before I find a “real job,” and it may take some pushing and shoving to make my way to the table, but I look forward to sitting down and enjoying it once I’m there.