Sunday, September 10, 2006

"Sara Gran's Opinion About Writers' Hopes and Brooklyn Settings" & "On the Dangers of Literary Provincialism"

I was impressed with Sara Gran’s writing in her article entitled ”Call It Brooklyn” in today’s Times' “The City” section, but I cannot say that I was convinced by her argument.

Although Gran's tone is not entirely polemical--she is mostly just expressing her concerns as a native Brooklynite--I am currently embarking on a serious study in formal logic, so I took the liberty of dissecting Gran's article as if it were a formal argument. Below is a portrait of what Gran's thoughts look like under close scrutiny.


Gran concludes that Brooklyn is the worst place on earth for a writer.


1. Brooklyn is populated--perhaps glutted--by writers deemed highly successful, who have achieved National Book Critics Circle Awards and National Book Awards, which leaves a young writer in the realm of pipe dreamer if she thinks she can measure up or even if she thinks, by moving to Brooklyn, she can rub noses with these literary untouchables.

2. A young writer, fresh out of an M.F.A. program, who is headed to Brooklyn is full of too much optimisim, perhaps misguided by rumors started by The Believer that "Brooklyn is some kind of heaven on earth for writers." Dealing with Brooklyn's level of compeition from esteemed writers is no walk in the park. A young writer faces certian disenchantment.


1. The publishing industry and book award circles have little or no enthusiasm for fresh Brooklyn-related topics or settings portrayed by unknown writers.

2. The M.F.A. graduate is not headed to Brooklyn for any other reasons than his literary ambitions.

3. A particular geographical location's surplus of esteemed writers produces ennui and humiliation that could have a negative influence on a young writer's craft.


Sara Gran is an experienced writer who knows a thing or two about the difficulty of getting published and selling books. She uses her expansive knowledge of Brooklyn's literary history as evidence that emerging writers might want to reconsider Brooklyn as a setting that is way overcooked. At first, her discussion seems to be heading in the direction of urging writers to avoid Brooklyn as a setting and a topic because every stone in the borough has been overturned. She positions herself as an experienced writer giving advice to the less experienced, as if to warn that publishing industry trends may not be heading in the direction of embracing yet another beast who calls himself a Brooklyn writer.


But then Gran does not provide any concrete example of how geographical location that has been overpopulated by writers has any direct correlation to the demise of a writer. Even the example she provides serves to undermine her point. Gran urges aspiring Brooklynites to rent the movie "The Squid and the Whale" in which a character, based on Jonathan Baumbach, ends up ignored by ciritcs, divorced, and living on "the other side of Prospect Park." Gran goes on to explain that this supposedly failed writer, after all the humiliation, still felt he was smarter than eveyone else. In other words--though he has an inflated ego--he still clings to his sense of dignity: at least he can hold his own, and might be wise to feel accomplished that he has written at all.

Flaws in Reasoning:

The tone of Gran's article suggests that writers with big names and book sales can enjoy a kind of literary dominion over this particular geographical location: Brooklyn, New York--as if these literary giants are imperialist wordsmiths whose writings have erected walls and marked borders, and as if literary accomplishment somehow embelishes writers with sovereingty over neighborhoods, thereby leaving them "off-limits" to others.

Gran writes, "Brooklyn is mine, and I am not inclined to share it." And poses as the native defender of territory. Careful.. Isn't this similar to sentiments triggering current hostilities and strife in war-torn regions of today's world?

What is also disturbing about Gran's attitude is the degree to which it assumes that when a geogrphical setting meets with literary rendering, the setting is somehow confined to the three dimensions of physical, geographical location--a street corner, a city block, or an avenue. But do such confines really exist in the literary, creative mind?

Though I appreciate her work, Gran's article encourages me to write this critique precisely because I feel that it reveals bad habits that some writers could fall into: sometimes, in an effort to express an opinion, writers favor sass, tone, and attitude over the importance of logical reasoning. I know; I have been trying to work my way out of this trap.

To what extent should a strong fiction writer be skilled at formulating convincing arguments? To the extent that she wishes to earn the trust and confidence of her readers, a writer should focus less on self-motivated, insular, and ego-driven, provicial material, attitude, and posturing. A writer is not someone who is called upon to exploit the “cool” and "hip" features of a legendary setting for purposes of impressing a publishing industry or an established litrerary cirlce. A sincere writer will be able to seek out the singular qualities of a subject or setting and will be able to arrange all the telling details in ways that allow a reader to gain insight into a time, a place, and a particular writer's mind. But, even more, a writer provides a great story. An Alice Munro story written with a Vancouver setting or a New York setting would still be an Alice Munro story. So a writer who has got any sand should be able to write a good story no matter what the setting, without concern about who has written in that setting before.

I refuse to buy into the cynicism that many writers, published or unpublished, express about the glutted publishing industry. I have three words for people who try to tell me it's hopeless: I don’t care.

I write for writing’s sake. I hope to please a reader. Of course, acclaim is welcome but not necessary.

Paul Auster’s Brooklyn is not Sara Gran’s Brooklyn. Jonathem Letham does not have imperial reign over the topic of the St. Vincent’s Home for Boys. They're merely parts of the tradition. Ms. Gran, if you wish to write about something someone else has already written about, go right ahead. Sure, it is difficult to be the living part of a tradition, but it is possible to engage in a dialogue with other living writers through fiction. And it can be an awfully rewarding mind exercise. If the publishing industry and high brow circles aren't eating it up, screw them! In your writing efforts--failures or successes--you have grown and improved your craft.

Brooklyn is only one borough that is connected to a larger city that is still connected to an entire country and the world. My point is that there is never an exhaustion of interesting topics to explore, think about, and write about while one inhabits a Brooklyn home. And by despairing over the overcooked quality of a certain scene, we are perhaps not paying due respect to our predecessors: Harrison, Auster, Lethem, Styron, Miller, etc. have planted seeds, lit torches, helped successors receive an illuminated and eloquent perspecitve of history, and have given us the gift of getting to know their minds through their well-crafted prose. We continue from where they leave off because our writing minds extend way beyond the confines of geography, one street corner or a block, or a certain neighborhood turns over and inspires generations of minds.

I’m wondering if Sara Gran is willing to allow "outsiders" to embrace Brooklyn for what it is: though there might very well be lots of competition, talent, publishing industry muscle, and intimidation concentrated there, Brooklyn teems with all shades of lives, every one of them embodying an epic narrative. Brooklyn is more than its physical location. Brooklyn is its people, its moment-to-moment transformations that are profound in their shiftiness and provocation.

Gran referenced Paul Auster’s movie “Smoke.” Remember the scene in which Auggie Wren is showing his photography to Paul Benjamin? Wren took a photograph of the same corner of Brooklyn at the same time every day, filled entire volumes with that same shot. Paul Benjamin is baffled at first. Why? Auggie Wren explains that it's never the same corner twice. Never. That is a beautiful way to invite and celebrate artistic variability. The spirit of Auster's work does not tell other writers to stay out.

I have lived in Chicago for the past year. Not one day has passed when I did not feel to urge to take photos like Auggie did, only I would want to take them of the corner of Broadway and Melrose street in Chicago (if I were a photographer). I would get a similarly amazing and varied results. The scene would be different, but the idea is similar. And the exercise could only be regarded as tired and boring in the eyes of the beholder. A character like Paul Benjamin was able to see that Auggie's project amounted to one man's celebration of a city's day-to-day motion, a living representation of our collective unconscious.

So what if Brooklyn is an intimidating literary Mecca these days? What puny writer or reader wouldn't want to get lost in those overflowing shelves of "local authors?" Personally, that is my fantasy; to be thoroughly surrounded, anonymous yet animated, and compelled to contribute to the pile, a prospect that seems both exhausting and elating. Call that pile slush, if you will; I see a hub full of intellectual good fortune. So what if I haven't time to read it all or my own work goes unread? It's been pure joy and privilege to read and write.

I live in Chicago now, but my husband and I will be moving back to New York City after being away from it for one year. We've lived on the lower East Side, the Upper West side, and Hell's Kitchen. 2003-2004, I did a reverse commute to Brooklyn Heights to teach English composition at a local vocational school before I experienced teacher burn-out and just decided to write full time. Now we live in Chicago's Boystown, another vibrant neighborhood.

But our time here is coming to an end, and now we are discussing moving to Brooklyn. So Gran's article was particularly timely for me, and to read that she is unwilling to share Brooklyn just might have broken my heart--if she had provided stronger reasons for why I shouldn't move there. I may move there yet, and if I do, I will continue to write and take up my station as a no-name, struggling writer, equipped with a healthy sense of dignity and a reined-in ego (I don't even have an M.F.A.).

I wish writers, though they face a monolith when dealing with the publishing industry, would stick together and stay strong about the edifying and gratifying aspects of the creative process. We who do not work in the publishing industry, need not worry as much about its glut. We respect agents, editors, and publishers for the tough work they do. We have our work cut out for us.

Perhaps one could argue that I am too optimistic, but not so: I am a free-thinking individual who refuses to embrace the cynicism of our times. And if I find there is too much cynicism among all writers and residents of Brooklyn, well, where does one go from there? Yoknapatawpha County? Will my husband find legal work in Yoknapatawpha County? Do they have good law schools there as I am considering that profession myself?

At last, I hope that writers will trade inflated egos for a sense of humilty-with-backbone; we, too, can stand up, shake our tiny fists, and say "Shame on you!" to a publishing industry that convinces many good writers, like Sara Gran, that they are somehow a day late and a dollar short. It's unnfortunate Sara Gran feels short changed in her own hometown just because her name and book sales are not as beefy as those of the next Brooklyn bloke. I stand firm that all hope is not lost because I am a gypsy soul who thoroughly believes that Brooklyn does not belong to Paul Auster any more than Chicago belongs to Saul Below, rest his soul. Young, rejected writers out there! You know who you are. Chin up! The world is your oyster!

Cynics. Kiss off!

1 comment:

Lee said...

You and I seem to be in the minority. I found the essay embarrassing.