Evan Hughes seemed affable enough standing on stage in front of a small crowd of Brooklynites and book enthusiasts. Notes crushed in his hand, he sped through the reasons why he had reached literary nirvana. His first book, Literary Brooklyn: The Writers of Brooklyn and the Story of American City Life, concerning the lush literary history of a once underdog borough has now landed him in the New York Times Book Review (twice) and a spot in the packed Brooklyn literary limelight occupied by the likes of transplants Jennifer Egan and Jonathan Safran Foer, as well as native son (and now California-detained) Jonathan Lethem.
Forgive the overuse of Brooklyn here, but this was the Brooklyn Book Festival, presented by Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz at Brooklyn Borough Hall next to Brooklyn Heights, mere footsteps from where Henry Miller briefly lived in an apartment he couldn’t afford and Norman Mailer masqueraded as a man-of-the-people in a million dollar nautical-themed brownstone.
Hughes lacked the sangfroid and bravado of a man in the midst of a press whirlwind. He seemed awkward, a tad nervous. No bark or bite. Where was the easy gait of someone who had, as they say, arrived? And why, as I sat in on several fairly quaint and tame discussions by literary stars like the aforementioned Foer and Egan, did I get the feeling that something had come and gone, or maybe never existed in the first place?
Enough has been written about the decline of novelists as pop cultural figures and celebrities. The public just doesn’t care about how much parmesan cheese Sam Lipsyte wants on his spaghetti, or whether Lipsyte even enjoys spaghetti in the first place. I’ve long hoped, as an aspiring literary superstar, that novelists would return to the pantheon of American culture so I could get trashed at bacchanalian book parties, write rambling essays like these to audiences hungry for my inane prophetic pronouncements, and waste people’s time by running for mayor of New York City. For novelists to return to the spotlight, they must do one thing. No, not write better. Just fight.
Like ubiquitous sideburns and Nehru jackets, the old-fashioned literary brawl needs to make a comeback. Multiple news outlets reported on the end of a long-standing feud between Paul Theroux and V.S. Naipual. The feud was promising enough; Theroux grew enraged when he found a copy of his book he had “lovingly inscribed” to Naipaul had been put on sale. Theroux then wrote the angry memoir Sir Vidia’s Shadow in retaliation, but ill will could only persist so long, and once that memoir became a paperback, its ability to produce concussions was lost.
Mailer head butted Gore Vidal, Vidal called William F. Buckley a crypto-Nazi on television, and William Styron allegedly badmouthed Mailer’s wife at a party, leading Mailer to write Styron an angry letter in which he said, “I will invite you to a fight in which I expect to stomp out of you a fat amount of your yellow and treacherous shit.”
A friend once told me, as I diffidently walked up to the plate during a softball game, to “play with arrogance.” Now is the time to heed the clarion call of that anonymous softball player. It’s good Jennifer Egan trashed chicklit as “very derivative, banal stuff.” And it’s encouraging that chicklit hegemons Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner led a Twitter campaign against big-important-novel hegemon Jonathan Franzen. But we need more than Twitter and snippy interview comments. We need a televised arena, something like Big Brother meets American Gladiators, where a lot of glasses (alcoholic and ocular alike) can be broken. America is the society of the spectacle, after all. What can be better for the revival of the author superstar than Jodi Picoult chasing Jonathan Franzen with one of those giant Q-tips, or genial Evan Hughes challenging Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz to fisticuffs for the supremacy of Brooklyn? If we replace tweets with kidney punches, we may be onto something.
Justin Bieber thankfully brought the term “swagger coach” into the American vernacular. Our writers need swagger coaches desperately. Once they get some, we can have potential books like Gary Shteyngart’s Eating Mammals, the story of how he physically and psychically obliterated Foer in his quest to create more endearingly neurotic 21st century Jewish characters, and then went to his house and broke his glasses. That’ll definitely get another writer on the cover of Time Magazine, right? Right?