Monday, December 17, 2012

A Critic’s Tour of Literary Manhattan

Piotr Redlinski for The New York Times
Clockwise from left: KGB Bar, the Strand, Nuyorican Poets Cafe, Library Hotel, NoMad Hotel, Algonquin hotel, Café Loup. More Photos »

A FEW years ago, the novelist Gary Shteyngart, whose books are very funny and very sad, gave an interview to a magazine called Modern Drunkard. (Yes, this magazine actually exists.) It’s the funniest and saddest interview I’ve ever read.

In it, Mr. Shteyngart lamented what’s happened to bookish night life in New York City over the past decade. “There are so few people to drink with,” he said. “The literary community is not backing me up here. I’m all alone.” Mr. Shteyngart, who was born in Russia, added: “It’s pathetic when I think about my ancestors. Give them a bottle of shampoo and they have a party.”

Is Manhattan’s literary night life, along with its literary infrastructure (certain bars, hotels, restaurants and bookstores) fading away? Not long ago I installed myself at the Algonquin, the Midtown hotel where Dorothy Parker, Alexander Woollcott and others once traded juniper-infused barbs, and used it as a launching pad to crisscross the island for a few days, looking to see what’s left. I made several more nighttime crawls after that. At the very least, I thought, I could inhale the essence of some cranky and word-drunk old ghosts.
Before I started, I reached out to a handful of convivial writers and editors. I wanted their thoughts about why literary Manhattan doesn’t seem to have the wattage it once did. Their diagnoses were several. Lorin Stein, the editor of the Paris Review, replied that the smoking ban “was the death knell for a certain kind of protracted hanging out that was once central to literary life in the city.”

Daniel Halpern, the publisher of Ecco Press, suggested that the Internet has obviated young writers’ need for companionship, gossip and consolation. He added: “The passion my generation felt about poetry and fiction has gone into food, I think, into making pickles or chocolate or beer.” Mark Greif, a founder of the literary magazine n + 1, told me that coffeehouses are where writers loiter now, not bars. The writer Sloane Crosley observed that literary night life is almost impossible to observe in real time. “New Yorkers have a delightfully narcissistic habit of assuming,” she said, “that if they’re not conscious of a scene, it doesn’t exist.” 

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