In Person

Brooklyn Book Festival Dispatch

By posted at 5:34 am on September 18, 2006 0

An old friend sent in this report from the inaugural Brooklyn Book Festival

Leaving to the New York Times, for the moment, the question of whether Brooklyn circa 2006 can fairly be compared to Paris circa 1930, it would have been apparent to anyone attending Saturday’s 1st Annual Brooklyn Book Festival that the borough has become at the very least a vital center in the republic of letters – a worthy rival to its sister across the river.

After a week of rain, the weather was perfect. For our delectation, Borough President Marty Markowitz – almost single-handedly, if the font size on the flyer was any indication – had filled Borough Hall plaza in downtown Brooklyn with five reading stages and over sixty vendor tents from bookstores, literary nonprofits, and small presses. We’re all accustomed, of course, to our beloved BP’s inimitable brand of self-promotion… and this was not the only echt-Brooklyn aspect of the festival. Both the crowd and the participants were almost as laudably diverse as the borough, and that wonderful Brooklyn admixture of charm, originality, and public-mindedness tempered by self-satisfaction were palpable all around.

The indoor readings and panels, featuring the likes of Jhumpa Lahiri and Jonathan Lethem, were so packed that I couldn’t get in – —which is good, I think. The Book Festival, if it is to take off as a viable successor to New York is Book Country, needs to generate this kind of excitement. For me, though (slathering, slobbering, fetishizing book-hound that I am), the vendor’s booths were where the action was. Literary magazines were well-represented. Out-of-towners like Jubilat and Gulf Coast mingled with New York’s own one-story and Open City. A Public Space proved particularly popular – the scintillating first issue of this Paris Review offshoot is now sold-out, and issue two was flying off the tables. I like that A Public Space is trying to bridge the divide between the traditional literary magazine – which these days appeals to a small, self-selecting audience – and that endangered species, the general interest magazine.

Small presses, meanwhile, were showcasing their fall catalogues. Seven Stories, Soft Skull, and Akashic are bringing out a number of titles with mainstream appeal, and it’s hard to compete with Joe Wenderoth’s Letters To Wendy’s (Verse Press). But for my money the most interesting house in Brooklyn is Archipelago. These guys, like Dalkey and NYRB are putting out translations of serious works of fiction from around the world, in beautiful editions. Elias Khoury’s magisterial Gates of the Sun, a surprise success, has introduced readers across the country to Palestinian literature; this fall’s offerings include works in Russian and Korean.

coverAnd what would a Brooklyn Book Festival be without the McSweeney’s table? Many of the authors represented in the festival – Jonathan Ames, Jonathan Lethem, Rick Moody, Colson Whitehead, Jennifer Egan – are less than a degree of separation away from Dave Eggers’ merry band, aesthetically and/or professionally. Members of said band had flown in from San Francisco for the event, and were chatting with visitors about upcoming projects. Writers and readers have sometimes seemed divided on the question of a McSweeney’s style – that kind of playful, knowing, “in-joke” humor and deep interest in childhood and adolescence. And we on the web love a backlash, don’t we. But it is indisputable that McSweeney’s has contributed greatly to the literary renaissance underway here. The 826 NYC learning center is a noble effort to extend the bounty of the literary boom to kids often ill-served by rapid gentrification. And the publishing operation is growing. Eggers’ novel about Sudanese war refugees – due out in October, I think – sounds like a work of great reach and ambition. But if you’re into that sort of thing, there’s no need to wait – McSweeney’s has also just put out Chris Adrian’s monumental (600+ pages) novel, The Children’s Hospital. This book strikes me as a bid to compete seriously with the big literary houses, albeit under a different financial model. At the book fair, the editors seemed to be waiting to see whether a book with a modest promotional budget and independent distribution can succeed in the way White Teeth and Motherless Brooklyn and Middlesex have. But if it is a just world, they don’t need to worry. I started reading the book last week, and am pleased to report that it’s everything I look for in a novel – richly imagined, wonderfully written, ample in scope, formally daring. In a word, serious. On the log-line alone – The Stand meets Cuckoo’s Nest meets the Book of Revelations – it should take off.

Or anyway, I’m hoping. Because if there’s a flaw in the Brooklyn literary model, as opposed to the Parisian one, it may be that we’re too damn comfortable here. Walking around on a gorgeous fall day, eating a burrito, reading about Wendy’s, seeing kids listen to Dr. Seuss, it was hard to want anything more. And this, too, is so very Brooklyn (nouveau Brooklyn, that is), this feeling of, we’ve got it so good here, this is so great. Look at us, us smart and engaged and right-minded people! Look at how many wonderful writers live and work among us! It can be hard to stay hungry. But hunger, yearning, desire, insane and ravenous need, are the fuel for great and life-changing books. And with luck, the thing that’s happening here, in Brooklyn, will produce (or continue to produce) those books. God knows we need them.

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