Leaving the Bedside: Creating a DIY Literary Scene

By posted at 7:50 pm on June 15, 2008 1

Bryan Miltenberg is 22 and he lives in Brooklyn.

On occasional Friday and Saturday nights, my otherwise highly domestic living space (couches, TV, dining room table) is transformed, with the help of roommates and friends, into an impromptu artspace/music hall. For anywhere between five and zero dollars, anyone can come in and enjoy the show. And as with any regular apartment gathering, there are no age restrictions, and attendees are free to bring their own preferred methods of bacchanalia.

Although I enjoy this concept immensely, I don’t point to it as a form of self-congratulation. In fact, it happens fairly rarely, and the work that goes into it is probably one-tenth of that which goes into running other similar but much more active alternative art spaces in Brooklyn, such as the Silent Barn, Market Hotel, Death by Audio, and Dead Herring. Rather, I bring this up as a way to highlight the way that these independently operated spaces have not only energized the Brooklyn/greater New York City music scene, but entirely shifted the paradigm in terms of the way we as concertgoers think of shows. The recent resurgence of the loft/apartment showspace has allowed artists and musicians to end their long-standing reliance on bars, bar owners, booking agents, sound men, and expensive covers and drinks – all of which make life inexorably tougher on forward-thinking/avant-garde performers who may have less commercial appeal. At the same time, it has allowed audiences to get much closer to the source – and transformed a struggling enterprise into an organic community.

And now, without further preambling, the point I am coming to in all of this – I believe that it is possible to create an equally thriving literary scene by applying these same methods and practices.

The present mode for the performance/exhibition of new literature is not only severely outdated but utterly unexciting. On top of that, it tends toward ageism and exclusivity.

In the “Intellectual Situation” section of Issue 2, the editors of n+1 trotted out the phrase “A reading is like a bedside visit.” And surely, this resonates with many who have been to any number of awkward or flat out boring readings. But I disagree wholeheartedly with n+1’s claim that it is the concept of the reading itself that is fundamentally flawed or inherently unnecessary.

It’s not that. It’s that we’re doing it wrong.

Given the prevailing literary current of the day, we should be able to look towards MFA and undergraduate creative writing programs for a sense of an active and exciting literary community. But unfortunately this does not seem to be the case. I’m not an MFA student myself, but from everything that I have observed, the sense of competition in such programs and the thrust towards publishable works are antithetical to the livelihood of a mutually inspired community of writers. Yes, there are events that take place within these programs, but they take place at bars and in classrooms and are mostly university-sanctioned. I have seen them, and they do not excite.

Outside of MFA programs, most young writers are islands. I grant that the process of writing itself is solitary, but I can’t accept that a disjointed literary community is the necessary result of that process. We can do more. Yes, there are a number of great independent bookstores which host readings – and very commendably, too. And there are non-MFA reading series which are very positive forces.

But make the trip to Silent Barn or Dead Herring on a Friday show night – watch the bands (whose drummers are usually set up in what would normally serve as an apartment kitchen); see the excitement on the faces of a hundred packed-in kids, all there on account of word of mouth or the internet, taking in this art directly, free of any distorting medium. Watch this, and tell me why this type of excitement can’t be generated about new literature – tell me why we need to be MFA-approved, literary agent-approved, publishing house-approved, book review-approved before we can get excited about what we are writing.

Let us open up our doors for writers the way that so many, not only in Brooklyn but across the country, have done for musicians (check out for an idea). The internet and its social networking sites have made the promotion of independent arts events not only extremely easy but extremely cheap (if not altogether free). If we as readers become the curators of our own literary events, we take the power out of the hands of publicists and publishers with bookselling agendas, and create a more organic experience. Furthermore, by hosting readings and performances outside of bars, we open doors to the under-21 crowd, which has a great literary energy but little access to events outside of the undergrad sphere. And the beauty of the reading as opposed to the concert is that noise (which is the main reason alternative-space shows get shut down) is a non-issue.

I envision a network of home reading/performance spaces at which local zines can set up tables to sell or distribute. Even more ideally, local zines could curate performances of authors as launches for current issues, providing a much-needed physical presence to online-only publications (n+1’s opinion “There ought to be nothing more irrelevant than an author’s face” be damned).

In a recent interview, Millions contributor Garth Risk Hallberg responded to a question about the ideal literary venue with “My ideal place to read would be a packed church basement, like the kind Dischord bands used to play in in D.C. Packed, sweaty, teeny, revolutionary but wholesome and devoid of unearned ‘tude.” Why is this not a possibility? If I can get my favorite Brooklyn band to play in my living room, why can’t you get your favorite local author to read in yours?

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One Response to “Leaving the Bedside: Creating a DIY Literary Scene”

  1. Steve
    at 12:03 pm on June 18, 2008

    I think Bryan's on point here. Why shouldn't there be a literary scene as wild and unapologetic as the music scene in brooklyn and beyond?

    I think it's going to take a few visionaries to bring this to fruition. And I think they're out there.

    Right on, Bryan.

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