March 2, 2009

Keith Gessen’s New York: The Blog-Literary Complex

By: Julia Schwarz

Is the New York literary scene dying? Is it in the midst of gasping its last erudite breath? It certainly wouldn’t be ridiculous to think so; the disappearance of bookstores, the death of newspapers, shrinking book reviews, and the conglomeration of publishing houses all seem to lead to that conclusion. The Partisan Review is dead, along with Alfred Kazin, Lionel Trilling, and the Gotham Book Mart—it’s not ludicrous to think that the culture of New York literary intellectuals may be dead or dying too.

The most obvious bid to resuscitate the beast, so far, has been the literary journal n+1. Founded in 2003 by four 30-something Ivy Leaguers, n+1 described itself as “The Partisan Review, except not dead.” The invasion of Iraq in 2003 was ostensibly the catalyst for its formation; frustrated with the liberal response to the war, the founders—Keith Gessen, Mark Greif, Benjamin Kunkel, and Marco Roth—decided to create a new forum for writing about literature, culture, and politics. In a 2006 interview with the New York Inquirer, Gessen described it thus: “We think of ourselves as a research institute that has taken on the form of a literary magazine. The idea is: There are these problems in the contemporary world. What can we say about them, what can we know, what do they mean?”

In the journal’s first issue, published in 2004, the editors went out of their way to dismiss the work of both the old and the new. One particular target was Dave Eggers, the San Francisco-based writer and founder of the Believer and McSweeney’s. His devotees, the “Eggersards,” were labeled by n+1 as “a regressive avant-garde.” The n+1 editors also went after the old-guard cultural journals: Dissent andthe New Republic. “Even they must be tired of themselves,” the editors wrote of the New Republic.

There is often nothing better for publicity than burning bridges, and in the case of n+1 it certainly worked. A.O. Scott wrote about the journal and its editors in the New York Times Magazine in 2005,praising it as a collection of “pointed, closely argued and often brilliantly original critiques of contemporary life and letters.” Others were less impressed. The New Criterion in particular asked “Is your journal really necessary? It may be in the public interest to save ink for a worthier cause.” Gawker joined the chorus, facetiously labeling the journal “the most important literary magazine of our time.”

Of all these endorsements, Gawker’s snub proved the most portentous. The celebrity machine of the New York literati—a 24-hour gossip factory powered by the burning resentment of thousands of media underlings and aspirants—Gawker is the linchpin of the blog-literary complex. No one can make it any longer as a New York Intellectual until he has been suitably ridiculed by Gawker’s editors, had his personal life discussed in great detail, and perhaps even been Gawker Stalker-ed while ordering a latte at Gorilla Coffee. As far as gossip goes, it’s not particularly innovative, but what has changed is the weight it carries in “serious” literary circles. It’s one thing when Julia Allison, professional attention-craver, achieves notoriety through Gawker’s channels. But it’s quite another when Joshua Ferris, author of the critically-acclaimed And Then We Came to the End, tells a Gawker editor at his own book launch, “I saw the thing on Gawker today about Jonathan Safran Foer and Nicole Krauss, and I think they deserve every bit of snark you guys heap on them.” (Ferris later apologized, again through Gawker, calling himself a “shitheel.”) While literary attention seeking is certainly not unprecedented—Norman Mailer alone proves that—the preferred medium has never before been tabloid media.

Of all the n+1 editors, it is Keith Gessen who has played to the blog-literary complex most successfully. He has become something of a literary celebrity—he has been profiled in the New York Times, his parties are written about in New York magazine, and Gawker will keep you updated on his love life. This is odd because, until his book, All the Sad Young Literary Men, came out last spring, Gessen had published relatively little. Nevertheless, he has been branded as a spokesperson, both forn+1 and his generation. This is probably because he gives more interviews than his co-editors, and also because some of what he has published in n+1 has been highly personal. Like his former girlfriend, blogger Emily Gould, he has become well known in New York mostly by writing and talking about himself. (Unlike Gould, Gessen is not known as a blogger, but he recently started a blog, so this might change.) Unsurprisingly, Gessen’s new novel, which is largely autobiographical, has greatly helped accelerate his fame-by-self-exposure trajectory.

Indeed, Gessen appears to have written an autobiographical novel to the heretofore unimaginable third power. His novel tells the story of three young men: Keith, Mark, and Sam, and like their creator they are all well-educated, liberal, heterosexual, literary, ambitious, athletic, and Jewish. The book switches off between them in a series of short chapters, as they stumble through their 20’s and into their early 30’s, years that roughly coincide with the tenure of the Bush administration.

While his protagonists live in different cities when we first encounter them (New York, Baltimore, Boston) and write on different topics (Russian history, politics, Zionism), they sound so much alike that it’s possible to make it halfway through the novel and still be unable to remember which sad young literary man is which. Ultimately, though, keeping track of them isn’t necessary, because the similarities between them, and their creator, render them less than complete individuals. They are more of a type, serving as representatives of their particular social class: the post-postmodern urban literary youth.

Gessen, in various interviews, has acknowledged that describing this class—his own class—is precisely the point. He told a reporter at the New York Times, “These educated young people in New York, and other places too, are willing to acknowledge that they’re a class only ironically…Confronted with the idea that they might be an actual social class, which ought to be depicted in literature, suddenly they’re saying we’re not a social class.” The sameness of Gessen’s characters, and their similarity to himself, serves his purpose; he can fashion a portrait while still remaining a spokesperson.

The class that Gessen speaks for has three distinguishing features: anxiety, earnestness, and self-absorption. Mark, Keith, and Sam spend much of their time in their apartments and coffee shops, earnestly feeling anxious for themselves. They concede that they aren’t brilliant or rich—they aren’t even particularly charming or handsome—but they are nonetheless still worthy of fame, fortune, and love. This entitlement, buoyed only by a high Google ranking and above-average SAT scores, will seem quite familiar to anyone under 30.

A young man from Alabama, Alec Niedenthal, recently showcased this kind of entitlement when he wrote an overexcited letter to the New York Times announcing an impending literary revolution.Fomented by his compatriots, who have been “persisting on raw fish and Red Bull in the frozen caverns of the blogosphere,” the imminent revolution will, of course, set the loins of the New York literati aflame. A subsequent New York Observer profile revealed that Mr. Niedenthal was only 17; he hadn’t even started college, and had never published anything. This didn’t stop him from being absorbed into the New York blog-literary complex, though, or from meeting with representatives of several major publishing houses to discuss a possible book deal (an event brought to public attention, uncoincidentally, by a post on a New York University student’s blog). Gawker was the first on the scene to cover the story.

Youthful entitlement, while nothing new, is more saleable now than it has ever been before. Over the last 100 years, youth has increasingly become a commodity, rather than a quality, and this process has escalated rapidly in the Age of the Internet. Alec Niedenthal is certainly correct about one thing; the “frozen caverns of the blogosphere” are beginning to define American literary culture. More than just youth, it is inexperience that has succeeded in the Age of the Internet. The democratic nature of the medium has allowed vast numbers of people to publish online what they would never have been able to publish before, but there is a downside to this freedom—online commentary and criticism generally don’t require credibility. Increasingly, lacking qualification or experience is nothing, and—as successful bloggers like Emily Gould or Julia Allison demonstrate—self-promotion is everything. Youth has few disadvantages, and until recently, inexperience has been a major one, but where inexperience presents no obstacle, youth has become the ultimate possession. Gessen writes at the beginning of his novel, “To be poor in New York was humiliating, a little, but to be young—to be young was divine.” Youth is now divine, and our culture has come to worship it accordingly.

Where inexperience is ascendant, the role of age and accomplishment is uncertain. Can it be that age is only an infirmity, and accomplishment simply a delusion? Are these qualities, like the ideals of theNew Republic, “tired of themselves”? Mark Greif, one of Gessen’s co-editors at n+1, wrote an essay for the journal called “Afternoon of the Sex Children,” where he writes, “Let the future know, at least, that we were fools…Know that what we wish to be nourished upon is age and accomplishment, not emptiness and newness.” The ascendancy of youth is pernicious to culture, Greif argues, but unfortunately he fails to assign any responsibility for reversing the ascent. The reader is left to assume that only some vast and apocryphal sea change in learning and culture will allow age and accomplishment to be rehabilitated.

Likewise, in Gessen’s novel, age and accomplishment have no place—older role models are, more than once, exposed as laughable frauds. And Gessen’s novel ends, quite dramatically, with a rallying-cry for the proliferation of babies: “And there were enough of us, I thought, if we just stuck together. We would take back the White House, and the statehouses and city halls and town councils. We’d keep the Congress. And in order to ensure a permanent left majority…we’d have many left-wing babies.” When one is no longer young, one must simply procreate. Babies, the very youngest humans you can find, are what Gessen points to as a solution; youth remains the antidote.

Babies cannot ensure a permanent Left majority, however, and youth, like age, is not the answer to all questions. This doesn’t seem to be true in the world that Gessen creates, though, and perhaps because of this, that world lacks complexity. Regardless of Gessen’s intimate connection to his characters, the novel is mostly a superficial portrait; a kind of extended experiment in what Gould, when describing her blogging experience, called “oversharing.” Like sarcasm and snarkiness, which are also prevalent in the Age of the Internet, oversharing helps to deflect readers’ attention from any actual intellectual substance, or lack thereof. Websites like Jezebel and Gawker don’t need to provide readers with much news or substance to remain popular–snark and drama are enough. Likewise, by entertaining the reader with some humor and thinly veiled tidbits from his personal life, Gessen attempts to deflect from the selfishness of his characters and the superficiality of his novel. This tactic reflects a greater trend, and the unabashed biases and personal divulgences regularly found on blogs across the Internet will most likely continue to crop up more and more in “serious” literature. The literary-blog complex will also ensure that autobiographical novels, and (faux or not) memoirs continue to represent a dominant output in American literature.

Gessen’s novel is surely a product of this trend, but it is also a product of the New York literary scene, which has, admittedly, been prone to selfishness since the heyday of the Partisan Review. Then as now, authors and critics often became well known in New York by writing and talking about themselves. In 1942, Mary McCarthy, a prominent New York Intellectual, published her first novel,The Company She Keeps. It was a largely autobiographical portrait of the New York literary scene, and a review in the New York Times concluded, “That it is clever, witty, polished, no one could deny, and yet there lurks somewhere in it a fundamental immaturity… One cannot escape the impression that Mary McCarthy is too close to her heroine.” The Partisan Review crowd may have been guilty of writing self-absorbed fiction, and even living absurdly melodramatic lives, but this rebuke still seems to have resonated with them, and they kept their bedroom musings out of The Origins of Totalitarianismand The Liberal Imagination. Will Keith Gessen be the 21st century’s Lionel Trilling?

It is very difficult, after all, to create a mature intellectual culture when youth and inexperience are so en vogue. The Age of the Internet has capitalized on immaturity and the shrillness of the literati media, and while these trends are probably not the sole cause of the decline of the New York literary scene, they certainly play a role. The intellectual scene that accompanied the Partisan Review was the product of a world forged in the Great Depression and World War II, struggling to navigate the Cold War, and tasked with coming to terms with these unprecedented upheavals. There was no place for divine youth, or ironic poverty. And while Gessen and n+1 may wish otherwise, there is no evidence that the crises of the present are any less serious.

Julia Schwarz is a writer living in New York. Katherine Eastland is an assistant editor at the Weekly Standard and a freelance illustrator.

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