There’s a story about New York that I want to tell everyone who asks me what I think about the city, but can’t, because it’s kind of hard to explain. It took place two years ago, when I was trying to be a literary journalist at Flavorwire. I “already was,” but because the editorial director had changed hands with the co-founder of Buzzfeed, and the editor in chief of the New York Observer. I had to reprove myself in her eyes since she did not bother to read my previous articles.
She called me in for a meeting about the interviews I was going to do. She asked me who I wanted to interview, and I listed a few authors, including Rachel Kushner, who’d just released a book a few weeks ago. She said a lot of the writers I picked were “expected,” and heavily promoted, though not necessarily good, something she’d just said over lunch with her agent Amanda Urban. The name Amanda Urban was intended to shut me up, and I did. Over lunch, Amanda Urban was telling her that she’d just gone down to Iowa, but was unimpressed by any of the writers there because they all want to subvert the tradition without knowing what the tradition is. “That’s because they’re all trying to write like Ben Marcus, who’s the head of the fiction program,” my editor said. According to her, there was a publicity machine that was dominating what got covered in Flavorwire. “The thing with Rachel Kushner is that if you look at the window displays of Barnes and Noble, they’ll have her book right on the front, and then everybody reviews it in all the major newspapers.”
Actually, Ben Marcus is not the director of Iowa, and didn’t even go there. He went to Columbia, but he’s not even the director of Colombia. That’s Sam Lipsyte. I knew this at the time, but I didn’t say it, because I needed her to hire me. I needed her to think that I was out of my league, and impressed by all her fancy opinions. A couple weeks later, I did my interview Rachel Kushner, for the fourth time as my editor requested, and because she thought it concentrated too much on the art of fiction, and not on the publishing industry, she fired me.
In fact, I know Rachel Kushner’s book had not been displayed in any Barnes and Noble that year, because her publishers, Scribner, had been the only house of the big four to not pay the marketing premium. No matter. By then I’d already learned what I needed to know about power in New York, who has it and who doesn’t, and about getting your fact straight.
Another unrelated incident, but also funny: a friend of mine were talking, just before I was about to leave the city. I was sick of it, tired of playing the professional game, and the sexual Darwinism of Brooklyn’s gay scene, which is actually a nicer way of saying racism. He said firmly, “All your experiences in the gay world over the last year has been directly influenced from what you read in E.B. White.” I was speechless. He must of thought he’d struck a nerve, because I couldn’t say anything in response. I was actually thinking, “I’m sure he meant say Edmund White.” The man who chronicled his sex life with hundreds, if not thousands, of gay men in New York during the 1970s, mixed up with the author of Charlotte’s Web. I didn’t correct him.
Art by Tsuguharu Foujita I saw in Hong Kong and I finally tracked it down on the internet