Why New York’s Literary Crowd is Suddenly in Thrall to Hungarian Fiction

Hari Kunzru sees New York’s literary hipsters – because that’s who he’s describing here, really – flocking to a translation that offers some meat and gristle to chew over. Excerpt:

The thing about New York (and, a fortiori, the gentrified bits of Brooklyn, where writers go when their Manhattan apartments are expropriated by the One Percent) is that it doesn’t have a “contemporary master of the apocalypse.” It has post-Ivy relationship anatomists, adderall-enhanced pop culture essayists, dirty realist white-guy novelists and hipster poets who transcribe their sexts and cut them up with Wikipedia entries on HPV and Jersey Shore. It has, at the last count, 247 trillion recent MFA graduates, at least a dozen of which are to be found, on any given morning, abseiling down the glassy exterior of the Random House publishing building, in an attempt to get Sonny Mehta to read their collection of short stories modelled on Denis Johnson’s Jesus’s Son.

The energy of the New York book scene is undeniable. There’s a flourishing ecology of small presses, literary journals, readings and lectures. There is a glut of talented, technically gifted writers and editors. There is also a pervasive undercurrent of financial anxiety, and a sense (at least among the minority who can raise their heads from A Visit from the Goon Squad for long enough to remember the existence of the non-Anglophone literary world) that, for all the action, there’s something middlebrow about much of the work that is being hailed as evidence of a New York (or God forbid, a “Brooklyn”) literary renaissance. This is a milieu that, for every Don DeLillo (whose apocalypse-mastery is undeniable), produces several Jonathan Franzens or Chad Harbachs – conservative stylists whose technical gifts are harnessed to a kind of domestic realism, which eschews metaphysical or existential flights in favour of pragmatic, reader-friendly observation. It is a kind of triangulation between the demands of the critics and the market that feels, to many, less ambitious and confrontational than the work being made elsewhere in the world.

Why doesn’t this happen more frequently? A few ideas:

  1. Stateside publishers don’t see a market for big-themed works. They publish them, though infrequently, but publicity dollars aren’t there to back those titles up, because…
  2. The “literary scene” – more frequently the de facto unpaid publicity department for a lot of books – will embrace one or two of these books a year, max, and you can’t attract crowds for drinks & mixing & filling the Tumblrs when the book at hand is a hard-eyed “uncompromising” look at “despair and metaphysical stasis” Let’s go out for drinkies and existential crisis writ large? No.
  3. The books that DO get those dollars are the ones that are ostensibly big-themed books on a micro-level – like social media, where we get in-depth on ourselves and little else. It says little of our critics that their “demands” have little to do with the market for fiction; they’ll praise the Chard Harbach book, they’ll praise the Franzen, because that’s what we’re steeped in, now. They’re the best we’ve got that can also be marketed like mad to a population largely indifferent to books, except for a frenzied few, which would either like to be left alone with their books thank you very much, or would like to have a bash at a NY indie bookstore, and three chapters on internment camps don’t make for a bloggable night out.
  4. The Franzens and Harbachs do what they do because that’s what they can do well. Putting Franzen up to writing something sweeping, ambitious, apocalyptic, would be like taking away someone’s model train set and putting that someone at the controls of the Boston to New York train.
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