Last year, New York City’s literary community wondered if the city retained the magic of writerly mythology. For some, the question was never serious. For others, they had already left. The woman responsible for all of this sudden concern with place was Sari Botton, editor of the essay collection Goodbye to All That. Last December, Botton celebrated that book at Housing Works. The book had launched in October, leading to months long contemplation for many writers confronting their own debate as to whether they should stay or go.
There was plenty to contemplate. The once thriving publishing industry that supported the literary community had been and continues to steadily schink. Even as there was less money in publishing, the city was growing increasingly expensive driven, ironically, by the cultural cachet brought by artists and writers who can no longer afford the city’s costs. The question on everyone’s lips, even if they were too afraid to actually say it, was: is New York City still worth it? That question was certainly echoed in the essay collection MFA vs. NYC, edited by Chad Harbach, where writers with and without creative writing degrees weighed in on the importance of writing as an academic pursuit versus the real world experience and personal connections built around New York City’s publishing industry.
Goodbye to All That borrowed its title from a Joan Didion essay written when she herself departed the city. Didion promptly returned, so perhaps it was inevitable that a little over a year later, Botton has returned with a new essay collection, Never Can Say Goodbye. While Goodbye to All That included some writers who hadn’t actually left or who only left for a short while, Never Can Say Goodbye seems to have a far more direct message: don’t actually leave, no matter how terrible the city feels.
Botton celebrated Never Can Say Goodbye at Housing Works with several of the contributors, along with cohost Jason Diamond of Volume 1 Brooklyn. Botton and her husband live in upstate New York where they have lived almost nine years. If there is a way of summarizing Never Can Say Goodbye, its Botton’s frequent appearances at New York City events despite two hour bus trips up the Hudson River. That trek is in a way the point of the essay collection.
“I had a lot more to say,” Botton says of the book. In a way it seems a response from Botton to the criticism she received from the first essay collection: did she really love the city if she could leave it for upstate? That seems the recurring theme of the evening.
Botton then introduces Valerie Eagle, a contributor from last year’s Goodbye to All That.
Eagle is HIV positive, a result of prostitution and a former drug habit. Her essay begins in Metuchen, New Jersey. There, her mother forced her into prostitution. Still just a young girl, her aunt rescues her, bringing Eagle to an apartment in Brooklyn. Eventually Eagle is addicted to drugs and becomes homeless. She also gives birth to a daughter. Its the sort of essay that highlights both the potential of New York City and the challenges it presents.
Jason Diamond is next to read. His family has been rooted in Brooklyn for decades. Diamond’s essay is food centric, an essential part of New York City culture, Botton explains. As he reads, Diamond expresses the kind of conflict though that many New Yorkers experience: the ordinary horrors that they have accepted as part of the city life.
“Who doesn’t think about leaving New York at least once a day?” Diamond asks.
Some of these crises are minor, the dog park politics in Park Slope. On the other hand, the surprising counterpoint is the Williamsburg dog park. There is too the wonder that is New York’s literary scene. At least a half dozen other readings were happening right at that moment, Diamond points out, and that’s what makes New York City great. Its also the the local food, Diamond jokes, patting at his gut, and praising the fried chicken near his house and sausages from Long Island City.
Following Diamond is Stephen Elliott, the founder of the Rumpus and author of the memoir The Adderall Diaries. Elliott had been living in San Francisco for a number of years returning to New York City at roughly the same time Goodbye to All That was released.
Elliott said he was conflicted about leaving San Francisco–in the same way he had been conflicted when he first moved there. New York for Elliott seems to have simply been a place he always belonged, never really left, and could never actually leave. When he finished the project he was working on New York, he wasn’t sure why he had to return to San Francisco, and so he didn’t.
Rachel Syme reads next. She’s wearing a green jumper chosen, she explained, because its something she “can get away with in New York.” In other places, it would be a cry for help, she adds, but in New York its chic. Syme loves the Empire State Building. Or she’s in love with it. Both would be an apt description of her relationship with the tower. She wrote love letters to the building as a child.
Jason Diamond introduces the next reader by explaining that during his time as editor at Flavorwire, he read a lot of books described as dystopian. Last year was after all, the year of the dystopian novel. One stood out though, and that was Shovel Ready by Adam Sternbergh.
Sternbergh moved to Brookklyn a decade ago this month. He has brought with him a mug that says “I [heart] Brooklyn,” a possession he bought when he first came to town. The mug has faded, but he still keeps it as a memento. His essay was titled “Me Love Brooklyn.” On the other hand, in Shovel Ready, he blows up New York City with a dirty bomb–so maybe he’s conflicted about the city after all, he jokes.
The next reader Botton met on the internet. Many of her friends today are people she first met online. But she met Brian Macaluso thirteen years ago when meeting people on the internet was scary, before it was cool. Now they’re married. Macaluso reads an essay set in pre-Y2K New York City and a trip to the Russian baths.
Maris Kreizman also takes a look at retro New York City–her essay is set in the publishing era just before the digital revolution gutted the industry. She jokes that the main concern then was getting access to the photocopier that didn’t jam up.
The final reader is Nick Flynn, author of the memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. Before reading an essay where he explains “New York didn’t give a fuck about me,” he makes a keen observation about the night’s essays: “I love that the subtitle of says their unshakeable love for New York–everyone’s love sound completely shakeable.” Of course, that is the magic of New York City: no matter how hard she kicks you in the face, its you never can say goodbye.