It was enough to make the heart stop for a moment, and then sink. The mail brought a new novel by a young writer who has been laboring to notable effect in a small town about 50 miles from nowhere, writing away at books that capture the life of his region's countryside with extraordinary humor and verisimilitude. The press release accompanying the book boasted of these accomplishments, and then closed with these words: "He is presently living in New York."
No, it was not the misuse of "presently" that produced cardiac arrest, it was the "living in New York." What on earth has possessed the fellow? If there is a place in the United States less conducive to the writing of serious fiction than New York City generally and the borough of Manhattan specifically, that place has yet to be identified. This writer probably is too gifted, his imagination already too richly stocked with characters and stories, to be burned out by residence in New York; but in moving there, he certainly has put his career at risk.
In moving there he has also paid homage to an old American tradition. For about a century, it has been assumed that part of a would-be author's literary rites of passage is residence in New York, preferably in its Bohemian quarters. The ritual requires that the young writer walk the streets that Howells and Wharton walked, drink where Cummings and Dos Passos drank, eat where Thurber and White ate. In New York, the tradition has it, a writer thrives on the company of other writers and establishes himself in literary circles.
The only problem is that the tradition has long since expired, the victim of changes in Manhattan that make the city inhospitable to serious writers of fiction. Although a good case can be made that any young person who is ambitious and curious should have a period in New York -- it is still, for all its faults, our greatest and most dynamic city -- no one should suffer under the illusion that it is any longer a good place to write fiction, if, indeed, it ever really was. The young writer who desires a New York period should enter it with one commitment firmly in mind: Keep it short.
This was probably just as true in the much-sentimentalized days of Fitzgerald, Wolfe and Hemingway as it is now. Of those three writers, only Wolfe spent significant amounts of writing time in Manhattan, and Wolfe seems to have been drawn there less by the borough's literary charms than by his affair with Aline Bernstein and his dependency upon Maxwell Perkins. Hemingway was rarely more than a visitor in New York, and Fitzgerald did considerably more drinking than writing there; both did most of their work in other places, as serious novelists still do today.
The evidence proves the point. Writers who serve their apprenticeships in New York escape from it almost as soon as they can. Cheever, Styron, Updike, Doctorow -- they and countless others may have started out in Manhattan, but once their reputations were established they got out, presumably because they preferred places with more quiet and less hype. Louis Auchincloss remains in New York, but he has a law practice there; so too does Laurie Colwin, but she began her career in publishing and retains close ties to that industry -- and in any event Manhattan is her principal subject, a statement that can be made about surprisingly few American writers of fiction.
In fact, New York is the setting for fewer accomplished works of fiction than many other far smaller and less celebrated cities. When I was asked last year to draw up a list of American cities that have been memorably depicted in novels or short stories, I had no difficulty with Boston, Chicago, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Memphis and New Orleans, but New York drew a blank. "Invisible Man," perhaps, or "Manhattan Transfer," but neither of those pins the city down, locates its essential character, the way "The Late George Apley" dissects Boston, "Studs Lonigan" encapsulates Chicago, "A Confederacy of Dunces" nails down New Orleans.
This is one of the true curiosities of American literature, one little remarked upon and not readily susceptible to explanation. Perhaps the problem is that New York is too diverse, too complex, too elusive to yield anything more than small segments of its society to the novelist; perhaps it is because American writers seem most comfortable and productive when they are writing about home, and New York may be more of a home than its native sons and daughters can cope with imaginatively. Whatever the case, you could teach a college course about the literature of Chicago (please don't!), but reading material for a study of New York would be startlingly small.
It is odd but true: The ostensible literary capital of the United States is not a city in which writers flourish. It is a grand place for journalists -- there probably are more first-class ones in New York than anywhere else in the world -- and also for scholars and critics; for editors and publishers, of books and magazines alike, it is absolutely essential. But with only the rarest of exceptions, for writers of fiction it is pure poison, and the young novelist from the provinces who has recently moved there is likely to find that out in a hurry.
This is because for all its receptivity to and sponsorship of literature and the arts, New York provides the wrong atmosphere for them. It may be the place that publishes their work, but it is not the place for that work to be done. New York is all hustle and bustle, wheeling and dealing, and never more so than now, when the emblematic figure of the city is Donald Trump and the money-changers are everywhere in charge. The point was vividly (if perhaps inadvertently) emphasized a few months ago by an article in The New York Times Magazine that described Manhattan's "new" Bohemia as a place far less interested in art than in commerce, a place where painters and sculptors are as shamelessly on the make as the loathsome new breed of Wall Street traders.
Worst of all for the writer is what passes, in Manhattan, for a literary community. It is not really a community of writers at all, but one of editors, publishers, reviewers, journalists and hangers-on. Its membership includes many charming and gifted people, as well as the usual -- perhaps somewhat larger than usual -- representation of poseurs and grifters. But it is less interested in writers' work than in their presence as literary celebrities, and the attentions it lavishes upon them are grand for the ego but devastating to the creative process. It turns writers into personalities, which means that sooner or later they stop being writers.
Go home, young writer, go home. Or at least go to New Jersey.