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Jonathan Lethem has a beef with Brooklyn (you got a problem wit dat?)

The Brooklyn Paper

He’s broken our hearts yet again.

The former bard of Boerum Hill, Jonathan Lethem, is dissing the city that made him from his new digs in Southern California.

“I do love New York, but it’s also unbearable to me in some ways, and I compulsively leave it behind,” Lethem told the LA Times in a sprawling profile of the “Motherless Brooklyn” writer, who, in a move painfully reminiscent of the Dodgers, abandoned Brooklyn for sunny California last year to take on the post of creative writing professor at Pomona College. “It’s not the best place to write. The mental traffic level is very high here. Here, you have traffic problems; there, you have mental traffic problems.”

Sure, Brooklyn has an active, thriving literary scene. But Lethem also has a bone to pick with that.

“Brooklyn is repulsive with novelists, it’s cancerous with novelists,” Lethem told the Times. “That can sometimes be too much when you need to also be inside yourself, exploring your own meandering feelings, not dictated by your environment, but dictated instead by what you read that day, or something else.”

Dismayed (and convinced that Lethem had gotten too much sun), we reached out to our former pal this week to express our feelings at having our literary hearts ripped out all over again. His response? Get over it (we’re paraphrasing of course. For Lethem’s response in full, see the sidebar).

In the glory days, Lethem was not only the toast of Brooklyn — he celebrated the borough right back. He was a regular at the Brooklyn Book Festival, the ultimate celebration of Brooklyn literary culture. When Greenlight Bookstore in Fort Greene first opened, he personally requested to have a reading for his latest book, “Chronic City,” there. To mark the release of that book, he read all 467 pages at bookstores across the city — a marathon that ended at BookCourt in Cobble Hill, only a few blocks form his boyhood home, in the wee hours of the morning with 13 faithful.

And when he said goodbye to Brooklyn last year, he did so with a reading at powerHouse Arena in DUMBO.

Of course, no one harbors a grudge like a Brooklynite, but most readers have been too busy enjoying the work of real borough residents such as Jhumpa Lahiri, Paul Auster, Rick Moody and the “Jonathans,” Safran Foer and Ames, to worry about Lethem’s self-hating. That said, all those bold-faced names declined to comment for this piece.

But bright-eyed newcomers were more than happy to dispute Lethem’s complaint about the mental traffic.

“The vibrant literary scene in Brooklyn — and the noise and ‘traffic’ it generates — aren’t something I’m likely to take for granted — let alone complain about,” said Carey Wallace, a Fort Greene-based writer who recently published her debut, “The Blind Contessa’s New Machine.”

“In my experience, a writer’s only weapon is their ability to direct the traffic in their own head. As far as I’m concerned, the level of ‘mental traffic’ here in Brooklyn keeps us in fighting shape. It’s not an edge I’d want to lose.

Ben Dolnick, the Fort Greene-based author of “Zoology” and the forthcoming “You Know Who You Are,” also doesn’t find Brooklyn’s literary scene, to borrow a word, repulsive.

“One of the things I really value about being a fiction writer is that it allows me, alone each day at my desk, to carve out a private mental space, however cluttered the geographic space around me happens to be,” said Dolnick. “I think it’s possible, with book blogs and Amazon rankings and reviews from every corner of the country available instantly, to create a mental Brooklyn (for better or for worse) wherever you happen to be; and it’s also possible to create a mental acre of farmland right in the heart of the borough.”

Other young “cancers” we reached out too weren’t too maimed by Lethem’s comments.

“We, the cancerous many still here, will welcome Jonathan to New York back early and often,” said Emma Straub, author of the recently released “Other People We Married. “In the meantime, I hope he sends some avocados.”

Don’t hold your breath.

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Reader Feedback

Brokelyn from Ditmas Park says:
Nicely written article. I don't think the Brooklynese cliche in the headline does your piece justice, but the content is solid and it's a fun read.
Feb. 17, 2011, 3:02 am
Sajh from DTBK says:
There's only two reasons why people leave Brooklyn (or the city in itself) beyond abnormal causes (family) and that is 1) money 2) weather A lot of people like to justify their decision by claiming other things are the cause b/c they dont want to admit that they dont have the money to enjoy what want. It's a perfectly normal human response to blame other things for the shame of not having enough money to afford the things in life that would make one happy. I.e. If you cant afford the best largest flat screen that you want, you immediately say "eh, I didnt want it anyway. It was too big." Some people dont even realize they are doing it either.
Feb. 17, 2011, 10:02 am
J from Brooklyn says:
"His response? Get over it (we’re paraphrasing of course. For Lethem’s response in full, see the sidebar)."

Wow, his response was very different from your paraphrase. It was genial, thoughtful and supportive of Brooklyn. Considering Letham can be absurdly obnoxious and attention seeking, I have to give him credit.
Feb. 17, 2011, 10:27 am
MR from Boerum Hill says:
Wait a minute J, are you saying the Brooklyn Paper is sensationalizing someone's statements? That's their bread and butter...
Feb. 17, 2011, 12:03 pm
MG from Prospect Heights says:
Wallace's first name is Carey, not "Cary," and her novel is "The Blind Contessa's New Machine," not "The Blind Contessa."
Feb. 18, 2011, 9:18 am
Dock Oscar from Puke Slop says:
It's easy to hate Brooklyn, especially if you were once in love with it. The rents are unreal. And God forbid you actually try to buy something...untouchable. Wasn't always that way. Don't know how you writer types do it. Maybe a "grant" or something. I know that I work my ass off and I can barely afford it. Slowly being kicked out of yet another hip neighborhood.
Feb. 18, 2011, 12:25 pm
Richard Grayson from Williamsburg says:
This is a non-story fabricated just to create a synthetic stir. As I said in my comment in your original obnoxious/sensationalist story about Jonathan Lethem's taking the job at Pomona College, Brooklyn is a wonderful place to live, but it's far from the only place. It's annoying to see you trash someone once they leave your domain. Very small town, not at all like the Brooklyn you claim to represent.
Feb. 18, 2011, 1:12 pm
Franklyn from Prospect Heights says:
Who cares about Jonathan Lethem? He's a nobody. Brooklyn is the true melting pot, and one of the most diverse places to live in. Expensive now, Yes. But as a Brooklynite you just deal with it as Best as you can.
Feb. 18, 2011, 2:36 pm

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