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.