December 27, 2013

Sinkhole of Dreams: Locating Boston's "Literary Renaissance"

Boston's "literary cultural district" starts here.

First there was the job ad at the Grub Street website for something called a “Literary Cultural District coordinator.” Then a press release must’ve sallied forth, because next we saw a string of more or less identical articles popping up in venues from MobyLives to the Paris Review blog.  Beth Teitell of the Boston Globe, however, decided to decorate her copy of the press release with a little original research – not “investigative journalism” exactly, but a bouquet of rah-rah quotes from the initiative’s backers, who for some reason are granted the name of “the city’s literary community.” The article starts like this:

The end of this story has yet to be written. But if things go as the city’s literary community hopes, sometime in 2015, Boston will be home to what’s believed to be the nation’s first literary cultural district. Its proponents don’t know exactly where its borders will lie, or what, precisely, visitors will do, but more significant is this: the very idea that there could be a literary cultural district is recognition that the city is undergoing a renaissance.

The very idea! In a different context – say, a Christopher Guest mockumentary or a Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney matinee – there might be something breathlessly, clumsily cute about it: We don’t know exactly where its going to be, or what, exactly, folks are going to do there – but, by golly, let’s put on a show!!! But this isn’t Blaine, Missouri, it’s Boston, and the initiative’s founding premise is something between a delusion and a deception.

Boston, we’re told, is “undergoing a renaissance.” The Grub Street job ad had been even more brazen: “Today, our city is undergoing a literary renaissance.” Strange, then, that the Globe article doesn’t adduce a single author or title as evidence of this rebirth, let alone the critical mass of writers and works and the ferment of contending voices and trends that might add up to a credible “renaissance.” What a threadbare literary renaissance, with no literature to call its own!

At least Grub Street had tried to muster up a short-list. Let’s revisit the job ad to see what was being offered as evidence: “Literary stars like James Carroll, Steven Pinker, Tom Perrotta, and Anita Shreve work here…” Well, James Carroll is a 70 year-old journalist who once wrote a string of journalistic novels in a popular, journalistic style; Steve Pinker is a brain scientist-cum-bloviator who asserts there’s no evolutionary warrant for art that isn’t realistic and pretty; Tom Perrotta writes screenplays masquerading as novels and keeps his fingers crossed that they’ll be picked up by Hollywood, and Anita Shreve produces those well-crafted middle-class soap operas that are dignified by the name “literary fiction.” It’s like calling the Washington Generals a “basketball renaissance”; if these are your starters, what’s your bench like? On second thought, maybe it was an act of discretion for the Globe article to leave that part out.

No, for this “literary renaissance,” instead of writers and their works we have . . . institutions. Come to think of it, they were Exhibit A even in the Grub Street ad, with the list of authors just an embarrassed afterthought:

Today, our city is undergoing a literary renaissance. We are blessed with the Boston Public Library, the important archives at the Boston Athenaeum, and the work of publishers like Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Beacon Press. Grub Street has become the leading literary center in the country, welcoming over 2,500 writing students a year and hosting a premier writers' conference each May at the Park Plaza Hotel; the Boston Book Festival draws 30,000 people to Copley every October; 826 Boston inspires children to write and publish. Literary stars like yadda yadda blah blah blah work here…

The Globe infomercial corrals the same institutions to ratify the existence of our supposed renaissance. Some of them – like Boston Public Library and the Boston Athenæum (a members-only library for rich people on Beacon Hill) – are a little hoary to be signifying the green shoots of a cultural springtide. Others, however, are indeed of more recent minting, including the three that make up a sort of central triumvirate in our recent rash of renaissance sightings: Grub Street (founded in 1997), 826 Boston (2007), and the Boston Book Festival (2009). In the Globe piece, we find Christina Thompson, editor of Harvard Review, and Eve Bridburg, founder of Grub Street, retailing this “just so” story of cultural renewal:

Thompson credits Grub Street, in part, for the flowering, and Bridburg, who started the center in 1997. . . recalled the literary scene at the time. “826 Boston [a nonprofit tutoring and writing center] didn’t exist,” she said. “The Boston Book Festival didn’t exist, and it’s drawing [about] 25,000 people every fall to Copley Square.

The problem is that these entities also happen to be the project’s own sponsors, so rather than enlightening us about any actual rebirth of the local literary arts, we’re given tautological reasoning as a cover for possible conflict of interest. Who are these institutions that have arrogated to themselves the right to speak as THE literary community in Boston?

In public, at least, Grub Street has assumed the role of the Literary Cultural District’s prime mover. It’s to be the chief employer of the part-time “Literary Cultural District coordinator,” whose $18,000 salary will most likely come from the $42,500 grant that the Globe reports the organizers’ coalition received from the Massachusetts Cultural Council to “refine its concept” into an actual proposal (or something like that). Grub Street is an independent, non-profit writing center that offers a broad menu of workshops and hosts an annual writers conference called The Muse & the Marketplace. The name of the conference telegraphs Grub Street’s number one article of faith: writers should accommodate themselves and their work to the corporate-dominated publishing marketplace. Drafts are read and critiqued according to what the well-intentioned instructors think agents and editors want to see, which is increasingly what marketing and publicity departments want to see, and all of which goes by the name of what readers supposedly want to consume. Thus we have the whole dreary raft of advice familiar from most MFA courses – You need a conflict on the first page to hook the reader! Your main character must be relatable! Show don’t tell! The three-act structure recommended for screenplays is really handy for novels as well! Show don’t tell! Every scene must contribute to the action! SHOW DON’T TELL!!! Then, because in this marketplace you have to peddle yourself as well as your work, there are courses that will help you with your “platform” – things like your website, your pitch, and how much thigh to flash on the street corner when the agents and editors pass by. At Grub Street, the Marketplace is the Muse.

Détourned poster for 2011 Muse and Marketplace. Original here.

How about 826 Boston? Isn’t that a writing and tutoring center for inner city kids or something like that? Nonprofit, funded by generous donors, staffed by hardworking volunteers? Founded by that hip writer guy and all-around do-gooder Dave Eggers, who also started McSweeneys and The Believer? What could be wrong with that, Mr. Grinch? Well, maybe nothing if you think some combination of volunteerism (remember George Bush Sr.’s “thousand points of light”?), corporate business tactics, and the innate generosity of the 1% when unfettered by socialistic taxes and trade unions is going to solve the problems of educational apartheid in this country. Sure, Eggers and co-founder Ninive Calegari’s 826 centers and their “Teacher Salary Project” might give you the warm fuzzies at first pass. But scratch the surface and you’ll find that they are implicated in the ongoing push for charter schools and other elements of the neoliberal “education reform” movement (see for example these reviews of Eggers and Calegari’s propaganda documentary, American Teacher). Funded by billionaires and elite foundations, and backed by Democratic and Republican politicians alike, the education reform movement is nothing more than a corporate scam whose ultimate goal is the gutting of teachers unions and the for-profit privatization of public education.  

US Secretary of Education (and scumbag) Arne Duncan pals it up with Dave Eggers at 826 Valencia.

The third major player in this “literary renaissance” is the Boston Book Festival.  Founded in 2009 by wealthy socialite Deborah Z. Porter and held each year in Copley Square, the festival boasts a growing attendance and ostensibly widening “community” involvement.  I’ve written already about the festival’s track record for reptilian, community-busting corporate sponsors and the elite interests and unsavory agenda represented by their Board of Directors (here and here). It should come as no surprise, then, that the view of literary culture advanced by the Boston Book Festival is tailored to be as inoffensive as possible to the interests of its corporate sponsors and founders. Hewing tightly to the cultural mean established in these parts by WNBR – our National Public Radio affiliate and the talent pool for most of the event’s presenters – the Boston Book Festival exists primarily to flatter the narcissism of the region’s professional-managerial class. If writer interviews with Terri Gross and calling torture “enhanced interrogation” are your kind of thing, then the Boston Book Festival should be right up the alley where you park your SUV. For the rest of us, it’s a top-down, corporate occupation of public space and public bandwidth, with no actual involvement from the “community” it purports to serve, and indeed a real hostility to the interests of most of that community.

Of course this raises the question – in fact the all-important question – of cui bono, who benefits? Whose interests are actually served by cultural phenomena such as these? Who stands to benefit most from the establishment of “the nation’s first literary cultural district”? Is it possible that the organizers sincerely believe their own hype about a “literary renaissance” here in Boston? And if they don’t – in other words if they’re just cynical instead of delusional – what’s really going on behind the scenes? What forces are motivating the decisions of these individuals and groups as social actors on the local stage?

I’ll give my own thoughts in a subsequent post (although the short answer, for those of you who want to study ahead, is real estate). In the meantime, I invite all enthusiastic supporters of the Literary Cultural District to take The Boston Literary Renaissance Challenge!