Does Manhattan still have a literary scene? Critic Dwight Garner took to the pages of the Times to find out whether or not Manhattan still has a viable lit culture, whether or not slam poetry exists anywhere other than Dwight Garner’s mind, and exactly how many miles of books the Strand really has.
Garner poses the question, “Is Manhattan’s literary night life, along with its literary infrastructure (certain bars, hotels, restaurants and bookstores) fading away?” I mean, sure, it is. This is New York. We tear things down and build new things in their stead. But Garner isn’t really interested in looking for the new things. If he was, obviously, he’d have come to Brooklyn. No, instead Garner goes to some of the most iconic—and now anachronistic—places in Manhattan, trying to find some semblance of former literary glory.
First up: the Algonquin, “the Midtown hotel where Dorothy Parker, Alexander Woollcott and others once traded juniper-infused barbs.” Ah, yes. Dorothy Parker. What’s she up to these days? Garner uses the hotel as “a launching pad to crisscross the island for a few days, looking to see what’s left.” Hmmm…Matilda, the Algonquin cat didn’t do it for you, Dwight? What more do you expect from the Manhattan lit scene?
Poetry! Garner visits the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, which, I remember when slam poetry was a thing—at least it’s of a slightly more recent vintage than Dorothy Parker—but I was unaware that it still had any sort of cultural relevance anymore. Apparently, though, inside the cafe, the mood was “warm and jubilant. Cheap bottles of beer were to be had.” Which sounds pretty great. Not the jubilance, the cheap beer. At least, I think that’s what’s so appealing to Dwight Garner.
Because, really, when Garner talks about a “lit scene” all he is really doing is looking for the best new places to get drunk. That’s what writers do! They drink. Occasionally, they drink themselves to death. But not always. Not always. All the places that Garner visits, supposedly in the spirit of recapturing some glorious past, are infused with alcohol. He stops by Lolita, Dalloway, the White Horse Tavern, KGB Bar, Kettle of Fish, and McSorley’s Ale House. He visits the Library Hotel bar and the NoMad Hotel bar. Desperation, thy name is the Manhattan hotel bar scene. Or, as Mark Greif, n+1 editor, tells Garner, “Whenever I’m invited to meet anyone in a hotel bar or lobby, it means I’m in for a rough hour, because it means my host has more money than sense.” Yes.