Tuesday, May 20, 2008

New York Oz: The Reality

THINK for a minute of the cities of this country as entirely different lands. As Gore Vidal has pointed out, in the global economy our cities are city-states competing as much with one another as against other countries-- competing for investment, jobs, tourists, government funds and political influence. Also culturally.

I live right now in an industrial city-state, surrounded by fresh water lakes, whose industries are near collapse.

Imagine, at the very eastern end of the continent, situated on and around a narrow island, a Babylon-like city of more wealth than any city on the planet. More wealth than any city ever seen on the planet. It's moreover a city of caste, a towering pyramid of hierarchy. At the bottom of the pyramid are the brown-and-black skinned illegals, working in sidestreet sweatshops or serving the rich in some capacity. Substantially up the pyramid are the white ethnic bulldogs who dominate the police and fire departments. Slightly higher, the multi-ethnic political machine bureaucrats. Above them, the much-whiter layer of corporate lawyers, then the rich and ultra-rich investment people.

At the top, culturally and socially, are the trust-fund aristocrats who dominate publishing and the arts. They maintain their own hierarchical pyramids within the pyramid, are sustained by the brightest eager-beaver ladder climbers from the upper levels of other city-states, many educated at nearby "Ivy League" universities, come to the pyramid city to rise higher.

Attend a book party in the pyramid and you'll brush against the elite of the elite, overwhelmingly white, with a surprising number of upper-class Europeans. One stands at such a party with the awareness of being at the uppermost floor of the skyscraper; the highest level of caste. You will witness in the conversation around you utter superficialty, an almost total ignorance of the stark realities of life not only in America, but even in their own city.

Yet, bizarrely enough, these insulated mandarins determine, to a large extent, the culture of the entire nation.

Think of this glittering city-state, with its enormous wealth. Realize that every day many truckloads of books, magazines, and newspapers leave this place to be delivered to other city-states across the continent. (Or, the information to publish an enormous mass of print-media leaves the island.) We who live in other cities are inundated-- inundated-- with the values of this unreal Oz land.

The values expressed in the books and publications, unsurprisingly, are those of privilege and hierarchy; celebrations of wealth; opinions of intellectual mandarin masters; all mirroring the make-up of the pyramid city-state island.

1 comment:

Rich said...

Now, just a moment, King. I'm a resident of New York City who happens to come from the Detroit area originally and I can think of few places in America that can even approach Detroit's racial and class polarization.

I work in publishing, too. I don't feel that I'm at liberty to divulge my full identity (so please don't accuse me of the sort of cowardice that I agree "Harland" displays) because I'm not here to express my employer's point of view, only my own. I think you're being a little harsh. As an editor, I'm always on the lookout for good minority voices. The market for their unique point of view is booming. There's little that gives me more professional pleasure, and a greater feeling of pride, than having discovered an African-American, Latino, Asian, or Gay voice and providing it with the equipment to project its particular perspective across the nation.

Now, it so happens I was at one of these cocktail parties just last night. On my left was an influential journalist of Vietnamese descent. On my right was a well-known, award-winning author who grew up in Newark, with Spanish as his first language. An immigrant of African descent was the host of the party, along with his partner, an African American. Now, I'll agree with you on this: they all went to Ivy League schools. Does this delegitimize their experience as immigrants, as persons of poverty, as people for whom English is a second language? Now, some of them do publish with large publishers, it is true. I edit several of them. And I think I can say without qualification that every one of them would reject categorically, after their respective heroic struggles, the idea that they are "demi-puppets." The entire concept would be insulting to them.

One author I met last night has a rich background as a black American. He visited his mother's family in Harlem for a time and from the searing experience of this visit conceived of the idea of his novel, MY PAFOLOGY, soon to be published by a major house. Are you denying that his experience is somehow "underground"? He was raised in Towson, Maryland, it's true, and attended Brown University -- but when he looks at the color of his skin in the mirror each morning it screams back at him: "You are black! Black! A black man in a white man's world!" No amount of education or wealth can change such a devastating fact. Another author, Danny Santiago, has just completed the final edits on his new book, PUERTO RICAN BLONDE. Set in a rapidly gentrifying area of Brooklyn, it tells the story of a drug dealing punk who wants to become a hair stylist. Now, some might want to discount the fact that Dan was born Daniel Fischer to a Jewish father and a Puerto Rican - Hawaiian mother, but every Memorial Day without fail Dan went to Virginia Beach to soak up Puerto Rican culture firsthand at his mother's family's home. Does this make him "less" Puerto Rican, less, at least, than one-quarter Puerto Rican? That's still a significant fraction. I'm convinced that it enabled him to claim Latino status on his application when he tried, with success, to enroll at Columbia's famed MFA program. Now, I know you have a problem with MFAs and MFA programs. I'm a little leery of them too (especially since mine left me $80,000 in debt!), but where else would I have had such a rich exposure to voices of the gay and lesbian world, such as I found at the hands of my teachers? One of my professors was a physician as well as an author, and he worked for a time with migrant workers in the Central Valley of California, and he was able to impart to us there in the whispering cornfields the shattering truth of his experience among them. Surely you wouldn't begrudge him, this latter-day Steinbeck, his experiences, or the right to impress them upon us?

I met Fran Park the other night, at this party. Fran is a third-generation Korean American. With each of her books -- FOREIGN EXCHANGES, GUN PEOPLE, and THE UNINTERESTING MAN -- she has limned one aspect of Asian culture that Americans might be the poorer for not having been told. This, too, is a voice from the underground.

And what about Mike Sexton? Mike published an anthology last year, HERE ARE SOME NEW AUTHORS, through Richard Nash at Soft Skull, before that valiant press was taken over by a debauched, dilletantish multi-millionaire. Mike told me that the first thing he did was to call up Dave Eggers, who knows many new authors, often black, and Dave put him in touch with several new black authors who, with some careful editing, Mike was able to include in HASNA. He joked with me that he considered renaming the anthology FREE LUNCH! Ha ha ha.

Well, I have to get going now. It's time for me to get over to the tuxedo rental place (I really should just splurge and buy one) -- another gala tonight, with cocktails and rich people, and I'm sure more than one or two minority members. As guests, I mean. But before I do I want to set the record straight on a little matter. Rick Moody is a great guy. He just called, as a matter of fact, to check with me about what time the cocktail party starts. I told him I was writing to you and he said, "Tell Karl I said hi, and no hard feelings." He also mentioned that when he receives his second Guggenheim fellowship, which his friends on the board assured him that he's certain of getting next time around (even Rick has to apply for these things), he's going to take the money and give it to charity -- to a new foundation Jonathan and Nicole are setting up here in Brooklyn to help minority kids learn to write. I was at their multi-million dollar town house the other night while they explained it to me. It sounds great, and so generous. Joyce Carol Oates, on the spot, signed on as a member of the board just before she fell into the potted palm, nearly breaking her new novel. Then we went upstairs to the helipad -- David Foster Wallace, William T. Vollmann, Richard Powers, and Dave Eggers were flying in from Malibu, along with Len Riggio (it was his 'copter).

When Len came in I put it to him, King: "Are you going to carry ULA books on your shelves, or what?" Len furrowed his brow, like the American of Italian descent that he is, and said that he couldn't think of a better idea than to stock Bill Blackolive, that he'd been thinking about it for a while, and he turned to Rick and asked him if he didn't mind giving up shelf space so that the ULAers could get their turn. Rick said it was only fair, that he'd gotten enough press already. Then he checked his Rolex and realized that if he missed the last boat to Fisher's Island, that exclusive enclave that only the richest of the rich can call home, he'd have to stay at SoHo house again. Of course, there he might run into ten or twenty high-powered literary agents, magazine editors, and drunken judges of major prizes. What a drag.