Examining Brooklyn’s Fictions

James Peacock discusses how cultural and literary criticism can help us to unpack Brooklyn’s complex cultural history

How did you come to write Brooklyn Fictions?

James Peacock, Brooklyn Fictions: The Contemporary Urban Community in a Global Age (Bloomsbury, 2016).
James Peacock, Brooklyn Fictions: The Contemporary Urban Community in a Global Age (Bloomsbury, 2016).

There are two strands to this answer – three, if I’m being really honest. First, it evolved quite organically from my previous research on Paul Auster and Jonathan Lethem – both contemporary writers strongly associated with the borough. Having written articles and monographs on them which explored, at least in part, their representations of Brooklyn neighbourhoods, it made sense to embark on a multi-author project which dug more deeply into these representations. Looking at my research as a whole, I realise that the importance of place and the relationship between the individual and the community have been connecting themes. The second inspiration for the project was more personal. While I was studying for my Ph.D., my wife and I lived in Leith. Once a separate town, now part of Edinburgh, Leith retains a fiercely independent streak and a sense of identity in opposition to the fancier city up the road. Even though it has been undergoing gentrification for many years, and despite the fact that it has Michelin-starred restaurants and some very expensive new apartments, Leith still values a down-home, honest authenticity many of its residents feel the centre does not have. When I began to understand that the relationship between Brooklyn and Manhattan was very similar, I saw some wider potential in writing about these ideological constructions, with Brooklyn as a suitable case study. Thirdly – and here’s the confessional moment – I visited New York City for the first time in 2005 and (though it’s not very original to say this) fell in love with it. I cannot deny that a research project which might take me there a few times was an attractive prospect.

Many of us have only encountered Brooklyn through fiction, television, and movies. In what ways do you think such texts grant Brooklyn a kind of mythical status in popular culture?

Good question. It should be stressed, first of all, that New York City has a mythical status, but one which is often tied to iconic images of Manhattan, rather than any of the other boroughs. Manhattan’s verticality, exemplified by the awesome skyline, the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, speaks so strongly to ideas of aspiration, progress, success and capital that it has become a convenient shorthand for them. Brooklyn, on the other hand, has, to my mind, more often been associated with the grittier side of these ideas. That is in large part due to the controversy surrounding Hubert Selby Jr.’s Last Exit to Brooklyn (1964), but films such as The French Connection and even Saturday Night Fever emphasise the harsher side of what one might call the American Dream. In my work I emphasise that there have long been two traditions of Brooklyn myth-making: a romantic, homely one and a gritty one. The latter is, in its own way, equally romanticising: tough, charismatic guys (but maybe with the hearts of poets) leading tough lives in tough neighbourhoods. One of the most succinct articulations comes in the opening line of “Empire State of Mind” by Alicia Keys and Jay-Z: “Yeah I’m out that Brooklyn, now I’m down in Tribeca right next to De Niro, but I’ll be hood forever.” Brooklyn has long been figured as “hood” in ways that Manhattan hasn’t been, or at least not as often. The point is that these myths, though they might emerge from material circumstances, become self-perpetuating and have a tendency to fossilize.

But more recently Brooklyn’s gentrification and its status as the cool place to be for young creative types and professionals has been more widely acknowledged in TV and film. Lena Dunham’s Girls, set in Greenpoint, is a good example. Certainly, in the fiction a whole new set of myths has been constructed around these types of people. Some of it, like Kitty Burns Florey’s Solos (2004) appears nostalgic for the first wave of gentrification to neighborhoods like Williamsburg, when artists and musicians and designers moved in to old warehouse buildings.

Your book includes readings of established contemporary literature and popular writing. What were the advantages of going beyond canonical choices, and how do you think such differing texts inform each other?

I must admit that when I was choosing novels for Brooklyn Fictions, I didn’t even consider their position within or outwith the canon. I chose texts purely on the basis that they had something interesting to say about Brooklyn and its people. It was only afterwards, when I showed drafts to friends and colleagues, that I realised the combination of literary and popular fiction was a feature of my work. My position has always been, anyway, that these kinds of distinctions are political, historical and thus always open to reappraisal. In fact, I’d go further and argue that so-called genre texts often respond very directly and explicitly to socioeconomic circumstances – detective fiction is a case in point – and are therefore perfect for my lines of argument. I argued in my monograph on Jonathan Lethem (whom I realise is my chief inspiration for working in this manner) that the mixing of genre conventions in literary narratives is what keeps genres evolving, and it is analogous to the ways real-life communities, whose members might wish to keep them exclusive and homogenous, inevitably encounter and are altered by different groupings. In other words, popular fictions more obviously indebted to genre conventions are engaged both thematically and formally with questions of community.

And when you have a genre of popular fiction like “street lit” or “ghetto fiction” (the latter being a terrible moniker, but one critics have used), how can it not be deeply engaged in economics, race, changing demographics? Sister Souljah’s novels have so much to say about these issues, and they are formally ambitious, too. The Coldest Winter Ever (1999) casts Sister Souljah, the author, as one of the characters. She is referred to disparagingly throughout the book by the first-person narrator, Winter Santiaga. A classic high postmodern move! When Paul Auster did the same thing in City of Glass, literary scholars went to town on it.

Brooklyn is often understood as a counterpoint to Manhattan. Could you talk a little bit about that?

I’ve touched on this in some of my previous answers, and it’s a very important part of my research. Put very schematically – Manhattan is often presented as vertical, aspirant, capital-driven, obsessed with newness, less dedicated to the idea of neighbourhood, global in outlook. Brooklyn is in touch with its history, down-home, friendlier, heavily invested in the idea of neighbourhood, less money-driven, diverse, gritty yet open-hearted and funny. Now obviously, such characterisations are ideological: whatever basis they had in material circumstances has been undermined by the fact of socioeconomic change in both places. Now that real-estate prices in parts of Brooklyn can compete with Manhattan for sheer ridiculousness, and the demographics of gentrified neighbourhoods are changing rapidly, it is clear that certain perceived differences cannot hold. And yet they persist, because they are such an important part of self-identification. As my research shows, the best Brooklyn fictions are those that recognise the value of these identifications while deconstructing them to expose their ideological basis.

How do you think Brooklyn Fictions negotiates with conventional representations of urban space?

To be honest, I’m not sure what “conventional” representations of urban space are. There are so many ways of approaching the subject. As I have already suggested, Brooklyn Fictions aims to interrogate the myths of Brooklyn, notably in its opposition to Manhattan, and in that sense, at least, to defamiliarize representations that have become familiar and conventional. Some of the theory I draw on is, however, pretty conventional in studies like this. Fredric Jameson’s concept of “cognitive mapping” is important for me, for example, because it politicizes the individual’s relationship with urban space and opens up avenues for exploring the interaction of local and global. I think that one of the under-explored avenues in critiques of urban space is regionalism, and this is one of the inspirations for Brooklyn Fictions. Brooklyn v Manhattan as an (artificial) opposition partakes of many of the debates familiar from regional literature in America: centre v periphery, innovation v tradition, and so on. Although I privilege other terms, particularly “neighbourhood” and “community,” it is true that underlying my readings of many of these novels is a sense that they display characteristics of regionalism.

“Brooklyn Fictions aims to interrogate the myths of Brooklyn, notably in its opposition to Manhattan, and in that sense, at least, to defamiliarize representations that have become familiar and conventional.”

Your book explores the work of writers like Paul Auster, who has been writing from the same place for decades. Was this helpful in exploring connections between the individual and community?

Yes and no. Auster has been called “the Bard of Brooklyn” by some critics, and it’s a label he dismisses with a laugh, but there is no doubting his status as “famous Brooklyn novelist” or the sincerity of his affection for his adopted neighbourhood, Park Slope. And yet his writing, it seems to me, has a rather curious relationship with the place in which it is created. Generally speaking, he is not one for detailing local specificities or “local colour,” and his few attempts to do so – in Brooklyn Follies, for example – are unconvincing. Sunset Park (2010), which is set against the backdrop of the global financial crash, appears more rooted in socioeconomic realities than Auster’s previous work, and yet this novel – the first to be named after an area of Brooklyn – is not actually that interested in Brooklyn. It is more interested, like Brooklyn Follies, in nostalgic ideas of authenticity. Don’t get me wrong; I enjoy Auster’s work a great deal. It’s just that the characteristic inwardness of his writing, its dedication to existential ideas, means that any revelations about the individual and the community tend to be rather abstract ones. Such revelations can be useful, of course, and Auster provides a useful counterpoint in my research to other writers who are more interested in the material relations between individuals and changing communities. Funnily enough, Jonathan Lethem wrote The Fortress of Solitude in Toronto: sometimes geographical distance allows for a critical distance on themes such as neighbourhood, community and nostalgia.

How does Brooklyn Fictions shed light on issues of race, class, and gender in 21st century America?

It’s all about gentrification, again. The processes of gentrification distil anxieties about race, class, and gender – about difference, more generally – and force individuals to reconsider their participation in various communities, and their attitudes to others perceived to be outside those communities. This is especially important in Brooklyn because it has long been the main immigrant destination in a city renowned as the epitome of e pluribus unum. There is almost too much to say about this (so I encourage people to read my book!), but in fictional representations of gentrification, one can discern distinct stages. Early satires such as Desperate Characters by Paula Fox (1970) and A Meaningful Life by L. J. Davis (1971) saw early gentrification in frontier terms – different ethnicities and classes facing off across streets in the early stages of regeneration (itself a politically loaded term). Later, texts such as Solos opt for a picturesque approach, defusing anxieties about difference in stories of local colour, eccentricity and diversity rendered at the level of consumer choices in quirky independent shops. More recently, particularly in what I call the “Brooklyn motherhood novel,” a later stage of gentrification signals the return of the frontier. Anxious parents worry about which schools to send their kids to, which playgrounds to play in, which shops to spend their money in, and their anxieties are often explicitly about race, class, sexuality and gender. Put very simply, the best Brooklyn novels, set in a place famous for diversity, investigate what “diversity” actually means, how perceptions of it change under shifting economic circumstances (particularly globalisation), whether it might even be an unliveable ideal. Brooklyn is unique, of course, but these are issues that resonate right across the States, and beyond. I’d recommend Sarah Schulman’s The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination (2012) to anyone interested in exploring the ways that gentrification can become a mode of perception informed by the normalisation of inequity and privilege.

“I’d recommend Sarah Schulman’s The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination (2012) to anyone interested in exploring the ways that gentrification can become a mode of perception informed by the normalisation of inequity and privilege.”

What would you say are your leading theoretical or philosophical influences?

For this project, I draw on a combination of literary criticism and sociology, in an attempt to understand how these fields engage with ideas of community, local and regional identity, gentrification and globalisation. A key text was Miranda Joseph’s Against the Romance of Community (2002), which uses Derridean deconstruction to argue that “community” and “capital” are not mutually exclusive, and that the latter hasn’t somehow superseded the former, but that they are actually supplementary ideas. Global capital makes full use of the romantic idea of community in order to widen its reach and appeal to different groups of people in their specificity. Reading Joseph’s book, and thinking about other work I’ve done on genre, for example, I realised that Derrida, despite his obvious difficulty, has been very important to my research. What he is fundamentally interested in is the breaking down of binary oppositions, which is an ethical project, not just a clever piece of theoretical wizardry.

“Reading Joseph’s book, and thinking about other work I’ve done on genre, for example, I realised that Derrida, despite his obvious difficulty, has been very important to my research. What he is fundamentally interested in is the breaking down of binary oppositions, which is an ethical project, not just a clever piece of theoretical wizardry.”

In the end, the person I always return to is Raymond Williams. I like all his work, but my favourite is his 1973 book The Country and the City. It remains for me the single most important work of cultural criticism for anyone thinking about space, place and representation. His big idea – that the material differences between the country and the city became frozen over time into ideological differences – just has so many applications. Brooklyn v Manhattan – pictured as the country v the city, the local v the global, the down-home v the corporate, capital-driven – fits his work like a glove. Dare I say that the Brexit debate could also be understood in Williams’ terms?

“In the end, the person I always return to is Raymond Williams. I like all his work, but my favourite is his 1973 book The Country and the City. It remains for me the single most important work of cultural criticism for anyone thinking about space, place and representation.”

For those who are new to the literature of Brooklyn, can you recommend any places to start?

This might well be the most difficult question you’ve asked me! How long have we got? Well, to start with some classics of Brooklyn fiction. Betty Smith’s 1943 coming-of-age novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was a huge success and has been very influential. In fact, there is probably an article to be written on recurring images of trees in Brooklyn fictions. Following that, Paule Marshall’s Brown Girl, Brownstones (1959) is a coming-of-age story set in the Bajan immigrant community. It is also a nascent gentrification novel. Both novels explore socioeconomic changes in their respective neighbourhoods through the prism of young female protagonists’ experiences. Then there is Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s perfectly crafted Leaving Brooklyn (1989) – another coming-of-age story with an endlessly rich deep metaphor at its heart.

Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters (1970) is still the best gentrification satire. The language is astonishingly vivid, the comedy bleak and biting, and Fox’s depiction of gentrification as a kind of frontier struggle remains relevant and powerful. Michael G. Stephens, a writer who should be read by more people, published The Brooklyn Book of the Dead in 1994, and it’s one of the best books about warring families, nostalgia and that sense many of us have experienced of returning home and finding that “home” has moved on and left us behind. Stephens was brought up in a massive family with many siblings, and the polyphonic narrative of Brooklyn Book of the Dead stems from his realisation early on that nobody, not even the writer, can be the centre of attention for very long.

Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude are terrific, as many people before me have said. Although he doesn’t always write about Brooklyn, Lethem is one of the most important Brooklyn writers. He’s able to combine genres in such a way that the reader is forced to question the structure of reality over and over again, and in his Brooklyn fictions he shows how the neighbourhood of childhood becomes a paradoxical fantasy of authenticity, a seductive romance. For crime lovers, I’d recommend Reggie Nadelson’s Disturbed Earth (2004) and Red Hook (2005); she captures very powerfully the feeling of a city surrounded by water, always on the brink of disaster. Finally, Vaclav and Lena by Haley Tanner (2011) – a beautiful love story about Russian immigrants which has fairy-tale qualities, but which doesn’t shy away from the challenges and harshness of immigrant experience.

What’s next for you?

As usual, I’ve got a lot of pans on the boil at the same time (haven’t we all?). First, Brooklyn Fictions isn’t by any means over. I’ve read a lot of Brooklyn stories, but not all of them, and there are new ones being published all the time, so I feel some responsibility to keep up and to think about the ways in which the most recent novels are engaging with the themes in which I’m interested – neighbourhood and community, localism and globalisation, gentrification and nostalgia. I think there are at least a couple more articles in it. I’ve also got plans for some further Brooklyn-related public engagement activities.

Samuel Cohen, who teaches at the University of Missouri, has been co-editing a collection of essays on The Clash with me, and it’s just gone into production. It’s called The Clash Takes on the World: Transnational Perspectives on the Only Band That Matters, and it’s also with Bloomsbury. It’s been a labour of love for two huge fans of the band, and we’re both really excited about the range of essays we’ve received. We’ve got musicologists, literary critics, sociologists, historians and political activists writing about D.I.Y. politics, reggae, Vietnam, visual representations of The Clash, and many other topics. As is often the way with these things, there are unforeseen points of connection with the Brooklyn project – the concern with neoliberalism and globalisation, for one.

My next big project is on Quakerism and American literature. This is research that has been on hold for a few years, but I’ve finally found an opportunity to return to it. There will be trips to various archives in the next year or so, which I’m very excited about. Quite different from The Clash, ostensibly, but Quakerism and punk are both in a dissenting tradition, I suppose!

Brooklyn Fictions is available from Bloomsbury.

About the Author

James Peacock is Senior Lecturer in English and American Literatures at Keele University in the UK. He is the author of Understanding Paul Auster (2010), Jonathan Lethem (2012) and Brooklyn Fictions: the Contemporary Urban Community in a Global Age (2015). He has also published on popular music and detective fiction. In his spare time he likes to play the guitar, as loudly as possible. Find out more about James Peacock at his Staff Page, or over at ReverbNation.com. He tweets @jimpeacockkeele.


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