David Fitzpatrick got a phone call after his essay appeared in the New Haven Review . It was a literary agent who invited him to turn it into a book. The essay, called “My Decade on Broadway,” is a spare, aching and tender reflection on life in a New Haven group home. Fitzpatrick spent much of his adulthood there recovering from bipolar disorder and obsessive self-mutilation. He started writing about the experience after being released in 2007. Two years later, his writing teacher suggested he submit a draft to a brand-new local journal. “My Decade on Broadway” appeared in the spring 2010 issue of the New Haven Review . His book, to be published by HarperCollins, is set for release in 2012.
This might not have happened 20 years ago.
Not like that, anyway.
Back then, the publishing world was like a closed circuit; consolidation of corporate media stymied new literary voices more often than it nurtured them. Publishing now is more like a vast open prairie. Anyone can publish anything anytime for anyone. The landscape is littered with the remains of the media giants who once controlled which books get talked about and which don’t. All that changed during the time David Fitzpatrick was recovering.
It’s easy to forget that newspapers were already doing poorly by the time the 2008 economic meltdown hit. At the time, newsrooms were shedding book editors and arts critics and in general shifting away from a commitment to ideas and culture that had been in place since the 1970s. Call it the crisis in book reviewing. Daily newspapers in Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, Atlanta and other major cities gutted their pages or buried books behind columns about gardening and pets. By 2009, the New York Times Book Review was the last stand-alone section in the country and still is.
It was a crisis whose particulars comprised the fall of the stock-in-trade thumbs-up-thumbs-down book review but whose broad strokes suggested something larger — an abandoning of intellectual expression altogether. Yet it was in this climate that a writer like Fitzpatrick, a man haunted by demons whose writing had been published just once by an obscure website, found a readership — and a book deal.
Even as print space for books gets smaller, even as information technology continues to blast the mass-media glory of newspapers into a million little niches (thus making it harder to make money, thus making the space for books even smaller), a new generation of believers is emerging. They are weary of cynicism and the nostalgia for the past. They champion books, the craft of writing and the power of ideas. They see the present as an antidote, not as an antagonist, to the past. They see now as a time in which public intellectuals can be relevant to how life is lived.
Think of them as a kind of optimist’s book club.
There have always been independent publishers and there are certainly many blogs devoted to books. But this feels different. This new generation is printing knuckle-thick journals not just of fiction and poetry but of social and political criticism, with an eye for engaging the public and its concern for the issues of the day. Some are committed to serious web journals. Others parlay their words and ideas into live readings, musical events and even keggers. And some, like the editors of the New Haven Review, are doing the unthinkable in this age of the Kindle, Nook and iPad. They are publishing books. On paper.
Good writers in our midst
There are two things about Connecticut that make it ideal for a new literary publication. One, the area is home to writers of note: poets, journalists, novelists and critics. Two, there’s no schmoozy cocktail scene. Writers who live here are too busy writing novels or articles for Harper’s or Discover to pick up their heads. The only missing ingredient was a lasting sense of community among individuals. Creating that community takes someone determined to pull it together. Someone like Mark Oppenheimer.
Oppenheimer is the author of three books, two on American religion. He writes the “Beliefs” column for The New York Times . Perhaps the least recognized of his talents is an ability to connect people — Oppenheimer knows virtually every writer in Connecticut. (It does seem that way, anyway; I had to go as far away as South Carolina to find an impartial critic to review his latest book, a memoir called Wisenheimer , in the Advocate .) That came after putting the first New Haven Review together. “Important writers were living 10 miles from each other but didn’t know it,” Oppenheimer says. “We wanted to prove all the writers were there; they just didn’t talk to each other.”
Oppenheimer joined Brian Slattery and Tom Gogola (who, like Oppenheimer, is a former editor of the Advocate ) to print one issue mostly of book reviews. They thought they’d never do it again. “Unless some angel comes along, this may be the last you hear of the New Haven Review of Books ,” Oppenheimer said in The Huffington Post.
That was 2007. Today, the New Haven Review , as it’s now called, has become a biannual journal of poetry, short fiction, memoir, essays, criticism and journalism (its website hosts original reviews and think-pieces on books, local theater and visual arts, among other brainy fare). The journal has also grown to become the center of a thriving literary culture that includes pub crawls, a short-story reading series called “Listen Here” (performed by members of the New Haven Theater Company), a radio show on WNPR and now the publication of original books by Connecticut authors: How to Win Her Love , a satire by Rudolph Delson; Blue for Oceans , poetry by Charles Douthat, father of the op-ed columnist for The New York Times; and Kentauros , a novella by Gregory Feeley. Each will read from his work on Jan. 26 at the New Haven Public Library. (6 p.m., 133 Elm St., free, 203-946-8130).
The journal’s first issue featured respected writers like novelist Amy Bloom, journalist Bruce Shapiro and Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Debby Applegate. Since then, Oppenheimer says, the journal has discovered numerous “not-famous writers,” like Paul Beckman (a short story author in Madison), Michael Milburn (a teacher at the Foote School in New Haven) and, of course, David Fitzpatrick.
“In every issue since that first one, we’ve had writers coming out of the woodwork,” Oppenheimer says. “These are national-caliber writers in our midst.”
Reacting to the crisis in book reviewing
It was fun, but the aforementioned crisis was a key motivation, says Slattery, who works as an editor for public-policy think-tanks (he also moonlights as a humble yet critically acclaimed science-fiction novelist known as Brian Francis Slattery). “It was definitely a reaction to that,” he says. “There were a ton of book reviews in that first issue. We wanted to engage books in more than 600 words.”
Slattery understands why newspapers have moved away from literary criticism. “There’s logic to the belief that if people read less, why produce reviews,” Slattery says. “Newspapers have to make money. But if literary culture is important, there are reasons why it’s worth doing for free.”
The idea that you had to get something in return for your investment in book-y things — whether articles about books or books themselves — is a phenomenon of recent history, Slattery says. Publishing used to be regarded as a civic duty, a profession of acquired pleasure. There was even an allure to it. “People have forgotten that,” he says.