The New York Times
“New York was no mere city,”
wrote in her landmark 1967 essay, “Goodbye to All That,” explaining why she abandoned her adopted home of New York, seemingly for good, at the age of 29. “It was instead an infinitely romantic notion, the mysterious nexus of all love and money and power, the shining and perishable dream itself.”
Ms. Didion, who was originally from California , did more than just capture, and explode, the enduring image of the young writer chucking it all to make it in New York.https://www.pinterest.com/powerpoint_templates/game-powerpoint-templates/ She spawned a new literary cliché: the not-quite-so-young writer beating a hasty retreat from the city, but transforming the surrender into a literary triumph via a “Goodbye to All That, Redux” essay.
The literature may be thin when it comes to “See ya, Chicago ” or “Later, Los Angeles ” odes, but ever since Ms. Didion set the standard 46 years ago, the “Goodbye New York” essay has become a de rigueur career move for aspiring belle-lettrists. It is a theme that has been explored continuously over the years by the likes of
Lately, the “Goodbye” essay has found renewed life, as a new generation of writers works out its love-hate relationship with the city in public fashion. Recently, opinion-makers like
have scribbled much-discussed New York-is-over essays; literary-minded Generation Y writers have bid not-so-fond farewells to the city on blogs like Gawker and The Cut; and a dozen-plus writers, including Dani Shapiro and Maggie Estep, published elegies to their ambivalence toward New York in “Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York,” an anthology published last month.
“If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere, the song goes,” Mr. Sullivan wrote in a Sunday Times of London column last week, explaining his decision to flee New York after only a year and return to Washington . “But why would anyone want to make it here? The human beings are stacked on top of one another in vast towers that create dark, narrow caverns in between. Gridlocked traffic competes with every conceivable noise and every imaginable variation on the theme of human rage and impatience.”
New York, I can’t quit you. Or maybe I can.
On first glance, contemporary entries to the genre tend to follow the same arc as Ms. Didion’s essay. Basically, it is a classic femme (or homme) fatale story, with New York as siren, New York as lover-substitute, an eight-million-headed stand-in for those sexy bad-news types we all fall for, to our peril, when we are young.
“No man could compete, in my mind, with the lure of a summer night in Greenwich Village,” writes Hope Edelman in “You Are Here,” her contribution to the anthology.
To Ann Friedman, whose essay “Why I’m Glad I Quit New York at Age 24” recently ran in the New York magazine blog The Cut, New York is not just a guy, it’s that guy. “I’ve always been partial to the friendly guy who doesn’t know how hot he really is (Chicago) or the surprisingly intelligent, sexy stoner (Los Angeles),” Ms. Friedman wrote, “as opposed to the dude who thinks he’s top of the list, king of the hill, A-number-one.”
The New York-you-broke-my-heart essay has become such a trope for young female writers that Jezebel recently asked, “Is Dumping New York City a ‘Girl Thing?’ ”
(Apparently not. Mr. Sullivan also invoked the romantic-love theme in a recent blog post, describing New York as his “mistress,” though he felt “married to Washington,” his once and future home. And in a 2010 exit essay on The New York Times blog City Room, Christopher Solomon, who came from the Pacific Northwest, wrote: “Oh, I pursued you. We went to the opera, to plays, to gritty little restaurants in Queens . You — the city — were always my date. But you never belonged to me. Eventually you, too, moved on, taking your buzzing neon promise of fame to the next newcomer.”)
By framing the relationship as a love affair, it makes the inevitable breakup with the literary capital seem less like a career failure than a coming to the senses after a youthful infatuation.
“In my early twenties, I felt that my life could be one big experiment, and in my mid-twenties I am coming to terms with the fact that no, my life is actually my life,” wrote Chloe Caldwell in her anthology entry, “Leaving My Groovy Lifestyle.”
In putting it so, Ms. Caldwell echoed Ms. Didion’s description of how she rationalized the move that she and her husband made to Los Angeles (they returned to New York in the 1980s): “I talk about how difficult it would be for us to ‘afford’ to live in New York right now, about how much ‘space’ we need. All I mean is that I was very young in New York, and that at some point the golden rhythm was broken, and I am not that young anymore.”
For Ms. Didion, in other words, money was simply an excuse. The reality was, in the relatively cheap New York of the 1960s, even a Vogue junior staff member like her — making $70 a week — could secure a centrally located Manhattan apartment with a view of, she thought, the Brooklyn Bridge (“It turned out the bridge was the Triborough,” she dryly amended) and pay for taxis to parties where she might see “new faces.” Sure, the early days were tough — “some weeks I had to charge food at Bloomingdale’s gourmet shop in order to eat,” she wrote. But in general, she could afford to hang around long enough to determine when she had stayed “too long at the Fair.” In sum, she could afford to fall out of love with the city slowly.
Not so for the would-be Didions of today. In their New York, the nice apartments with the bridge views tend to go to the underwriters of bond issues, not to the writers of essays for literary anthologies. The unaffordability of New York on a writer’s budget is a theme running through several contemporary variations on the theme.
Cord Jefferson, who wrote lyrically about leaving New York, ultimately for Los Angeles, on Gawker last year, was, for a time, able to appreciate “the camaraderie built while feeling a stranger’s breath on your neck on a packed rush-hour train,” as if that were a good thing. Even so, the stark economic realities forced him out of the city as the banzai adventure years of his mid-20s drew to a close.
“New York makes it easy to forget that many Americans would probably find paying $950 for a 10-by-10 room overlooking garbage cans either unaffordable or unappealing, or both,” wrote Mr. Jefferson, who added that sometimes he was “so broke that a $3 falafel” from Oasis in Williamsburg “was all I’d eat for a day.”
(His description called to mind another widely linked article from The Onion in 2010: “8.4 Million New Yorkers Suddenly Realize New York City A Horrible Place To Live.” “At 4:32 p.m. Tuesday,” the article read, “every single resident of New York City decided to evacuate the famed metropolis, having realized it was nothing more than a massive, trash-ridden hellhole that slowly sucks the life out of every one of its inhabitants.”)
Money is not just crowding out writers; it is crowding out ideas, according to Mr. Sullivan. “If you think you’ll find intellectual stimulation, you’re thinking of another era,” he wrote. “The conversations are invariably about money or property or schools. I’ve never been more bored by casual chat.”
No less a New Yorker than David Byrne — Mr. Talking Heads , Mr. Downtown — threatened to bolt the city he epitomizes in a much-discussed Guardian essay if it continues to morph into a clubhouse for money shufflers, like Hong Kong or Abu Dhabi . “Those places might have museums, but they don’t have culture,” he wrote. “Ugh. If New York goes there — more than it already has — I’m leaving.”
No wonder that Sari Botton, who edited the anthology, titled her own essay in the book “Real Estate.” The essay recounts how she was forced to bolt upstate in 2005 after the rent on her below-market loft on Avenue B tripled, to $6,600, and was rented out to a movie star.
“A really big factor in why I did this book now is that more and more people are finding they can’t afford to live in New York if they’re in a creative field,” Ms. Botton said.
In an era when rents are spiking, book advances shrinking and magazines shuttering, New York may no longer be a necessary destination for the young writer, she acknowledged. It may not even be a feasible one.
“If you are a young writer,” she added, “you’re going to have to share an apartment with a number of people, you’re not going to have any privacy, you’re barely going to be able to make a living in whatever job you’re going to get. It’s just not conducive to a creative life.”
In a more innocent era, it seems, writers chose the moment in life that they were ready to serve the city its “Dear John” letter. These days, New York is likely to dump them first.
Perhaps the next anthology will be titled simply “Good Riddance.”
An article last Sunday about writers whose love of New York City has soured misstated the location of the Oasis restaurant in Brooklyn in a quotation from the writer Cord Jefferson. It is on North Seventh Street, not North Sixth Street.
More In Style
Who’s showing? Who’s going? And what about Marchesa? These questions and more, answered.
12:56 PM ET Our columnist probes a reader’s remorselessness, among other things.
The world has never seen a bunch of boosters like this before.