Friday, July 12, 2013

TCR Interviews: Noreen Tomassi, Executive Director of The Center for Fiction (New York City)

The Center for Fiction
(photo from Janet Reid, Literary Agent blog)
The Committee Room takes a look at The Center for Fiction, the only organization in the United States dedicated to the art of fiction.

Located in midtown Manhattan, the Center for Fiction, which opened in 2005, offers a wide variety of resources including workshops, author readings, and reading groups. It also rents desk space to writers in need of a quiet place to get their work done, runs a fiction focused bookstore on its ground floor, publishes a literary magazine, The Literarianand even offers something called "bibliotherapy" a service where readers are provided with a carefully selected, individually tailored list of fictional works to help see them though life's problems.  

"The Center is clearly growing, cultivating an audience for its varied and various programs and, in my view, is indeed succeeding in creating a nexus where writers and readers can share their passion for literature," wrote H.J. Schreiber in Nybeat -- Culture on a Shoestring.

Renate Adler speaking at The Center for Fiction, 2013
(photo courtesy of The Outlet) 
For those living outside the New York area the Center's website provides access to event videos, interviews, and special features such as The Model Short Story and Writers on Writing.

The Center for Fiction is not a totally new institution but a re-envisioning of the venerable Mercantile Library of New York, a private membership library founded in 1821. The Merc, as it is familiarly known, is one of only a handful of membership libraries remaining in the United States. The Mercantile Library of Cincinnati and the Boston Anthenaeum are some others.

The Center is housed in an historic eight story building on E.47th Street, amid banks and businesses, that has been the Mercantile Library's home since 1932. The Library's reading room continues to be used but the collection it services (85,000 volumes and growing) has shifted from general subjects to a focus on fiction that supports the Center's activities.

Philip Roth, Zadie Smith, and Nathan Englander
at the Center for Fiction
The Mercantile Library was established -- decades before the development of public libraries -- by business owners so that their clerks might have an edifying alternative to the "rum-shop and the billiard room." It was once among the largest libraries in the United States. The Center keeps to its origins as a haven for non-elites by welcoming for membership anyone interested in fiction. Any fiction writer, published on not published, working in any genre, at any level in his or her career, may apply for desk space. Though big names in contemporary fiction participate in Center activities (Renate Adler, Claire Messud, James Salter, and Mary Higgins Clark are just a few recent guests), the emphasis is on nurturing undiscovered talent.

Noreen Tomassi, executive director of the Center for Fiction, shepherded the transition from library to literary center. She recently sat down (figuratively speaking) for an interview with TCR.

TCR Talks with Noreen Tomassi of the Center for Fiction

Noreen Tomassi
Q: What was the situation like at the Mercantile Library when you arrived in 2004?
A: I was lucky enough to inherit an organization that was in sound financial shape with a small, but devoted membership. It operated as one of three membership libraries in Manhattan and was home of the Proust Society of America as well as some interesting reading groups devoted to the classics. The biggest obstacle I faced was the fact that not many people knew the place existed. I also wanted to adjust the demographic, keeping the older members who loved the Merc, but also adding many more younger members and reaching a much more diverse audiences.

Q: Why is the Center dedicated to fiction?
A: I was so impressed by the work advocates for poetry had done in establishing places like Poet’s House and the Walt Whitman Center and all the other poetry organizations across the country, and I very much wanted to do the same for fiction. I thought there should be at least one literary center in the country completely devoted to celebrating the art of fiction, so we’re it. Writers of non-fiction and poetry do appear here from time to time as long as their work relates in some way to fiction.

The Center for Fiction Bookstore
(Photo by nybeat/culture on shoestring)
Q: Do you agree that contemporary readers are more interested in non-fiction than in fiction?
A: Well, not the contemporary readers I know, that’s for sure. I tend to think the statistics are not so reliable. If over the course of a month I buy two guidebooks to Ireland, a cookbook, a test prep book for my nephew, an Italian/English dictionary and a collection of Alice Munro stories, does that mean I’m more interested in non-fiction? (That’s a real-life example, by the way.) As you can see, according to the numbers, even I spend more time reading non-fiction than I do reading fiction—and I read a lot of fiction. But I don’t know that I’d measure “interest” that way. My level of interest, of engagement, is entirely different when I am reading novels and stories, and I think that’s true of most people, whether they’re reading Gillian Flynn or Virginia Woolf. The cliché is that we can lose ourselves in a good work of fiction, but we find ourselves, too, and that’s a different level of experience. So for me it’s hard to compare the two.

Writers' Studio at The Center for Fiction
Q: Can you comment on the Center's embrace of "genre" fiction. That's a daring position to take in a world where literary journals typically do not consider science fiction, fantasy, or mystery submissions.
A: There is so much astonishing work, past and present, in what we call genre fiction that we’d be fools here at The Center not to embrace it. I’ve come to hate these divisions and really admire writers like Colson Whitehead and Joyce Carol Oates and Junot Díaz who pay no attention to them. I wish more lit mag editors would follow their lead. As far as The Center is concerned there’s good writing and bad writing and the rest is just about cataloging.

Q: What is the Center's current relationship to the library world?
A: We are in a city that has one of the greatest libraries in the world so it made perfect sense to evolve from being primarily a membership library to this new incarnation as a literary center that has a very good, very carefully curated collection related to our mission. The collection is one small part, albeit a very important one, of what we do. Our writers’ studio, grants to writers, awards, great events and reading groups, online content and lit mag are what most people know us by these days. That said, we continue to build the collection and are very proud of it and very happy to see it used.

Mercantile Library reading room
at the Center for Fiction
Q: Can you talk a bit about the Center renting desk space to writers?
A:  The Writers Studio is on our eighth floor and it’s a great space. One of the benefits is that writers can join month to month and it’s not very expensive and membership also gives them borrowing privileges for the collection and discounts and a lot of other perks, so it’s a good deal. It’s also great to have writers in the building all the time. In the early years of the Mercantile Library, Poe had a desk here and so it’s a long tradition. I like knowing that while I’m down on the third floor doing all the things I need to do--some fun, some not so fun--to keep the place running, they are on the eighth floor writing. It makes perfect sense for a lit center, doesn’t it?

Q: Can you tell us how the Center copes in its non-residential area location?
A: It is a problem to be in a location that is not an evening destination. In the beginning it was very hard. I remember a rainy night early on when we held a reading for a writer I very much admire, who was accompanied by an editor I very much admire and no one came. No one. I still cringe when I think of it. Happily those days are long over. We regularly have great crowds—and very smart, very well read, book-buying crowds. I think writers trust us and know that they have a home here and that has been a huge help.

Q: Any plans to establish branches of the Center in other cities?
A: I am trying to convince the Board that we need a branch in Paris, but so far that’s a no go. Seriously, we do aim for a national presence. Give us a little time.  The website, with its very rich content including our great video archives, is a first step.

Q: What is the biggest challenge you face in running the Center?
A: Same as any non-profit—building sustained support and endowment. We’re getting there, though.

Here's more information --

Mercantile Library Association of New York City (Library History Buff blog).

Quatro, Jamie. "Away from the Rum Shop and the Billiard Room." Ploughshares. 2 August 2012.

Tomassi, Noreen. "When 'Entertainment' is Art." Huffington Post, 4 June 2012.


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