Culture: Where did all the drunk writers go?

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I'm currently in the Hamptons, the resort community about 80 miles from New York, and it is noticeable how few writers are renting houses here this year. Back in 1995, when I first rented in the Hamptons, the town of Sag Harbor had a faintly bohemian atmosphere and it was not uncommon for drunken brawls to break out between high-profile novelists at the bar of the American Hotel on Main Street. Today, the only trace of licentiousness is a $50m yacht moored in the harbour called Kisses.

"The days when Sag Harbor was known as a writers' colony are over," says a local estate agent. "They can't afford the rent any more." Indeed, to rent a three-bedroom cottage from Memorial Day to Labor Day (the period that constitutes the summer in America) now costs at least $75,000.

Part of the problem is that the book-publishing business is in dire straits. Sales of literary fiction, in particular, have not recovered since 9/11, the latest casualty being Netherland (pictured), a much-hyped novel by Joseph O'Neill that sold only a few thousand copies.

According to one New Yorker staffer, "It is becoming increasingly tough to score a decent advance, even as a household name."

In the past, the front rank of American writers have kept the wolf from the door in between books by signing lucrative contracts with glossy magazines such as GQ and Vanity Fair. However, that gravy train, too, is grinding to a halt, as the credit crunch forces luxury brands to slash their advertising budgets. This will have a particularly adverse effect on Condé Nast, the publisher of GQ and Vanity Fair. Its Men's Vogue, for instance, recently disclosed that ad sales for the first nine months of 2008 were down four per cent year on year. A recent memo informed Condé Nast editorial staff that they could now expense only five lunches a month, an unheard-of piece of belt-tightening.

This new culture of austerity in the New York media has forced several expensive restaurants to close, the latest being Provence, a French bistro in Soho. That, in turn, means fewer service jobs available in high-visibility eateries, an alternative way to keep body and soul together for less successful writers. "If my next book isn't a hit I'm thinking of becoming an interior decorator," says a well-known author whose first novel won a series of prizes. "Either that, or write a memoir called My 100 Worst Dates – And the Ice-Cream Recipes That Got Me Through."

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