Literary Debutantes, Meet Publishing’s Apocalypse!

Friday night in the cargo bay of the Old American Can Factory in Gowanus, One Story magazine threw its first annual Literary Debutante Ball. The idea originated as a joke. “Soon we were practicing our dips at editorial meetings,” Tanya Rey, the magazine’s managing editor, told the Transom. She then demonstrated the move with a slapstick grace.

The evening’s main event would be the procession of nine young writers, all of whom had had their first publication in One Story sometime over the past eight years, escorted by the prominent writers who had mentored them. The Transom found Deb Olin Unferth, an escort, in the midst of the cargo bay. “My debutante is a little, tiny, skinny thing. He’s pretty great. He was my student at Kansas.”

Cote Smith emerged from behind her. “I’m Deb’s deb. I am a little, tiny, skinny thing, but so are you,” Mr. Smith said, accurately describing the pair. Ms. Rey then ushered them out of the room in preparation for the procession.

The novelist Colson Whitehead, recently celebrated by the Huffington Post as an elite practitioner of Twitter, told the Transom he would not be tweeting from the event. “I don’t have Wi-Fi over here,” Mr. Whitehead said.

On the east wall of the cargo bay hung 30 paintings, photographs and collages, commissioned especially for the event from artists asked to use the magazine’s stories as inspiration. Talk among the crowd drifted toward fellowships, teaching posts, sabbaticals, benefits, writing projects started or stalled, magazine rejections and dying magazines.

At the bar, a skit ensued. Actors were performing “Bar Joke, Arizona,” a story by Sam Allingham, one of the debutantes. A priest, a minister and a rabbi walked up to the bar. The bartender asked them, “Does God smile on mediocrity?” Their replies, respectively: “Yes,” “No,” “Maybe.”

Master of ceremonies John Hodgman stepped up to the dais to narrate the procession. Mr. Hodgman has presided over literary events in Brooklyn’s converted industrial spaces for more than a decade. Parties a decade ago for the journal McSweeney’s, for which he wrote an advice column as a former book agent, had the feel of junior high talent shows for the literary insurgency. Mr. Hodgman’s later long-running Little Gray Book lecture series at Galapagos bar saw his crowd assume a mock academic authority. Tonight, entering their 40s and now part of the city’s literary firmament, Mr. Hodgman and his cohort were playing the role of the establishment, inducting their chosen heirs. Their generosity was met with reverence.

“It was fun while it lasted,” said Mr. Hodgman, referring to the era of the six-figure book deal. “Fire up your iPads. That’s the future.” He pointed out, however, that one of the debutantes, Ramona Ausubel, had the day before inked a two-book deal with Riverhead. Another’s story had been optioned for a movie. Mr. Hodgman’s effortless routine was weighed down some by the obligatory author bios, which he had been seen editing furiously before the ceremony.

“Now I will close the steel industrial curtain and carry out my plot to rid the world of its finest young writers,” Mr. Hodgman closed his routine.

The performance of “Bar Joke, Arizona” resumed, marred by crowd noise and microphone feedback. As an actor dressed in yellow to indicate he was a duck launched into what looked to be a long monologue, the Transom repaired to the parking lot, where the novelists Jonathan Lethem and Joshua Furst were discussing the relation of fact and fiction in the contemporary novel.

Mr. Hodgman was holding court by the door to the cargo bay. Helen Phillips, a fiction writer in a beige dress with a shaved head, presented him with a cupcake and thanked him for his work.

“You didn’t fill this with roofies, did you?” asked Mr. Hodgman.

The Transom asked Cote (pronounced like Cody) Smith whether writers attended parties like this where he lives in Kansas. “Of course they do,” he said. “What do you think goes on there? There aren’t as many great writers-or, the writers are great, they’re just not necessarily published.”

The Transom watched a first novelist thank Michael Cunningham, one of the escorts, for his example. When she walked away, Mr. Cunningham told the Transom, “It’s never been as hard for first novelists as it is now.

“I was once at a writer’s conference with Norman Mailer. Somebody asked us about the death of the novel. Mailer told him, ‘The novel will be at your funeral.’ The short story will be, too.” Literary Debutantes, Meet Publishing’s Apocalypse!