Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The decline of region

It is not true that I “blame” the graduate writers’ workshops for the decline of region and place in American fiction, as one commentator charges. Nor am I suggesting that locating fiction requires a novelist to immortalize his hometown—as John O’Hara did to Pottstown Pottsville (Gibbsville in the novel) in Appointment in Samarra. Although The Great Gatsby is not set in Fitzgerald’s native St. Paul, it does not take place in some nebulous utopia. The “holocaust” that occurs in the novel could have occurred nowhere else but on Long Island.

So strongly is Long Island identified with Gatsby, in fact, that Alice McDermott—a child of the Island—explicitly sets herself in a line of descent from Fitzgerald. In Charming Billy (1998), she describes the characteristically lower middle-class Long Island of her fiction as a “toehold in a world of spacious lawns and famous artists and summer colonies where wealthy people had once called their mansions cottages. . . .”

McDermott is unusual for her generation, though. When one of her contemporaries makes use of a Long Island setting—think of the suburban house to which Sammy and Rosa move in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, for example—the result is an exact fictional address (127 Lavoisier Street, Bloomtown) and a hasty evocation of a place that could be located almost anywhere (“as if Bloomtown, with its swimming pools, jungle gyms, lawns, and dazzling sidewalks, were the various and uniform sea of childhood itself”).

The problem is that an entire generation of American writers since 1970 has belonged to a common tradition, sharing a common background and forging common ties:

Richard Ford (MFA, Irvine, 1970)
Kent Haruf (MFA, Iowa, 1973)
Thom Jones (MFA, Iowa, 1973)
T. C. Boyle (MFA, Iowa, 1974)
Allan Gurganus (MFA, Iowa, 1974)
Ron Hansen (MFA, Iowa, 1974)
Denis Johnson (MFA, Iowa, 1974)
Edward P. Jones (MFA, Virginia, n.d.)
Melvin Jules Bukiet (MFA, Columbia, 1976)
Ellen Gilchrist (MFA, Arkansas, 1976)
Alice McDermott (MA, New Hampshire, 1978)
Tobias Wolff (Wallace Stegner Fellow; MA, Stanford, 1978)
Jayne Anne Phillips (MFA, Iowa, 1978)
Louise Erdrich (MA, Hopkins, 1979)
Lee Martin (MFA, Arkansas, n.d.)
Michael Cunningham (MFA, Iowa, 1980)
Jim Shepard (MFA, Brown, 1980)
Madison Smartt Bell (MA, Hollins, 1981)
Cristina Garcia (MA, Hopkins, 1981)
Richard Russo (MFA, Arizona, 1981)
Padgett Powell (MFA, Houston, 1982)
Bob Shacochis (MFA, Iowa, 1982)
Robert Olmstead (MFA, Syracuse, 1983)
Eileen Pollack (MFA, Iowa, 1983)
David Wroblewski (MFA, Warren Wilson College, n.d.)
Susan Straight (MFA, UMass Amherst, 1984)
Brad Watson (MFA, Alabama, 1985)
Michael Chabon (MFA, Irvine, 1986)
Jeffrey Eugenides (MA, Stanford, 1986)
Ann Patchett (MFA, Iowa, 1987)
David Foster Wallace (MFA, Arizona, 1987)
A. M. Homes (MFA, Iowa, 1988)
Tom Perrotta (MFA, Syracuse, 1988)
Renè Steinke (MFA, Virginia, 1988)
Dan Chaon (MFA, Syracuse, 1990)
Elizabeth McCracken (MFA, Iowa, 1990)
Christine Schutt (MFA, Columbia, n.d.)
Abraham Verghese (MFA, Iowa, 1991)
Paul Harding (MFA, Iowa, n.d.)
Jhumpa Lahiri (MA, Boston University, n.d.)
Janet Peery (MFA, Wichita State, 1992)
Junot Diaz (MFA, Cornell, n.d.)
Kevin Canty (MFA, Arizona, 1993)
Edwidge Danticat (MFA, Brown, 1993)
Martha McPhee (MFA, Columbia, 1994)
Susan Choi (MFA, Cornell, 1995)
Bonnie Jo Campbell (MFA, Western Michigan, 1998)
Tova Mirvis (MFA, Columbia, 1998)
Alice Sebold (MFA, Irvine, 1998)
Kamila Shamsie (MFA, UMass-Amherst, n.d.)
Adam Haslett (MFA, Iowa, 1999)
Z. Z. Packer (MFA, Iowa, 1999)
Rachel Kushner (MFA, Columbia, 2000)
Sarah Shun-lien Bynum (MFA, Iowa, n.d.)
Salvatore Scibona (MFA, Iowa, n.d.)
Joshua Ferris (MFA, Irvine, 2003)
Daniyal Mueenuddin (MFA, Arizona, 2004)

The foregoing list could have been extended even farther. What outsiders to university life may not fully realize is that academic disciplines are organized nationally rather than locally. Academic openings are not advertised in the local paper, but in a national job list. The case of someone like Susan Straight, a native of Riverside, California (my own hometown), who moved up from teaching at the city’s junior college to a professorship at the University of California campus there, is vanishingly rare. Career advancement typically entails packing up and relocating across the country.

In truth, the whole idea of a literary career has been redefined since 1970 in academic terms. When she graduated with a masters degree from Harvard in 1969, Francine Prose followed her husband to India and launched herself as a novelist by writing a novel. “What’s hard to get people to understand now is, at that time, there were hardly any MFA programs, and no idea of a career track for writers,” she said later, looking back upon the start of her career. She did not even have a “sense of career” when she started out—“it was much more like play,” she said.

Now, however, a young writer settles upon a literary career by attending a graduate writers’ workshop where she will be instructed in a curriculum that varies little from school to school, and certainly not according to the place where the school happens to be located. After graduation she will join something like a diplomatic corps, being posted from place to place, most likely without ever setting down roots in anything but the common background and common ties of her generation.


Michael Goodell said...

Excellent observations. I write about a place, the Midwest, as it is. My problem with MFA's is even when they try to honestly depict the heartland, they do so with condescension.

R/T said...

Does not the singularity of regional writing tend to evaporate when it becomes a redundant parody of itself?

Southern writers, for example, including Faulkner, Welty, and O'Connor, to name a few, offered readers something new and fresh from and about a particular region; however, two or three generations later, writers attempting the same kind of regional writing run the risk of stereotypical imitation of their antecedents.

So, to my mind, regional writing, has a limited shelf-life because unique originality gives way to redundancy.

Now, as for the question about how MFA programs and academia may be involved in the redundancy, someone else might have some ideas.

D. G. Myers said...

I don’t agree, Tim. As the commentator who identified himself only as Tim B. pointed out, “One place to find regionalism today is in crime fiction.”

He named several current practitioners of the genre, but I want to reserve praise for the late Charles Willeford. If you haven’t read his Miami novels, you don’t know what you are missing. Much of their distinctiveness can be chalked up to the unmistakability with which Willeford describes Miami.

As Welty wrote, “It seems plain that the art that speaks most clearly, explicitly, directly and passionately from its place of origin will remain the longest understood.” By place of origin, Welty doesn’t mean the writer’s birthplace, but “wherever birth, chance, fate or our traveling selves set us down. . . .”

Place in fiction is necessary for the same reason that postmodernists have correctly said that a philosopher’s viewpoint is necessary: in the words of Thomas Nagel, there is no news from nowhere.

K said...

No news from nowhere? You probably mean the "view from nowhere," which is a famous comment about the aspectual nature of consciousness from a 1st-person POV. Or I'm missing a clever turn of phrase. Best, Kevin

R/T said...

Thanks for the suggestion. I'm off to find something by Willeford.

In the meantime, perhaps we're talking at cross-purposes about "regionalism" because we may have different definitions. In fact, coming up with an adequate, agree upon definition might be more than half the problem in the discussion.

D. G. Myers said...

No, I mean “no news from nowhere.” All news—all human utterance—must be delivered from a standpoint that is located somewhere in space and time. There is neither utopianism nor universalism.

Denver Bibliophile said...

You don't investigate the cultural background of the people you mention in your list. I suspect they may all have a very similar cultural background -- suburbia and middle class value system.

A related issue is that of how the extant culture of MFA programs selects for writers who share that culture. I am thinking of Althusser's concept of mirroring.

The answer is to create an open-source program: a site where those who want to learn to write fiction and those who are willing to teach it come together, post stories, get critiques, watch Youtube lectures, respond via Youtube and attend virtual classes via Coveritlive.com
A virtual community of writers and teachers who do it only because they love writing. Is anyone interested in such a project? We could call it the eMFA. Anyone brave enough for such a radically avant garde practice?

Kenneth said...

I do "blame" MFA programs for regimented programs that stifle creativity. Instead of spending three years of your life in a classroom, move to Paris or Beijing or a remote village in Africa if you want to be a writer. Experience speaks volumes for any writer (or artist). Look no further than those we idolize for proof. This piece was a great one and worth reading and thinking about.

Richard LeComte said...

It's interesting you mention Long Island on this blog post. Long Island (where I grew up) for a long time was seen as generic suburbia, when it is anything but ... it's a bizarre mix of ethnic enclaves -- basically NYC moving east. Have any writers really captured this mosaic?

Also, some of the other comments have mentioned that contemporary writers didn't grow up in one place, or they went to college in the Northeast after growing up in a "flyover," or all of America has become a generic hodgepodge -- all of which are sort of right, and sort of wrong. We moved from Nevada to Alabama a couple of years ago, and the differences in culture and attitudes (not to mention accents) were stunning.

BTW, Steve Yarbrough, a writer whose work I follow, has been part of the MFA bureaucracy, having gotten his MFA at Arkansas, then taught at Fresno State and Emerson. But just about all his novels are set in his own little plot of earth -- a fictional county in Mississippi -- and one of his novels dealt with a doctor moving back to Mississippi from California. Perhaps the reason he stands out is because he is so unusual.

J said...

The decline of regionalism in fiction is a direct result of the rapid commercialization of American cities and their surrounding areas, a situation created largely by the "free-market" capitalism, xenophobia, and consumerism espoused by right-wing Republicans. How do you become a regionalist in a country where each region is losing its distinctive character? What's the difference between growing up in McKinney, Texas versus Birmingham, Michigan? Probably not much, except that maybe in the latter they don't try to teach you in school that "Intelligent Design" is a legitimate theory. MFA programs aren't to blame for that.

Adam said...

For regionalism's sake, the seat of my home county, Schuylkill County, PA, and the hometown of O'Hara is Pottsville, PA. Pottstown is an outer suburb of Philly about 1 1/2 hr. away from Pottsville. I am from the dark, quiet PA Dutch farmlands that O'Hara's characters look out on from the country club balcony in Gibbsville. Thanks for the discussion,

Adam Koontz

Shelley said...

Not on the list.
Definitely rooted in the land.
Too depressed about the oil spill to write more here.

But thanks for saying some things no one else has said.

rjnagle said...

I experienced some of this when I attended a panel in Houston in the early 1990s about the "writer in Houston" -- only to find that the writers on the panel were Richard Howard, Mary Robinson and Rosellen Brown! (If you know the background of these writers, you'll know how absurd this selection was to talk about the subject). I think I was the only writer in the room with anything to do with Houston (and even though I grew up in Houston, I would hardly describe my writing as regional).

Your insights about literary careers and academia seem stale. Perhaps it was true in the 1990s, but the academic market has changed over the decade. There are more professional writing programs (publishing & technical writing & digital arts as opposed to creative writing). Also a greater ratio of creative writing programs are part-time (perhaps because the full time programs recognize the difficulty of finding academic jobs). And the proliferation of adjunct jobs means all the appointments are short-term. And let's be honest; very few people are going to pack up and move to another city merely for an adjunct position.

I graduated from a prestigious creative writing program in the late 80s. Out of the 15 people in our program, 3/4 of us have published books, 1 found a job at a university (but quickly left it), 2 did adjunct teaching for a while, I taught at universities overseas but could not dream of finding a higher ed teaching job in the States. About a third of my class teach at high school, a third work in some form of publishing, and a third are in business/law. Almost all of us have stayed in the region where we grew up (although most of us have traveled a bit in between).

In the 80s and 90s literary journals resided in academic departments and had an influential role to play in setting literary standards. Nowadays, post-Internet, almost none of these literary journals are relevant even for serious readers (with the exception perhaps of VQR). Academic journals and internships at these journals are no longer a stepping stone to literary success; it's much more important to start a web project or find an agent interested in your stuff.

While it may be true that academic writers are disconnected from the place they teach at, these writers are such a tiny sliver of the serious writers out there that I don't think you can generalize.

I think your observations were true and valid for writers in the 80s and 90s (and maybe the 70s). But not anymore.

D. G. Myers said...

I think your observations were true and valid for writers in the 80s and 90s (and maybe the 70s). But not anymore.

Counter examples, then, please.

Your insights about literary careers and academia seem stale. . . . [T]he proliferation of adjunct jobs means all the appointments are short-term.

Adjuncts do not drive any discipline in the university.

I experienced some of this when I attended a panel in Houston in the early 1990s about the “writer in Houston”—only to find that the writers on the panel were Richard Howard, Mary Robinson and Rosellen Brown! (If you know the background of these writers, you’ll know how absurd this selection was to talk about the subject).

Rosellen Brown lived in Houston for several years, and even belonged to a Houston shul.

Carol Sklenicka said...

I share your skepticism about MFA programs, but blaming them for the lack of authentic regionalism in our literature is like blaming teachers for all the problems of our schools. The MFA industry sustains itself though, and the 10,000 people showing up at AWP every year seem to like it that way. Nonetheless, what I see in the supposedly cutting edge Bay Area literary scene is something similar to what one hears about in Brooklyn. If you look at the career of DAve Eggers and those who emulate him, you see people inventing literary life on a pre-MFA and post-MFA model. Likewise, business models are changing in the tech world, as recent piece in the New Yorker by Nathan Heller shows. Still. Other elites prevail. I had heard that Nathan Heller attended an elite SF private school and just looked him up to see he also attended Harvard. What is the relationship of regionalism and what you used to call provincialism, David?