Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Striking no roots

Over at The Story Is the Cure, a new blog written by an MFA student at Wichita State, Casey Pycior is sure that I am “blaming MFA programs (and those who teach in them)” for what I had called, back in May, “the almost complete disappearance of regionalism from American fiction.” I despair of correcting this misconception when even my publisher assigns me to the side that is against creative writing.

Photo by Alan Traeger

Perhaps Pycior’s other errors are more easily corrected, though. The dispute over whether regionalism has almost completely disappeared may never be settled. Pycior reels off a list of practicing novelists to refute me—Stuart Dybek, Ron Rash, Tom Franklin, William Gay, Chris Offutt, Edward P. Jones, David Rhodes, Daniel Woodrell, Benjamin Percy, Whitney Terrell—without making a case that any of these are regional writers.

Here a large share of the mistake is mine, because I never bothered to define regionalism the first time around. A geographer gives the standard definition in his discipline: “Regionalism is taken to mean the awareness of togetherness among a people of a relatively large area.” The region must be a subdivision of a larger political or geographical unit: “Scotland, for instance, is only a regionalism if viewed from a Britain-wide perspective. . . .”[1]

This is why regionalism is usually described in literature as a movement, not a scattering of individual cases. It is the “awareness of togetherness” that connects a self-aware group of writers, who experience their common region as a deeper influence upon their thinking and story-telling than what the novelist Mary Austin called “the lesser influences of a shared language and a common political arrangement.” In fact, Austin blamed the whole disappointed wait for “the great American novel” on the “genuine inability of various regions to see greatness in novels that dealt with fine and subtle distinctions in respect to some other region.”[2]

How ironic it is, then, that Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom is being hailed as the great American novel (at last!). Interviewing him for Boundary 2 last year, Christopher Connery acknowledged that “[i]t’s hard to say that regionalism has much purchase on the general literary imagination these days,” but went ahead and asked Franzen what regionalism meant to him. His reply measures the extent of regionalism’s disappearance from American fiction. Franzen launches into a long meditation on the Midwest, where innocence is prolonged because of a lack of “immediate contact” with New York and Washington and Hollywood, a “time lag” in learning about what people the same age living on the coasts had already learned about, which “produces both a sense of optimism and a kind of reactive curdled cynicism.” Defining the boundaries of the Midwest, though, Franzen says:I think it begins around Columbus, Ohio—Thurberville—and stretches west. Anything below I-70 is basically southern. And that’s true right across Missouri. My Midwest is bounded on the south by I-70. It stretches all the way to about an hour east of Denver and includes pretty much all of the Great Plains states north of I-70.[3]This isn’t a region he is describing; it’s an entire dominion. No wonder his novels are so expansive if this is how Franzen conceives of a region. The difference is memorably captured by C. S. Lewis:It is the difference between knowing, say, Worcestershire inside out, while remaining ignorant of the rest of the world, and knowing four or five European capitals while striking no roots in any single European soil.[4]Those who have noticed the disappearance of regionalism blame it on what Franzen calls “our new technologies, and our homogenized exurbs and suburbs,” which are eradicating regional differences. Casey Pycior agrees:Things have become so homogenized, particularly in the suburbs, that someone could be picked up from one of these places and dropped into another and have no idea where they were, geographically speaking, or perhaps that they’d even moved at all. Perhaps this is what Mr. Myers was getting at, but I’m not so sure.This is nothing like what I am getting at. My argument is that a lifetime in creative writing workshops, which encourage writers to identify them­selves with a bureaucratized national class of state employees, prevents them from striking roots in any single American soil, and thus unfits them, like Franzen, from making fine and subtle distinctions between, say, Columbus and Terre Haute and Webster Groves.

[1] David B. Knight, “Identity and Territory: Geographical Perspectives on Nationalism and Regionalism,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 72 (1982): 518.

[2] Mary Austin, “Regionalism in American Fiction,” English Journal 21 (Feb. 1932): 98–99.

[3] Christopher Connery, “The Liberal Form: An Interview with Jonathan Franzen,” Boundary 2 36 (Summer 2009): 40–42.

[4] C. S. Lewis, “The Idea of an ‘English School,’ ” in Representations and Other Essays (London: Oxford University Press, 1939), pp. 74-75.


Levi Stahl said...

D. G.,
In that post for the University of Chicago Press blog, I didn't assign you to the side that is against creative writing--I said that you're highly skeptical about how it's currently practiced. In evidence, I used your own headline--"Against Creative Writing"--and your own words about how the current system "has no larger purpose."

That aside: you're right about Franzen's completely misguided explanation of the Midwest. I've lived in Illinois almost my whole life, but I've lived in its rural and its urban areas, and I've got siblings in Indiana, friends in Wisconsin and Michigan and Iowa, and each of those places is distinct enough to make the differences interesting, should a novelist choose to take them up. (Which leaves aside the question of whether Franzen is even right about the traits he ascribes, period: when was the last time the Midwest really felt as disconnected for teens as he suggests? Before the Internet?)

D. G. Myers said...


“Skeptical” I will accept, but I am not really against creative writing, only the way it is conceived and taught at present.

Franzen’s answer about the Midwest is ridiculous. As someone who now lives in Columbus, I can tell you that no one here thinks of it as “Thurberville.” (Buckeyeland, maybe.)


Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

I had always wondered why, as a Midwesterner, I felt such an affinity for Faulkner, Welty, and O'Connor. Now I see that it is because, having grown up about a mile south of I-70, I am "basically southern." How exciting.

Chris Offutt is the only writer on that list who I have read. He's an interesting case - three books of fiction in the 1990s, all about the eastern Kentucky hill country. Since then, a memoir, comic books and television about vampires.

D. G. Myers said...

Franzen names Fitzgerald as a Midwestern writer, which reminds me of perhaps my favorite scene in The Great Gatsby. On their first drive together, Jay tells Nick that he is “the son of some wealthy people in the Middle West—all dead now.”

“What part of the Middle West?” I inquired casually.

“San Francisco.”

Franzen’s sense of geography is just about as steady.

StealthJew said...

That blog entry seems hardly worth responding to.

"Things have become so homogenized, particularly in the suburbs, that someone could be picked up from one of these places and dropped into another and have no idea where they were, geographically speaking, or perhaps that they'd even moved at all. "

Really? This isn't even true for the various suburbs of my single city.

Tom B. said...

Re: Chris Offutt: A dude's gotta eat. (Hmmm, I'd noticed a "Chris Offutt" in writing credits for "True Blood," but wasn't sure it was the same guy. His daddy, Andrew, was a writer of fantasy and sf, so I guess it runs in the family.)

Perpetual Pilgrim said...

Out of curiosity as a tried-and-true Pacific Northwesterner here - do you consider David Guterson a regional author? Would you indentify any particular authors with the PNW?

Casey Pycior said...

Mr. Myers -
To begin with, I apologize if my response to your original post came of as less than respectful. It wasn't my intention. In fact, it never really crossed my mind that you, or any of your readers would ever see it. That said, though, I stand by what I wrote.

I appreciate your comments, but I guess we'll just have to agree to disagree on this one. As you said, the fact that we both (you in or original post, and me in my response) fail to define "regionalism" shows how slippery a literary label can be.

While I do seem to agree with Franzen's idea of "new technologies, and our homogenized exurbs and suburbs," as a lifetime Midwesterner, I think his ideas about the region, and regionalism in general are pretty far off.

Ultimately, I think we simply disagree about what makes certain writers and their writing "regional." On top of that, it appears our experiences in and around MFA programs differs greatly. MFA programs are certainly bureaucratic, though I would argue not to the extent to which you make them. Or at least I wouldn't go so far as to say they influence the places - or regions - their students write about.

I'm not sure if you seen this or not (I didn't see it on your blog), but you might be interested in Anis Shivani's take on MFA programs. He's got an essay in this month's Boulevard magazine.


Shivani and I don't see eye to eye, either, though I think you might enjoy it. His essay is interesting nonetheless.

Great talking with you -