Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Bureaucracy and regionalism

The writers’ workshops have established a nationalized bureaucracy of writers who, in their professional lives, are more loyal to the organizational culture of creative writing, which stretches from coast to coast—and to their own career advancement—than to the locales in which they accidentally find themselves.

The result has been, ever since the emergence of a literary generation whose experience is limited to creative writing, the almost complete disappearance of regionalism from American fiction. Where, for example, is Michael Chabon’s “little postage stamp of earth”? Or Paul Auster’s? Or Denis Johnson’s? T. C. Boyle has never set two novels in the same place. Jonathan Franzen began his career by chronicling St. Louis’s demographic decline to the rank of Twenty-Seventh City, but then immediately he abandoned the scene of his growing up. The Corrections is set all over the place: in the vaguely located Midwestern city of St. Jude, at D——— College, in a New York consisting of familiar names but no specific details, in suburban Philadelphia, principally indoors, even in a post-Soviet Lithuania about which the best that can be said is No, we are not free-market, no, we are not globalized—which does not make it feel any more Lithuanian.

For American novelists who have begun their careers since 1970, geographical variation appears to be a way of lending variety to their novels. Even Francine Prose, who mainly sets her fiction in New York and its environs, where she has lived most of her life, wanders from place to place within this relatively small geographical area: the Hudson River Valley in Primitive People, Fire Island and Manhattan (and then Arizona, where she briefly taught) in Hunters and Gatherers, the city and Rockland County in A Changed Man, the Taconics in Goldengrove.

And when a writer “roots” his fiction in a place, it is often to create a base from which to launch expeditions elsewhere—as when Tim O’Brien sets In the Lake of the Woods in his native Minnesota so that his characters can turn to more important matters, including flashbacks and memories and secrets. Much the same is true for Frank Bascombe in Richard Ford’s overpraised trilogy. The novels are headquartered in New Jersey, where the ex-Sportswriter has a home. But Frank Bascombe’s New Jersey is not Philip Roth’s New Jersey. As a real estate agent, Bascombe is dedicated to moving property, not settling on it. The New Jersey of Ford’s novels is merely representative of American suburban sprawl. Which is to say that it can be found everywhere and nowhere.

There are exceptions, of course. One reason Marilynne Robinson stands apart from the rest of her generation is in her abiding respect for place and her clear determination to plant fiction firmly in a specific locale. Although Housekeeping takes place in a small Idaho town and Gilead takes place in a small Iowa town, Robinson returns to the setting of her second novel in writing Home, her third, testifying to her ambition to burrow more deeply into the story of the place. Her readers could find themselves around Gilead, Iowa, by using her novels as a map. Geography is of equal importance to Richard Russo. Although they are in three different states, the deteriorating rust-belt cities of Nobody’s Fool, Straight Man, and Empire Falls—Russo’s three best novels—illustrate what Allen Tate calls “that habit of men in a given locality which influences them to certain patterns of thought and conduct handed to them by their ancestors.”

With these words Tate defines regionalism, and Russo cannot exactly be described as a regionalist. Better to say that the characters in his best books inhabit equivalent sociological milieux. The regional differences between New York, Pennsylvania, and Maine interest Russo less than the sociological similarities.

The sort of regionalism defined by Tate has yielded to the national network of writers’ workshops. Even a writing program like Stanford’s, which was founded by the regionalist writers Wallace Stegner and Yvor Winters, has been nationalized. Creative writers are now primarily committed to their art or craft, which is just another way of saying that their client is the agency which trained and employs them. They may have offices in different locations, but their ambitions and interests have been centralized.


Kevin said...

In your opinion, are there any creative writers who have successfully emerged from the Combine to write a compelling, regionalized fiction? And where does Cather fit in your assessment? Best, Kevin

D. G. Myers said...

Not really—not so far. As I have said before, the best of their generation are Francine Prose and Marilynne Robinson, two “lifers” in the workshops.

But Cather? Cather? I am not sure how she fits in here, why you asked about her. She is one of America’s greats. Her people—even her priests and professors—are dependent upon the land.

Kevin said...

I asked about her because I hoped you might say something more about Cather, landscape, and regional fiction. Cheers, K

D. G. Myers said...

I have discussed Cather’s patriotism, the lesbianism imputed to her by some critics, and the illogic of reading Death Comes for the Archbishop “queerly,” and have nominated The Professor’s House for a place among the Five Books of professors.

But nothing yet on landscape and place in Cather, except in passing.

Jonathan said...

Dr. Meyers,

I wonder if the blame deserves to be placed solely at the feet of writers' workshops.

Couldn't the the dearth of regionalism (as you and Tate define it) in American fiction be explained by the many changes in post war American society?

Lately, I've been immersing myself in J.F. Powers, Peter Taylor and William Maxwell, and can see the centrality of place in their work.

Maxwell (b. 1908), Taylor (b.1917), and Powers (b. 1917) injected geography into their novels in part, because they lived in, and remembered, an America that was truly made up of disparate regions.

Novelists who have begun their careers since 1970 can safely be characterized as being born after the Second World War. Since then, the interstate highway, network television and a more mobile labour force have altered the American experience. We now bemoan the loss of the dialects, consumer products and folklore that were once exclusive to particular regions of the country.

Might then the absence of regionalism in more contemporary fiction be a result of Boyle (b.1948), Johnson (b.1949), Franzen (b.1959), and Chabon (b.1963) simply not having experienced it as fully - if at all - as earlier writers did?


Claudius Vandermeer said...

This is startlingly perceptive--an angle on the fallout from the MFA generation that I hadn't thought of. You're absolutely right.

On the other hand, I wonder if it may have something to do with a broader homogenization visible especially in America but, to a certain extent, Britain also? I've moved around most of my adult life chasing the academic mirage, and I've found that one college town is virtually identical to another, ceteris paribus--at this point, even the richly (ostentatiously?) historical roots of a university like Virginia feel like stage furnishings.

Then there's the issue of the vanishing hometown. Most of us now being raked off into the university system grew up in practically identical suburbs, sucking down actually identical mass media, children of wanderers down to the second generation. Even if I wanted to write a poetry of place about Clarksville, Tennessee--well, I doubt I could. There's no there there.

I'm achingly nostalgic for my native state, but it's a nostalgia for the climate, the particular brambly woods of the Cumberland plateau and especially the cicadas. Isn't that sad? I have more connection to an insect than to any particular community.

Tom B. said...

One place to find regionalism today is in crime fiction. I'm thinking of writers like Robert B. Parker and Dennis Lehane, whose works are steeped in Boston landmarks and lore. Then there's Laura Lippman (Baltimore), Richard Price (NYC), George Pelecanos (D.C.), James Ellroy (L.A.), just to name a few. Regionalism's very important to that genre. In the best of their books, the city almost becomes another character.

michael reidy said...

Tangential to your American point are the Irishmen McCann, O'Connor and Tobin who have moved their fiction to New York and have taken to writing research novels. It's a good marketing move no doubt. McCann seems to have suffered a feminist makeover too. He actually said on a literary RTE programme the other night that he wanted to be a good dad.

Richard said...

Jonathan makes more or less the point I was going to make. I'd add only that, for all their many faults, in this case the workshops seem merely to be reflecting (though perhaps reinforcing) the "placelessness" tendency you describe.

Alissa said...

I think the best writer working today who sets his fiction in one place is Kent Haruf. He was my teacher; my novel, What This River Keeps, tries to dedicate that same sort of place-love to southern Indiana. It's interesting to think about how rare this mindset is these days.

James Marcus said...

How about the Minneapolis born and bred Charles Baxter? Not sure he attended an MFA program, but he directed one for a long, long time.

Ian Wolcott said...

I can’t speak to the MFA issue since most books that stink of writer’s workshops and such things I avoid on principle.

But I want to say that anyone sure there are no longer any significant (for the purposes of fiction) regional differences in the US isn’t looking and listening closely. Yes, there’s a broader cultural homogenization at work, but it doesn’t often go very deep into the loam, I think. At the same time, those regional differences that do exist may be perceived to be in a special sort of flux these days. Through demographic and other changes, I wonder if there isn’t a sense of constantly impending transformation, as if the world one knew growing up in, say, southern Indiana or California’s Central Valley, were about to vanish forever anyway, or already has. Maybe there’s a fear of regional commitment because no one wants to be responsible for singing the swan song of a particular place.

Or perhaps it’s just that a strong regional sense requires a strong sense of the past (think Hawthorne, Faulkner), which most Americans are allergic to. Didn’t the past become irrelevant back in 1967?

Barbara said...

By chance, I was able to attend a discussion by Marilyn Robinson last night in Kansas City MO. She is unusual in her approach to writing. This was the second time I have heard her discuss her works and find I mull over what she said for days.

Anne Tyler certianly has mined Balitmore for her work. I just started her most recent book, Noah's Compass. Tyler is like Monet's Water Lilies, she keeps doing variations on the same subject, family and Balitmore.

R/T said...

In building upon Jonathan's comment, I would argue that regionalism in American literature may be an anachronism because of cultural and social changes more than anything else; beginning in the 50s, the interstate system exerted its influence; at about the same time, the rapid growth of affordable air travel had an impact; in the 90s, the Internet, cellphones, and related technology transformed every aspect of American society There are few remaining regions (definable by isolation and singularity) remaining in the country; e.g., once upon a time, I could travel from western Pennsylvania (where I grew up) to NYC, Georgia, Florida, Montana, and southern California, and I would experience little "culture shocks" at each location, but those "culture shocks" have mostly disappeared as the American society has become more homogenized and less regionalized. So, is it any wonder that uniquely geographical and cultural regional writers are more difficult to find?

Matt said...

It requires serious literary tunnel vision to "blame" MFA programs for the dearth of regionalism in American writing. Would James, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald, to name just three, have been better writers if they'd focused all of their fiction on their hometowns? And, more recently, what about Cormac McCarthy? I can't imagine him sitting in a college writing workshop, yet he's shifted locales as well. Just because some writers prefer to set all of their work in one place doesn't mean that all of them must.

PMH said...

Inasmuch as I have read Myers's book on creative writing, I know that he might also add that the new regionalism might be academia, the true (often ill-adaptive) region of these writers' development and allegiance. And what can one say about this region since its corporatization by administrators and politicization by writers' colleagues? The lack of "region" may also have much to do with formal changes in some writer's fiction, the tendency to parody, for example, of old formal categories. That these phenomena might be related would be interesting to consider.