January 21, 2010
DH: It looks like I’m going to be snowed in this weekend. But next to my laptop is a collection of dark stories called Phoenix Noir from Akashic Books that I’m very eager to get to. It’s part of this notable pub’s series of original noir anthologies set in distinctive neighborhoods.
It got me thinking that NYC and London aren’t considered regions. They’re cosmopolitan centers where most of the media and opinion-making talking heads reside.
My favorite NYC park is the elevated High Line. On the westward side of this north/south running ribbon park is the east bank of the Hudson River. That’s the right side, the Manhattan side. Everything on the west bank side of the Hudson is a region.
But regional literature sort-of folds into itself anyway. Speaking as a bookseller, I don’t think most Southern fiction sells well outside of the South. A novel taking place in the Midwest is going to sell best in that part of the country. The prominent exceptions to this rule are just that…exceptions. But my guess is that novels taking place in London or NY sell everywhere and the Londoners and New Yorkers are reading each other…hell, the two cities might as well be joined together at the hip…New London York City.
I crashed this year when two Western locale novels that I loved were virtually ignored by the NY press. This local isolation of writers is not a good thing for our national American literature. How can we get writers from different regions to be read elsewhere and get the attention they need from the big media centers? How does a writer take to the national stage? What themes would a writer have to address to make make our regional literatures national, presuming that’s a good thing?
JE: Don’t get me started on the east coast bias! College Football fans have been decrying the injustice of this bias for decades. Anyone who thinks that the Washington Huskies deserved to share their 1991 national title with Miami, obviously bleeds east coast ink. The Huskies could’ve mopped the gridiron with Miami, and just about any other college team of the decade. But guess what? Hardly anybody back east watched them trounce Nebraska in week 2 in Lincoln, take down the toughest Cal squad anyone could remember in Berkeley, or even watched them crush Michigan in the Rose Bowl on New Years Day. As you point out, DH, many western writers have suffered the same indignity. If I’m not mistaken, Wallace Stegner, one of the greatest and most celebrated western writers of any era, was never reviewed in the New York Times– he won the National Book Award, won the Pulitzer, but still no coverage in the Times.
So, I’m here to even the playing field. Here’s my west coast bias. When we talk about our National Literature, hell, our National spirit, it seems to me that the western literary tradition– from Norris to London to Steinbeck to Stegner to Sandlin to Carlson–and the themes this literature routinely encompasses (expansion, individualism, greed, discovery, opportunity (and it’s doppelganger opportunism), the subversion of class and entitlement, the death of social convention, the mismanagement of the precious resources which came to define the new world order, and above all, that most resonant and enduring of all western themes (and it’s alive and well, today): POSSIBILITY, hits much closer to our National bone than a handful of dour New Englanders wrestling with morality, or suburban New Yorkers meditating on domestic despair. Though Whitman was born a Yankee, I sometimes think of Walt as the first great western writer, because to me he was among the first to address many of these themes, and because to this day, his tireless curiosity speaks loudly to westerners like me, those still yearning to discover, to push further west, to shed social convention, and invent ourselves.
Let’s not forget that the west has given us our most enduring genre, the Western. The western frontier is the perfect stage for any drama, because lawlessness allows–event dictates–that each character define their moral center through action. For all the good guys in white and bad guys in black, there is always the potential for great moral ambiguity. The shadowy world of Chandler’s L.A. crime noirs offers some of this same moral ambiguity. I guess I feel like the western tradition is more mythic, more rogue-like in its defiance of social convention, more restless, more adventuress, and generally less sedentary. How’s that for some western bias, huh? How does that feel to all you East coasters? Pretty reductive, right? Kind of pisses you off doesn’t it? Good! Pissed off is good! We westerners are always looking for axes to grind– that’s because we chop our own wood.
And finally, am I scared because my next book, West of Here, is about as western as a novel could ever possibly aspire to be? Hell yes, I’m scared nobody east of the Mississippi will read it! I’d love me some of that east coast ink! But what can I do about it? I heart New York, but hell if I’m moving there to live in a 400 square foot apartment just so I can see my name in the Times, when for the same price I’ve got 150 acres of woods behind my house and I can be in downtown Seattle in 35 minutes. Besides, you guys don’t want me out there pitching tents in central park, fishing the east river, and drinking all your beer.
JR: I don’t believe in regional literature. I’ve never even thought about it (if I do, does that mean I have to have some set of preexisting morals and checklists to look at while I’m reading a book that takes place in the south, or forgive a writer for something?). Bonnie Jo Campbell’s collection, American Salvage was published by a regional publisher, and was nominated for the NBA. I heard about it on NPR while driving down the NJ Parkway. It takes place in the Michigan area. I never once thought what I was reading meaning more or less to me because of where it took place. East vs. West literature; I guess there are LA/WA writers, and their style and methodology is different, but do I care? Bret Easton Ellis wrote some books that had a cool breeze feeling to them, a freedom, and wealth, nothing I could identify with, but seemed more like escapism. I read Layer Cake for the same reason, London mobsters intrigue me, and their vernacular is amazing. I watch MI:5 for the same reasons, escapism, and critical whipping of America. I’ve tried Faulkner, didn’t do anything for me. I like Updike and Cheever, because it seems to accurately point to what I’m feeling. New England is more or less where I’m from. I was born in Seattle, and lived on Bainbridge Island, but the only time I really think of it, is when JE talks about it. The difference between this conversation in 2009 opposed to what it would be like 30 years ago, is probably what we should be talking about. The internet has opened the world to us. Nothing is regional anymore; it’s a plane ride away. When I go to Rhode Island to visit family, I don’t sound like I’m from there, but everyone else does. I move a half dozen times from Seattle to the east coast growing up, so I never really got what it was like to live somewhere and ingest the culture (like JE is with college football, and the Huskies, which I should be a fan of). I still like Carver because it was the first thing I really read, his stories take place in that part of the country where the land and sea meant something to the writing, and the people are still coming to grips with the human experience. It doesn’t mean anything to me that it takes place in the Pacific Northwest.
JC: As JR illustrates, we’ve become as transient a society as we ever have been, barring a few extreme occasions. My working classb grandparents lived in, I believe, three or four houses in their entire life; my parents, a few more. I’ll easily double their total, I suspect. We move at the slightest change in our situation, across the street, across town, across country. And the internet has opened the world, but I think JR is entirely wrong. Just because you can go there doesn’t mean the regional has dissolved. If you can’t see the difference between Oregon and Florida, in the landscape and in the people, you are spending too much time in Starbucks and not enough observing what makes these places unique.
And regional writing often reflects that. Sure, there is plenty of bad regional writing, but is that any different from genre writing? Good regional writing reflects elements of the society, and the people there, which, believe it or not, are different from one place to another, Ideally, good regional writing is just good writing. We talk a lot about why people read and write. You or I or the other Guys might like a wide range of writing styles and locales, but I won’t begrudge someone who likes something a little closer to home.
How to sell it? Well, I presume a great deal is decided in house at publishing houses, where they decide how aggressively they want to sell it. Once they decide its reach is limited, it becomes a self-fulfilling proposition because that’s how the money is spent, regional papers and advertising, small tours. So, maybe our readers have some ideas on how to move a book from “regional lit” to “lit”.