On Regional Literature

By | on January 6, 2010 | 20 Comments

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”.

20 Responses to “On Regional Literature”

  1. January 6, 2010

    Patrick T. Kilgallon Reply

    Nice topic. As a Deaf person, I feel insecure about regionalism in terms of Southern Literature and have a hard time distinguishing the differences betweeen one book based on the west and another book based in the east coast. Also now we are living in as Tom Wolf calls it, ‘Seven Eleven land’ as well as Jon mentioned, ‘Starbucks’ and as an everyday middle class kid who grew in the suburbterran blahs that many people in the previous generations wrote about as a doomsday medicore culture, I think most of my dialogues are a bit bland and snotty as if the world owes me a decent living. I think with the expansion of the community development neighborhoods and their values, we might be doomed to totally ignore the regionalism in literatures and just focus on the durned story. Which is interestingly ironic since the first narratives were from oral traditions and might depend on terms of expressions and speeches from the hearing world and depended on where they are from.

  2. January 6, 2010

    James Othmer Reply

    Great post and topic. Have you guys seen the spreadsheet making the rounds about the demographics of 2009 New Yorker fiction contributors? Here’s the link to a post about it on The Millions http://www.themillions.com/2010/01/new-yorker-fiction-by-the-numbers.html
    In case the link fails, a few facts surprised me: The top three contributors, Alice Munro (12 stories), William Trevor (10) and Tessa Hadley (10) were not from the US (though Canada, Ireland and Britain are about as close as it gets). Also, rounding out the rest of the top contributors: Boyle (8), Saunders (7), Lethem (7), Erdrich (7), Updike (7), Doyle, Murakami and Nelson, only Lethem (and I may be wrong) is a New Yorker, joined only by Updike of Pennsylvania, Mass and now points beyond as part of the East Coast crew.

    Also, JE, Stegner can join Dick Yates and many other notables snubbed by The New Yorker.

    Most savvy independent and chain stores will make an effort to promote local talent. If the story is also local, even more so. In NY, this has its pros and cons. Getting great play in a NY store is wonderful, but to do so one has to compete against countless other “locals”, many of whom have some form of major award or genius grant. Don’t even get me started on Brooklyn. Breaking out nationally is another story and again, while I believe New York based writers seem to fare better than others, in part because of they are in the publishing and media and publication connection capital of the country, a case could be made that they deserve it, because they broke out in a region that has a huge concentration of writers, all trying to do the same.

    So does great talent usually win the day? Is there a regional bias? Or is overcoming regional stigma a marketing problem? I make reading choices based on the recos of friends, reviews, reputation of the author and the underground bookpeople buzz that announces emerging talent (bizarre covers occasionally get me, too.) But when someone says This is a grand Southern Novel or a Western or a Manhattan Novel of Manners my guard goes up, because I’m put off by the tropes that have accumulated like on them like barnacles over the years. I don’t read Pamuk because I’m jonesing for an Istanbul vibe, or McCarthy because I want to experience the South (or West, or incest in a trailor). I read their books because they have the promise to be special, and to transcend the regional cliches and make me think of a place and our place in it in an entirely new way.

    I’m not sure how I’d position West of Here, JE. Sure it’s set in the West, new and old, but it’s structure and language is fresh and contemporary. I’m sure you’ve got the entire NW region covered but how to get us Eastern snobs to pay attention? If I’m not mistaken Boyle broke out with his novel World’s End, which was set in the Hudson Valley of the 1670s and 1970s, and was anything but cliche or regional or historical. Wonder how they’d position that book today? Probably on a book blog.

  3. January 6, 2010

    James Othmer Reply

    Great post and topic. Have you guys seen the spreadsheet making the rounds about the demographics of 2009 New Yorker fiction contributors? Here’s the link to a post about it on The Millions http://www.themillions.com/2010/01/new-yorker-fiction-by-the-numbers.html
    In case the link fails, a few facts surprised me: The top three contributors, Alice Munro (12 stories), William Trevor (10) and Tessa Hadley (10) were not from the US (though Canada, Ireland and Britain are about as close as it gets). Also, rounding out the rest of the top contributors: Boyle (8), Saunders (7), Lethem (7), Erdrich (7), Updike (7), Doyle, Murakami and Nelson, only Lethem (and I may be wrong) is a New Yorker, joined only by Updike of Pennsylvania, Mass and now points beyond as part of the East Coast crew.

    Also, JE, Stegner can join Dick Yates and many other notables snubbed by The New Yorker.

    Most savvy independent and chain stores will make an effort to promote local talent. If the story is also local, even more so. In NY, this has its pros and cons. Getting great play in a NY store is wonderful, but to do so one has to compete against countless other “locals”, many of whom have some form of major award or genius grant. Don’t even get me started on Brooklyn. Breaking out nationally is another story and again, while I believe New York based writers seem to fare better than others, in part because of they are in the publishing and media and publication connection capital of the country, a case could be made that they deserve it, because they broke out in a region that has a huge concentration of writers, all trying to do the same.

    So does great talent usually win the day? Is there a regional bias? Or is overcoming regional stigma a marketing problem? I make reading choices based on the recos of friends, reviews, reputation of the author and the underground bookpeople buzz that announces emerging talent (bizarre covers occasionally get me, too.) But when someone says This is a grand Southern Novel or a Western or a Manhattan Novel of Manners my guard goes up, because I’m put off by the tropes that have accumulated like on them like barnacles over the years. I don’t read Pamuk because I’m jonesing for an Istanbul vibe, or McCarthy because I want to experience the South (or West, or incest in a trailor). I read their books because they have the promise to be special, and to transcend the regional cliches and make me think of a place and our place in it in an entirely new way.

    I’m not sure how I’d position West of Here, JE. Sure it’s set in the West, new and old, but it’s structure and language is fresh and contemporary. I’m sure you’ve got the entire NW region covered but how to get us Eastern snobs to pay attention? If I’m not mistaken Boyle broke out with his novel World’s End, which was set in the Hudson Valley of the 1670s and 1970s, and was anything but cliche or regional or historical. Wonder how they’d position that book today? Probably on a book blog.

  4. January 6, 2010

    jonathan evison Reply

    . . . astute commentary, my friend . . .

  5. January 6, 2010

    jonathan evison Reply

    . . . astute commentary, my friend . . .

  6. January 6, 2010

    Patrick T. Kilgallon Reply

    Nice topic. As a Deaf person, I feel insecure about regionalism in terms of Southern Literature and have a hard time distinguishing the differences betweeen one book based on the west and another book based in the east coast. Also now we are living in as Tom Wolf calls it, ‘Seven Eleven land’ as well as Jon mentioned, ‘Starbucks’ and as an everyday middle class kid who grew in the suburbterran blahs that many people in the previous generations wrote about as a doomsday medicore culture, I think most of my dialogues are a bit bland and snotty as if the world owes me a decent living. I think with the expansion of the community development neighborhoods and their values, we might be doomed to totally ignore the regionalism in literatures and just focus on the durned story. Which is interestingly ironic since the first narratives were from oral traditions and might depend on terms of expressions and speeches from the hearing world and depended on where they are from.

  7. January 7, 2010

    Charles Dodd White Reply

    I nearly jumped up and clapped when I read this. This is my little pet topic, anyhow.

    First,
    James Othmer:

    Couldn’t agree with your sentiments more. Also, I believe you can add Bill Faulkner’s name to the list of those rejected by The New Yorker. But hell, I don’t think The New Yorker’s relevant in terms of a larger American Literature. It’s interested in a school of fiction that reminds me of pop music. Not that it’s all bad, but it all shares a certain produced feel.

    For the rest of you guys:

    In terms of regionalism in general, I agree the prejudice is there in big publishing, but there’s also a kind of self-sabotage going on as well. A lot of regionalists go out of their way to tokenize themselves and their characters. They scale back literary ambition in favor of marketing themselves as Appalachian or Southern or whatever. I see this especially by the writers that publish with the big houses. These writers almost always favor a brand of romanticism that a lot of what I consider more serious writers laugh at. So what we end up with is a bit of a paradox. The “regional” writers that are striving for the most in terms of what their stories can do, are being published by small and university presses, which guarantees they’ll never see the light of day outside of their area. At the same time, the most “folksy” regional writers have better distribution and marketing support because they’ve successfully branded themselves as being down-home. My ex and I had a name for this in Appalachian Lit–Clayfacing. Dressing themselves up to look like the hillbillies the general reading public expects even though it flies completely in the face of any true representation of the area or the people.

    To JE:

    I think it helps that your book is with Algonquin, here in NC. And while regional lit (whatever the hell that really is) might miss with New York, Chicago, etc., I think other regional areas are open to it. I, for one, am excited to read Matt Brigg’s books set in the Pacific Northwest, among others, and my little patch of the world is a lot different than his, I’ll wager. I think what’s great about the destabilizing of New York houses in favor of small presses is that we are getting a better sampling of the American literary dynamic, and frankly, there’s a whole lot of good readers out there who are more than a short commute away from a major city. The trick is to bridge the regions themselves, and really not get the old East Coast establishment involved anyhow. Ok, I think I’ve run off at the mouth enough here.

  8. January 6, 2010

    Charles Dodd White Reply

    I nearly jumped up and clapped when I read this. This is my little pet topic, anyhow.

    First,
    James Othmer:

    Couldn’t agree with your sentiments more. Also, I believe you can add Bill Faulkner’s name to the list of those rejected by The New Yorker. But hell, I don’t think The New Yorker’s relevant in terms of a larger American Literature. It’s interested in a school of fiction that reminds me of pop music. Not that it’s all bad, but it all shares a certain produced feel.

    For the rest of you guys:

    In terms of regionalism in general, I agree the prejudice is there in big publishing, but there’s also a kind of self-sabotage going on as well. A lot of regionalists go out of their way to tokenize themselves and their characters. They scale back literary ambition in favor of marketing themselves as Appalachian or Southern or whatever. I see this especially by the writers that publish with the big houses. These writers almost always favor a brand of romanticism that a lot of what I consider more serious writers laugh at. So what we end up with is a bit of a paradox. The “regional” writers that are striving for the most in terms of what their stories can do, are being published by small and university presses, which guarantees they’ll never see the light of day outside of their area. At the same time, the most “folksy” regional writers have better distribution and marketing support because they’ve successfully branded themselves as being down-home. My ex and I had a name for this in Appalachian Lit–Clayfacing. Dressing themselves up to look like the hillbillies the general reading public expects even though it flies completely in the face of any true representation of the area or the people.

    To JE:

    I think it helps that your book is with Algonquin, here in NC. And while regional lit (whatever the hell that really is) might miss with New York, Chicago, etc., I think other regional areas are open to it. I, for one, am excited to read Matt Brigg’s books set in the Pacific Northwest, among others, and my little patch of the world is a lot different than his, I’ll wager. I think what’s great about the destabilizing of New York houses in favor of small presses is that we are getting a better sampling of the American literary dynamic, and frankly, there’s a whole lot of good readers out there who are more than a short commute away from a major city. The trick is to bridge the regions themselves, and really not get the old East Coast establishment involved anyhow. Ok, I think I’ve run off at the mouth enough here.

  9. January 7, 2010

    Jarred McGinnis Reply

    I can only talk about short fiction as that’s all I’ve had published. I’m from Florida. If you don’t know, Florida is the state that the rest of the South make fun of for being backward. Yeah, it’s that bad. So even southern lit. journals poo-poo Florida stories. Ain’t that some shit? But you’re looking for solutions. Mine was to move overseas. Every country has their silly little regional bun fights. Ask a Scot what he thinks of England or vice versa. Hell ask someone from Glasgow what they think of someone from Edinburgh. To them I am just some exotic foreigner telling them stories of faraway lands peopled by odd characters.
    As a reader and a writer I never think in terms of regions, it stinks of marketing. A good story is a good story.

    JE: I’m sure you know this in your heart but don’t fret it. Write the story that needs writing. If you start thinking about ‘the market’ while your in the creative process, it’s a slippery slope toward pumping out boy wizard/vampire/next big thing simulacra.

  10. January 7, 2010

    Jarred McGinnis Reply

    I can only talk about short fiction as that’s all I’ve had published. I’m from Florida. If you don’t know, Florida is the state that the rest of the South make fun of for being backward. Yeah, it’s that bad. So even southern lit. journals poo-poo Florida stories. Ain’t that some shit? But you’re looking for solutions. Mine was to move overseas. Every country has their silly little regional bun fights. Ask a Scot what he thinks of England or vice versa. Hell ask someone from Glasgow what they think of someone from Edinburgh. To them I am just some exotic foreigner telling them stories of faraway lands peopled by odd characters.
    As a reader and a writer I never think in terms of regions, it stinks of marketing. A good story is a good story.

    JE: I’m sure you know this in your heart but don’t fret it. Write the story that needs writing. If you start thinking about ‘the market’ while your in the creative process, it’s a slippery slope toward pumping out boy wizard/vampire/next big thing simulacra.

  11. January 7, 2010

    jonathan evison Reply

    . . .thanks, jarred, and fear not, i’m not worried about tailoring anything to a market, and the book was finished months ago . . . i never think about markets while i’m writing something . . . hell, i’ve been writing novels for nobody the past twenty years, and that never stopped me . . .

  12. January 7, 2010

    jonathan evison Reply

    . . .thanks, jarred, and fear not, i’m not worried about tailoring anything to a market, and the book was finished months ago . . . i never think about markets while i’m writing something . . . hell, i’ve been writing novels for nobody the past twenty years, and that never stopped me . . .

  13. January 7, 2010

    Jason Reply

    writing novels for nobody…we should do a post about that.

  14. January 7, 2010

    Jason Reply

    writing novels for nobody…we should do a post about that.

  15. January 11, 2010

    josh Reply

    i think about southern regionalism a lot. i’m in the middle of a year of reading faulkner, precisely b/c on my blog i made a list of fav. southern novels that didn’t include any faulkner, though i had read some of it. the reason regional books don’t go big is b/c they’re too…regional. southern lit is pegged as being about plantation life or odd dialects, and so if someone is thought of a southern writer that’s what immediately comes to mind, even though something like John Brandon’s Arkansas or the new work by Kevin Wilson do not touch that w/ a ten-foot pole.

    similarly, i think of New York-lit as urban, gritty NYC not something from Rochester.

    i still think regionalism is important. when i go to texas, it’s different than atlanta and new orleans. when i go to tampa, it’s different than charleston. when i go to Chicago, i know i’m not in Taos, New Mexico even though the temps may be the same in the winter.

    even though they all have starbucks, those distinctions are still there & i’d like to think of books as expressing those well.

  16. January 11, 2010

    josh Reply

    i think about southern regionalism a lot. i’m in the middle of a year of reading faulkner, precisely b/c on my blog i made a list of fav. southern novels that didn’t include any faulkner, though i had read some of it. the reason regional books don’t go big is b/c they’re too…regional. southern lit is pegged as being about plantation life or odd dialects, and so if someone is thought of a southern writer that’s what immediately comes to mind, even though something like John Brandon’s Arkansas or the new work by Kevin Wilson do not touch that w/ a ten-foot pole.

    similarly, i think of New York-lit as urban, gritty NYC not something from Rochester.

    i still think regionalism is important. when i go to texas, it’s different than atlanta and new orleans. when i go to tampa, it’s different than charleston. when i go to Chicago, i know i’m not in Taos, New Mexico even though the temps may be the same in the winter.

    even though they all have starbucks, those distinctions are still there & i’d like to think of books as expressing those well.

  17. January 20, 2010

    Emily St. J. Mandel Reply

    A quote: “How can we get writers from different regions to be read elsewhere and get the attention they need from the big media centers?”

    I think it’s more a question of how can we get writers from ANYWHERE to get the attention they need from the big media centers. I don’t mean to minimize the issue of regionalism, but I think it’s important to note that we struggle to get our books noticed in New York City too. I sometimes suspect that if anything, getting media attention here may sometimes be harder: if you publish a book in a smaller city, you’re a bigger fish in a smaller pond and you’ve at least got a shot of a nice write-up in your local paper. If you publish a book in New York City, there are probably four other novelists on your block competing for the same column inches. Moving to a 400 square foot apartment in Brooklyn won’t get your name in the Times.

  18. January 19, 2010

    Emily St. J. Mandel Reply

    A quote: “How can we get writers from different regions to be read elsewhere and get the attention they need from the big media centers?”

    I think it’s more a question of how can we get writers from ANYWHERE to get the attention they need from the big media centers. I don’t mean to minimize the issue of regionalism, but I think it’s important to note that we struggle to get our books noticed in New York City too. I sometimes suspect that if anything, getting media attention here may sometimes be harder: if you publish a book in a smaller city, you’re a bigger fish in a smaller pond and you’ve at least got a shot of a nice write-up in your local paper. If you publish a book in New York City, there are probably four other novelists on your block competing for the same column inches. Moving to a 400 square foot apartment in Brooklyn won’t get your name in the Times.

  19. January 20, 2010

    jonathan evison Reply

    . . .excellent point, emily . . . i have completely benefited from being a big fish in a small pond, and i think it is MUCH harder to distinguish yourself in NYC, damn near impossible, one would think . . .

  20. January 19, 2010

    jonathan evison Reply

    . . .excellent point, emily . . . i have completely benefited from being a big fish in a small pond, and i think it is MUCH harder to distinguish yourself in NYC, damn near impossible, one would think . . .

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