A Sense of Where You Are

“For American novelists who have begun their careers since 1970, geographical variation appears to be a way of lending variety to their novels,” writes D.G. Myers, lamenting the death of regionalism in American fiction. Myers lays the blame for all that sprawl on writing workshops, though it could just as easily say something about how the explosion of information in the past two generations has broadened writers’ horizons; if nothing else, the research is now easier. I’d also figured that writers’ breadth of interests, geographic or otherwise, mainly reflected the fact that Americans in general have become much more mobile in the past 30 or 40 years. But that isn’t actually the case; a majority of Americans haven’t moved from the state in which they grew up, and a majority of those people—more than a third of the U.S. population—have never moved from their hometown.

Of course, writers are different from the rest of us, and many successful ones will likely have to at least consider leaving town and finding a perch in academia. If that means we have a generation of writers who are promiscuous about place, so be it—I’m not convinced Michael Chabon would be a better writer if he’d ditched his MFA program and decided to focus exclusively on writing about hometown of Columbia, Maryland. But Myers’ post does make me realize that regionalist writers in recent years are hard to come by, and even then they tend not to stick around long. Adam Langer, the last great hope for the great Chicago novelist (or at least the most recent great hope) wrote two sprawling novels about the city and then shifted his focus to New York; Stuart Dybek, the great Chicago hope who preceded him, is now in Michigan.

Being a regionalist writer today seems to mess with your productivity; time was, William Faulkner could write a steady stream of novels and stories about Yoknapatawpha County, but now Marilynne Robinson has a long career with only three novels to show for it. And Edward P. Jones—the name that springs quickest to mind when I think of great contemporary regionalist writers—takes his time as well. Perhaps it’s less stressful to be a polymath with an MFA than a writer interested in the details of a particular place.

16 thoughts on “A Sense of Where You Are

  1. Regionalism seems largely to be the province of crime novelists these days: I can think of a number of Chicago writers whose books are grounded in the life and history of the city, but they’re all crime writers. The inheritance of Chandler and Hammett, I suppose?

    1. It’s funny you mention crime fiction. I was thinking about how crime writers tend to be very city-focused—Pelecanos in D.C., Lehane in Boston, Michael Connelly in Los Angeles. (My old editor at the Chicago Sun-Times, Henry Kisor, now writes mysteries set in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.) Frankly, though, I don’t know enough about the long history of crime fiction to argue whether this is a new phenomenon or not. Also, could it be that earlier generations were more interested in The City (as a concept) than the details of a particular city? I mean, David Goodis set a lot of books in Philadelphia, but they always feel like they’re set in a generalized Noirville to me.

  2. This thread hits home with me. My novel, What This River Keeps (blurbed by Kent Haruf; you were kind enough to mention it here), very much revolves around a place. (In this case, southern Indiana.) And I was born in 1972. But I think I’m the exception, and I think in some ways it limited my opportunity for reviews, etc.

  3. I’ve never read Goodis, but some of the other early/mid-20th century crime novelists did try to capture the spirit of specific cities.

    Levistahl mentions Chandler, whose Los Angeles could be no other place than Los Angeles.

    Hammett, on the other hand, played around with various cities as settings, and most of them could be interchangeable. The one exception is Red Harvest, which he set in Personville, a fictionalized Butte, Montana. American fiction has few finer explorations of ethnicity and class in a western mining town than that novel.

  4. Yeah, I guess I think of Hammett’s “city” as being “the West,” rather than a specific location. I put him in San Francisco when I’m not thinking too hard–some of those Continental Op stories seem unable to be anywhere but SF–but you’re right that his scope was broader.

    1. @Greg Your comment leads me to wonder if we want regional fiction only to the extent we need to have a particular place demythologized for us. In the first half of the 20th century, novelists could bring the news about a locale, but given how easy it is to get information on a particular place now, fiction plays less of that role. So the successful regional novelist has to pick a setting that’s especially knotty somehow, like Jones’ D.C. or Haruf’s Colorado, where rural values and modern culture collide. I’ve been reading a lot of Benjamin Percy lately, and he works a similar angle by setting his fiction in central Oregon—the tension comes from outside forces (the Iraq war, developers) mucking with an insulated working-class culture.

      The more I think about it, the less I think regionalism is dead. I just think that writing about place is less relevant to newer literary fiction writers, and perhaps a harder sell to readers.

  5. Hey Mark,

    Stuart Dybek may well commute from state to state but I do believe he’s back in Chicago, teaching at Northwestern. Or are you referring to his literary focus shifting from Chicago to economically-downtrodden Michigan? I’m only familiar with his work at Western Michigan as a faculty member, and not so much what that begat writing-wise.

    Let me also add I feel the elephant in the room here is technology. With greater opportunity to view and get a sense of different places without stepping foot away from your front door there is a lot more room for creative people to toy with new scenes and settings, in effect experiment with, say, for example, that place they visited as a small child but haven’t returned to, or places they’ve never been before at all. Thus the idea of “writing what you know” has broadened considerably in the last three decades.

    Not to mention we’ve always had writers who experiment with this sort of thing, Kafka memorably with “Amerika” — having never set foot in the country. (Although I concede he was and remains a very different kind of writer.) But ultimately it’s just as I say easier to do than ever before.

    -Matt

  6. Ach, I see I missed that you mentioned the information explosion briefly already. Consider my spiel a furtherance of support for that idea, then.

    What’s more, I think we at least remain fairly statist in our approach. It’s still somewhat uncommon for a writer to try to write as a person situated in another country, for whatever that’s worth.

    Plus, pardon my glibness, but in the USofA I’ve always felt it was on the whole the south and its prominent writers that tended to remain regionally-centric. Not so much the case elsewhere, and certainly not so within the trend of postmodernity taking place the last 60+ years. For every Algren or Cheever there seemed to be a Faulkner, Percy, O’Connor, Styron, and McCullers, etc.

  7. Interesting post, but I’m not sure why MFAs take the blame for the death of regionalism. Many of my peers in my program set all their stories in their home state. As for me, well… I’m one of those people who has lived all over, and my choices of setting reflects that. But I do find myself returning to New England again and again.

  8. Mark, I think your conclusion in the comments thread is right: reports of the death of regionalism are greatly overstated. And I don’t think that the ‘slow’ production of Marilynne Robinson or Edward P. Jones (and you are speaking of his short stories, primarily, I assume?) have much to do with the way they set their books in a particular place. Perhaps people are living daily lives more connected to national culture/subcultures through the interweb… perhaps that does contribute to a literature less grounded in place. And perhaps writers moving to universities, fellowships, and cities for material support also factors into the equation. I guess the question has more to do with how we live now: are we as tied to region or place… are most of us as provincial or parochial as we once were, or are we more connected (and simultaneously disconnected…the decentralization and fracture that I confess to disliking, but that undeniably is the essence of the postmodern). Here’s what I would like to hear about: a new regionalism that reckons with all those questions, and asks the writer to find a place and location they are willing to claim because it is essential to what they must say.

    O’Connor’s regionalism possessed urgency, and was fundamental to the aesthetic, substance, and vision of her work. How many writers can say the same?

    1. @Mike Yes, I was definitely thinking of Jones’ short stories, not “The Known World,” whose conception of Virginia is, somewhat famously, invented out of whole cloth. There’s a very intense specificity of place in that book, but it’s not a part of the “real” world in the way his D.C.-set fiction is.

  9. Especially in his early novels, Richard Russo provides a vivid (and seemingly hard-earned) portrait of working-class towns in upstate New York. In fact, I can’t drive through some of them now (Amsterdam, Rensselaer, etc.) without thinking about his work. Just thought he deserved a mention.

  10. Dybek is indeed at Northwestern, though I don’t know how permanent that is. And his subject matter seems to be as Chicago as ever, at least in book form – I haven’t kept up with his more recent story publications.

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