Thursday, May 27, 2010

Regionalism as a Qualitative Term

I was in the midst of paper-writing for the term (please don't ask me anything about Ignatius Donnelly or Barthes's reality effect for awhile) and so I missed a chance to respond to a very interesting interchange between Mark Athitakis and D. G. Myers on the possible decline of regionalism. Myers, who started things off with this post, wrote:
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.
My initial reaction was to wonder whether this loyalty-to-the-program truly does conflict with regionalism—it seemed to me that the famous workshop dictum "write what you know" ought to encourage regionalist writing, not suppress it. Don't workshop stories—or the debut collections that come out of them—often focus on the writer's hometown or home milieu, particularly if that milieu is lower-middle- or working-class? Immediately two recent collections about the Rust Belt Midwest jump to mind—Donald Ray Pollock's Knockemstiff and Bonnie Jo Campbell's American Salvage—and I imagine one could quickly add others by looking at a roster of recent Stanford or Iowa MFA grads, especially if one considers international or first/second-generation immigrant students writing about their or their parents cultures as taking part in something like the same practice.

But Myers, who has written a book on the growth of creative writing programs in the U.S., goes on to argue that "For American novelists who have begun their careers since 1970, geographical variation appears to be a way of lending variety to their novels… And when a writer 'roots' his fiction in a place, it is often to create a base from which to launch expeditions elsewhere…"

That partially answers my objection—"write what you know" can quickly (for some writers, very quickly) become a license to write about the new thing they know best: the life of the writer, which now involves frequent (or at least significant) re-locations. And as Mark Athitakis points out, such a life is fairly different from most Americans: "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," a point made very dispiritingly two weeks ago on the television show "Glee." So it's plausible that a decline in regionalism is due to an increasing divergence between the lives of novelists and the lives of many of their readers—a divergence which is basically polarizing, encouraging workshop-based novelists to retreat farther into a sort of trans-regional culture of academia, or as one commenter on Myers's post said, "the new regionalism might be academia, the true (often ill-adaptive) region of these writers' development and allegiance." Anyone who has spent time in a big Midwestern university town can feel a little bit of this—Bloomington, Indiana can feel like it owes more allegiance to college towns out East than to the towns next door.

But I think that may be a little harsh—after all, you have folks like Lorrie Moore, a geographic transplant whose latest novel rested heavily on the tensions between a college town (a stand-in for Madison, WI) and the state surrounding it, between academia and region. Even more, I'd still question whether regionalism is as much on the ropes as Myers suggests: what I'd argue is that really good regionalist writing is rare today (but then it has always been fairly rare). I think Myers uses the term "regionalist" in a fairly qualitative way—being a "regionalist" is about effectively communicating (as he quotes from Allan Tate) "that habit of men in a given locality which influences them to certain patterns of thought and conduct handed to them by their ancestors." Just setting your novels or stories in a single location isn't regionalism—there is an insight into the character of the place required. That's a very reasonable definition of the term, although I think we still ought to account somehow for the novels that are about a place and yet lack this insight. This may not be a very serious problem, but I think it's a fairly interesting one.

I don't want to throw terminology out just for the sake of doing so, but I do think this discussion may be advanced by briefly looking at the way that other terms that describe "fiction about a place" have been used in American literary history. For one, we have the old "local color fiction" or vernacular or dialect fiction (and poetry too—e.g., James Whitcomb Riley). This body of literature was also called regionalism generally, although in a moment I'll discuss how the terms are often differentiated qualitatively. At any rate, the object being depicted in these fictions was almost always a "backwater" or a pre-modern enclave, and some of these fictions are in a sense ethnographies, and not regionalist novels or stories in the way we think about the term after Faulkner or Flannery O'Connor.

Richard Brodhead (now the President of Duke University) has written some very interesting things about the social aspects of the rising popularity of local color fiction in the mid- to late-19th century; he argues (in Rethinking Class) that local color (or simply regionalist) fiction functioned in step with vacations (or magazine advertisements for vacation spots) as a sort of promotional tool, but it also had a broader social function. "Nineteeth-century regionalism," he says, "can be said to have manufactured, in its monthly renewed public imaging of old-fashioned social worlds, a cultural version of D. W. Winnicott's transitional object: a symbol of union with the premodern chosen at the moment of separation from it." In the aftermath of the Civil War and in the midst of extreme technological and economic transformations, this function was in special demand, and most acutely among those most separated from the actual locales being portrayed. Regionalism and local color sold exceedingly well—to the subscribers of Atlantic Monthly.

The terms do seem to refer to different standards or modes of fiction, though. Generally, "local color" referred to humorous sketches or stories; regionalism has tended to be applied to more sustained efforts, or to more serious or "better" ones. Sarah Orne Jewett might today be called a regionalist, but Edward Eggleston is probably going to be called a local colorist. Local color is the stuff that absolutely no one reads these days; regionalism still has a bit of a chance.

Most works called by the names regionalism or local color were necessarily about rural places, but of course there was also during this time a parallel development of a literature about urban places—what is generally called realism. I think the terminological distinction between "regionalism" and "realism" tends to be a qualitative one as well—it is presumed that cities are more complex and therefore require greater skill to render "realistically," while rural locales can be captured more easily with some broad "regional" characteristics or tropes. I just finished reading The House of Mirth today, and although it skips about in locale, the effort to create a sense of New York's streets and some of its neighborhoods is one of the most vivid things about it. (And that's saying quite a lot—it's an utterly fantastic book.) Yet I doubt anyone has ever called it a regionalist work (though tellingly, something like Ethan Frome is often called exactly that).

Today, regionalism and realism mean fairly different things. To some, realism means a sort of wan traditionalism of the novel, to others it simply means a lack of genre elements. At any rate, it has little bite. Regionalism, as I think we can see with Myers's post, has a bit more life in it as a literary critical term—or possibly as a commercial one: one can still promote a novel by calling it "an excellent regionalist novel of the [fill in the blank]."

On the other hand, I don't think I've seen any contemporary novels or short stories referred to as "local color," but I don't think that means there aren't any. The two short story collections I mentioned above would, I think, count, and just looking over the past few years of NYT Notable Books lists, one finds some other prime candidates (though I haven't read them, so I'm just going by their branding): Rebecca Barry's Later, at the Bar; Maile Meloy's Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It; Philipp Meyers's American Rust; Jeannette Walls's Half-Broke Horses; Thomas McGuane's Gallatin Canyon; Annie Proulx's Wyoming Stories; as well as Tinkers, the new Pulitzer winner. Maybe you can think of some others.


TC said...

One hates to say this, having for a while existed in dangerous proximity to that nationalized bureaucracy, but to these ears, the words "creative writing teacher" and "loyalty" seem to come from different languages altogether, and finding them in the same sentence creates an odd queasy sense of dislocation.

(Perhaps that's what they used to call "surrealism"?)

LML said...

It's probably true that academia plays a role in the "decline" of regionalism, but only to the extent that college towns are effectively satellite versions--or see themselves as satellite versions--of the actual cultural centers (NY, SF, Chicago, LA). Virtually all fiction published by commercial houses flatters the assumptions of professionals in these cultural centers, and it's easy to discern those assumptions via the internet, jet travel, New Yorker subscriptions, and so forth. I'm not sure, though, that there has been a decline in regionalism so much as a change in the forms it has been authorized to take. You can do Chekhov in Canada (Alice Munro) but no longer in Mississippi (as Eudora Welty did). If you deal with any disturbing subculture, you have to editorialize about it. The audience doesn't want to accidentally identify with bad people. For better or worse, this is why a book like The Kindly Ones would never originate from an American commercial publishing house.

There's another factor at work, also, that probably pertains to a different group of writers. As regional differences have faded (without disappearing), region, sense of place, etc., has stopped being a very pressing subject of inquiry for the ambitious writer. It remains mostly a crutch, a way of generating superficial interest, for the less ambitious writer. It seems immaterial that 70 percent or how ever many Americans stay rooted; the places they live in aren't rooted to their own pasts. Who lives in a town where people live anything like the way their grandparents did? The peculiarities of region are distractions, often.