Saturday, May 29, 2010

Regionalism, Homogenization, and Mobility

Somehow I missed this response by Myers to some of his commenters; he clarifies in the last few paragraphs what he means by "loyalty" to the program:

Now, however, a young writer settles upon a literary career by attending a graduate writers’ workshop where she will be instructed in a curriculum that varies little from school to school, and certainly not according to the place where the school happens to be located. After graduation she will join something like a diplomatic corps, being posted from place to place, most likely without ever setting down roots in anything but the common background and common ties of her generation.
I find this idea of generational homogenization (my word, not his) extremely intriguing, although I think Myers overstates the case. Mark McGurl's book, which Myers doesn't mention, delivers a much suppler thesis about the generational impact of writing programs on American fiction writers. McGurl's chapter on the Iowa program is also actually very explicitly about the effects of regionalist aesthetics on its founding faculty and first classes. McGurl sees Iowa's aesthetic as "born in the conjunction of two regionalisms, Midwestern and Southern, with two competing emphases and two distinct characteristic historical figures." He makes a fairly convincing case, I think.

And as for this geographic shuffling, I think once again it may be interesting to add some historical perspective: to put the Program Era in conversation with another periods of increased geographic (and to some extent socioeconomic) mobility for American writers: the so-called "revolt from the village" of mostly Midwestern authors from the period 1915-1930 (so, Sinclair Lewis, Edgar Lee Masters, Sherwood Anderson, Willa Cather, Dawn Powell, Zona Gale, Floyd Dell, Scott Fitzgerald, et al.) which could also be extended backward in time to include Hamlin Garland, Theodore Dreiser, and even William Dean Howells, and outward in geography to include Thomas Wolfe, T. S. Stribling, and H. L. Mencken (as Anthony Channell Hilfer does).

8 comments:

Daniel E. Pritchard said...

This sounds a bit like the angst in Britain over the ubiquity of "BBC English." I'm not sure that the non-regionalism he hates is really an issue though. Several of the writers listed have written brilliantly about place, first of all. But the larger question is not the decline of writing about place; it's about the death of regional cultures. Well not the "death" really, but the nationalizing of them.

Sprawling identical suburbs were the driving force of American culture for decades: why shouldn't contemporary authors attempt to grapple with that?

Local cuisine is replaced by chains; local stores by big-box retail; local slang by mass-media; local foods by the supermarket selection. These changes diluted the delineations between regional and national culture.

the Ape said...

It does seem like there is precedent for shared literary experience, whether it's the Beats, the Lost Generation, the Transcendentalists, etc.

What perhaps is new is the manufacture of this commonality. These earlier movements coalesced in particular places for particular reasons, where as the spore-dispersion model of the MFA program does seem structurally different. Quite interesting thinking here.

LML said...

There may be something to Myers's ideas, but his posts are lazy and in many respects plain wrong. First, it's an argument entirely based on "post hoc" reasoning. Second, his examples support his argument intermittently at best. Sure, Chabon is not concerned much with place, but Auster? His work is as much about New York as Wharton's. It's not as good, in fact it's often very bad, but that's another issue... Appointment in Samarra is a regional novel but The Sportswriter is not? I agree that Ford's trilogy is overpraised, but I'd argue that it's precisely because he writes a regionalism that flatters New York critics (the thesis underlying all three books is that upper-middle-class New Jersey offers a metaphysical balm that is available nowhere else). Franzen's first two mannered postmodern books are regional, but The Corrections, which is primarily about the estrangement of midwestern parents from their upwardly mobile, cosmopolitan kids, is not regionalism? And anyway, neither Ford nor Johnson nor Chabon nor Franzen have been part of the nationalized career network that Myers posits as an explanation for the "decline." None of the four teaches regularly, for the same reason that novelists of previous generations didn't teach--because each, after getting an MFA, began making good money off his books. Franzen, in fact, was teaching, I believe, when he wrote his first two supposedly "regional" books, before he was on the New Yorker payroll. Chabon as far as I know has lived his whole adult life in one (comsmopolitan) place. Ford and Johnson have moved all over for reasons that have nothing to do with academia, I'm pretty sure--Ford at least partly because his wife works as a city planner or some such occupation that means she works for one city, then another, then another (including, if I'm not mistaken, Princeton, NJ, but also Missoula, MT, and New Orleans--each of which locale appears recurringly, and in detail, in his fiction; Johnson because he is a recovered-addict possibly Christian weirdo (last known address in rural northern Idaho, where he was home-schooling his kids, doing occasional reporting pieces from places like Liberia and the Philippines, and holding annual poetry slams in a biker bar in a collapsed Montana mining town).

Anyway, I'm not defending the MFA system. I'm worried about its centrality to literature, like everybody else, but this argument, at least as it's been articulated so far, obscures more than it reveals.

Andrew Seal said...

Well, I think to some extent Myers is skewing his data to fit his preferences (that was basically what I meant by "regionalism as a qualitative term"). And the writers he lists don't support his case equally well. And I don't entirely buy the whole comparison of the creative writing network to the diplomatic corps. That suggests

1) there is some central controlling agency, which I don't see, though Myers does--"their ambitions and interests have been centralized." (The use of the passive voice there is kind of telling, I think.)

2) not just a sense of but the existence of a common project, which isn't what being "dedicated to the craft" means. McGurl's book suggests that creative writing programs (particularly Iowa's) aren't strangers to courting publicity and even brand-name recognition, but I don't think Iowa's faculty would take kindly to the idea that they are simply functionaries of some public relations strategy to get more tuition-paying students. The notion of a "loyal" relationship between writers and their "client" is pretty unfamiliar to me, although I haven't written a book about the subject.

What I do want to take from these posts though is the idea of a certain geographic determinism (which I'm admittedly mostly reading between the lines). Not a full determinism, but the increased geographic mobility of contemporary writers in the Program Era has influenced what writers choose to write about and what their attitudes toward those subjects are. That mobility isn't reducible to the Program, but it isn't in very many cases independent of it. And I think that the influence of the Program on many writers is stronger because there may be a large gap between the mobility of writers and the mobility of most people today. It's one of Myers's frequent arguments that writers today are more estranged from normal (particularly family) life than they have been in the past, and I'm not sure I buy that either, but if there is a significant difference there, I do think that it may have to do with writing's connection to mobility--both geographic and social.

LML said...

"That mobility isn't reducible to the Program, but it isn't in very many cases independent of it."

But the Program is subordinate to larger social forces. The pursuit of career in whatever geographic location opportunity arises is de rigeur for an entire social class. Almost nobody I went to college with moved back home after graduation. The statistics demonstrating that writers are more mobile than the American population at large are meaningless. Writers come from a very narrow range of the social spectrum, generally. That may be more true now than before (I doubt it), but what's certain is that the MFA allows writers to stay more or less in the same social class they came from. (Less pay than doctors, maybe, but as much or more prestige, often.) The MFA system allows writers to have careers and status anxieties that are absolutely typical of the rest of the bourgeoisie. Writers aren't different enough from the rest of the population, would be my worry.

Andrew Seal said...

LML,
You may be right. Perhaps the chapter in McGurl's book on Oates and Carver oversold the idea that there is some social mobility going on through MFA programs--that is, that the post-war expansion of higher education pulled in a lot of lower-middle-class or working-class kids who used creative writing programs to pursue a writing career. But I don't think it didn't happen at all, just that I may be exaggerating its frequency. (And to be fair to McGurl, it's only one chapter, so I should take the blame for the exaggeration.)

cs said...

With anybody other than Myers, I might hesitate to draw this inference, but I'm familiar enough with his posts (and prejudices) to feel comfortable suggesting that this is just a crypto-revanchist complaint reflecting his bias against postmodernism in particular and experimentalism in general. It was DeLillo who has observed (repeatedly, but perhaps most articulately in his first extensive interview with Tom LeClair in 1982) that "so much modern fiction is located precisely nowhere. This is Beckett and Kafka insinuating themselves onto the page. Their work is so woven into the material of modern life that it's not surprising that so many writers choose to live there, or choose to have their characters live there. Fiction without a sense of real place is automatically a fiction of estrangement, and of course this is the point." It's worth pointing out that in the same interview DeLillo distanced himself from this tendency, but I'm not sure that Myers would.

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