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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
A Literary Flyover
Flavorwire recently released a slideshow of the 100 most important living writers in New York City ranked in no discernible way from Important to Importanest, which is now a word. We tend to love rankings, ferreting out the best of everything. If competition is possible in a given field, we will find a way to compete. That’s the only reasonable explanation for the proliferation of competitive cooking shows.
There is a tendency to place the center of the writing universe in New York City. This is understandable—countless writers live there. Have you heard about this magical place called Brooklyn? The media certainly has. Most agents and publishers are based out of New York, there are countless reading series and other trappings of the literati. There’s a certain glamour to the city and what it means for writers. And yet. A little known fact is that there are countless writers living in the rest of the country. The technical term for these writers is college professors.
As I clicked through the Flavorwire list, I found myself in a vaguely delusional state, wondering if I might find my own name on the list. In doing this, I was ignoring two key facts—I am not an important writer and I do not live in New York City though people assume I do with surprising frequency. I live in a rural town—a rather charitable designation—in the middle of somewhere that is probably nowhere you know. There are no bookstores. I have to drive at least fifty miles to acquire my favorite yogurt—Cherry, Fage, 2%. The nearest major airport is 105 miles away. There are very few people of color. There’s no black beauty salon which is a real pain in the ass. There is very little to do, though thankfully, there is a ten-screen movie theater in the middle of a cornfield. I call it the Corn Palace. I complain, often, about where I live because I don’t like it here. I don’t need to live in a city of The City but I need more than this.
Still, there are benefits to not being in The City. This week, I went to the DMV to renew my car registration and there was no line. I walked right up to the counter, had a pleasant chat with the DMV lady, renewed my tags, and went on my way. My commute takes four minutes if I stop for coffee. I have this whole extra bedroom and my rent is still less than $1000 a month. This one time, at the gas station, a man on a horse pulled up to a gas pump. It was amazing. I still spend time thinking about what, exactly, he was doing. I travel once or twice a month so I get to join civilization with enough regularity that I don’t completely lose my mind. I also get to leave the chaos of cities behind. The last time I was in New York I had a blast. When my departing flight took off, I felt… relief save for leaving my friends (and I still cannot get over how many public bathrooms were so dirty except at WORD Brooklyn where the bathroom was immaculate and pretty as was the whole store).
At times I envy writers who live in the city, always going to book parties and benefits and other fancy events and knowing, seemingly, everything about everyone in publishing. Not being in the middle of that, however, and only joining in when I choose, is a luxury. I live in the middle of nowhere but there’s no pressure to perform the role of writer. No one around me gives a fraction of a damn about the latest publishing deal or whatever we’re all gossiping about on Twitter. I have time, enormous stretches of time with very little to do but read and write. I’m not sure this is entirely healthy but I get to actually be a writer with very little distraction. I try, though I don’t always succeed, to not take such luxury for granted.
When these lists come out each year, highlighting important writers or important books or whatever else we would like to judge and rank arbitrarily based on subjective criteria, I cannot help but feel like we’re being told a little of what we already know. The top three writers on the Flavorwire list are Philip Roth, Joan Didion, and Martin Amis.
These lists do matter even though when we don’t like what these lists say, we love to talk, exhaustively, about their irrelevance. If we’re being honest to ourselves, these lists matter to the people who talk about them; they matter to those who are included or excluded. These lists matter because they reflect, for better or worse, what literary culture values and what literary culture seems to willfully ignore.
In thinking about the American writers I respect and enjoy most, it is true that many of them live in New York City, but many more live in other parts of the country. I would like to think that though they are all reasonably successful, they’re not the names you would expect to see on these kinds of lists that tell us too much of what we already know.
In truth, I don’t think about writers and their importance based on where they write. I focus on what they write, how they use language, the themes they’re willing to explore, the ways they challenge me and my understanding of the world, how they make me feel and want and hope and love and hate. I’m thankful that can happen anywhere.
It would be impossible for me to create any kind of list structured around rankings, so I am calling what follows a literary flyover. A great sprawl, stretching from coast to coast, that focuses in on writers who have made some impact on me this year (as well as those before it.) What I appreciate most about this sprawl, and everyone will have a different sprawl, one that is always changing, is how it can reach all of us, no matter what city we call home.
Great writers! They are everywhere! I could do this all day! But for now, here is my sprawl.
East Coast Love:
Outside of New York City, writers live throughout the rest of New York State. There’s memoirist Daniel Nester (How to Be Inappropriate), Tina May Hall (The Physics of Imaginary Objects), and poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil, whose poetry (Lucky Fish) about identity and motherhood and the natural world are as intimate as they are intense.
In New Jersey, you’ll find three-time novelist Tayari Jones whose most recent novel, Silver Sparrow, continues to find critical acclaim. Claire Vaye Watkins is in Pennsylvania, and is the author of Battleborn, my favorite short story collection of 2012.
Elsewhere on the Eastern Seaboard there are writers like cultural historian Hanne Blank, who writes on really big, unwieldy topics in ways that respect both audience and subject matter (see: Virgin and Straight and Big Big Love among others). There’s also Dawn Tripp, who wrote a novel about a woman coming home, a fraught history between friends and an old mystery, and best of all, Scrabble, in Game of Secrets.
Up in the Northern Kingdom of Vermont, Megan Mayhew Bergman wrote another of the lovely short story collections I read in 2012, Birds of a Lesser Paradise, a book that reflected, in its structure, the ethos of each of the stories—that we’re part of a complex ecology, and that the decisions we make have a profound effect on the systems we’re a part of. She also has a warm-hearted blog with lots of pretty pictures of Vermont.
In our nation’s capital, you can find Danielle Evans, author of Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, a book full of stories about women in complicated relationships, and broken men trying to find a former part of themselves, and how race and class shape what you can do with your body and what you can’t, and how the ambition of young girls can force them into making decisions for which they can’t possibly anticipate the consequences. Michael Kimball, who lives in Maryland, is the author of five novels including the very moving Dear Everybody that shows how much of a life can be remembered by what someone leaves behind.
The South is no stranger to great writers. There’s Blake Butler, author of several books including Nothing, the impossible to categorize There Is No Year, Ever, and Scorch Atlas which has always impressed me with its visceral treatments of the human body.
Mary Miller, author of one of my favorite short story collections ever, Big World, is down south and so is novelist, critic, and essayist Kate Zambreno who has a bold and unrelenting voice. Essayist John Jeremiah Sullivan lives in North Carolina, in Peyton’s house, and either you know what that means or you don’t and if you don’t, if you aren’t intimately familiar with the best television show ever, I hope you fix that.
Down in Florida, Jennine Capó Crucet is writing wonderful books like her collection, How to Leave Hialeah, which explores the Cuban and Cuban-American experience. Her stories are about love and the sticky heat of South Florida and race and family and what home looks like in the country you fled to or from.
Midwest Must Reads:
There’s a great swath of country between the coasts. I don’t know if you’ve been in the Midwest lately but the literary scene there is really exciting and boasts more talented writers than I could possibly name. Lots of people like to pretend the arts don’t exist there but they would be wrong.
There is Lindsay Hunter, whose writing feels so damn real that the pages of her book, Daddy’s, practically feels rough against your fingers. Alissa Nutting, author of Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls, can terrify you as much as she charms you with her stories. Not to mention Sara Levine (Treasure Island!!!), Alicia Erian (The Brutal Language of Love,), Samantha Irby, Cathy Day (The Circus in Winter), Benjamin Percy (The Wilding), and Kwame Dawes, author of more than twenty books of poetry.
In Michigan, you’ll find Caitlin Horrocks, author of This Is Not Your City, a collection where each story reveals an innovative narrative style. She writes about displacement, and women who are somehow separated from what they want or need and how they try or fail to overcome that separation.
There’s also Matt Bell, author of the forthcoming In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods. Bell is a meticulous writer and you can see the care of his work in everything he publishes. His story, “An Index of How Our Family Was Killed,” is one I regularly read and teach because it is so formally interesting—an index that still tells a compelling, deeply emotional story.
In Ann Arbor, Elizabeth Ellen, author of Fast Machine, contains an extensive volume of her creative output including the essay “How I Stop Loving Dave Eggers and Stole Your MFA,” and two of my favorite short stories The Last American Woman,” and “Winter Haven, Florida, 1984.”
There are great writers living in Texas, like Manuel Gonzales, who is writing the most fantastic stories. His debut collection, The Miniature Wife: And Other Stories, reflects a towering imagination on the part of the writer. The stories are written so believably, they handle the strange and surreal so carefully, that you want to believe the impossible is possible. Mat Johnson, author of Pym, and his razor sharp wit are also down there.
West Coast Specials:
Out West, Shannon Cain is writing amazing short stories like the ones included in her collection, The Necessity of Certain Behaviors. Alan Heathcock is spending most of his time in Idaho and in addition to writing one of the most celebrated books of 2011, Volt, he wins fancy awards and has opinions I share about bed and breakfasts.
In California, there is Randa Jarrar, author of A Map of Home, who just this week published a new, excellent short story, “Building Girls,” about childhood friends finding each other once again, in unexpected ways. Lori Ostlund, author of The Bigness of the World is also in the Golden State, as is fierce essayist and poet Saeed Jones. Susan Steinberg whose forthcoming collection, Spectacle, is a textbook on technical brilliance in prose, and Joshua Mohr, whose novel Damascus has one hell of an opening and is one part character study, one part evocation of place, also call California home.
Further north in Oregon, you’ll find Lidia Yuknavitch, author of the searing memoir The Chronology of Water, Cheryl Strayed, whose wildly popular memoir Wild is a moving portrait of how a woman leads herself out of grief, and, Todd Grimson, whose dark, witty writing in Brand New Cherry Flavor and Stainless are unforgettable. Then there is Pauls Toutonghi, whose Evel Knievel Days was another impressive novel released in 2012, and Elena Passarello, whose Let Me Clear My Throat, is a smart and well-focused essay collection about voice and what the power of voice can do.
Roxane Gay lives and writes in the Midwest.