Thursday, December 8, 2011

Write what you know

The first rule of creative writing is "write what you know." Don't try to write exotic tales set in Renaissance Italy, write about things, places, and people that are part of your life.

In general, I think that advice is sound. Faulkner is the greatest because he imbues his small, Southern universe with universal humanity. Steinbeck does the same with rural California. Joyce with catholic Ireland. And so on.

But it seems that modern American "high literature" is much more narrow than that of the past. Instead of taking the reader to rural California, fictional Mississippi, or the depressing Pacific Northwest (Carver), the reader always ends up in either New York City or a college English professor's office. The universe of settings and motifs has seemed to shrink, not expand, with globalization. Part of me thinks this has to do with the "write what you know" commandment. If all American writers today are university professors or New York City residents, what else can they write about? Maybe we need to find ways to support writers who have jobs other than pointy-nosed professor or Brooklyn hipster.

I, like Tucker, am somewhat ambivalent about Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. Part of my ambivalence is that the book, while very not short, seems narrow in its impact. It doesn't touch the pulse of the country in the same way that Faulkner or Steinbeck do. The book reveals much about modern life in NYC, but maybe not as much outside of it. Even though half of the book is set in Minnesota, is seems that the denizens of that frozen tundra are really NYC residents - they just don't know it yet.

I'd love suggestions on new (last decade) American literature that breaks with the academic NYC mold. My personal favorite is Marilyn Robinson who writes about small-town midwestern women. But Marilyn doesn't exactly break the mold - she's a professor at Iowa.


  1. As I’ve mentioned before, I generally read older books in a desperate attempt to catch-up on 200 years of great world literature. So, I may not be able to help you out.

    Looking over my 2011 reads, I only see two books that qualify as “high literature” of the last decade: Bolano’s 2666, which is not, as you specify, American; and Toni Morrison’s A Mercy, which is American, but which you may disqualify as being penned by an academic. The two huge “high lit” releases of this year, 1Q84 and the Marriage Plot, would also be disqualified by their foreignness and subject matter, respectively.

    I’d be interested in suggestions myself. Until then, a good place to troll for answers is The Millions’ A Year in Reading Series:

  2. Well, I hate to beat a dead horse, but there is obviously ol Cormac McCarthy, whose novels are as anti-NYC as you can get. You won't find his characters in NYC, or any urban metropolis for that matter.

    Otherwise, I suppose I'd agree with you: most novels are centered around middle class educated white collegiate urban americana topics.

    The only other 'big deal novel' that I can think of that deviates from this standard is "The Savage Detectives" by Roberto Bolano. But to be fair, he was writing what he knew about, and it just so happens that he knew about Latin American poets and the culture of writing down there . . . so I am not sure if that is much different?

  3. Here's a couple of names for you, Mac: William Gay and Dana Spiotta. Gay's world is rural Tennessee. His 'Provinces of Night' is my favorite so far, but I have yet to read a book of his that isn't brilliant. Dana Spiotta's first novel, 'Lightning Field,' is a perfect little time capsule of Los Angeles in the '00s—highly recommended. Her second one, 'Eat the Document,' is a wonderful portrait of a 1960s radical, a woman, who has to go underground after a planned nonviolent terrorist act goes upexpectedly sour. Check out the reviews, see what you think...

  4. Interesting, Fi. I'll take a look.

    I'm a huge sucker for Southern Gothic (where Gay appears to fit), and Spiotta's books sound interesting, as well.