In my last interview blog post with the writer Mark Athitakis, “Why we we’ve got to get Willa out of the cornfield”, we talked about the plural landscape of the Midwest, something he covered in his new book, The New Midwest: A Guide to Contemporary Fiction of the Great Lakes, Great Plains, and Rust Belt. Today we talk about seeing the world for what it is, the state of religious literary fiction, and “keeping the Midwest weird.”
I like how you bring out, in the chapter on bad places, how Jane Smiley and Gillian Flynn are looking at the landscape and, kind of, flipping the old bottle on its head, and saying, “Yeah, it’s kind of ugly out here. There are some really ugly places.”
Or, it can be. Those Gillian Flynn books are fascinating to me, because I think she writes in a very gritty way about how rough those places are and how much those regions kind of took it in the teeth, especially during the great recession. But her characters have this very strong urge to defend the Missouri Bootheel. It’s like, “Don’t tell me what my place is. This is where I grew up. This is my home. Don’t mock it. Don’t make fun of it. Don’t call us dumb hicks, or southerners, or hillbillies, or that sort of thing.” She doesn’t get credit for this because I think she’s treated more as just a thriller author. But she captures that sense of loving an unlovable place better than a lot of other writers out there.
Let me ask you about your religious literature section. You talk about Marilynne Robinson, and then, at one point, you talk about how she’s kind of left alone “as the standard bearer of the religious literary novel, prompting some critics…to wonder whether it might be revived again.” (32) I guess the implication there is that it doesn’t look like there’s a whole lot of hope for that.
I was thinking more explicitly about Paul Elie, who wrote a book, I think coming on ten years ago now, about the great heyday of Catholic writers, talking about Flannery O’Connor and Thomas Merton. There was kind of this period where so much of what we’re talking about in terms of social issues and issues of identity could be filtered through what Catholic writers were doing and we don’t have an explicit religious literary culture like that anymore. In terms of Marilynne Robinson, there’s room for one, and we’ve picked her. If you’ve got to pick one, I think she is a remarkable thinker about religion. What struck me as funny in going through how she’s been approached critically, though, was that so much–and I’ll cop to being guilty to this as well, I wrote a review of Home for the Sun Times that kind of played into this–is that so much of what people publicly admire about Marilynne Robinson is her writing. She is an exquisite maker of sentences, and she obviously writes with a real sensitivity about people and their struggle. And she wrote beautifully about Iowa. James Woods celebrated that when he re-elevated her, reviewing Gilead in 2004 in The New York Times Book Review.
But all this kind of comes at the expense of the tough stuff that’s in these books. I mean, it’s talking about interracial relationships and how this estranged families. It’s about church burnings. It’s about the role that Iowa had played during the Civil War. And prostitution. There’s a lot of dark stuff going on in Marilynne Robinson’s novels that gets very soft-pedaled in public discussions that we have about them. So, there’s still this reflex of trying to implant this: “Well, it’s an Iowan, she’s writing about religion, so these must be very soft, church-y books.” But you know, they’re not really.
Lila, the last one in the trilogy, is about a young girl who is orphaned, left to live among prostitutes, left to fend for herself in the wilderness, and eventually becomes part of this church community. But so much about that book is about skepticism of religion. How can I trust this faith that you are telling me about, this religion that you are telling me about, when everything I’ve known in my entire life has existed to degrade me?
Then you go from that to read reviews that talk about: “Nobody writes better about Midwestern values than Marilynne Robinson.” Wait, what? That’s not exactly where she’s coming from.
So, of course, I come out of a different region. And the literature that has formed me has been more Southern Gothic literature—Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers and people like that. When you talk about “keeping the Midwest weird,” do you see any connections between the kind of things that people like, maybe, Thomas Disch are doing? Is that a similar way of trying to shock us into seeing something different about the region?
One point I tried to make in that particular chapter is that the Midwest, as much as any other place, has sparked experimental writing of its own. Obviously, the Iowa Writers Workshop is there. You have writers like Robert Cooper, who is one of the experimentalists who wrote a lot about the Midwestern region, writers like William H. Gass, who writes in this beautifully elegant, smart metaphors, but also this very angry, infuriated tone.
Really what I was trying to get at there is this idea, again, that there’s not one particular specific kind of Midwestern writing, but that there was maybe a little bit more risk-taking amongst writers in the region than it’s perhaps given credit for. And also, someone like Leon Forrest, a longtime Chicagoan, who I write about in the last chapter, was a pioneering African-American experimental writer coming out of the, roughly, second half of the 20th century. Toni Morrison, who is treated now so much as practically a statue of contemporary American fiction, was a great experimentalist earlier in her career, and she was Leon Forrest’s editor. So, my goal there was to point out that there’s a through line of writers who, contrary to popular belief, were taking real chances and risks with language.