I discovered Mark Athitakis and his new book, The New Midwest: A Guide to Contemporary Fiction of the Great Lakes, Great Plains, and Rust Belt, in an article on The Huffington Post where Mark was interviewed. Then I thought, if HufPo can do it, why can’t I? So, I contacted Mark and well, here we are.
Mark’s field is Midwestern fiction and he has written on books for a number of publications including The New York Times, Washington Post, and Belt Magazine, which publishes his “Reading the Midwest” column. Previous entries have covered the plural Midwest and keeping the Midwest weird. Today – reading après le déluge:
So, you say in that interview with The Huffington Post that you wrote this book mostly before Trump’s election. And I’ve read the other selection of your suggested reading list for the time of Trump. What are the connections you see between the kind of writing that you’ve been doing and what’s happening politically in the region?
You know, I wish I’d whipped up a better grand, unified theory about this just because of the interview.
Yeah, well, nobody’s got one these days.
I was writing on this book. I was just really no different from anybody else as regards to Trump. I just thought, well, he was an interesting sensation, but wasn’t somebody who was really going to capture the imaginations of enough Americans to win the election when November rolled around. But I grew up in a Chicago suburb, and the Chicago area in general, is treated as this monolithically Democratic stronghold. When people hear that, especially people who are outside the region, they say, “Well, it must be a progressive place.” And no, it’s not.
I’ve lived there, and there’s lots of people, especially older white people, who harbor a lot of resentment that goes back to the 50s and 60s, and weren’t onboard with the civil rights movement, and they voted Democratic because they wanted their trash picked up on time, and that was the party that you voted for if you wanted your trash picked up. So, it was more a practical vote than it was anything that reflected their ethics or their values.
So, obviously, that got tapped into in the last election, and there’s a smallish shelf of fiction that reflects some of that. I think you see it early on in a book like Joyce Carol Oates’s Them, which is an interesting book about the ’68/’69 Detroit riots. And it focuses on that neglected, upper-/lower-middle class of whites who are not in poverty, but also feel like they’ve been ignored by the system, and people you might call Trump voters now.
You see it in books like Philipp Meyer’s American Rust, which is about people who are struggling in that area of Pennsylvania; or in books like American Salvage by Bonnie Jo Campbell, which is set in central Michigan and dealing with people who are really just scraping by after factories and plants closed in the 70s and 80s. There’s a lot of people who got hit very hard and felt neglected and felt unled and were obviously looking for a leader who was going to speak to them. None of these books are explicitly political books, but they are about these people.
I gave a reading last week here in Phoenix. Someone was asking me, “Do you think we’re going to see more books about this?” And I said it’ll take a few years. It took a few years for novels about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to appear. So, we are probably going to see more of these books about what is happening in the Midwest and what is going on culturally, but there’s enough evidence that we already have some of these books now.
There’s no book that will say, “Here is what happened in the Midwest that changed things.” But, again, it’s a place full of micro-climates. There’s a big difference between what’s happening on the east end of the Ohio River Valley in Ohio and the west end of it. There’s a big difference between that and what’s going on in Cleveland, and different from that and what’s happening in Detroit. Clearly there was enough of a critical mass of people to say that they were making a decision to vote for Trump, but I just hope that whatever book comes out, doesn’t say, “Well, you know, of course, all the people who live in Ohio are like this or all the people who live in Michigan are like this.”