Quick: where do writers live?
Many people when faced with that question envision New York City. The thought conjures images of lofts on the Lower East Side, or some studio apartment in Brooklyn, or (as the writer you’re picturing gets richer) a desk in front of a window overlooking the Park. Another answer could be the pastoral South, or somewhere in California (for when that same successful writer has inevitably just had it with New York). With each of these places, we can also imagine the writing that comes from them; the Southern novel is as robust a genre as any in the American literary canon, and see how many of your favorite books don’t, at some point, take place in New York.
But this of course leaves out a giant chunk of the country, and when we do talk about the Midwest, it often gets slighted: Middle America. Flyover states. The prairie. America’s heartland. These terms aren’t necessarily insulting, but they do suggest a blanket, monolith simplicity to the Midwestern lifestyle that often gets contrasted with coastal dynamism. This extends to literature, where pinning down the hallmark traits of Midwestern authors or writing can take more than a moment’s thought.
At its crux, that same nondescript, unassuming quality of the Midwest may actually be what makes this region’s literature so alive and complex. Where else could Jonathan Franzen set The Corrections or Freedom, two explorations into the deepest recesses of American love and family? Or take Iowa’s Marilynne Robinson, whose writing contains a spiritual depth that pushes the very possibilities of words on a page; could the soulfulness of Gilead be heard against the noisy backdrop of Manhattan? The Midwest is where writers and their characters hear themselves think, whether they want to or not. It’s where they contend with their own anonymity, and are forced to forge voices and identity without the crutch of a world of distraction. The Midwest is a place for journeys, and for finding things out. It’s where you can’t get away with ignoring your interior self, because often, that’s all there is to pay attention to. The best Midwestern literature reflects all this; yes, that’s hard to put a finger on, but that’s exactly the point.
Rain Taxi’s best Midwestern-themed pieces from 2010:
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen (Fall 2010, Online) reviewed by Tim Jacobs.
Not Normal, Illinois, edited by Michael Martone (Spring 2010, Online) reviewed by Stephanie Hlywak.
Empty the Sun by Joseph Mattson (Summer 2010, Online) reviewed by Andy Stewart.