Midwesterners! I know it’s against your unofficial code of conduct to brag, but you are the winners! With the anointing of Jonathan Franzen as King of the Authors, you should finally feel more than confident going up against your California friends, your Southern lovers, and your East Coast confidantes in a battle of writerly superiority.
Here’s Mark Winegardner on why you should have been comfortable bragging for years:
Robert Birnbaum: Do you think if Charles Baxter [he teaches at the University of [Minnesota]] taught on the east coast he would be recognized as a great American writer?
Mark Winegardner: That’s a really good question. He is a great American writer. And he is as I am–for better or for worse, a hopelessly Midwestern sensibility.
RB: (laughs) What does that mean? Is there a Midwestern school of writing?
MW: Well, yeah that Midwestern school of writing is the main stage. Everything else is pretty peripheral. Midwesterners are so full of self-loathing that they can’t bring themselves to say so. Think about it. We’ve had 9 American Nobel laureates. 5 of the 9 from the Midwest. No other region has produced more than 1. If you believe as Midwesterner Ernest Hemingway once said, “All of American fiction comes from a book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.”–by a Midwesterner, Missourian Mark Twain. The difference for Midwesterners is that they, until recent years, have typically either been vicious towards the Midwest as Sinclair Lewis was or went to great lengths to not be seen as Midwesterners. [T.S.] Eliot being the best example. He became British, for Christ’s sake. Tennessee Williams, raised in St. Louis, became Southern. Adopted a Southern state as his name. Of course, he was just Tom. And then you have writers who have never really abandoned the Midwest, who are deeply and ferociously Midwestern writers and for whatever reason and we don’t seem to see this as a category–which it is, it’s the main stage of American literature. We don’t even talk about them as Midwestern writers. Toni Morrison–almost her entire body of work set in the Midwest. She’s a deeply Midwestern writer. Tim O Brien, a deeply Midwestern writer. Everything he’s ever written has been set in the Midwest or forged in the Midwest, including the Vietnam books. He’d be the first to cop to it. If you said, “Tim, you’re a Midwestern writer. You’re in that tradition.” He’d say, “Yeah, of course I am.” Duh. But no one talks about him that way. Tim and Charlie [Baxter] were at MacAllister College at the same time. Probably, because of some New York driven need to pigeon-hole writers, Tim is a Vietnam writer and Charlie is a Midwestern writer. And they’re not. They are just two great American writers, completely indispensable.
You hear that? We’re the main stage! I know it’s not a contest, but I can’t help but wish we Midwesterners would puff our chests out a tiny bit, trade a tad of our famous earnestness for a little bit of healthy pride. I’ll be fifty before I’ll have spent more years outside of the Midwest than in it (assuming I don’t move back, assuming I, like Franzen’s own description of the characters in The Corrections will continue to “alternately long for and reject the heartland suburbs”) and my time as a Midwest apologist started long before I left.
Most credibility-undermining opening ever?: “We get a lot of books sent to us by publishers, but it’s very rare that we’re interested in the book, or interested in interviewing the author“”
Like the president and practically everyone else in America, I’m excited about the release of Franzen’s St.Paul, Minnesota-set Freedom. I’m trying not to read too much about it, but it’s hard not to have outsized expectations when every day brings a headline like today’s from the Guardian: Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom: The Novel of the Century. Didn’t this century just begin? Who cares! We’ve triumphed. Let’s pop some popcorn and break out our Jello molds, crack some PBRs and have a modest potluck to quietly discuss our heroes.