Matt Weiland talks up the new collection he edited with Sean Wilsey, State by State, with the Rake, in the process pointing out what’s both good and bad about the book:
We wanted to make a book as cacophonous and messy and interesting as the nation itself, and that meant allowing writers to do their own thing and go off their own way. It’s kind of the way it feels driving across the country – wind in your hair, and windows rolled down, and everything – and you just bump into different landmarks and different topography and different sorts of people.
So we wanted different sorts of writers, too. Not just novelists, but also journalists and graphic novelists, and we have a musician, and a filmmaker, and of course a cook. We also wanted it to vary in terms of the style of the pieces. There’s Jonathan Franzen’s brilliant piece about New York, for instance, which is in the form of dramatic dialogue. We had no idea he was going to do that. It was terrific. And the unlikeliest piece, I think, was Craig Taylor’s. He wrote about Delaware, and it’s an oral history, like Studs Terkel’s great books.
He’s spot-on about Taylor’s piece, and it may say something that the best piece in a book about America was written by a Brit. As I pointed out elsewhere, the better essays in State by State are the reported ones, and on that front the pieces by fiction writers tend to be letdowns (Myla Goldberg and Jhumpa Lahiri being, surprisingly, the worst offenders). But more than anything else the book is a bit of a mess—for every nicely turned piece by Ha Jin or Alison Bechdel there’s a clunker, none worse than Saïd Sayrafiezadeh‘s odd Ugly American piece, for which the state of South Dakota deserves an apology. (“‘Look at us,’ I shouted. ‘We’re trout fishing in South Dakota!'”)
3 thoughts on “Weiland on State by State”
I’ve called this one the most flawlessly produced book of the year (http://www.readerville.com/index.php/journal/view/state-by-state-by-matt-weiland-and-sean-wilsey/) but I haven’t dipped into it yet. I guess it’s not surprising that an anthology this ambitious would be uneven, but that’s really interesting that you found Lahiri one of the low points. That makes me eager to read it!
In order to complete my life’s work as a pedant, please remember that the Ugly American is the hero of the book. He’s called ugly as a term of affection.
Having said that, this anthology is packed with junk. Perhaps finding writers who actually lived in each state would have been a better idea.