This Must Be the Place

Is literary regionalism dying—and if so, why? Some points have been recently argued by D.G. Myers (who suggests the rise of MFA programs may play a role) and Andrew Seal (who suggests that there’s a kind of growing alienation between writers and readers). No offense to either of those two smart people, but I’ve been hoping to see something from a working fiction writer on the matter. Yesterday, the Official Blog of the Western Literature Association* posted an excerpt of an interview with David Guterson in Crab Creek Review in which he bristled at the idea of being categorized as a Northwest writer:

The pursuit of regional identities in the arts is at best a nebulous activity. It seems to me both arbitrary and useless to categorize writers geographically. There might have been a time when geography and culture converged in such a way as to make the regional identification of artists a worthwhile practice. There might have been something fruitful, once, in pondering why a particular art arose in a particular place. Today, with the exception of the handful of essentially isolated cultures remaining on the planet, human beings have a limited relationship to place, and this is, of course, reflected in the arts. To be a “Northwest writer” in the 21st century simply means that, like billions of people in other places, your sensibility and view of the world are informed by influences near and far—but mostly far.

There’s more in the post, and probably more in the journal proper. Guterson may just be whipping up a newer, fancier version of the artists’ common complaint that they hate to be pigeonholed, but he does make clear that something changed—at one point regionalism was important, and now it is less important. The post’s author, D. Seth Horton, interprets Guterson’s comments as saying that the change was globalization, but also points out that money may have something to do with it too: they may be under “self-imposed pressure, to borrow Guterson’s phrase, to resist the regionalist designations that have, in the past, threatened to reduce the number of books they are able to sell in the global marketplace.”

* Perhaps this issue could be studied quantitatively: Take a look a the membership rolls for regional literature associations over time and look for trendlines. Better still, find out how many such associations have gone defunct in recent years, or if any new ones have cropped up.