Anxietyville, USA

The Wilton (Conn.) Bulletin recently interviewed Richard Russo. Because Russo writes about small towns, and because the Bulletin is a small-town paper, a few of the questions revolved around small towns:

To Mr. Russo, Facebook resembles an attempt to create the sense of community found in small towns. “What is Facebook but an attempt to replicate something lost, a real community? People in small towns can’t avoid each other,” he said. “They have to take each other into account, which may be both the best and worst thing about them.”

What about writers like Sinclair Lewis who have disparaged small towns? “Sinclair Lewis saw such places as breeding grounds for parochial stupidity,” Mr. Russo said. “He’d probably feel the same about Facebook, where like-minded morons gather and draw solace from the fact that there are so many others out there with identical misconceptions. Sherwood Anderson, with whom I feel a closer kinship, saw in isolated small town lives an inner richness.”

Russo expands on this kind of ambivalence over small towns in a personal essay, “High and Dry,” in the new issue of Granta. His hometown, Gloversville, New York, was defined by tanneries and glove manufacturers during his childhood; once the bottom fell out of the industry, a sense of community in the town began to erode. It’s a familiar small-town tragedy, but Russo persistently resists romanticizing it, even if he’s not as dismissive as Lewis. Russo describes receiving a book in the mail about Gloversville from a man named Vincent DeSantis, and reading it prompts him to think both about small-town charms and small-town toxicity (literally—those tanneries pumped out a lot of carcinogens). The upside:

A community, even one dominated by a a single industry that hates competition, still needs grocery stores, bakeries, restaurants, insurance agencies, clothing stores and car dealerships. Residents need schools and teachers and libraries and a movie theatre, and when you lose the industry that underlies those other enterprises, these inevitably become endangered. It’s not just the mills that are abandoned when the good times—if that’s what they were—stop rolling. You also lose, as Mr. DeSantis points out, part of your identity, your reason for being, a shared sense of purpose that’s hard to quantify.


[S]ometimes people are so proud of what they make that they willingly overlook its true cost. That Gloversville once had an identity based on a common sense of purpose is a potent argument. It is used, for instance, to expalin the construction of the great cathedrals of Europe, and what are they if not symbols of communal wealth and belief. Given the technology of the day, the pyramids are even more awe-inspiring, at least until one remembers they were built with slave labour. Closer to home, the Confederacy was a case study in shared values and cultural identity, whose foundation, of course, was slavery.

Links: Don’t Quote Me

Per Wästberg, chair of the Nobel Committee for Literature, spoke at Harvard last week, playing it both ways regarding his colleague Horace Engdahl: American literature is provincial, yes, but: “[Engdahl] said many things out of frustration at the end of an interview…that were not wise,” Wästberg said. “I regret that.”

Lionel Shriver to fiction writers who don’t use quotation marks because doing so would compromise the elegance of your dialogue or some other such horsehockey: “Knock it off!”

Richard Russo talks about working with Paul Newman, abandoning academia, and, mostly, his writing habits, which he gets at by way of the habits of John Cheever, who wrote in a basement storage room:

“He brought a sandwich and sat there in his underwear,” Russo remarked. “Mid-day he’d have his sandwich, edit what he had written, retype it and put it into a box. At 5 he’d get dressed and ride up in the elevator with the same people. He did this five days a week. I don’t necessarily recommend that routine, but the point of the story is that writing’s a job and you have to treat it like any other job. There will be times if you’re talented and lucky where you will be visited by inspiration, but you’ll discover it doesn’t change your habits all that much.”

Links: Selling Points

A Cape Cod home that was once owned by John Dos Passos and regularly played host to parties featuring the likes of Mary McCarthy, Edmund Wilson, and Arthur Schlesinger is up for sale.

A teach-the-controversy idea worth getting behind: A Chicago-area school had students stage a debate over whether Huckleberry Finn should be taught in schools.

After all, who the hell knows what’s going to get high-schoolers interested in reading these days?

Would Horace Engdahl‘s bloviations have been more acceptable coming from an American?

Richard Russo knows Main Street. Main Street is a friend of his. A Sarah Palin, he says, is no Main Streeter: “”Her view doesn’t work in either small-town world, the nostalgic one or the more realistic one. She just misses both points.”

Disgrace, a Novel

The Law & Order episode about Eliot Spitzer is surely being written as we speak–I picture the late Jerry Orbach quipping, “You don’t just prosecute hookers, you’re also a client” as he cuffs the gov (donk donk!)–but Richard Russo has a more sophisticated take on how Spitzer’s life might be fictionalized. In the process, he gets at the thought process of a novelist when it comes to nuts-and-bolts matters of conflict and characterization:

Arrogant? He’d simply tried to put criminals in jail where they belonged. Wasn’t that his job? Is that any reason he should be friendless now? So I’ll give my Eliot one friend, someone to help him put what he’s done into perspective. I’ll give this friend some of my own cynical humor. Ah, what the hell, I’ll give him my name. Call him Rick. I can change that later with a keystroke.