Approaching the Rural Theme

Sven Birk­erts, in one of his many books or essays—every one is worth your while, by the way; I've read them many times in some cases—makes a case that we haven't real­ly seen a rep­re­sen­ta­tive lit­er­ary nov­el (I'd expand this to oth­er gen­res too) of the elec­tron­ic age in the way we might have been able to pick one or two out from past eras, that images and sounds and bits of infor­ma­tion whiz by us at such break­neck speed no one's been able to over­come the sheer mass and ampli­tude to make sense of it all. Which res­onates for me, I have to say. It's why realism—let's argue about what that means lat­er, shall we?— is the dom­i­nant lit­er­ary mode in the mar­ket­place for both poet­ry and fic­tion. Com­bine that with pub­lish­ers who don't see val­ue in exper­i­men­ta­tion, and you get a pub­lish­ing land­scape dom­i­nat­ed by his­tor­i­cal fic­tions and Carvere­seque sto­ries with lots of craft and lit­tle heart, mem­oirs and mem­oirish fic­tion, tiny domes­tic dra­ma poems, small moments of insight, etc, or, even more annoy­ing­ly, the one-trick pony high-con­cept nov­el or poem. You can find crit­ics and oth­er peo­ple all over the web com­plain­ing about it. I'm not going to both­er to link.

But Birk­erts makes the point: what's next? who's going to write that book, that poem, that col­lec­tion, the one that encom­pass­es life as we know it, some­thing to which you could attach a road­side sign, or, more like­ly, a pop-up win­dow. This is espe­cial­ly true for us, for you'uns, for any­one who writes rur­al-based mate­r­i­al or the kind of thing that might get tagged as 'region­al' in the library. Most peo­ple who buy books live in or near cities on either coast, with obvi­ous usu­al­ly-near-uni­ver­si­ties excep­tions. And the vast efflu­via of large­ly rur­al folks in the mid­dle and flanks of the coun­try, what pub­lish­ers and politi­cians call the fly-over zones, don't buy books. So we, as writ­ers, have to find ways to keep our region­al instincts, as well as pay homage to the fast-dis­ap­pear­ing rur­al ways in which we grew up, and make that all rel­e­vant to a more-urban-by-the-minute pop­u­la­tion that buys books, and a rur­al pop­u­la­tion that would rather do some­thing out­side the house or watch TV, or surf the web or whatever—you get the point by now. Who's going to do that? Where is the great (small‑m) mod­ernist or Post­mod­ernist (maybe con­tem­po­rary is the bet­ter word? Less loaded any­way.) rur­al nov­el or poem? The con­cepts don't even seem to work togeth­er. It's easy for inter­lec­tu­als like us to sneer at the aston­ish­ing suc­cess of a book like Cold Moun­tain a few years ago. I was a book­store man­ag­er then, and I resist­ed the book for ages even though Lar­ry Brown and Rick Bass porked off in the blurbs, nor­mal­ly a sure sign I'd like the thing. I resist­ed, and I resist­ed, and I caved final­ly, and I fell com­plete­ly in love. No sur­prise, maybe. But why that book? Why did it get so pop­u­lar, and who bought it, as its sales say it obvi­ous­ly cut through the nor­mal book-buy­ing demo­graph­ic (women age 35–40 and over, gen­er­al­ly) and spread.

The neg­a­tive first: yes, it's most­ly an exer­cise in nos­tal­gia: a nov­el with all the trap­pings of a time and place many peo­ple, in their dirty-greedy-lust­ful-acqui­si­tion­al lit­tle still-flut­ter­ing hearts, would like to go back to, a time in which men were men and women were women, they could over­come hard­ships, and peo­ple did what they had to to sur­vive, and love could (almost) con­quer all. And that's why it was suc­cess­ful: it said for peo­ple what they didn't think they need­ed said about love and war; it com­fort­ed them, build­ing an ide­al­ish world that some­what resem­bles the 'real'; it had (let's not for­get this) a care­ful­ly orches­trat­ed and expen­sive stealth PR cam­paign; it had the back­ing of Ses­salee Hens­ley at B&N. Enough to make me sneer, yeah, dis­miss it as unwor­thy of my time and atten­tion, yeah—but I loved it, and talked it up in my store, and we sold tons, and I was hap­py about it. I even liked the movie, for all its faults, and maybe because of them.

I had grown up around peo­ple like the old lady who helps Inman in the mid­dle of the woods, cur­ing his wounds and feed­ing him, peo­ple who lived out in the sticks and nev­er came to town, the odd sin­gle man who'll help out a fam­i­ly for no reward, and even the randy preach­er: my family's min­is­ter had left his own wife for a parish­ioner just a few years before, some­thing that might have been a scan­dal years ago but bare­ly caused a blip, those days, only fif­teen or so years go.

Tow­er Hill near Daggett was my Cold Moun­tain, a place where my dad had grown up hunt­ing, and where I could find arrow­heads in the plowed fields, where my uncles told sto­ries about the dogs run­ning off in the mid­dle of the night when they caught a scent oth­er than the coon they were sup­posed to be chas­ing, and where we some­times came to draw water from the spring on the side­hill peo­ple had been using for years, since our drink­ing water was iron-filled and rot­ten, and would sep­a­rate if you left it sit for a few moments. My fam­i­ly had been in the area for a hun­dred years, and in some cas­es, had farms just up the road. It's my place, in a way that it'll nev­er be for the fuck­ing flat­landers who've moved in there now and built nice hous­es where trail­ers and clap­board-walled shacks used to be. Improve­ment my ass. I am moved to right­eous anger just to think about it even though I live 300 miles away now… and that's why the book was suc­cess­ful. It keys to the things that make peo­ple most right­eous if you try to take them away: love, land, food, shel­ter. It's a great book, I think, for all its faults. It hits me. But it is nos­tal­gic, and maybe dan­ger­ous­ly so.

That time is gone, and the one we live in is dom­i­nat­ed by large cor­po­ra­tions who rape the land, force peo­ple out, build strip­malls and bypass­es, and chil­dren leave the places in which they've grown up for green­er (dol­lar signs, baby) pas­tures, and what we think and do is increas­ing­ly dic­tat­ed to us by the cor­po­ra­tized media. No won­der we should want some­thing to read that reminds us not of bet­ter times, but of any oth­er time but this one. I want to see the poem or sto­ry or essay that deals with that. Mod­ern con­texts, rur­al set­tings. There's your chal­lenge. Take it up or not.

Lat­er on today I'll hope­ful­ly post the first piece of work to ever appear on Fried Chick­en and Cof­fee. Come back then. I'm going out to drag my kids through the woods in Saugus right now.

This entry was posted in contemporary lit, postmodernism, rural lit, sven birkerts. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Approaching the Rural Theme

  1. Yokel (TKS) says:

    Quite a chal­lenge, Rusty, but I may take you up on it. I'm not from Appalachia, but I've spent way more time in the wilds of the Pac­NW (John Birchers, Judge Boldt, Sur­vival­ists, red­necks, fish-ins, chest freez­ers full of pur­loined bear meat, and all) than most peo­ple might know, and it's start­ing to itch its way to the sur­face like Appalachia seems to be doing to you. Just spent the week­end in a town of less than 200 that ekes out its worth in oys­ter­ing, and next month will spend a week in a 100-year-old for­est ser­vice cab­in (no run­ning water or elec­tric­i­ty) because, frankly, I have to for my sanity's sake. Watchin' the fire,Tamara

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.