Q&A: Beyond Cather and Bellow: A Smart Guide to the Fiction of the New American Midwest

In The New Midwest: A Guide to Contemporary Fiction of the Great Lakes, Great Plains, and Rust Belt, literary critic Mark Athitakis argues that new generations of writers have advanced beyond the mythology of the Midwest: prairies, farms, smokestacks, and skyscrapers. Athitakis seems to have read everything from the region — from classics by Willa Cather, Saul Bellow, and Richard Wright, to the works of more recent famous writers like Jeffrey Eugenides and Marilynne Robinson, to even newer voices, like Stuart Dybek, Angela Flournoy, Aleksander Hemon and Celeste Ng, who have injected new passions, concerns, and styles into their portrayal of a fast-changing region.

The New Midwest is published by Belt Publishing, an online magazine and small press that focuses on the Rust Belt and Midwest. Belt (beltmag.com), which was founded by Anne Trubek in 2013, is also a membership organization — bringing together a community of people who care about the past, present, and future of a region that does not get its fair share of literary attention.

Athitakis served on the board of the National Book Critics Circle and reviews for a wide range of national publications, including the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, and Barnes & Noble Review,  but he grew up in suburban Chicago and his heart is clearly still in his native region. The New Midwest is like a rigorous but congenial seminar in both the state of contemporary fiction and the tensions roiling at the center of America. Athitakis spoke with The National about his book, the idea of borders, and the next crop of Midwestern writers.

Q: As you write in your very perceptive Introduction, there are passionate ideas about what constitutes the “Midwest” and the books that best represent and reflect it. Much of what we perceive as the region is formed by writers like Willa Cather, Theodore Dreiser, Saul Bellow, Ernest Hemingway, and Richard Wright.  You argue that “Midwestern fiction is a living manifestation of the tension between the region’s old idealism and present-day reality.”  Can you explain that tension, and what it means for fiction today?

A. One of my motivations for writing this book was a frustration with the way “Midwestern literature” seems to be trapped in amber---its polestars are still that Cather-Dreiser-Bellow-Hemingway-Wright group you mention. And I think for a lot of readers and critics, that group and that sensibility remain the benchmark for what Midwestern fiction is. Never mind that the region has become more pluralistic, diverse, economically complex, and so on. So I wanted to say a few things about novels and story collections that have appeared since roughly the beginning of this century, though I dip further into the past in a few cases.

A lot of those acclaimed Midwestern-set novels of recent years are set largely in the past: Middlesex, Gilead, Jimmy Corrigan, Jane Smiley’s Last Hundred Years Trilogy.  But none of these novels dwell much on the usual comforts of historical fiction, that urge to render an earlier time with pinpoint accuracy. Rather, in addition to being simply well-made works of fiction, they read to me more like attempts to relitigate the past, to challenge the churchy, home-and-hearth-y, industrial, predominantly white stereotypes of Midwestern life.

I don’t think Jeffrey Eugenides, Marilynne Robinson, Chris Ware, and Jane Smiley made these works intending to explicitly rewrite older Midwestern narratives---they mainly wanted to address sexuality and faith and loneliness and family in their own ways. But when you take them together, they do feel like more of a forceful critique of the past, and I think in the process they uncover the roots of the kind of Midwest people live in now.

Those works present an interesting challenge to anybody writing stories about Detroit or Cleveland or Chicago or rural Michigan or Iowa today. What’s the false narrative that keeps sticking to these places? What can you do with place and time and style and form to reject, challenge, and rewrite that folklore?

I should add that none of this is to say that I dislike Cather, Dreiser, Bellow, etc. My love of Midwestern fiction began when I was in high school in the Chicago suburbs; I came across a copy of Nelson Algren’s The Neon Wilderness in the library, and I was taken in by the idea of somebody writing about people like me (the son of European immigrants) who were living their lives not far from where I live.

Cather’s The Song of the Lark is a superb, often very modern-feeling novel about a young woman navigating the world, and Herzog is one of my favorite books, period. I just wanted to move the conversation a half-century or so forward. Dreiser and Bellow’s perspectives on cities, say, aren’t as applicable to cities now; the racial makeup of the Midwest is different now than when Richard Wright was writing about it.
Q: Chicago was once the epicenter of migration for those seeking freedom and opportunity in what they thought would be the great American city, from Europe, the Jim Crow South, and the farms of Midwest. How did the arrival of immigrants change the Midwestern novel, and as you put it in your chapter “The Latest Migrants,” “How do I become myself in this place?”

A: For a long time, the novel of Midwestern immigrants was effectively an assimilation novel: You or your parents came to this country, and your task was to obtain an American identity by dint of hard work or noble self-expression The quintessential novel in that regard is Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, which covers the various agonies suffered by a Lithuanian immigrant family barely scraping by in the South Side stockyards. (The bulk of the novel is about the miseries of the city, but its hero is a success by the end, becoming a rising figure in the Socialist party.)

Sometimes there were overly cuddly versions of that story (Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon Days comes to mind), but usually the story was a mix of struggle and optimism: The Adventures of Augie March is a picaresque tale about the son of Jewish immigrants rising in the world. It’s right there in the first sentence: “I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago, that somber city—and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way.”

I have a hard time imagining a writer like Aleksandar Hemon or Dinaw Mengestu or Alaa Al Aswany writing a sentence so bluntly assertive. For their characters, becoming or identifying as American is a complex business, and they’re well aware of the social and cultural restrictions that keep them from breezily going at things free-style. The heroes of two of Mengestu’s novels, How to Read the Air and All Our Names, are men with African backgrounds living in the Midwest who aren’t searching for an American identity but trying to reconcile their pasts---which involve war and family rifts---with their presents, which involve racism, work, and the difficulty of finding stable relationships. The title of Hemon’s novel Nowhere Man summarizes the tension---what’s your trajectory when you’re in America but there’s no fixed definition of “American”?

The Chicago novelist Leon Forrest wrote a clutch of novels -- including one very big and lamentably out-of-print one, Divine Days -- that spotlighted how the legacy of the Jim Crow South still couldn’t be escaped even after blacks migrated north. The Chicago region is still very segregated, and I like how a novel like Rachel Louise Snyder’s What We’ve Lost Is Nothing explores the anxiety that exists even in an integrated and progressive community like Oak Park; it’s a white liberal enclave that congratulates itself on how inclusive it is, but as Snyder points out, it takes very little for a discriminatory instinct to kick in.
Q: OK, Mark – you’ve hit a soft spot: Leon Forrest and Divine Days. Why is Divine Days out of print? And, maybe this is the point to ask: What difference does it make if it’s a Midwestern novel, or just a great American novel?
I don’t know the exact reasons why Divine Days is out of print, but it is unquestionably a tough sell. A 1,000-plus-page novel is daunting in any context, and Forrest was only a moderately well-known writer before it was published, part of a small group of experimental African-American novelists working in the 70s and 80s. He had a longtime champion in Toni Morrison, and Divine Days received glowing reviews from Stanley Crouch and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., but every midlist writer knows that you can’t eat good reviews. I do hope some publisher takes a chance at putting it back into print. I don’t want to oversell it for those who track down a copy online---Forrest can be tough sledding, and the book is wildly all over the place, draggy in bits, and desperately in need of a copy edit. But I admire its kitchen-sink sensibility, the way Forrest is determined to interweave a variety of stories about Southern racism and the black community of Chicago’s South Side; there are dozens of bracing and sardonically funny bits in it about religion, prejudice, art, and music.
Trying to identify the Great American Novel is a mug’s game, but what might distinguish a great Midwestern novel from one set elsewhere in the country is that the Midwest remains our great unfinished place. If you want evidence of that, just look at the various contortions that pundits have put themselves through to explain what was happening in the Midwestern states that shifted Trumpward in the last election. This might be politically lamentable, but it also makes the region fascinating territory for a fiction writer---it’s where our conversations about race, religion, gender, and work are still being sorted out. Lila and An Untamed State and Gone Girl and The Corrections and American Rust--and Divine Days--are all excellent novels, but none of them have much to say about the cliches of Midwestern farmers and factory workers. They define the region outside of them, and I think that has value to a reader trying to understand the place, as any challenge to a cliche does.

I also think some interesting things are happening in fiction set along the borders of the Midwest My book was intended as a speedy survey, but if I had more space and time I would have had more to say about the fiction on the edges of the region, because they are remarkable culture-clash stories. I’m thinking of novels like Louise Erdrich’s The Round House and LaRose, which deal with the collision of white and Native American communities in rural Minnesota, or Donald Ray Pollock’s novels set in southern Ohio, which he depicts as a powder-keg mixture of the rural South and Appalachia and the industrial North. My favorite novel of 2016, C.E. Morgan’s The Sport of Kings, is about horse racing on the surface, but more deeply about how America’s long history of racism persists on the Ohio and Kentucky sides of the Ohio River. It’s hard to say definitively whether a place like Cincinnati is a Midwestern or Southern city, and I think that tension is what makes it interesting. I also think that tension runs throughout the Midwest.

Q: Let me pick up on your idea about borders -- it seems you are not only referring to geographical or physical borders, but rather to writers on the margin who are challenging the conventions of realism in fiction. In your chapter titled “Keep the Midwest Weird,” you write that there may be “something about the insistence that the region is so inoffensive that prompts such fierce efforts to contract it, to rewire its syntax.” Will the Midwest keep getting weirder? Or maybe the question is, can it get weirder given the flattening and narrowing forces of homogenization?
A: Will the Midwest keep getting weirder? I hope so, though as you say the forces of homogenization always keep busy, especially in literary fiction. Writers like Leon Forrest or William H. Gass or even Toni Morrison might have a hard time getting published today -- The Bluest Eye is a provocative and pathbreaking novel that doesn’t have a clear niche in today’s marketplace (except for the one Morrison herself created).
But the out-there stuff is also, well, out there. Writers like Matt Bell, Jac Jemc, and Roxane Gay are risk-taking writers with close ties to the Midwest. Richard Powers is a more conventional writer but he plays a lot with structure and finds the oddball cultural pockets of the region (his novel Orfeo is set partly in the forward-thinking experimental music scene at the University of Illinois in the 60s); Dean Bakopoulos’ Summerlong gets points from me for bringing weed and sex to the heart of Iowa. Walmarts are everywhere, but the presence of robust writing schools in the region -- the Iowa Writers Workshop, most prominently -- will do its bit to help ensure that there are Midwestern writers who’ll have the time and space to take a chance or two.

I’d also like to think that, to reiterate something I said earlier, Midwestern fiction is going to be a beneficiary of the region’s transformation. For years the cliche has been that change in America starts in California and blows east, but perhaps it starts in the Great Lakes and spreads outward. The region didn’t choose this role, but it is now a socio-economic test case. What will people do when economies shift from manufacturing to services, and people are left behind? How will new immigrants and refugees become a part of communities that spent much of the 20th century defining themselves in terms of people who’d moved in decades ago? What stories do we need to hear about Ferguson, Missouri, and Dearborn, Michigan? The next generation of fiction writers will have plenty to work with. The question, as ever, is whether the publishers will be there to share them.

Q: I'm sure you’ve thought a great deal about the role of critics as the publishing landscape changes. So, where do critics fit into all this?

A: I hadn't thought much about the role of critics and other gatekeepers until you asked this question, though it's an interesting area to explore. Certainly a list of storied Midwestern literary critics a la Edmund Wilson or Lionel Trilling or Irving Howe doesn't exactly spring immediately to mind, at least not to my mind. We still live in a literary culture where the critics who do the anointing often live on the coasts.

That has upsides and downsides. James Wood firmly bolted Marilynne Robinson into the American literary pantheon with a glowing review of Gilead on the front of the New York Times Book Review, but it's also a review that steered the conversation toward her language and her religious themes and away from the spikier material about racism that's also part of her work. In my book I mention the case of Matt Bell's novel Scrapper, which is about a man who gathers and sells scrap from abandoned Detroit buildings; he's mentioned that while in his native Michigan the novel was appreciated as "realistic" and "contemporary," on the coasts it was reflexively called "dystopian," as if its dark portrait couldn't possibly hew to how things there actually are.

But the coasts don't own this conversation exclusively. I grew up reading the Chicago dailies, and I know they were out front on writers like Stuart Dybek and Aleksandar Hemon; a city like Minneapolis, with its wealth of small presses, had done much the same to promote its own writers, from Robert Bly to Charles Baxter to Marlon James. I know the decline of daily-newspaper critics isn't much-mourned by the general public. But (if it's OK for a writer now living in Arizona to say this) there's still value in critics and writers claiming and celebrating their home's best writers.

Q: We do need to hear these stories, and this is your moment to let the world (and publishers) know how Midwestern literature speaks to this particular moment. Are there any new voices we need to hear?

A: I think Celeste Ng’s novel, Everything I Never Told You, is an excellent novel that also exemplifies what I said earlier about how fiction uses the past (in this case casual racism in 70s Ohio) to illuminate the present. Margaret Wappler’s Neon Green is a funny and smart debut about an alien spaceship that plants itself in the backyard of a Chicago suburb -- funny in its predicament, and smart about what it reveals about the dramas bubbling under the surface of suburban life. Benjamin Markovits is more of a veteran, but his You Don’t Have to Live Like This is one of the better recent novels about modern-day Detroit. Similarly, Jean Thompson is one of those consistently good writers who’s been around for years and but who often falls under the radar because she’s hasn’t written that one breakout book. I love her story collection The Witch, which takes fairy tales and embeds them in upper-lower-class Midwestern settings.

If there’s one book in The New Midwest that I hope people seek out, if only because I suspect most readers won’t know it, it’s Patrick Michael Finn’s 2011 story collection From the Darkness Right Under Our Feet, a dark but bracing set of stories set in Joliet, Illinois, as it place-shifts from being an industrial burg to not knowing what it is. Think of Stuart Dybek crossed with Denis Johnson, filled with messy stuff about religion, sex, childhood, and work. There’s no unifying Midwestern fictional voice, but I think his voice could only come out of that place.