Art & Argument:
Issues and Ideas in American Fiction
2. The Accidental Argument
by Caitlin Horrocks
This is the second of five pieces discussing the role of issues and ideas in American fiction and how it can become more socially engaged. These sections are adapted from remarks at the 2013 conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) in Boston, entitled “Troubling Ideas: The Renewal of Argumentative Fiction.”
But then I published a story called “The Sleep,” about a fictional small town in the upper Midwest. The school has been shut down; the feed store roof has collapsed. There are no jobs. Family by family, the residents of this town begin to hibernate, until more and more people are sleeping for longer and longer, and seemingly happy with their new way of life. I started writing this story mostly because I was tired and cold. I live in a place—western Michigan—with a lot of winter, and it’s easy to get sick of it. I’d read an interesting article about historical sleep patterns. Then I began my story. Even as I worked I could feel the story mutating from the wistful fantasy I’d begun with, into something pricklier, more ambiguous.But I didn’t entirely realize what I’d done until “The Sleep” was selected for Best American Short Stories and became by far my most-read story. I’ve now done many Q+As in which I was asked not about my choice of point-of-view (first person plural, for the record. Ripe for discussion!). No, these readers wanted to know if I thought the post-industrial Midwest could survive. If Michigan’s upper peninsula could retain jobs, or would eventually revert to wilderness. If Detroit could rise from the ashes, and what a future Detroit might look like. I was asked the latter question by a student born and raised in Detroit, and the response I bit back with was: why in the world would you ask me?
Of course, he was asking me because I’d written a story whose existence more than implied that I had something to say on these subjects. A story in which I forecasted that the only way out was through, and it would not really lead out of anything. To sleep, while a town crumbles around you. The characters in “The Sleep” are happy because they’re unconscious, because they have opted out of the hard work of living, and of trying to make a community function. “Do you think the town makes it?” people have asked me, “if the story continued?” And I think about it, and I say no; and then I wonder what towns they’re really asking about and whether my answer is heartening or disheartening. Will their own hometowns survive because they haven’t consigned themselves to hibernation? Or will they succumb because they haven’t found some new way forward, even a strange and fantastical one? What does it mean, for a community to survive or succumb?
A student in France, working on a translation of the story, sent me a list of questions including, “In the end of your short story, you talk about ‘our immigrant spirit’: what do you mean about that?” A high school English class in Copenhagen, Denmark emailed me discussion questions: “What made you write this short story? What is the symbolism? What is the main message? To be provocative?”
Was I? Being provocative? I hadn’t meant to be, but I have to suppose I was. I have spent time in Scandinavia and in the upper Midwest, where many Scandinavians emigrated in search of better opportunities. I cannot speak to individual lives, but you could probably compare, town by town, village by village, the places people left and the places they emigrated to; those Scandinavian towns that a century ago were harsh, difficult places might well be more prosperous, more tidy and handsome, than their Midwestern counterparts.
I recently completed a story about a Michigan woman entertaining visiting cousins from Norway who make clear that the great-grandmother’s immigration, the founding myth of the American branch of the family, is, in the Norwegians’ eyes, a bet gone sour. How will I feel if I receive emails about this story from actual Norwegians? From another Scandinavian high school class, reading my stories and thinking that their ancestors had the right idea, staying? Parsing my work as if it were the news from 21st century America, confirmations of either fears or schadenfreude. Or, will I hear from American readers in other parts of the country, reading my work as dispatches from the fly-over states, prognostications of a specifically Midwestern doom?
The doom rings more loudly in some readers’ ears because of where I’m writing from. There are plenty of Midwestern writers, really. It’s a big place. Perhaps too big for its own good: too vast to pin down, undefined both culturally and geographically, it’s a fuzzy shadow in the public consciousness. Writers from nearly everywhere that isn’t New York City are vulnerable to being tagged with labels of regionalism, whether they want them or not. But there’s extra salt in the wound when a writer is inevitably identified with a region whose hallmark is deemed its flat, rusted-out dullness. Repeatedly, in reviews of Charles Baxter’s fiction, reviewers feel obligated to point out the seemingly unlikely fact of his constructing interesting characters leading interesting lives in the vast plain of uninteresting that constitutes the Midwest.
No work speaks for all the people in whatever place it is set. But especially when readers do not regularly see writing or even information about a place, certain books take on outsized importance. Frank Bill speaks for Indiana, Bonnie Jo Campbell for Michigan, and Donald Ray Pollock is compared over and over with Sherwood Anderson, despite their very different books, because the popular literary imagination apparently has only one slot labeled OHIO, and Winesburg must make way for Knockemstiff. Campbell, whose work I love and admire, writes of and in the place she writes about, the depressed rural communities of southwestern Michigan. The title of her National Book Award-nominated collection, American Salvage, suggests the opposite of regionalism, a voice staking out a larger, national identity. But in interviews and reviews, her work is often presented and dissected as a depiction of Michigan’s poor, rural, meth-addicted communities.
For many writers from marginalized groups, or from any non-majority identity, whether that is racial, sexual, linguistic, spiritual, or geographical, this is an old, old, issue. The single LGBT author on a syllabus is asked implicitly to speak for LGBT people of all kinds. Books by African-American writers are often shelved in stores on the basis of the writer’s race. Almost any work by a woman risks the dreaded “chick lit” label, one that Campbell has successfully avoided. This also happens inevitably to any author whose work survives beyond his lifetime or era, however popular or populist he might have been in life: we read Dickens now partially for his dispatches on life in Victorian England, or Twain for racial attitudes in 19th century America. We read writers in translation with the idea that they will teach us something about their native countries. And they will, except that what we think we see may not be what they wished to say, or what they were saying to their original audience. As readers, we both consciously and unconsciously ask books to carry us news of the other: other places, other people, other eras, even our unseen neighbors in the flyover.
Argument is thus in the eye of the beholder as much as it is in the hands of the writer. For those of us in the Midwest, there is no way to write about the places we live in now without being read as commentators on the auto industry, or predictors of the fate of small town America. You can have fun with this, as in Frank Bill’s Crimes in Southern Indiana, or you can bristle at it. You can write fantastical scenarios or a grit lit realism. You will still not be able to control who and where you write from, and who and where your readers are. There is no easy answer or course of action here for the writer. But I think there is an important message for those who, by virtue of their privilege or their belief in their own invisibility, have assumed (as I once did) that you could opt out of argument in your fiction: you can’t. None of us can. We must write and read with the awareness that argument in fiction is entangled and entangling, whether we wish it to be or not.
Caitlin Horrocks is author of the story collection This Is Not Your City. Her fiction appears in The New Yorker, Best American Short Stories, PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, and elsewhere. She lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.