By Erick Trickey
Twelve years ago, Mark Winegardner confronted the Midwestern writer’s dilemma. From Mark Twain to Ernest Hemingway to Toni Morrison, more great American writers have come from the Midwest than any other part of the country. Yet if we don’t leave for “New York or someplace equally foreign,” but try to create work based on our lives here, we risk being stuffed into a belittling pigeonhole: regional writer.
Winegardner’s 2002 essay, “Toward a Literature of the Midwest,” grew from the challenges he faced after writing Crooked River Burning, an epic historical novel set in Cleveland. In the piece (also published as “Writing Our Wrongs” in Cleveland Magazine), he recalled his fury when his publisher’s marketing director called his novel a “strong regional book.” He considered that a curse, a consignment to obscurity. An Ohioan who relocated to Florida, Winegardner envied Southern writers, who thrive when they’re identified as regional writers. Southerners, he argued, embrace their region’s heritage and support their writers. Midwesterners don’t.
Winegardner’s essay despaired of finding a path forward. Yet even then, he and other novelists were exploring a new regional identity, a Midwestern-ness more intriguing than the provincial boosterism mocked in Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt. Novels such as Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex and Crooked River Burning shared a sense of loss and abandon common to the industrial cities of the Great Lakes States. Rust Belt literature, it’s now being called—fiction preoccupied with a vast loss that left scars on landscapes and psyches, a longing for a golden era that will not return.
The phrase “Rust Belt” was coined 30 years ago, after the 1982 recession, to evoke the damage globalization inflicted on the industrial Upper Midwest. It evolved from “Rust Bowl,” a comparison to the 1930s Dust Bowl, and it imitates “Bible Belt,” H.L. Mencken’s 1920s nickname for the South. But its opposite is “Sun Belt,” the 1940s-vintage term for the South and the growing Southwest.
[blocktext align=”right”]Rust Belt literature, it’s now being called, fiction preoccupied with a vast loss that left scars on landscapes and psyches, a longing for a golden era that will not return.[/blocktext]Like many aging epithets, the phrase “Rust Belt” is being reclaimed. It’s acquired some cultural cachet recently thanks to the concept of “Rust Belt Chic,” which celebrates Midwestern cities’ history, architecture, and ethnic heritage. So it’s a good time to check in with Winegardner, who is writing about Ohio again.
Much of his new novel in progress, tentatively titled Red-Blooded American Smut, is set in Northeast Ohio in the 1970s. Like Crooked River Burning, which traced Cleveland’s decline from the Indians’ 1948 World Series victory to the 1969 Cuyahoga River fire, his new novel is inspired by historic events here, from the life of Reuben Sturman, who ran a pornography empire from Cleveland, to the Kent State University shootings. I spoke with Winegardner about whether the concept of Rust Belt literature might provide a way out of the Midwestern writer’s trap.
Q: Has anything changed since your “Toward A Literature of the Midwest” essay? If you start identifying Rust Belt literature as an idea, does it offer a possible way out of the limitations you identified 10 years ago?
A: I think it’s an interesting idea that holds a lot of promise. The Midwest is nice and perceived as bland, so the idea of pitching what’s going on in those states as Rust Belt rather than Midwest gives it a much sharper definition. It gives you a little more of an identity and an underclass identity.
The challenge is for some writer to better define what that means and make a case for it. The notion calls for a polemic, a broadside. For Rust Belt Lit to exist as a thing that’s not a gentle pejorative, there needs to be some sense of how it would be connected to sales and prestige. That’s the challenge, or no one would want to be identified with it. It’d have to be identified and hammered at enough that no one who was called that would see it as an insult.
It’s one of things I was talking about in the first essay. “We see this as regional book, we see this as a Midwestern book,” is code for “A New York publisher will not be getting behind it.” “Rust Belt literature” would probably sound no different to the normative publicist in New York. The need for it to really be an attractive term has as much to do with getting writers to warm to the notion as it does with developing a readership that’s loyal to it.
There are niches of American lit which definitely mean sales. I referred to Southern lit in the essay. It’s still true. There are fewer independent bookstores than there were when I wrote that, but there are still book clubs all over the South that read exclusively Southern writers.
Q: How does the downtrodden-ness of the Rust Belt help Rust Belt literature?
A: It’s not a conquered nation the way the South was, but it is a place that’s not the main stage of American life. It’s not the economic power it once was. There’s a lot of poverty and desperation and fear. There’s poverty and desperation and fear everywhere, but it less defines San Francisco than it does Gary, Indiana. It less defines New York than it does Cleveland. I think that’s utterly different from what it was like to be from Cleveland in 1960.
A lot of literature comes from underclass people. In some ways, this is Frank O’Connor’s argument in The Lonely Voice. He’s talking about short fiction. His exact turn of phrase is, it comes from submerged population groups. There’s a degree to which the Midwest is a submerged population group.
[blocktext align=”left”]”We’re not the chamber of commerce Midwest anymore either, despite what the chamber of commerce would have you believe. We’re the Rust Belt, and bad stuff has happened to us, we have stories to tell, and we’re not dead yet.”[/blocktext]When you can’t make fun anymore in a Sinclair Lewis way, I think there’s great opportunity. That may be the thing that’s changed most from when I wrote the essay. “Midwestern” still seemed nice and striving and earnest and easy to make fun of, in a way you make fun of the sloganeering chamber of commerce sensibility in the Midwest. It isn’t gone, but it’s sad now. Making fun of sad things is just mean. It’s not art.
There’s an opportunity for our stories and the niche they occupy to be presented in a way that’s news. We’re not Sinclair Lewis’s Midwest. We’re not the chamber of commerce Midwest anymore either, despite what the chamber of commerce would have you believe. We’re the Rust Belt, and bad stuff has happened to us, we have stories to tell, and we’re not dead yet.
So much of Southern literature come from that impulse: “You conquered us, but fuck you.” It’s more, “Fuck New York, let’s read about ourselves, let’s support our people, let’s make it a real priority to read the books.” The Midwest still doesn’t have that kind of swagger, but it’s the kind of thing that can be championed in a non-boosterish way.
Q: Twelve years ago you were afraid the Midwest would never pull off a support for Midwestern literature that didn’t come off as chamber-of-commerce boosterish.
A: It’s still my fear, that it would still seem too much like you’re trying too hard. But that was part of the whole polemic in the first place: Why should we have to try too hard? There’s been this enormous amount of talent to come from the Midwest.
Q: Did Midwestern writers, even going back decades, have something in common?
A: A sense of being an outsider. It’s the through-line of all those canonical Midwestern writers. Hemingway wrote from the vantage point of someone who felt very at home at the cool kids’ party, but there’s a deeply Midwestern stripe to him. Frederic, when he gets blown up in A Farewell to Arms, is making macaroni and cheese. There is that sense of Hemingway trying too hard, the way we think of Midwesterners when they do assimilate into some high culture and high society.
[blocktext align=”right”]”A sense of being an outsider. It’s the through-line of all those canonical Midwestern writers.”[/blocktext]Gatsby—what a profoundly Midwestern [character]. He comes from Minnesota, he completely re-imagines himself by virtue of going east. Nick Carraway also comes from the Midwest, and he sees all of it from such a great vantage point, but he hightails it back to the Midwest to try to make sense of what happened to him when he was in New York.
Who can be the ultimate smart outsider on the fringe of things telling a story than Nick Carraway? The way Fitzgerald writes seems very Midwestern: We’re outsiders, but we’re not too far outsiders.
Q: In Cleveland, a panel discussion on how to write about the city became a debate about cheerleading versus criticism. One speaker was critical enough that one of the cheerleaders said, “Why don’t you move? I’ll help you move!”
A: See, there’s a problem. No one would ever say that about someone writing a novel set in Brooklyn. That’s a fundamentally art-destroying impulse. Art tends to sneak up behind things and pull their pants down, Harlem Globetrotters-ish. Art throws a spitball at the teacher.
That kind of boosterism is never going to really be art. The point isn’t positive versus negative. It’s truth versus lies. You’re certainly not going to tell the story of the Rust Belt from the 1960s onward and have it be, “Hooray, Erie!”
Q: How is Crooked River Burning a Rust Belt book?
Boy, how is it not a Rust Belt book? In the years when I lived in Cleveland, I saw various things about how prosperous Cleveland was in the 20th century. It wasn’t a place people made fun of, even as late as the early ’60s. How did we get here from there?
I was researching, and I came across that Ebony article [that called] Cleveland the best place in America for a Negro to live. Boy, to go from an article like that in Ebony in 1950 to, less than 20 years later, America’s second major race riot, how does that happen?
Crooked River Burning traces the transition of Cleveland and the Rust Belt from being the earnest, prosperous place it was right after the war to being something that could fairly be called the Rust Belt. The rust was just starting to clad the metal.
Q: How is your new book also a Rust Belt book?
A: It’s not entirely set in Cleveland, though a very large percentage of it is. If Kent counts as Cleveland, then an even larger percentage. It’s further down those rusty I-beams, the ’70s and ’80s. While it hops around in time, [it covers] the sort of malaise that happens in the Rust Belt in the ’70s.
Red-Blooded American Smut is the working title. It’s a fictionalized version of Reuben Sturman. It’s based very loosely on his empire. In real life, Reuben Sturman’s porn empire was a precursor of casinos in Rust Belt cities. It was a sin-based economy that was employing a lot of people who would otherwise been making a whole lot less money or none at all.
Q: In what ways is Jeffrey Eugenides a Rust Belt writer?
A: Both Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections and Eugenides’ Middlesex came out about the same time at Crooked River Burning. They’re all three very Rust Belt books. I think the best parts of Middlesex have to do with the fall of Detroit, the way Detroit changes in the ’60s.
[blocktext align=”left”]”You need a real online community that doesn’t seem niche-y, doesn’t seem boosterish, and isn’t saying things like ‘I’ll help you move,’ and is embracing things that tell the truth about the Rust Belt, rather than just create bumper stickers about the Rust Belt.”[/blocktext]Q: If the term “Rust Belt writer” is launching, who else should be part of the canon?
A: Dean Bakopoulos. His Please Don’t Come Back From the Moon is a little surreal, one degree beyond realism. There are all these fathers in Detroit who just disappear. Economic forces really fractured a lot of families in certain industrial cities. People had a hard time selling their house, and the dad would leave to go get a job in Houston. That was a lot of people’s stories. Dean, as his name would indicate, is a Detroit Greek, an immigrant community that really dug in and thrived economically in downtown Detroit and [then] suffered. They had a real economic stake in how the city did.
Q: You talked at one point about infrastructures of support for literature. What’s necessary for the Rust Belt to develop those infrastructures?
A: One really hip, smart website that could figure out a way to garner influence and feature really intelligent interviews with writers. You could convince both writers and publishers that it’s an important thing, that it’s great for your book if you’re interviewed on this site. Writers, that’d be easy. We’ll talk to anybody if we think it’ll sell four books. Publishers, that’s a lot harder.
One extraordinarily well done website could do what used to get done occasionally by one amazing independent book seller. Things like Goodreads have an economic impact. People check in on them. They link in to social media with it.
You could do events, where you flew people in, if you got a even couple of hundred people to show up routinely. People will come out for them. Then a publisher will fly a writer there, you can interview them, and put the interview on a website.
There are a good dozen readings and conferences like that in the South, from the Decatur Book Festival in Atlanta, which is huge, to the Southern Festival of Books to the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society conference, which is bigger than just Faulkner. To my knowledge, the Rust Belt doesn’t have one. Maybe a signature event is something that missing, something people would really turn out for.
You need a real online community that doesn’t seem niche-y, doesn’t seem boosterish, and isn’t saying things like ‘I’ll help you move,’ and is embracing things that tell the truth about the Rust Belt, rather than just create bumper stickers about the Rust Belt.
Erick Trickey is a senior editor at Cleveland Magazine.
Photo Bob Perkoski
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