A Response to David Guterson

In the latest volume of the Crab Creek Review (23.1, 2010), Kelli Russell Agodon interviewed David Guterson, author of six books, including Snow Falling on Cedars.  I received (and am very grateful for) Agodon’s permission to reprint the following exchange on the WLA blog:

[Agodon:] Is there such a thing as a “Northwest writer”? Do you think that writers in the Northwest write differently or are more in touch with place or nature than poets fro other areas? Just as there are certain types of Northwest cuisine, what do you think would make a Northwest writer?

[Guterson:] The pursuit of regional identities in the arts is at best a nebulous activity.  It seems to me both arbitrary and useless to categorize writers geographically.  There might have been a time when geography and culture converged in such a way as to make the regional identification of artists a worthwhile practice.  There might have been something fruitful, once, in pondering why a particular art arose in a particular place.  Today, with the exception of the handful of essentially isolated cultures remaining on the planet, human beings have a limited relationship to place, and this is, of course, reflected in the arts.  To be a “Northwest writer” in the 21st century simply means that, like billions of people in other places, your sensibility and view of the world are informed by influences near and far—but mostly far.  Even thirty years ago this wasn’t the case.  There was something quite Northwest indeed about the so-called “Northwest School” of poets that started with Roethke and ran through Hugo, Kizer, Wagoner, Stafford, et. al., but that now seems a thing of the past.  Today we have a lot of writers who live here but who are in no way representative of “place” in the way those poets were.

The common thing to say about Northwest writers is that Northwest writers have a relationship to nature not found in other parts of the United States.  Not true.  It does conform to the national imagery and stereotype about the unknown far corner to assert this, but it is not true.  From a distance it’s as easy to romanticize the Northwest as it is to romanticize the literature produced in it.  But you have to have actually read the stuff before you can say it has a regional resonance, and even then, most of the time you only find resonance because you have a thesis and are therefore under self-imposed pressure to make the world conform to it (pgs. 79-80).

As I see it, the problem with Guterson’s response is that there are very few critics who would nowadays suggest that North American regionalist writing—be it the Northwest, the West, or the South—can simply be defined by a set of unique characteristics.  This is true for all literary categories, not just regionalist ones, for it would be equally difficult to pinpoint the essential qualities that define, say, American literature, women’s literature, African American literature, etc.  Yet, this obviously doesn’t render these categories useless because critics use them in order to suggest linkages between certain texts.  To take one example, the way one might read Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children changes depending on the interpretive context one employs, be it based on genre (magical realism), region (South Asia), or politics (postcolonialism).  These contextual variations are also true for Northwestern writers such as Mourning Dove, Raymond Carver, William Kittredge, and Sherman Alexie.

While I think Guterson is wrong to deny the possibility that the category of the Northwest can provide critical insight into certain kinds of text, I’m not exactly surprised by his resistance to regionalist interpretive approaches; it is yet the latest reminder that many authors remain ambivalent about being labeled as regionalist writers.  No doubt there are various reasons as to why this is so.  Guterson claims that globalization renders regionalism to be an outdated interpretive strategy, but one merely needs to look to the fields of postcolonialism, Border Theory, and Hemispheric American Studies to see that globalization and new regionalism are not necessarily antithetical.  It will be interesting to see if the recent spatial turn in literary theory will alter the way that Guterson and others theorize globalization as a kind of erasure of the local.  Were that to happen, perhaps certain writers wouldn’t be under such self-imposed pressure, to borrow Guterson’s phrase, to resist the regionalist designations that have, in the past, threatened to reduce the number of books they are able to sell in the global marketplace.

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