In this week’s New Haven Advocate, you’ll find my profile of Rick Moody and his new novel, The Four Fingers of Death. (Moody writes such disparate books that it’s tough to pick a best [or a worst], but I can say that The Four Fingers of Death is easily my favorite.) One thing Moody and I touched on—and one thing the blogosphere’s been bandying about—is the idea that regional lit has sort of disappeared. Moody grew up in and around New Canaan and made his name with The Ice Storm, which savaged the affluent suburb, so he brought an interesting perspective to this. Since we didn’t have room to include the material in print, I’ll post some of it here.
One of the funniest things about the film adaptation of The Ice Storm is that New Canaan’s officials didn’t read the book before agreeing to let Ang Lee shoot it in town. When they finally got around to reading Moody’s novel, the townsfolk were scandalized. The New York Times, as you might imagine, was all over this story, and Moody promised the paper that “although [The Ice Storm] was set in New Canaan, it could have been anywhere.” So I started this line of questioning by asking him if, in these calmer times, he still believed this was true. “There are plenty of suburbs in the Northeast that could have stood in,” Moody said. “The larger question is, could it be set in a different time. There were social conditions that made that story what it was, both in real life and in the time of its writing.”
Still, when Moody talked about his next move, he framed it in geographical terms.
After The Ice Storm, I had to work really hard and really fast to not be ghettoized as a surburban writer of the Northeast. In some ways, there were readers who wanted me to serve that function, a preservationist role as a fiction writer for these towns and those socioeconomic strata. But why would you want to do that as a writer? Why would you want to limit your imagination?
Moody used Updike as an example of someone who could capture a place (the Rabbit books) without allowing himself to be limited to or defined by it. Moody also suggested some economic reasons, in addition to any creative ones, for the decline of regional lit:
Nobody wants to be limited to that market. You don’t want to be the bard of Fairfield County, especially given the economic pressures of making a living and of trying to be published by a big publisher. The big publishers select certain kinds of material, and it’s really hard not to get drafted into their model of how to do this. They want the writing workshops to do what the writing workshops are doing. Especially now, the book publishers are risk averse—they want to be able to quantify what a novel’s going to do, and it’s easiest to do that if they can speak to have it having particular effects and doing particular things. That’s why genre fiction is important to them. They pay lip service to the emotional relationship that they have, as editors, to literary fiction. But it’s still easier for them if it all does a certain thing—which is affirmational, epiphanic, realistic.
I’ll admit that I don’t see a direct link between the first part of Moody’s argument and the second, though I do see some connections to his argument against “creative writing by committee.” (Note how much milder that was around the release of The Ice Storm.) Still, it’s interesting to see a case against writing regional lit come from a writer so closely associated with his home state. In fact, Moody wrote the Connecticut chapter in 2008’s State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America. It begins: “Connecticut is a state that’s hard to love, but which I love anyhow, as one often loves what wounds—if only for the familiarity.”