Frank Bill and the new Midwestern lit

[The American Prospect]


In the latest issue of The American Prospect, I’ve got a long review of Frank Bill’s novel Donnybrook. I also consider a small but growing number of Midwestern fiction writers, including Donald Ray Pollock and Bonnie Jo Campbell, and write a bit about growing up there myself. (That’s my family’s house, in the picture above.)

One of the harder things to do in this review was to articulate what exactly these writers are up to — hard because, for whatever reason, they’re not too keen on articulating it themselves. What I ultimately settled on is that they’re trying to develop a new literary realism — and, more than that, to revive a literary naturalism.

Here’s Pollock in an interview

I can go out here and pick up the local newspaper, and bring it in here, and I can show you things that are just as bad or worse, probably worse, than anything that’s in my book. So what’s the big deal? I mean, I am maybe exploring something that a lot of people don’t want to think about, but people do live like this.

And here’s Bill:

For me to write all that stuff, I didn’t really have a general idea, or theme when I wrote. I just wrote what interested me about society and class as a whole. People who are still here, but you don’t see them or hear about them anymore. You read about them in small town newspapers, people who are jobless, and they disappear all over the place. You don’t read about people living in cars or camping spots in books.

The realism seems obvious enough — they’re making an effort to undercut our cultural assumptions about the Midwest. Where it crosses into naturalism, I think, is when it declines to grant its characters any inner psychology. Check out my review for more on this. And if you want to know more about Bill, read this great cover story in Indianapolis’s alt-weekly. Bill talks a lot about how, when he started writing fiction, he wrote pages and pages about the environments and nothing else. It doesn’t get more naturalistic than that!

About Craig Fehrman

Craig Fehrman is a Ph.D. student in Yale’s English department and a freelance writer. He's working on a book about presidents and their books [more] . . .
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