Local Literature

The best literature, to me, is inherently local. I base my subjective opinion off of my own experiential sort of research. Essentially, this conclusion comes down to answering one question: “Would I read that book again?” First, I did some math. Assuming that I read a book a week for the rest of my life and assuming that “the rest of my life” means I have another fifty years to live, I can except to read anywhere from 2,000 to 2,500 books with my remaining time on this earth. Now, obviously, I could die tomorrow, and then all of this math would be pointless. But, regardless, my conclusion is this: That’s a lot of books, and it’s not a lot of books at the same time. Most people won’t read near that many books in their lifetime, but then again, there are so many books out there to read—so much so that being able to say, “Well, I’ve read over 2,500 in my lifetime,” really isn’t even close to making a dent. So much to read and so little time. Therefore, a book would have to be exceptional to merit a second read. Why waste reading Gone With the Wind again when you could be using all of that time to encounter a new novel? Clearly, the only reason you would do so is if Gone With the Wind was really, truly, honest to God that good to begin with. And so I ask myself after reaching the words “The End”: Would I read that book again?

And what I’ve found is that there is a mere handful of books to which I would resoundingly reply, “Yes.” Here are most of them: Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Flannery O’Connor’s Everything That Rises Must Converge and A Good Man Is Hard to Find, John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Naguib Mahfouz’s Palace Walk, several selections from William Faulkner, several selections from Cormac McCarthy, and Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street. If I seemed to be going on a Southern Gothic and grotesque track, the inclusion of Cisneros at the end might seem like an odd choice, but she fits because the qualifier that unites them all is that they’re steeped in the local. So when I say “local literature,” I don’t mean that I go to the bookstore and search way in the back shelves for some obscure local author’s self-published collection of poems. “Local literature” refers to when a writer sets their story—nay, even derives inspiration for their story—from the locale around them, the place they know best. The location practically becomes a character itself; Naguib Mahfouz’s use of Cairo exemplifies this better than anything else I’ve encountered yet in literature. But this idea of locality goes beyond setting. The vernacular of characters is rooted, bound by the land, culture, and time of the place. The appearance and names of the characters have their own inspirations from the local structure. Even the occurrences in the story have a certain locality to them. The things that happen in Flannery O’Connor’s Southeast America would never be found in Betty Smith’s Brooklyn ghetto of Irish-American immigrants. Essentially, all of these authors write about what they know. To Kill a Mockingbird and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn are heavily autobiographical. The House on Mango Street utilizes some of Cisneros’ experiences growing up in Chicago. Cormac McCarthy rode across the American southwest on horseback just like his characters do in Blood Meridian so he could gather gritty details to make his story equally rough. This is all well and good, but what does local literature offer that nonlocal literature can’t?

I should probably give the counter example. I can’t stand Salman Rushdie. I like Midnight’s Children, but I read two of his other novels to try and see if I wanted to use them for my Masters thesis on literary transnationalism. (Correction: I read one and got halfway through the other before I just gave up. I’ll finish it one day.) It’s not that you can’t follow Rushdie, though he is rarely an easy read. His prose is simply cluttered. He’s famous for throwing in myriad linguistic somersaults and fireworks, and to be honest, his command of the English language is impressive. But he does it so much and gets so sidetracked and becomes so in love with his own abilities and talents that I found myself putting down his novels countless times and yelling out loud, “Just tell the damn story already!” The stories need a sedative they jump around so much.

Rushdie is a prime example of an author—a highly talented one at that—who writes for the academy. Intellectuals, academics, theorists, and literary scholars are his target, and they eat his stuff up. He clogs his prose purposely because it’s fun; it’s fun because it forces us to go, “Okay, now, what is he doing?” and then from there we get to have a literary scavenger hunt. Almost literally. His stories span the globe, go back and forth across the poles of time, make magic real and reality magical—all to the point that his stories are anything but local. This is not right or wrong; it’s simply Rushdie’s cup of tea (and many readers’ as well, for Rushdie is quite comfortable in his wallet by now).

Now, at this point, there could be an incorrect assumption about the dichotomy between Rushdie and, say, O’Connor. One might assume that Rushdie is complex and difficult while O’Connor is simple to understand because she’s more local and less global. This is anything but true, though. Rushdie is difficult, yes, but local literature can be just as confounding, too. O’Connor died nearly fifty years ago, and we’re still dissecting her rather small oeuvre today. She herself stated the belief that it would take people decades to figure out what it was she was truly aiming to do with her stories and novels. She’s probably right. Similarly, Faulkner’s novels are highly complex, a hallmark of the Modern movement in literature. There’s a reason his works are some of the most written-about in all of literary scholarship. So, no, local literature is not automatically and unavoidably “simple.”

There also isn’t an automatic closing off of the “bigger picture” in local literature. All of the novels and short stories I listed above bring in some sort of universal truth about humanity, God, and evil even though they never leave the confines of, what the author might call, “home.” And yet, bigger picture aside, when all is said and done in the story, that local environment is still there pervading above everything else, giving the story its roots, its grit, its substance, its tenacity, its verve. I believe that, somehow, this goes beyond literature. I think in general—in life, in most things—we prize the local more than the highfalutin-type ideas that would try to swallow up the local by dissecting it and presenting it in a demystified manner. Again, in Rushdie there is nothing local. Sometimes he feels like he’s trying to do too much. (But, then again, maybe that’s the world we live in now.)

As a sort of related tangent, I was corresponding with a former professor of mine about some of my frustrations with literary theory, cultural theory, and philosophy. She labeled theory and philosophy as being “value neutral,” that their worth was situational at best, ably helping us understand the world or ourselves in some situations, but at other times being nothing more than an opportunity for some people to try and show how “incredibly smart” they are. It’s either a gateway to humble understanding or insidious pretentiousness. (I’ve seen the latter firsthand at literary conferences this past year, and it is disgusting to witness.) She shared with me her own experience with this recently, telling me about a conference she went to in another country, which she left with really nothing more than a ledger full of notes. She asked herself how valuable those were with a simple, “So what?” Following the conference, she stayed in that country for a week, gardening and tending to livestock. You can’t get much more local than that, and perhaps not ironically, she said she didn’t want to leave. That week of intense locality is what she’ll take with her and remember from that country; the notes from the conference?—again, so what? I don’t find her conclusion too surprising. The local is steeped in the earth and human relationships—something tangible and real that mere ideas can’t match. This is not to say that theories, ideas, and hypotheses aren’t good or even necessary, for they very much are. Much of my reading this past year has been illuminated greatly by the accompanying research I do, and I’m grateful for that. But I will acknowledge that there is a tipping point, a juncture at which the compendium of voices becomes too much and only detracts from the value of the short story or novel initially picked up and read. Literature, and an inherently local one at that, needs to possess that primacy.

Now, this is not for everybody. I do not, by any means, aim to create a universal mandate that I would expect others to live by. In fact, I am acquainted with several individuals who adore theory and prefer it to fictive literature. But they are few and far between, and I fear that precisely because they are few and far between, they could easily create their own pedestal of intellectual martyrdom for being the ones to bear that burden of philosophy whilst all the “simpler” folks wade about in their own smaller world of stories and novels. I would take issue with that. My world is not small. I have become familiar with the world of theory, culture, and philosophy to know what there is. While I am by no means an expert and would still have much to read, I have found it as an enterprise to be, ultimately, lacking. At this point you could institute such clichés as “to each his own” or “it takes all kinds,” and I would agree. Overall, I think you have to determine what you find worth in, and then pursue that. At times, the theory and philosophy I’ve been reading for my thesis presents such excitement and intrigue that it spurs me on further. This is a rare occasion, though. Similarly, very few novels or short stories impress me enough to where I would come back again; my bookshelves are full of a whole lot of books that will probably never be read again (but maybe someone else will want to read them one day, so I keep them around). But every now and then there is something I’ll read that I’ll be overpowered by—enough to where I believe that I would read it again someday if not right then. Almost always, it’s a very local story. Maybe not my locale, but someone’s that was very personal to them to where writing about that place and its people enabled them to dig into the beautiful substance of who we are as individuals, people, and communities.

And I think that’s good. It all comes back to stories for me. I’ve determined this summer that, if asked by someone why I’m studying what I’m studying or what it is exactly that I’m studying, I would tell them that I study storytelling—how people have done it over the millenniums; how it’s changed throughout time; what those changes tell us about people and their cultures and, perhaps even, where we’re headed; and why those people were telling their story in the first place. That may sound like a simplistic reason, but I assure you it’s not. It opens the door to a very intricate web of questions and desire for understanding, the likes of which will need some theory and philosophy along the way, but only because there was a story there first. Yes, I give fictive literature the primacy, and I realize I’m biased. But bias is not bad. If anything, it’s very necessary, especially with something like literature. There’s so much out there to read and so very little time. Being unable to narrow down one’s choices and preferences would be, perhaps, the worst nightmare of all. I know what I love, and I know where to look for it, and that is the wisest use of time. After all, I could die tomorrow, and I’d much rather go out on the high note of being in the middle of a book I was really enjoying, rather than be reading one that felt like a marathon to slog through.

Much love.

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