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July 6, 2007

Revisting the NYCentric perspective

John Stoehr

According to our Blog Guru, we here in Flyover country have been ghettoizing our entries. We post "official" blogs, then we just let commentary hang at the bottom. It would be better, he said, is we responded to comments in regular posts. That way, we'd have a much more dynamic blog, more of a free flow.

In the spirit of dynamism, I thought I'd revisit a comment by one of my co-Flyover writer Jennifer A. Smith, who wrote in the wake of two blog posts last week by Joe Nickell, in Montana, and me, in Savannah, about the NYCentric perspective.

Joe's comment centered on Alex Ross's piece in the New Yorker. Mine centered on "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: A Savannah Story," by John Berendt. Both of us took issue with the gee-whiz attitude toward things these New York-based writers didn't expect to find outside New York. This approach, though ostensibly complimentary, we argued, is simultaneously condescending.

For Ross, it was the discovery that there are quality orchestras in the American Outback. The issue is a little more complicated for Berendt, but it has to do with applying Southern stereotypes to a narrative loosely associated with reality.

After reading my post, Jennifer added to the conversation a concern about the authority of those who write about the Outback. "Who should tell the stories about our communities?" she asked. "Or, more pointedly, who has a right to?"

She continued: "I believe the answer to that should be as broad as possible, even if the results don't always satisfy. What I'm concerned about ... is that if we swat away writers from the major-metro publications, we're effectively saying 'Don't try to write about us, because you'll just get it wrong.'"

I think that's a great point. As Drew McManus, of Adaptistration, notes in his comment to Joe's post, others like him have been taking a whack at the problem of Big Apple sensibilities being applied to the rest of the country for a long time.

If we, as writers, journalists and thinkers in the American Outback, hope to add something constructive and meaningful to the national conversation, we have to aim for something constructive and meaningful -- not just spew bile at fancy-pants city slickers from NYC (I'm exaggerating, of course, but you see my point).

My answer to Jennifer's question is the point of this post and I hope you have stayed with me while I circuitously get to it.

In a nutshell, my answer is simple and complex, just as the practice of being a news reporter is simple and complex: Get the story, get it right, be fair and be balanced. But we must also try to represent reality with as much fealty to the truth as you can, while living with the frustrating existential knowledge that representing reality is an endeavor often easier said than done.

Though Ross's article suggested a gee-golly-there-is-some-fancy-art-making-going-on-out-here-in-the-sticks kind of attitude, I believe, from my experience reading him on a weekly basis, that he strives to represent reality objectively and truthfully -- though he might need someone to point an error on occasion.

Berendt, however, is another story.

In "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," he was conscious of what he was doing -- setting out to find a sensational story (in two senses of the word) and writing a fabulously sordid and intriguing international bestseller.

Problem for me is that even though I love the book -- it's wildly entertaining, and it has influenced my own writing in terms of learning to master characterization, narrative and scene development -- it's still, in the end, disingenuous.

This is not to detract from the positive influence of "The Book," as we call Berendt's nonfiction novel in Savannah. It has done this city enormous good.

Tourism is our second biggest industry. Tourists are fueling an arts resurgence. Tourists are spreading the word about Savannah's beauty. Baby boomers on the verge of retirement often decide to relocate here, bringing with them cultural expectations that are almost always higher than those that came before.

Still, Berendt's Savannah isn't the Savannah I know. I am a journalist who believes reality is often not as easy to understand as it we might think. Sometimes what we think we "know" can turn out to be wholly erroneous.

To use a historical analog, White America used to think it "knew" African America. In the post-Civil Rights Era, though we haven't wholly overcome the ravages of racial bigotry, at least most of us, even bigots, are aware of what racial bigotry is and know that it's illegal in some cases, unethical in most.

To take this analog even farther, when I think about how Berendt applied what he thought he knew about Savannah, and by association, the South, to his book, what comes to mind is how, in the late 19th century and early 20th century, whites (and eventually blacks) performed around the country in blackface.

They did this mostly for white audiences, using the language and gestures that audiences then perceived to be an accurate representation of Southern blacks. Obviously, blackface is tasteless and racist. But, setting aside the obvious overtones of violence, hatred and white supremacy associated with the institution of slavery, representing blacks in this way was also incongruent with reality.

It was entertaining, but is was also disingenuous. That didn't matter, of course, to white audiences. They "knew" what African Americans were like and those entertainers, some extremely famous and talented (think Al Jolson in "The Jazz Singer), who smeared pitch on their faces were just like African Americans.

Berendt was writing for a reader who did not live in the South and he was giving them what they would expect from a story about a murder, scandal, homosexual love and a cast of characters that could only be found in a sleepy town in the still-exotic Deep South. He gave them, in a way (minus the evil dimensions of racism), what minstrel showmen gave their audiences.

Entertainment, but disingenuous entertainment all the same.

Posted by John Stoehr at July 6, 2007 3:10 PM


Most of us are minstrel showman and everything is showbiz whether we perform for some deranged, hebephrenic Manhattan editor or the Lansing Civic Players and the high schoiol drama teacher. There is an assumption in this illusion of a cultural paradigm that as the center of the artistic universe, the Manhattan sensibility plays to the aristocratic, even ideological, effete. This assumption is as much a satire as a minstrel show as entertainment in a sale of slaves. The market is the market. The assumption that in Manhattan they only want the best is laughable. Does great art get made there. Yes. But it's rare just like it's rare in Kansas. Most art is disingenuous and banal and plays to the ordinary, dead armadillos in the middle of the road. Place is ephemeral. The minstrel is not extraordinary and what they want in New York is work that will play in Peoria. I wrote for thirty years, novel after novel after novel after novel after novel. No one in NYC would read word one of it. Not until the day I decided that the only way to change this utter failure was to change this leopard's spots. I had totally failed so what was it I had to lose. Absolutely nothing. I still live like a mouse, eat like a mouse, continue to do my work (this time film), and OWN ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. I have no home. In all the subsequent screaming over disingenuousness no one wanted to go to the place where I would be the first to maintain that I also had to dumb my work down and not just down but down, down, down, down. To the sub-literate, sub-comprehensible, subsistence, sub-sexual, sub-contextual, sub-basement bargain sale of subtextual subcutaneous sublimity. At which point the contracts and literary awards started rolling in. All of them from Manhattan. If I wrote (it was mind-numbing) at the third-grade level I could get raves from the New York Times. Everything and I do mean everything is showbiz and sex. Throw in some violence or tenderness; it doesn't really matter. The assumption that it's all a minstrel show is correct to a point. Actually, it's more a collection of performance pieces by whores. They're not overtly looking for minstrels in New York. It's far more subversive than that even if that contention causes them to pull their schizophrenic hair out by the roots. What they're really looking for is creative talent that can swallow and follow the corporate rituals -- at the same time understanding that to sell the product the product must be dumbed down and rendered stereotypically stupid -- so that it might fly off the Peoria bookshelves or theatrical stage or whatever. Writing symphonies or novels for New Yorkers is parochial and a niche market. It's amusing but it doesn't play so far as the Bronx. What is amazing is that it's the artist, the Brendts, the JT LeRoys who get charged with the capital crime of not representing reality. If it's reality they want in Peoria, then I am Marie of Romania. What they want in Peoria is exactly what they want in Manhattan at ICM. They want work that sells. The minstrel show has been selling for a very long time. Eventually, for the artist, it boils down to the issue of survival and giving them what they want is a giving up that will drain your soul of blood but it's that or starve. It's EASY to blame the minstrel and the whore. You want to have sex with the whore and then when it's over you want to beat her up because the sordidness is all her fault. What about the responsibility of the trick. What about the responsibility of the publicist. More to the POINT: what about the responsibility of the AUDIENCE. In publishing, Rule Number One: never offend the reader. They are sacred cows if there ever was one. There wouldn't BE minstrels and whores if it was not for the audience. But no one ever wants to go there. Mainly because no one really knows how to reach them as reaching them is still almost accidental and a lot of LUCK. And no one wants to point any fingers at the vampires. The middle-men. The agents. The gallery owners. The curators. The producers. The ignorant critics and all their various circles. The arts administrators. The people who sell art but do not create it. The dead armadillo undertakers. Because to offend them is to mean you will never have lunch in their town ever again, and it's doesn't really matter if their town is Hollywood, Atlanta, Manhattan, Savannah, Macon, Peoria, or a graveyard for dead armadillos from Waco, Texas.

Posted by: Tim Barrus at July 7, 2007 5:50 AM

The journalist usually begins writing his story in deciding whether the glass is half empty or the glass is half full. He builds his representation from the perspective of that decision.

The perspective of the writers of this blog is that the "flyover" has been misrepresented. The glass is half full, not half empty. This of course has no more "fealty to the truth" than it's opposite. The stories presented here will essentially be the contra-bias to the NYCentric perspective.

Jennifer's question is a fundamental one. "Who should tell the stories about our communities?" she asked. "Or, more pointedly, who has a right to?" But there is an essential question Jennifer doesn't ask. "Who is the primary audience for these stories?"

The blogosphere has reconfigured the relationship between the writer and reader. No longer is there simply the broadcast of "the story" from a single perspective. The story is now closer to a conversation or debate. The reader is the writer and vice versa.

Stories are more than just PR packages to be read by potential tourists. If this is true, then stories need to be more than just vacuous thumbs up thumbs down reviews of cities or places or cultural events. Otherwise, as writer/reader I am likely to just flyover to the domain with more substance.

Posted by: nick at July 7, 2007 7:10 AM

from my blog: www.prairiemary.blogspot.com

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Poor Joe Nickell, I read his blog for the first time through Arts Journal, which comes to me as an automatic daily newsfeed and which often points me to really useful stories. But, as is often the case when one expects one thing and gets another, I was upset because I thought that Joe would be writing about Montana arts, the whole state, but he sticks to Missoula. Missoula is NOT flyover country -- it's a destination for global hipsters. What he's picking up is the hem of Seattle, not the robes of the prairie.

But Joe's only been there ten months and his specialty is music, so he must be forgiven for not understanding what the arts in Montana really are. He could start his research -- should he be interested -- by contacting Arlynn Fishbaugh, the executive for the Montana Arts Council. (Her background includes being staff for the Metropolitan Opera -- I haven't asked her whether she has any "Bubbles" Sills stories.) But even Arlynn and the MAC have little consciousness of the 500 pound gorilla in this state, which is the legacy of Charlie Russell.

I jabbed Joe with a sharp stick in the comments for "Flyover Country" saying the Montana art world needs some REAL criticism, distinguishing good art from schlock. The response was not "ow!" but "huh?" His assumption seems to be that he never writes about the annual March Russell Auction so therefore he never writes about art schlock. But he mistook me (and I did a bad job of commenting) because in my opinion and that of expert others, the auction often includes fine examples of American Impressionism which simply have Western subject matter. The point I was chasing is that most of the people who attend the auction and the complex of accompanying auctions where the schlock is most often found (the Russell auction itself is formally curated/juried) can only tell good art from bad by looking at the name of the artist and knowing how much money it is thought to be worth. (This is why bad art sells better if it's priced high.)

That flashed past Joe like a pursued fox. But I regret using the term "schlock." It means tawdry, inept, poorly done -- which is too much of a pejorative for a genre that has steadily improved and took a major leap with the newest influx: classically trained realistic painters from China. (They show regularly at the Western Art Rendezvous coming up in Helena. It's really a kick to stand close enough to small groups of them to hear their chatting in Chinese. Can it be called eavesdropping if you can't tell what they're saying?) But even these fine artists, who make all the self-taught cowboy painters look desperate, are rather prone to "schmaltz," which means over-sentimentality. The core of East Coast illustrators who galvanized the Cowboy Artists of America had the same combination of fine technical skill with a sort of sweet vignette sensibility drawn from the short stories they enlivened in slick magazines.

"What's not to like?" many of my friends would ask. Well, I dunno. I have this sort of crazed romantic idea left over from my undergrad training in theatre: stuff about the heart of human meaning, a distinctive vision of the world, and all that.

Joe's background sounds also romantic but more from a later generation than mine, the one that found their soul in music, oddly parallel but not the same as Bob Scriver's "swing" generation. Bob's kind of music got the soldiers through WWII. I think Joe must be from the Vietnam Era.

Those people don't respond to sharp sticks, so I will try -- as here -- a little more courtship and networking. Part of my reaction to Joe is really about Missoula. On this side of the Rockies we see them as the home of snobbery, xenophobia, and fancy drugs. For the music freaks, it's much closer to George, the fount of hip music. (The name is a play on the location in the Columbia Gorge. It's an ampitheatre rather than a dive.)

The "pitch" for flyover country is that it is about the arts in "small cities," but too many Montana small cities appear to be beneath notice here. Somebody send Joe Nickell some gas money.

Posted by: Mary Scriver at July 8, 2007 11:23 AM

It's very funny -- in both senses -- to see that Tim Barrus is your first commenter! I've been following Nasdijj since before the scandal broke. I assume you know about it.

What a kick! I can't help being fond of him, but don't tell anyone, especially him -- I'm far enough into the Outback that he might show up on my doorstep!

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver at July 8, 2007 11:30 AM