Madison, the Midwest and Lorrie Moore

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If you live in the Midwest--and especially if you live in Madison, Wis., as I do--one of the most curious things about following coverage of author Lorrie Moore is what that coverage reveals about attitudes towards this region.  Moore, whose long-awaited new novel just came out, has lived here since 1984, when she joined the faculty of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

 

I covered A Gate at the Stairs, the new novel, for this week's issue of Isthmus, Madison's alternative weekly, and this aspect of her critical reception is one topic I tried to address (with regard to her previous books).  In a nutshell, too many reviewers have cast her in the role of pithy, coastal intellectual trapped in a land of corn and slow-witted people.  (Just one example:  Ploughshares commented that "the predicaments of East Coast sophisticates landlocked in the Midwest" is a theme in her work, and implied it about Moore as well.)  This has become a cliché that Moore herself is tired of (see her quotes in my article).

 

It's that same sort of attitude that led my co-bloggers and I to somewhat sarcastically call this blog "Flyover"--so you can imagine my amusement when Michiko Kakutani wrote unironically in the New York Times that "[Moore] gives us bright, digital snapshots of flyover country where nearly every small town has a local Dairy Queen..." (something Kakutani apparently finds exotic and noteworthy). 

 

Jonathan Lethem's piece for the NYT also touches upon similar territory.  Rather puzzlingly, he wrote that "Moore's class diagnostics are so exact she can make us feel the uneasiness not only between town and country in a single landlocked state, but between different types of farmers on neighboring plots."  This comment tells me more about Lethem than Moore.

 

Lorrie Moore certainly has her laser-like descriptive gifts, but being able to distinguish in a work of fiction between a Madison-like college town and a rural community is not an extravagant feat.  The differences are obvious, as are the ones between a boutique farmer of gourmet potatoes and a big commercial operation.  Would Lethem be impressed if someone could tell the difference between a yuppie-ish college town in New York and an upstate farming community?  (I won't even get into Lethem's description of Wisconsin as "landlocked," but he might want to look at a map of the Great Lakes.)

 

For my part, I found A Gate at the Stairs problematic and not entirely satisfying, even though there are plenty of things to like about it.  Not only are the differences between the fictional towns of Troy and Dellacrosse obvious, they're on the verge of hardening into stereotypes (as I wrote in Isthmus, "we're left with fairly stereotypical impressions of a hick rural hamlet and a navel-gazing, lefty college town").  I also thought, as one example, that Tassie's inexperience with things as commonplace as Chinese food--especially given her worldly parents and growing up near a college town--was implausible.  Do these people never go anywhere?

 

It's great when a Wisconsin writer--and after 25 years here, I think Moore qualifies as such--is also a writer of national and international stature.  There are a number of outstanding people here:  Jane Hamilton, Michael Perry, kids' author Kevin Henkes.  Just don't look so surprised, OK?


September 4, 2009 2:18 PM | | Comments (8)

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8 Comments

Elise,

There is nothing wrong with readers who critique books or authors. The situation is just a little out of control now due to the lack of manners on the Internet, which sometimes results in unwarranted slashing.

As far as Lorrie Moore's sex is concerned, I am disappointed with her only because she hasn't lived up to her potential. There is no question about her talent, but I think she's become formulaic and has not grown much as an artist. The consensus on A Gate at the Stairs is that it contains serious flaws. She has no legitimate excuse as she took 11 years to write it and could have worked on it for another 11 years to get it right as far as I'm concerned. Actually, I tend to prefer female writers and will like Moore again if she can get her act together.

I am reading Lorrie Moore's short stories. I like them. I am glad she wrote them. I never understand why people always want writers to write something different than what they wrote. Or writers who put down Dairy Queen who put on night time face cream that has the same ingredients as Dairy Queen. I think some of the people who smite-write about Lorrie Moore would like her more if she were a male. I like to read Lorrie Moore's books.

Her newer short stories published since Birds of America are more male-neutral. "Misandry" is probably a stronger term than should be used, but some of her earliest writing seems to seethe with the the sort on anti-male feminism that was the hallmark of her generation of women who are now in their early fifties to mid-sixties. Times have changed, and we're living in a completely different, post-feminist world. Kate Millett and Gloria Steinem are ancient history.

Though it's been a few years, I've also read all of Moore's fiction other than this novel. So I'll accept your rough charecterization of the male characters in her work. Even so, none of what you say amounts to "Misandry" or "male-bashing".

Sorry, Richard, but I think Hugh is correct. I’ve read all of her work other than this novel, and while most of her characters are not admirable people, the men are often implicitly responsible for the relative unhappiness of the women. The protagonists are usually females, with some elements of personality and feeling, and the males tend to be ciphers whose main significance is their bringing of grief to the women. What is missing from all of her work is the depiction of a functional adult relationship between a man and a woman. She has virtually nothing to say about how this is possible or worthwhile. One of the Amazon reviewers says “Perhaps at heart, Moore is a young adult writer,” which means to me that she favors female adolescents over males and adult relationships.

Regarding Lethem’s review, as I’ve said elsewhere, I think it’s a disgrace.

Regarding flyovers, Moore’s work had more of that attitude way back when she lived part of the year in Madison and part of the year in New York. I grew up in New York and have lived most of my life in the Midwest. There are differences, but TV and other media are constantly eroding them. On the other hand, NYC has had more money and power than any other city in the U.S., and for a longer time. That translates into a richer cultural life. You won’t find many sophisticates clambering to move to the Midwest.

"the strong undercurrent of Misandry in her stories"

no such undercurrent exists in her work; though it's nice to see such blatant hyper-sensitivity to alleged "male-bashing".

Lethem is awesome. In fact, I plan to read Moore based on his recommendation.

I'm from the midwest (Indiana), and I think you're making something out of nothing. Really splitting hairs. And guess what, I've never had Chinese food either (and that's including my 3 years living in New York!). Guess I'm just a big fat living stereotype huh.

I've read Lorrie Moore's short stories notably
"And Your Ugly Too". I liked her to a point, (a point that proved to be one of departure) due to the strong undercurrent of Misandry in her stories especially the above one.

This kind of male-bashing cant became a kind of
popular de rigueur (unfortunately acceptable by readers and critics)in the last two decades.
(It seems to be playing out now).

I think Lethem's estatic review in the NYT
was frankly silly and sophomoric (which I guess is why I don't read him much either).

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This page contains a single entry by FlyOver published on September 4, 2009 2:18 PM.

Tradition or stagnation? was the previous entry in this blog.

On newspapers, music magazines, and Quincy Jones is the next entry in this blog.

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