Wednesday, January 22, 2014

US Publishing and East Coast stories

I've been thinking about the baggage we bring to books we read and how that baggage affects the way we react to them. I'm about halfway through Claire Messud's novel The Woman Upstairs and I had this odd reaction when I first started the book: a sense that I am sick to death of novels set on the East Coast about rich white people. For a couple of days, I forced myself to read it, despite the fact that it was the third or fourth book I'd read in a row about rich white people from the East Coast (including Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch which I liked and wrote about, despite what I'm about to say below).

Not every American story is a Manhattan story
It turns out that my feelings (my baggage) were not fair: the book really isn't about rich white people from the East Coast. East Coast, yes, but these are run-of-the-mill people. I have other issues with the book though my initial reaction has really made me think about the way I encounter things I'm reading, particularly since I almost gave up reading it due to my reaction at first.

Since our Festival is an international festival, I read a good deal of international writers from all over the world. True, I read a good deal from Canadian writers, too, but when I delve into an American novel it's somewhat of a rare treat and I approach American novels as both an insider (I was born and raised in the USA and all my family still lives there) but also as a  foreigner (I live in Canada and haven't lived in the US since I was in my early 20s).

Why are Americans so fascinated with stories about rich upper-class east-coasters? I suppose a big part of it is the fact that the US publishing industry is so based in the east (read: New York City) and editors are culled from the upper classes and Ivy League schools. To me, growing up in the west, the east was always far away, hard to imagine, exotic, dangerous, crowded, full of overdone ladies in fur coats and hard-edged men in $5000 suits.

Perhaps even all these years later, despite having lived outside the west since around 1995, I still hold certain prejudices and assumptions about easterners. And it's not like there aren't plenty of writers who write about Western lives (Sam Shepard, who I've written about recently, Jim Harrison, many others).

All of this leads me back to Claire Messud's book. Again, it's set in the east but it's not at all conforming to my preconceived ideas about books from the East Coast. Still, I find it a puzzling work. I'll write about it another day since that's a slightly different topic and I should finish the book before passing judgement.

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