Book Review Editor Speaks: Literature of Place

In this week’s reviews on the blog, Claire Blechman calls Ned Zeman’s new book, Rules of the Tunnel, “a very L.A. memoir.” (“In the Manhattan version,” she adds, “we’d be spending lots of quality time in the patient-writer’s head.”)

Julia Lichtblau seems to be getting at the same issue, sort of, in her review of Evan Hughes’s recent Literary Brooklyn, when she wonders what makes a piece of literature definitely of Brooklyn. “Is Mississippi-born Richard Wright a Brooklyn writer?” she asks. “Or Native Son, which he wrote there but set in Chicago, a Brooklyn book?”

You’ll have to permit a bit of shameless self-promotion, here, because my own experience the past few years is another good example. Is my novel manuscript, set in Scotland but written in America, by someone born in the former to parents from the latter, a Scottish book or an American one? Or, for that matter, since I recently jumped on the Brooklyn bandwagon myself, is it one of these elusive Brooklyn ones?

To be honest, I’d settle for it being a published one, but that’s precisely why the question of geographic ownership is more than just navel-gazing interpre-babble. Stereotypes about different kinds of books—and who will read and enjoy different kinds of books—have a very real effect on who reads them.

Of course, trade publishers have to accept that sort of thing, and think about it carefully, if they want to make money. But, without wanting to impugn Claire or Julia, for those of us doing the writing—those of us who have accepted, hopefully, that we’re never going to make much money, even if we find success—I think we’re probably sabotaging ourselves by dressing up marketing-speak as literary criticism. In the process we’re legitimating the niches that make it so hard to make a living writing fiction in the first place—and ensuring that, whether we believe in such a thing as a Brooklyn book or an L.A. book or a Scottish book, we’re going to have to end up writing one.

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About Andrew Ladd

Andrew Ladd is the book reviews editor for the Ploughshares blog. His work has also appeared in Apalachee Review, CICADA, fwriction:review, Open Letters Monthly, The Rumpus, PANK's "This Modern Writer" series, DRAFT Magazine and the Good Men Project. His first novel, What Ends, was the winner of the 2012 AWP Prize in the Novel, and is forthcoming from New Issues Press.
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One Response to Book Review Editor Speaks: Literature of Place

  1. Julia Lichtblau says:

    Andrew, Thanks for continuing the dialogue. I don’t think you have to be from a place or live there to write authentically about it. Take Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn. As to the commercial appeal of books about Brooklyn, well, a lot of editors live there, and as they say in the news business, what happens to editors is a story. There’s always interest in stories set in iconic places like New York or Paris, because we can impose our yearnings on them, in a way that’s harder to do with say, Baltimore or Clermont-Ferrand.
    That said, the Brooklyn immigrant/striver experience is one of the great American narratives, not a mere marketing conceit. Certain books capture it in a way that millions identify with (i.e. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn). Native Son isn’t a Brooklyn book because it never mentions Brooklyn.