For those who only look at the bigger picture, yes, New York is the publishing epicenter of the country, and a lot of people who write do live in Brooklyn. As someone who writes for a living and calls Brooklyn home, I can totally back up everything you’ve heard about thriving independent bookstores, nightly literary events, and writers crowding every coffee shop. Going out means routinely bumping into editors, agents, publicists, and other people who help get new books out into the world, and that gives you every reason to think that New York City is the only place to be if you’re a writer.
But it isn’t, and I don’t necessarily think there is one specific place that is responsible for creating literary culture, just as I don’t think there’s one where you should go to be a writer. Yet a closer look at the literary map of the 50 states reveals that even if the publishing industry writ large is situated in New York and Los Angeles, some of the most exciting things going on in American literature are taking place in the middle of the country.
“I have spent my whole life watching people leave,” writes David Giffels in his collection of essays, The Hard Way on Purpose. “This is a defining characteristic of the generation of postindustrial Midwesterners who have stayed in their hometowns.” Giffels’s book, which explores his hometown of Akron, Ohio, gives you the Midwestern experience, from hoping your greatest sports star will choose his hometown over the bright lights, big city (in this case, LeBron James, who famously didn’t keep playing for his hometown) to the search for the perfect bowling shirt.
The Midwest is a region that offers a terrain nearly as diverse as its cultures. As a Chicagoland native, I never felt much kinship with people from the Dakotas, and a friend from Iowa recently told me he thinks Ohio and Pennsylvania should combine into one big state that doesn’t belong to the middle or the country or the East Coast. There’s BBQ in Kansas City, and you eat your weight in cheese curds in Milwaukee; Nebraska has corn, Michigan has cars; people from St. Paul sound like they could be from Canada; you might mistake people from Indiana for southerners because of their accents. The Minnesota-born F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote about his middle-west, but not about the wheat or the prairies or the lost Swede towns of the part he was from, but the thrilling trains of his youth and the street lamps and sleigh bells in the frosty dark and the shadows of holly wreaths thrown by lighted windows on the snow, etc. etc. etc.
Still, it’s all the Midwest. It’s still looked at as “the Middle” by people on the coasts. Giffels’s collection, on but one part of the Midwest, comes out less than a year after another great collection of tales from a few states to the west. Andy Sturdevant’s Potluck Supper With Meeting to Follow, about the people and places of the Twin Cities, was released by a local indie press that happens to be one of the best around, Coffee House Press. Other books of nonfiction, like Dmitry Samarov’s Hack: Stories From a Chicago Cab, and the great anthology Rust Belt Chic, have helped to provide a better picture of the center of the country, especially useful by contextualizing a region that famously has trafficked in labor. The Midwest is the place where industry lives and dies, politics are life, and people have a thousand stories to tell like they’re coming down a swiftly-moving conveyer belt. It’s also getting pretty hard to deny, as astronomical rents continue to rise in places like Brooklyn, that the Midwest, with its free houses for writers in Detroit, great university towns and neighborhoods like Ann Arbor, Hyde Park, and Iowa City, and slower pace, might really be ready to take over as the place for writers to call home.
There are the amenities, and then there are the living testimonials: while many do still leave, as Giffels points out, some of our finest writers are living and working in Midwestern cities. The list includes Kyle Minor, Roxane Gay, Adam Levin, Jac Jemc, Lindsay Hunter, Eric Lundgren, Matt Bell, Alexai Galaviz-Budziszewski, and Aleksandar Hemon. Hemon, who settled in Chicago after seeking refuge in America from the war in Bosnia, has written extensively about his adopted hometown. In the essay “The Lives of a Flaneur,” Hemon writes about returning back to Chicago after a visit to his native country: “When I came back from my visit to Sarajevo, in the Spring of 1997, the Chicago I came back to belonged to me. Returning from home, I returned home.”
Long the second-class citizen of literary America, the middle of the country still receives its share of pitying glares from the publishing world. In a recent New York profile, author and n+1 cofounder, Benjamin Kunkel talks about the few times he has hung out with the writer that might be the most famous living novelist from the area, Jonathan Franzen (of St. Louis), and how the Freedom author identifies with Kunkel because he’s a “fellow Midwesterner.” Kunkel says, “I’m not a Midwestern. I’m a Westerner. I hate the Midwest. It’s flat and lame!” Proof that, no matter how much progress is made, there will always be people who think the middle of the country is just a place you fly over.
How can you think so little of the middle west when you take into consideration everything that is coming out of places like Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, and Iowa? The writers listed above (and more), lit journals like PANK, the presses like Graywolf, Two Dollar Radio, Curbside Splendor, Dzanc, and Hobart — all of these things make it hard to deny that the Midwest has become a region of serious literary importance. Combine all that with the fact that the cities are actually livable, and it might not be long until you start seeing trend pieces declaring places like Giffels’ Akron the new American literary hot spot.