Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Writing in the Suburbs: Can You Create Art While Carpooling and Buying Toilet Paper at Target?

One of the best sessions I attended at the AWP conference last month was the one titled: Daydreaming at the Mini-Mart--The Suburbs and Literary Imagination. The controlling question being not only how has the conception of the American suburb informed American writing in general but this: Is it possible to live and write in the suburbs and not consider yourself a suburban writer? And this: Does art exist in the suburbs? And as someone who lives and writes in one, am I affected by it and its mall culture? Does my daily existence somehow preclude the type of art that I might create in say, Brooklyn? Or Austin, even? And yes, my darling Austinites, you know you contemplate this as you shop at your vegetable collectives and buy your organic soap at Whole Foods. (which we have here in Houston, just not near me). I wonder if Texas collectively believes that Austin= art. And that the rest of us are struggling to keep up?

I think about this a lot, actually. I've poked at it the Sweet Dead Life books some, but I've not come to any definitive conclusions other than that Jenna in SDL is both a product of and an ironic observer of, her life in the northern Houston 'burbs. As am I.

Have you seen this?

Labelscar is a history of closed retail establishments. It details pictorially the 'death' of malls and the 'scar' left both literally and culturally when the name is stripped but the shut down building or business is left behind.

Suburban life has changed a lot since the musings of John Cheever and John Updike and period pieces like Revolutionary Road and books like Little Children. I think it's more than just what one of the panelists referred to as 'renegade sexuality' or the rampant infidelity in Updike's books like Couples. There's a wider mixture of people here now and certainly a thread of violence--whether we choose to acknowledge it or not. (Have you seen the film American Beauty?)

Are the suburbs still banal and filled with only Olive Gardens and Cheesecake Factories and the like? If I live in this world, does it affect the art I create? If so how? Can I treat it only ironically? Or as one of the panelists mused, "Even in a Food Lion parking lot you find that pastoral inspiration." Meaning: there is more complexity here in the 'burbs than just the stuff we might satirize or criticize.

Of course sometimes I do. I can't help it. I live in a place where we have Market Street, which is a newly constructed 'town center' where they have put up stores in what look like old buildings repurposed but are actually new buildings with basically just a facade. There is something strange and not necessarily wonderful about this if you think about it too long. How can this not affect me as an artist or the characters whom I might place in this landscape?

And that thread of violence: What do I do with the fact that there are robberies in Wal-mart parking lots? That sometimes groups of bored teens from the local highly affluent high school do more than re-arrange Christmas lawn reindeer into sexually compromising positions but break into houses and smash windows on cars just to have something to do?

What about technology? Are we lonelier here in the 'burbs now? Or is that just a myth?

And how, if at all, does it affect my writing?

Of course, the panel also used phrases that were new to me. Like "liminal interstitial nature of all our spaces." Which I had to look up. Possibly because my trips to Target and the fake French bistro in my fake town center have confused me. Possibly not.

What do you think? Does where we live affect our art? Are the suburbs a specific and special case in this regard? Or is this entire idea simply an intellectual sort of navel-gazing/anti-tract home/snobbish derision at Stephen King/etc. that one finds at academic conferences?

I'd love your thoughts!


Cynthia Leitich Smith said...

I love this post--one of the best I've read in a long time.

It's interesting how the definition of "suburb" seems to be changing from "sub-urban" per se to mean smaller cities around a large one.

When I think of "urban," I think of living in a downtown loft or high rise.

Joy Preble said...

Thanks, Cyn! Interesting distinction between suburb and sub-urban. I'll have to ponder that, too. The suburban experience is more 'urban' now in many ways… What I wonder about most is this idea that somehow the experience one gets is somehow less authentic because it's less gritty. Some days, I do think this has merit, but other days I don't agree.

Cynthia Leitich Smith said...

If the artist bar of Texas is measured by Austin (and that argument could be made)...

We're not without our trouble spots or challenges. But big picture, quirks overshadow grit by a thousand fold. Yet authenticity is celebrated. We're expected to revel in and actualize our dreams, whatever they may be, without apology to what's perceived as mainstream conformity.

On the other hand, there is a faction (much of it young and largely untested) that is dismissive of those who choose to conform in obvious ways yet still reflect a more subtle and nuanced individuality.