A Fog-Machine Word

Maybe it's because the New Yorker keeps publishing Charles D'Ambrosio, or because Clear Cut Press keeps publishing terrific books, or because Dale Peck's new book Hatchet Jobs includes an essay lavishly praising Rebecca Brown, or because University of Washington Press just published that Reading Seattle book, or maybe it's because of the library--whatever the reason, there's suddenly a feeling of urgency to the debate about regionalism, about whether there is such a thing as Northwest writing.

There is such a thing according to novelist Matt Briggs, who will defend this position against able challenger Lyall Bush at an event called "The Regionalism Wrangle" next Thursday, June 17, at Richard Hugo House at 7:30 pm. (Briggs: "My argument is that there's a cognitive need for people to understand their environment." Bush: "Regionalism is a fog-machine word: People use it to make something sound heavier, more networked, less random than it is.")

Briggs enters the face-off with the burden of being, well, completely wrong. Maybe it's because he grew up here and sets all his fiction here (he once spent a year in Baltimore, and thought he'd start writing stories set there, but couldn't), but listening to him trying to define Northwest writing sounds like someone trying to agitate something into existence. He said something last week to me about a local and "very specific language and sensibility"--he couldn't exactly define it, but it's syntactical, he said--and then tried to argue that, technically and thematically, Stacey Levine's writing resembles Chuck Palahniuk's. (Which is like saying that, technically and thematically, a cantaloupe resembles a parakeet.) Northwest writing is caught up in an engagement with the mythic nature of the vacancy of the Northwest, he said, and that mythic nature (and that vacancy) has a particular effect on the individual. (Or something like that.)

Annoyingly, Briggs will be able to invoke, if he wants to, Flannery O'Connor. "The best American fiction," she wrote, "has always been regional." Briggs' blather about "sensibility" mirrors O'Connor's writing on the "body of manners" that gives a piece of fiction weight and expansion (the South certainly had a body of manners; but the Pacific Northwest?), and his assertion about the mythic vacancy and its effect on the individual is fairly similar to a passage in O'Connor's "The Regional Writer." In slight contradiction to that business about manners, she argues that identity "is not to be found on the surface" and "is not made from the mean average or the typical, but from the hidden and often the most extreme. It is not made from what passes, but from those qualities that endure regardless of what passes...."

Whether the Northwest has this kind of enduring character, and what specifically that character imposes on the work of Northwest writers (rather than merely the work of, you know, Matt Briggs)--these things are, at the very least, debatable.