David Joy‘s debut novel Where All the Light Tends to Go hit…
The following is the record of a dialogue between two writers—Richard Hague and Michael Henson—discussing their different responses to Scott McClanahan’s 2013 book, Crapalachia. McClanahan is a thirty-six-year-old writer whose subject is his life experience in West Virginia and who still lives in Beckley. His other work includes several collections and the novel Hill William. Hague and Henson are, well, older writers who have been active in Appalachian literary circles for many years.
Richard Hague: Check out Scott McClanahan’s picture. The look he’s giving us is in the neighborhood of what my friend John Ray, born and raised in Mingo Junction, Ohio, just across the river from Follansbee, West Virginia, describes this way: “half-sullen, half sly—a furrowing of the brow, a hard glitter in the eye, and an almost-grin, the beginning of a thug’s sneer, directed at the world at large.” I have seen it everywhere in my hometown of Steubenville, Ohio—yes, that Steubenville, of the young Ohio football player-rapists who violated the sixteen-year-old West Virginia girl. I have seen it on the faces of guys I went to high school with, or other guys who called themselves “The Dairy Bar Gang” and who lived way down in a holler along a coprous creek that ran through the backyards of their hillside houses. I have seen it on the faces of some of my own cousins. I have seen it on the faces of the fathers of girls I dated. I have seen it on the faces of football and basketball coaches. It is the physical expression of a spiritual state compounded of arrogance infected by low self-esteem, and an affinity for violence, testosterone, and exhibitionism.
In the case of Scott McClanahan, I am guessing that this spiritual state is the result of many forces at work on what once was probably a delicate and impressionable psyche, now distorted. Sexual abuse, of which he says he was a victim, could be one of those distorting forces; the constant surround of earth-hatred, which takes the forms of strip-mining, mountaintop removal, gob dumping, holler-trashing, and air and water pollution are another set of distorting forces. The unreconstructed macho culture of extractive industry, football, blood-hunting (as opposed to sport or subsistence or ritual hunting), hell-raising, and desperate self-destruction by drugs and alcohol provides the background against which these spiritual forces are enacted. Thus what we have in the persona put forward here in this photograph—and in the ensuing interview it originally accompanied in the Oxford American—is a perfect storm of educated-American-capitalist-Appalachian-victimhood, dressed up, as in this photograph, in an informal yet still white-suited dandy way—a kind of ersatz Tom Wolfeian radical chic. “Hill William” indeed.
Thus what we have in the persona put forward here in this photograph—and in the ensuing interview it originally accompanied in the Oxford American—is a perfect storm of educated-American-capitalist-Appalachian-victimhood…
This persona is not that different from the narrator of Crapalachia, who, if we are to believe the Appendix of that book, is the selfsame Scott McClanahan of the photo and interview. Further, since the narrator insists that the Scott in the novel and the Scott who has written the novel are the same person, I think we can begin to make some judgment about the author and such an author’s intentions as they work out in the writing. Postmodernism of the sort this novel purports to practice absolves a New Critical reading from falling into the Intentional Fallacy: since postmodernism posits there is no “text” and therefore no “intention” on the part of the writer, then just about anything goes. Hence my ad hominem remarks; in a postmodernist world they are as relevant (or as irrelevant) as any others.
Mike Henson: Well, we’ve been arguing over one thing or another for nearly fifty years, so we might as well maintain the tradition, though I believe we may discover, as we usually do, that we agree on so much more than ever we disagree.
I haven’t seen the photograph you describe. And I might not look at it. I find judging character from a photograph to be a fairly sketchy business and have found that the best interpretations of the best photographs lead to more questions than answers. There are so many elements to pull us one way or another —decisions by the photographer (lighting, frame, depth, angle, and so on), the layout editor (placement, cropping, levels of contrast, shading), and the perceptions and prejudices of the viewer—that I’m not sure I could decide what to make of this picture if I saw it.
The particular prejudice I would bring to this photograph would be that McClanahan’s agent is a close friend of my son. But more about that later.
There’s a lot to unpack here: this picture and your strong response to it (which I suspect may have as much to do with your disagreements with Scott McClanahan and what he has to say than with the photograph itself), things McClanahan has said (in interviews and lectures), and things he has written, primarily the book, Crapalachia.
So let’s start with the book.
I found myself liking it in spite of myself.
You didn’t like it at all.
I understand. I was prepared not to like it either. In fact, I wanted very much to dislike it. I could barely get past the title. Crapalachia: what a brazenly wrong way to title a book. The only reason it was in my house at all is that my son left it behind after a visit. I looked at the fine print headlines on the cover with their references to Buffalo Creek and the Sago disaster and decided to give it a try.
I gave up after only a few pages and did not take it up again until I found out that McClanahan is a friend of a friend of my son and that he would be speaking at the 2014 Appalachian Studies Association Conference. I stuck with it this time to the end. It’s not an easy book to read, not in the sense that, say, Hegel is not an easy read, but in the sense that the lives he depicts are so painfully graceless. I thought, this is one more example of the Appalachian freak show. But I’m glad I stuck with it because I really felt that, by the end, he rescues the book from stereotype and gives his characters the humanity I felt was missing at the start.
But I reckon this is where you and I disagree.
RH: Yes, we have argued our lives along like men whose leashed dogs didn’t walk fast enough for them; we’ve yanked some ideas probably to the point of pain. At least I have; your Quaker instincts toward peacefulness are a rebuke to me, but I am not so saved from myself as to forego a put-down if I have the opportunity. It’s the Steubenville in me.
You say you like the book, in spite of yourself. You say it avoids, in the end, being another installment of the “Appalachian freak show.”
Let’s start there.
McClanahan says in his Appendix And Notes, “This book should not be thought of or included in a genre of literature called the Appalachian Minstrel Show.” He goes on to name some people you and I both know: Lee Smith, Silas House. He says they are writers in this genre. By calling out these other writers, (he would probably include many of my stories in this “genre”—though not any of yours), I think he opens himself to rebuttal. First of all, I think he’s engaging in what, over decades of teaching young people, I came to understand as a particularly adolescent male habit I call “Killing the King.” When a young male finds his ideas or view of life challenged by an older authority figure, he does everything he can, by any intellectual chicanery he can churn up or by plain unfounded assertion, to prove the authority wrong. He does, in effect, what Oedipus did on the road to Thebes: finding an old man in his way, and finding the old man disagreeable for whatever reason (maybe just his priority in the right-of-way), he kills him. This sort of thing can happen in a literary context just as surely as in life.
Second, I think this book does belong to what you call the Appalachian Freak Show. For example, if the reader were to make a list of the characters who appear in the novel, it would begin this way:
Scott (aka Todd, for unexplained reasons), a suicidal, generally mean-spirited, bad-companioned kid with a family that looks like a caricature of family.
Uncle Stanley: “who I never heard say anything except “sheeeeeeeeeeeet” and who is a homophobe.
Aunt Betty: tells youngsters the story of Elgie.
The Story She Tells The Youngsters About Elgie, who is being stonewalled by the pension people at the mines: “He just took it [the letter from the pension office] to the outhouse and wiped his ass with it. Then he put it back in the envelope, sealed it up, and sent it back…This was an acceptable story to tell 8-year-old kids. We were learning.”
Uncle Leslie: “Leslie and the Toughest Man in Fayette County got into it one day about something. And so Leslie kicked the fuck out of The Toughest Man in Fayette County. It was because The Toughest Man in Fayette County always used vulgar language in front of women. [!]…I asked Ruby, “Well how old was he at the time?” Ruby was quiet and then she said, “Eleven.”
I suppose for someone there’s a perverse humor in this. I suppose for someone there’s a realistic, even naturalistic, verisimilitude in this. We know there are people like this. But so many? In one family, in one place?
There were cousins too. There was my cousin Bonnie who had this little boy from this man named Ernie. And Ernie had been in jail and made his living cockfighting, And so I saw them down at Pizza Hut and I looked over at Ernie and he was holding little Paul in his arms and smacking him in the face. SMACK. SMACK. He was smacking him hard. Everybody in the Pizza Hut was horrified because there was little Paul and he wasn’t crying about it. He was laughing…He was laughing because he loved getting slapped in the face.
The crux of the matter for me is that “Everybody in the Pizza Hut was horrified.” I would have been, too, and I am horrified by the line-up of human beings McClanahan dumps before us in the opening pages of the book.
“My Uncle G was always trying to kill himself, but something always went wrong.”
“There was Uncle Grover who suffered from depression and schizophrenia. And instead of taking him to the doctor they brought in a faith healer and had someone hold him down and tried exorcising his demons.”
“And out of the 11 children 5 of them committed suicide.”
Later on we meet Bill, one of the main characters, who suffers from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Incidentally—and to me, irritatingly—there is a kind of obsessive-compulsive quality to the prose in this book. It repeats itself. It always repeats itself. It says the same thing over and over. Time after time. Shit. (Incidentally, the word “shit” appears over 50 times in this brief book. “Well what do you expect, dude?” Todd/Scott might say. “Look at the title.”)
Michael, in the face of all this, please help me understand how this is not another installment of the “Appalachian Freak Show.”
MH: I’ll have to admit, that is a Freaky collection. I’m beginning to think you may actually win this argument.
(Did I really say that?)
Before I admit abject surrender, though, let’s extend this argument just a little farther by asking ourselves, what should we use as a measure of writing about people who have been damaged? How can we be honest about the damage people have suffered and still avoid falling into stereotype?
I believe there are at least three elements to it: complexity, compassion, and context, the three Cs of the Anti-Freak.
This makes for a challenging task for a writer, to honestly portray the damage done without dehumanizing and stereotyping the character.
This makes for a challenging task for a writer, to honestly portray the damage done without dehumanizing and stereotyping the character.
Some writers are simply not up to the challenge. They develop characters who are noble and heroic, but who do not live as real individuals. Others go for cheap humor at the expense of their characters. But a writer can deal with flawed characters and meet the three Cs.
Take Gurney Norman’s Kinfolks as an example. His characters are certainly not models of mental health, but they exist as complex, fully-round individuals. Even when we do not get a back story, we get the sense that there is a back story. And he has an obvious empathy and compassion for them. Finally, to the extent there is damage lodged within a character, there is a cultural/historical/economic context for their damage. All of this works to humanize Gurney’s characters. They are neither freaks nor are they plaster saints.
He is, you might say, the anti-McClanahan.
James Still is another. His characters have the strengths and flaws of any human character; the situations he tells of are often raw, often tragic. But the tragedy is built into situation and character, never tacked on.
But what does this all mean for the writing of Scott McClanahan? Does he generate enough complexity, compassion, and context to deFreakenize this admittedly Freaky collection of characters and incidents?
I think at least he tries. For example, with his friend Bill, there is the whole business about the hat in third grade. We’re rooting for him not to remove the hat because we know he will be ridiculed. McClanahan very clearly puts us on Bill’s side. Then, soon after, there is a recitation of West Virginia history, which includes the Hawk’s Nest and Farmington disasters. So there’s some attempt at contextualization and compassion.
However, McClanahan doesn’t win very many points on complexity. Mostly because what he does on the other points feels very much tacked on, not integral to the story. For example, he doesn’t explain where he gets the West Virginia history. Did they read it in school? Was there actually a West Virginia history textbook in use in the West Virginia schools that taught these things? Or did they read these things on their own? He doesn’t say; the information just floats freely in the fictional air, with no way to integrate it into character or character development.
Where I began to feel it all pull together was near the end, in the notorious Appendix and Notes, as he tells the stories of who these people were and what happened to them after the main action of the story.
But, I will concede, it doesn’t pull together very strongly. And the writing never does rise to the level praised in the blurbs on the back cover.
There are a few other questions to address here: How does a book that is mediocre at best draw such attention from the New York and even international culture media? Who gets to appropriate the lives of others for . . . fiction? Memoir? What exactly is this?
But the question that really has me bugged is this: What am I supposed to make of your comment, regarding McClanahan’s Appalachian Minstrel Show comment, that “he would probably include ‘some of my stories’ in this ‘genre’—though not any of yours”? If there’s a show, I want to be in it.
RH: Whew: that’s a big list of juicy questions and assertions, given that we’ve agreed to limit each of these exchanges to somewhere around three or four hundred words.
So let’s quickly clear up one point: on pp. 34-37, in the scene about Billy and his head lice that you mention above, it is clear that there is a “Crapalachia history book” that this historical information comes from. At least that’s what Todd/Scott/the narrator says. Of course, like everything else in the book, that “fact” may be, like some particle in the strangest of strange physics, at best uncertain, at worst illusory. In a state that has just elected to the United States Senate Shelley Moore Capito, the daughter of the infamous Governor Arch Moore (mentioned negatively in the pages above, and mentioned even more negatively in a poem by our friend Jim Webb as well), who knows what “history” would be taught in West Virginia, or how it would be understood by young people? For example, is the Governor’s Senator-daughter, a Republican, aligned therefore with big business (coal and gas, as usual, along with the disastrous chemical industry in West Virginia), and thus, by party ideology, on the side of the wealthy, at all aware of, or concerned about, the world envisioned in Crapalachia?
Near finally: When I said that if there is an Appalachian Minstrel Show, my stories would probably be dismissed as belonging to that and that yours wouldn’t, I meant this: As I have written about at length already in “Big Sandy Afternoon: Story, Community and Self,” I may well be participating in it. Some of my characters and the situations they find themselves in border on caricature or stereotype, and I try to hedge my bets about that. Your characters are, I think, much more realistic than mine, and their situations are often more compelling than the sometimes serio-comic situations of my own. Plus, many of my stories are metafictions, aware of themselves as fictions, as made-up. Yours are determinedly realistic, even naturalistic. They take themselves quite seriously as “the truth.” This is why I think McClanahan would put me in the Minstrel Show—the yarn-spinning, the generally benign rural settings, the desire for conserving (even as I challenge them) the old ways. You are grittier, generally, and I think McClanahan would appreciate that. On that score alone, you may already be closer to being in his show than I am (which is not say you are a part of the Freak Show. It’s only to say you are not a part of the Minstrel Show.)
This is why I think McClanahan would put me in the Minstrel Show—the yarn-spinning, the generally benign rural settings, the desire for conserving (even as I challenge them) the old ways. You are grittier, generally, and I think McClanahan would appreciate that.
On to other issues: “Who gets to appropriate the lives of others for…fiction? Memoir? What exactly is this?”
Yes, indeed. When I sat in Toi Derricotte’s “Writing About Race” workshop at Ohio State many years ago, I was struck by her opening warning that anyone who writes about race is immediately “marked.” That means you’re going to piss someone off, no matter what. In order to deal with this dilemma, she said, you are going to have to ask yourself, “Who am I to write about this? What are my credentials? Have I suffered the same things as the people I am writing about?”
This sent me, a border Appalachian as I like to characterize myself, into an immediate head-spinning self-examination of myself as a so-called Appalachian writer. Who was I to write about Appalachia? What were my credentials? I’m still thinking this whole thing through. I think Scott/Todd has, indeed, suffered some of the same things as his characters have, or at least he claims to have in interviews. His attitude as character/narrator/subject of publicity photos surely suggests he has. If we grant him the context and the credentials, then, the questions for us are, “What exactly am I, as a reader of this novel, pissed off about? Is it the tone? Is it the selection of characters? Is it the damaged culture that is its setting? Is it the smart-assed dismissal of traditional distinctions between genres?”
What say you?
MH: Heavy questions. And no easy answers. Certainly there is plenty to be pissed off about with the utter injustice of the Appalachian Minstrel Show comment, which is a cheap shot if there ever was one. McClanahan neither defines the AMS nor does he define his particular gripe against the three writers he names, nor does he name the other writers that might be painted with that particular brush, except to say, “You know who you are.” How can they, since he won’t say what he means? I could think of some ways that such a notion might create a useful debate. But not in this cheap-shot form.
He had his chance to enter into that debate and to engage at least one of the members of this Minstrel Show triad at that Appalachian Studies Conference where he was scheduled as a plenary speaker. But McClanahan didn’t show up. Perhaps he had a good reason. Or perhaps he just didn’t care enough to bother. I’ve read a number of his interviews where he seems willing to say just about anything as long as it is shocking and iconoclastic, where he seems to be building his reputation by knocking down those of others, where he’s killing all the kings (and queens) right and left, no quarter given, no quarter asked.
But let me take a try at one of them: I think I could argue that a “smart-ass dismissal of traditional distinctions between genres” might not be such a bad thing. It might even resolve a question I’ve had regarding memoir: how do these memoirists remember so much detail? Aren’t they just making some of this up?
Frank McCourt, for example, in Angela’s Ashes, vividly recounts incidents and dialogue from childhood and infancy. Could he possibly remember all of that? I don’t think so. He may have a vague memory for part of it, family stories for another. But the rest of it? I’m sure he’s made it up. It’s fiction dressed up as memoir. Or it’s memoir enhanced by fiction. It’s brilliant stuff, but there is no “traditional distinction between genres” either way you look at it.
McCourt never acknowledges that he’s blending fact and fiction. But McClanahan, to his credit, does. The language is nowhere near as lively nor as believable as McCourt’s (I think he could learn a bit from some of the Minstrels he purports to despise), but I think he breathes a bit of credibility into his. . .what shall we call it? Fictive memoir? Memoirish fiction? Fictoir?
I have some other things to say before we close this off, but first I’ll hear what you have to say in response.
RH: In the world of creative nonfiction/memoir there has been a long-standing discussion, sometimes argument, about the very questions you’ve raised. For me, there’s yet to be a definitive answer. McClanahan’s bag seems to be “alt-lit”— do a little research online and you’ll get the drift. (His new wife is a practitioner).
In terms of Complexity: I think his minor characters are pretty locked in to a few habits of mind and behavior—they seem to be geographically and culturally determined, and that determined behavior seems close to stereotype—Bill’s range of reference is pretty limited (sure he’s OCD, but still). And then it strikes me that McClanahan may be deliberately ironic here—Bill “tells us about the mountains…he tells us about our home.” Is Scott/Todd here stabbing at the reverence for the Minstrels he criticizes? Is his whole lot of characters a kind of anti-Minstrel line-up: “Take that, you fuzzy, Romantic, minstrel dreamers. It’s Crap-alachia! Don’t you see it?”
Compassion: Clearly, the narrator feels most compassion for Nathan. The scene in which Nathan has to go to the bathroom and can’t, and Scott/Todd has to clean him up is, to me, the most convincingly compassionate and moving in the book. Certainly there is a lack of compassion for the poor woman they prank-call. And for the cat the hog ate. But overall, is there a sense of compassion for the region and culture?
Context: region and culture again. Is the effect of reading the novel different for someone like us, and for someone out there, in the world of the reviewers and critics who are not Appalachian? Does any writer who takes Appalachia (or Crapalachia) as his subject, have any responsibility to establish a context for his readers beyond the stereotypes? Is McClanahan so naïve as to think people from “outside” aren’t going to see in his characters and their affairs confirmation of the rudest and coarsest stereotypes? If he intends a sympathetic portrait, does he not see how he may be missing the mark with people whose understanding of Appalachian people and culture is not very sophisticated? And if he is intending to show people damaged by those things I mentioned at the very beginning of this exchange as possibly damaging Scott/Todd, himself, is he clear enough about the causes of that damage, clear enough for his readers to understand the context of his portraits and thus the point of his irony?
If not, then the novel is a kind of betrayal of the humanity of his characters and the actual meanings and range of Appalachian existence. I can’t help but quote Wendell Berry at length here; it’s from Life Is A Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition. The book begins as a refutation of the scientist E.O. Wilson’s book Consilience, and Berry applies his criticism of Wilson’s claim for the superiority of scientific method to the literary realm.
There is a constant relationship, though never altogether settled and never altogether clear, between imagination and reality. If you are a fiction writer, you may, at one extreme, tell a story that is almost the story of something that actually happened; at the opposite extreme, you may tell a story that you have almost entirely imagined. But what you have imagined will always be somewhat informed by what you have actually known, and your actual knowing will always be somewhat informed by imagination. The extremes of reality and imagination, within the limits of human experience, are never pure. And so there is always some risk of betrayal. It is possible to allow imagination to abuse reality; it is possible by imagination to violate real intimacy—and this leaves aside the possibility of deliberately tattling for meanness or revenge [or the adolescent urge to kill the king, in this case, the so-called Minstrels’ version of Appalachia] or some version of success. It is always possible too that imagination may be debased by a false or too narrow understanding of what is real. (p. 85)
My evolving forgiveness of McClanahan for what I take to be the meanness of much of this book—including the title, which he tells us even his mother hated, and which complaint he dismisses, I think, with a flippant evasion (see the Appendix again)—is thus nevertheless blocked by what I still feel may be the kind of betrayal, and for the reasons Berry discusses above, to which I add my bracketed addition.
MH: So am I to have the last word?
How do you put a last word to an argument that is endless? What, exactly, have we solved with all these words we’ve piled up? What do we ever solve with words?
Maybe something. We seem to agree on how to judge a work for stereotyping: context, complexity, and compassion. We don’t necessarily agree on how these apply to the particular book in question, or on any other book for that matter. And we, and others, may never agree, these categories being of a malleable, infinitely redefinable nature.
But certainty is something I’ve had to give up, along with my willingness to judge others. I think as a person, at least as he presents himself in interviews and his writing, Scott McClanahan is something of an asshole. (Okay, I haven’t given up all my willingness to judge.) I’m not sure why he’s an asshole or if his asshole-edness is a front that he puts on to shock people like us. But an asshole (or pretend asshole) can write a good book. And if Hill William is any indication, he is getting better. It’s still a pretty Freaky enterprise, and it retains some of the flaws of the earlier work (I find his dialogue flat and unconvincing) and even incorporates some new flaws (has any ten-year-old in history thought like that?), but the new work is fuller, more complex, more integrated.
It took me years to figure out that the opposite of arrogance is not submission, but humility. There’s a big difference.
But our original question was about Crapalachia. Is it a good book? Is it worth all the attention it’s gotten? I’m comfortable saying I’m not sure. I hear your argument (and the passion of your commitment to literature and to justice that lie behind your argument). There’s some god-awful things in Crapalachia, and to my mind the book never measures up to all those things the reviewers and blurbistas have said about it. But there are also some things, which, I have to say it, endear me. And one of those is something I see in common between you and McClanahan: when confronting unpleasant, inconvenient, uncomfortable realities, neither of you will flinch. We are in dire straits—as a region, as a nation, even as a species. We need writers who will not flinch.
But I also think McClanahan could stand to learn a few things from the likes of Gurney Norman, James Still, and the members of his beloved Appalachian Minstrel Show, not just about writing, but about humanity, about community, about humility. Right now, it would seem he is too arrogant to do so. But I seem to remember a couple of writers who were once young. And arrogant. At least I was. It took me years to figure out that the opposite of arrogance is not submission, but humility. There’s a big difference. I don’t think Scott McClanahan has learned it yet. Maybe he’s on his way.