Monday, December 6, 2010

Milwaukeeans: Literary Chuckleheads?

If once is a fluke, and twice is a trend, then I've noticed a literary trend. And it's one that really grinds my gears (you might even say it's a literary pet peeve - which is this week's topic for the Literary Blog Hop.) Haughty New York novelists seem to enjoy picking on the city of Milwaukee, characterizing it as a cultural wasteland to be escaped from at all costs for the literary Oz that is New York City. As evidence, two novels I've read recently have set up Milwaukee as a sort of symbol of Midwestern bumpkinery.

Exhibit A: In Michael Cunningham's new novel By Nightfall,  NYC art dealer Peter Harris grew up in Milwaukee, and doesn't miss a chance to explain how he overcame what he sees as a birth obstacle. "Can he help having been born in Milwaukee?" Cunningham even wonders (for Peter) at one point. At another, point Peter considers the possibility that Milwaukee actually killed his brother Matthew, who died of AIDS. "Is it any wonder Matthew got out of there two days after he graduated from high school, and had sex with half the men in New York?" To his (and Cunningham's) slight credit, Peter quickly corrects himself, realizing how dumb that is. But this Milwaukee-hate is one reason I felt the novel underachieved: because it overachieved in pretentiousness.

Secondly, in the novel A Fortunate Age, by Joanna Smith Rakoff, about a group of 20-somethings trying to make their way in New York, a character named Beth who is away doing graduate work complains about her "mounting disgust with boring, freezing Milwaukee." I'll give her freezing, but Milwaukee's far from boring! What do they say — only boring people are bored? Beth spends most of the first half of the novel complaining about her "fate," being stuck in Milwaukee. I can think of worse. But here's a bit of schadenfreude: Rakoff's novel was pretty much universally panned as shallow and silly. It's average rating is only three out of five stars on Amazon. 

So, yeah, I take these affronts to Milwaukee personally. I'm a Midwesterner, born and raised. And I went to college in Milwaukee and spent another five years there after I graduated. (I've been in Chicago for almost three years now.) I love Milwaukee, and still visit frequently. And seeing it dragged through the mud in such condescending ways burns me up.

Look, I thoroughly enjoy New York City, and I certainly recognize why many consider it the center of the cultural universe. I'd never claim that Milwaukee is on par with New York culturally. But that certainly doesn't mean Milwaukee is devoid. Despite its reputation as a blue-collar, beer swilling town (which it certainly is, too), Milwaukee does have a modicum of culture. Independent and used bookstores are everywhere, it has one top-tier university (Marquette) and several other commuter and community colleges, including a college of art and design. And it has several museums, including an absolutely stunning art museum designed by international starchitect Santiago Calatrava. (In the photo above, it's the white building on the right that looks like it has wings.)

So, I say to New York novelists: Leave Milwaukee — a great city on a Great Lake — alone. If you need a symbol of a town of what you consider good, hard-working, but culturally stupid, people, make one up. Take a hint from Mr. Sherwood Anderson. That strategy turned out pretty well for him.

Have you noticed similar literary biases against Midwesterners?  Do you think such a characterization is justified, or does it annoy you as well?

Literary Blog Hop


  1. Very interesting. This makes me a little sad. Here's what: I think to an outsider Milwaukee seems lame, because it's easy to miss the great things about the city. I'm still discovering fun little places in the city and I've been here for a while. Culturally it's not as ho-hum as people think, but it certainly isn't up there with New York. Also, I'd say within the last ten years there have been a lot of improvements to the city and people who have only visited once or twice in their lifetime have probably missed these improvements.

    With that being said, I don't plan on living in Milwaukee my whole life. I'm not head over heels in love with the city. But it's definitely nicer than it's reputation.

  2. I live in a small town in the south, and I get hit all the time with the southern small town cliches. Annoying, yes, but I mentally stick my finger at it all. The uppity act actually shows they know diddly squat.

    p.s. I've yet to see any confederate flags blowing in the wind in my town, and I've lived here all my life.

  3. Culturally speaking, Milwaukee is definitely not close to New York City. However, it also doesn't have the crime rate or the crowds. And it's definitely not culturally barren. The MSO is fantastic. There are theaters, music, and bookstores everywhere. Restaurants for whatever flavor you're tempted to try. And the best part--it's all affordable. :)

    I haven't read either of the books mentioned above, and I doubt I'll even try.

  4. Eh. I understand what you're saying, but honestly, this doesn't burn me up too much because the books sound reasonably awful to begin with. If the authors have no more original thoughts for their characters than to have them lament their Milwaukee roots, well, then they can have it and I can note them for their bias and completely disregard this and their future work.

    It's not very difficult or challenging to restate a previously agreed on idea, ie: Milwaukee is lame. What would have been compelling would have been if the authors used the opportunity to explore and compare the settings, allowing them to, in themselves, become characters.

    And if people would like to perpetuate the idea that Milwaukee is awful, I say go ahead. If you can't see how amazing it is, then we have no room for you here anyway. We are a city of dichotomies where we celebrate everything! Ethnic festivals, bloody mary's, tree lightings, church festivals, green markets, local artists, good food, great sports and happy people. I lived in NYC and while it's a great town, it's not nearly as close knit as Milwaukee.

    In fact, I'm going on a Santa themed bicycle ride next weekend. I think that alone makes us amazingly unique. ;-)

  5. A friend who was living in Milwaukee took me to an amazing, winding bookstore in downtown that rivals the Strand as my favorite bookstore. Plus we went to a bar that had a game of "who can hammer this nail into this log the fastest." Not the smartest idea, giving heavy objects to drunks, but hilarious just the same.

    I can't say I'd rather be in Milwaukee over NYC but still a fun place that doesn't deserve such characterization.

  6. It's the laziness of these things I find depressing. I get cross when I read about/see a drunken Scotsman in fiction/film because it's (almost) always a cliche. So I can understand the Milwaukee thing. But I've always liked the name.

  7. I get it coming from the West Country in the UK (I think every country must have its equivalent) Sometimes ppl say to me 'oh how are you finding the wonder of electricity now your in London' Sometimes I find it funny and other times now.

    Whenever I think of the midwest of America now I always think of the last part of The Great Gatsby ever since readng that.

  8. Argh--I've seen Midwest bashing so many times - by people who have probably never lived in the Midwest. You're absolutely right; if you're bored, you must be boring. I live in Omaha and there is so much to do here, not the least of which is a very thriving modern art community and indie music community.

  9. I've seen Detroit get crapped on more than a few times and it is annoying. I'm across the lake from Milwaukee and have never visited but I think I would prefer it to NYC (no incessant honking!!!)

    These ridiculous notions of Milwaukee and the midwest were probably conjured by someone whose entire midwestern experience was a 2 hr layover at O'Hare.

  10. @Brenna - Yeah, I think Milwaukee is an easy target/symbol of Midwestern buffoonery because of Laverne and Shirley and Harley and Miller, which are the only things most outsiders really know about the city. And I think you're right about the improvement in the last 10 years!

    @Melissa - So there's no one with "the South will rise again" banners hanging from their front porches? ;)

    @drey - Yeah, good call on the MSO and the theaters. Any city with its own symphony can't be considered too culturally devoid, right?! Hear that, New York writers?

    @Lisa - Ha - glad you're as annoyed about the mischaracterization of MKE as I am. I'm not sure how Milwaukee became the symbol of the Midwest in terms of cultural barrenness, but it's certainly not accurate. And maybe it's not a coincidence at all that the two novelists who made that mistake published, as you say, "reasonably awful" novels...

    @Red - If that bookstore is the one I'm thinking of - called Downtown Books - it is far and away my favorite used bookstore of all time. Not sure what that bar is, though - but I'll have to find it!

  11. @bride - Yeah, good point on laziness. Instead of trying to be creative and give a character more nuance, these writers resort to easy preconceived notions or stereotypes. Lazy, indeed!

    @Jessica - Yeah, I think that's how some New Yorkers think of Midwesterners, too: When you're visiting NY, isn't it nice not to have to go to the bathroom in your outhouse? Isn't this running water terrific? Jerks... ;)

    @Lisa - Nice! I love Omaha! Was there for the College World Series a few years back - great, lively town! But, you're right, it's another Midwestern city that for whatever reason seems to get picked on a lot.

    @Holly - Yeah, and as we all know, O'Hare is a PERFECT representation of an entire region, right?! ;) (I hate O'Hare more than anything else in the world, I think...)

  12. I've never been to Milwaukee but I'm sure it's much more interesting than some would think. Don't feel too bad,Greg,about these disses-there are a few folk out there who do appreciate that fine city as much as you do:

  13. I don't know about the literary midwestern bias, but New York has a bias against pretty much every city that isn't New wouldn't surprise me. As a New Jersyian, I know how you feel. (People who have never been to NJ are never hesitant to tell me what my state is like.)

  14. I know exactly what you mean. I'm from a tiny town in Kansas (population 3,000), and I read in books or hear from former classmates how I should escape immediately. However, my town has hosted everyone from Susan Sontag, Elie Wiesel, Ken Burns, and Mikhail Gorbachev (who, incidentally, joined the townies for some vodka at the one and only bar in town.) Anyway, I appreiciate your comments on this.

  15. I'm just zipping around the blogosphere, reminding bloggers...If you have read any wonderful literary books
    published in 2010, I urge you to nominate your favorites
    for The Independent Literary Awards. The awards
    include categories of Literary Fiction and Literary Non-Fiction.

    I'm especially interested in having some great nominees for nonfiction!

  16. Isn't it funny how much we establish who we are only in opposition to someone else? New Yorkers insult Milwaukee, Californians laugh at the South, Americans put down Europeans and Europeans put down Americans. Women laugh at men and vice versa. So often it is about the most urban and "modern" insulting more rural areas. And it is nothing new in literature. I've been reading Victorian lit recently and even those books are full of it. (Well, they don't insult Milwaukee...)

  17. Man ... that is annoying. I've never been to the midwest before, but I have noticed how often it is used to represent Middle America. I'm from Utah, and when authors bash Utah or Mormons in their books it just pisses me off.

  18. oh I not been to America but like last commentator Milwaukee always brings up pictures of middle everyday America not the hustle and bustle of new york ,maybe that is why it is used but can see it being annoying ,all the best stu

  19. WORD. I've never been to Milwaukee, but it's certainly got more going on than the Midwestern towns where I grew up (in Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota).
    Plus there are TONS of great authors who come from the Midwest.
    Great pet peeve!

  20. I don't think that I read a lot of American literature so it isn't smoething I have noticed, but I can see how it would bother you if you were attached to where you come from!!

    I suppose it might bother me if I read books that bagged ou Sydney all the time.

  21. Glad to see other Midwesterners getting upset over how we're represented. I've had an issue lately with this idea that novels and films about new york are always 'a love letter to the city' (i generalize, but right now it feels really true)

    I feel like it's impossible to find a novel set in Chicago that isn't about the 20's or about how hard life is on the South Side.

    Sarah @ LovingBooks

  22. I guess this covers most stereotypes, lazy A-z templates that the author uses in the hope we'll buy into it, instead of coming up with something vaguely original themselves.