Thursday, September 15, 2016

How to Be An American Writer, Part 9: Conclusion

In this series of blogs, I’ve talked about four different approaches that American writers have taken toward U.S. society:
1) Expatriates
2) Populists

3) Internal exiles
4) Critics and satirists

I don’t mean to suggest that these approaches are mutually exclusive. In fact, I think many U.S. writers partake of two or even all of these attitudes at one time or another in their literary careers. On the other hand, there are American writers who don’t fit into any of these categories.

In this blog, I’m going to try to make some generalizations and draw some conclusions about these four approaches.

The Balance among These Approaches Has Changed
An interesting sidelight to these four approaches is how the balance among them has changed over the years. In the 1920s, for instance, there were probably as many leading American writers living in Europe as in the United States. These days, there are very few expatriate writers, and even the ones who do live abroad often spend only half the year overseas. For instance, the poet Marilyn Hacker lives in Paris, but only part-time. Why this shift away from the expatriate writer?

The Expatriates Won
Well, for one thing, I think the expatriates won. They waged their struggle to convince Americans that the customs and tolerance of Europe and the Mediterranean are in many ways more conducive to the good life. Nowadays, almost every American city contains elements of what used to be only available in sophisticated Europe—a diversity of lifestyles, for example. Not to mention the espresso machine; the croissant; yogurt; shallots and radicchio; artisan goat cheeses; fine wine, beer, and liqueurs. And the profusion of art galleries. It’s not necessary anymore to be an expatriate to partake of all these pleasures. There’s a quite a lot of what you can get of Paris or Florence right at your local Whole Foods Store, café, or gallery.

But the Populists Are Now the Largest Group
Looking at the lists of American writers and which ones take which approach, I think it’s safe to say that the populists are by far the plurality now, if not an outright majority. Why? The resurgence of writing by women and by people of color and in the LGBTQ community has re-energized writing about moments that matter in everyday U.S. life and the stories of Americans. Not only that, the victory of the expatriates in terms of lifestyles has made it largely unnecessary for U.S. writers to go abroad in order to find the tolerance, sophistication, and artistic ambiance they sought in 1920s Paris. 

There Are Fewer Literary Satirists and Critics
I think the ranks of the satirists and critics have also thinned compared to previous decades. Television and the Internet have become more likely venues for satire and criticism than literature. Satire and criticism are so time constrained—what’s funny or politically astute this week is not necessarily even comprehensible in a few months. So why try to immortalize it in literature? I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it has to be done now with more of an eye to what is universal in the satire or the criticism than was the case in the past. Literary reformers are sometimes the victims of their own success, and the conditions they protest change and sometimes even disappear.

So, Where Does This Leave American Writers?
Should we be booking passage on the next cruise ship to Europe in order to hang out at a Left Bank café? Should we wave the flag on Main Street? Should we retreat to a homestead where our only neighbors are grizzlies? Should we mercilessly mock all that is sacred in American life? The point of these blogs is not so much to recommend any of these approaches. Instead, I’m hoping that you will recognize in some of the writers I’ve discussed some impulses of your own, and come to know them better.

I think that each of the four approaches that I’ve described has its strengths and weaknesses, and we can learn something about our selves as writers from considering those.

Expatriates—Strengths and Weaknesses
The strengths of the expatriate, for instance, are sophistication and tolerance. The expatriate usually accepts a range of human facets and pursuits more comprehensive and accepting than what is often welcome in much of the United States. The weakness of the expatriate, from my standpoint, is that this stance can lean toward snobbism, or even elitism with regard to Main Street. There is a sort of disdain for the common American in some expatriates that risks losing what is genuine and democratic in the U.S. experience.
Read more about U.S. expatriate writers >

Populists—Strengths and Weaknesses
The strong point of the populist, on the other hand, is an appreciation for exactly the quality that the expatriate is somewhat indifferent to—the authenticity, camaraderie, and egalitarian impulses of America. Along with the populist attitude goes enthusiasm for the diversity of U.S. society. The weak spot of the populist, I would say, is a certain naïveté, a willingness to ignore what is materialistic and gruff in American society.
Read more about U.S. populist writers >

Internal Exiles—Strengths and Weaknesses
The forte of the internal exile is uncompromising, high principles. The internal exile has the ability to tell the truth about America’s destructive and overly mercantile tendencies. Sometimes the internal exile has an inspiring prophetic side. The internal exile is also sometimes an advocate for nature over wanton human development. The downside of the internal exile is a sort of misanthropy—painting all of the urban experience with a brush that is too wide and too negative. I think some internal exiles are open to the criticism that they are blind to the benefits of diversity in the United States.
Read more about U.S. internal exile writers >

Satirists and Critics—Strengths and Weaknesses
The satirist or critic’s strong point is being able to instruct at the same time he or she makes us laugh. The satirist does not let cultural icons go unchallenged. There is a bravery in that willingness to take on the powers that be. The Achilles’ heel of the satirist, for me, is an occasional blindness to the small, meaningful moments that the populist celebrates. There can also be elitist undertones to some satires or criticisms of American life.
Read more about U.S. writers who are satirists and critics >


Whichever approach to being an American writer feels familiar and comfortable, consider learning from the other approaches as well. Whatever the approach, it’s crucial to appreciate what is true in the other viewpoints.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Be an American Writer, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7, Part 8

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