Traveling on the East Coast promoting my new novel this week, I’ve been asked more than once why I chose to set a book in Oregon. I grew up in the Northeast; my first two novels are set in New York and New Jersey—and the question implies that I’ve shifted my focus from the central, vital heartbeat of the culture to a tangential region in a far-off corner. These New Yorkers ask (and, to be fair, only a few times), “Why would anyone want to read about people in Oregon?”
Fiction explores the lives of particular people in particular places to reveal truths and insights about human nature. I think that often the more particular the subculture, the more precisely the work can arrive at “universal” truths. Alice Munro’s West Hanratty, Ontario, appears, on the surface, to be nothing like San Francisco, New York, Amsterdam, Tokyo, or any of the places where we find readers for whom her Rose and West Hanratty resonate so deeply. The place is beyond regional—it’s remote—and when we first meet Rose her life is nearly untouched by the cultural influences we take for granted.
But immediately we recognize an insidious social class in West Hanratty; we recognize Rose’s class pretension when she claims to have eaten half a grapefruit for breakfast; we recognize shame arising from poverty and repressed sexual longing; we see the town’s dark and abusive underbelly. Rose and West Hanratty resonate so deeply because of the insights they trigger into ourselves and our own communities, into all people and all communities.
Whether we’re reading about Cheever’s Westchester County or Annie Proulx’s Nova Scotia or Wyoming, penetrating fiction about fully-formed, palpable characters will reveal truths about all of us. In The Emperor’s Children Claire Messud is writing about a subculture that happens to reside in Manhattan, just as Kent Haruf does for Holt, Colorado. Neither writer, by virtue of setting alone, has a better chance of speaking profoundly to us as readers, allowing us to know ourselves better.
When we’re reading Evan S. Connell, we’re not just sharing in an intimate story about Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, but we’re coming to know our parents more completely, and our grandparents, and humanity in full.
Any of us could name dozens of novelists exploring very specific subcultures (in character and setting): William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County; Marilynne Robinson’s Fingerbone, Idaho; Russell Bank’s Catamount, New Hampshire; Stuart Dybek’s Eastern European immigrant neighborhoods of Chicago. Joyce Carol Oates, Jim Lynch, Philip Roth. They all reveal truths about the whole while exploring the particular.
There are fiction writers—and I won’t name names here—who, in their desire to speak for the whole culture, set their novels in places they consider major cultural centers and create characters by piling on one current cultural reference after another. They hope, I believe, that their fictions will address and speak for our time, but they end up reading generically. Instead of recognizing a desire, fear or obsession in a character that results in our feeling a kinship with the story, we merely recognize what feels familiar. Rather than surprising us with new insights, the fiction merely confirms what we already know. It’s the USA Today version of novels—trying to cover everything, but revealing nothing.
Good fiction should expand us. One of my criteria for a novel rising to the level of art is that through our encounter with the art we become bigger and deeper, we come to better understand our own impulses, desires and fears, not unlike the effects of major life events—falling in love, the death of a parent, the birth of a child. To consider it from the other side, had we not experienced the art, we would be less.
Travel expands us, providing greater perspective on our lives and the world, teaching us truths about ourselves away from home, away from the context in which we’re comfortable and familiar. Good fiction also makes us uncomfortable—in part by taking us to a new place—and this discomfort allows for greater perspective.
For my part, I’d rather sit on a dusty couch with the McPheron brothers—elderly bachelor ranchers—as they struggle to learn how to care for a teen mother and her baby in Holt, Colorado, than ride in a cab between two fashion designers struggling to cope with Manhattan’s chattering class.
When I’m asked why I set my novel in Oregon, this is the answer I’d like to give, but what I say instead is that I love Oregon. I love the mountains and the coast, biking to the farmers’ market, making wine with my friends; I love the smell of the place. And those are great reasons, too.
Keith Scribner’s third novel, The Oregon Experiment, was released by Random House in June. His two previous novels are Miracle Girl and The GoodLife, which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Scribner’s fiction and nonfiction have appeared in TriQuarterly, American Short Fiction, Quarterly West, The North Atlantic Review, the San Jose Mercury News and the Baltimore Sun, among others. He received both Pushcart and O’Henry Prize Honorable Mentions for his short story, “Paradise in a Cup” (TriQuarterly, #121). He currently lives in Oregon with his wife, the poet Jennifer Richter, and their children. He teaches in Oregon State University’s MFA program and is a fellow at OSU’s Center for the Humanities. His favorite local independent bookstores are Grass Roots Books & Music and Powell’s. Buy The Oregon Experiment at Grass Roots Books & Music.