Last week I participated in a panel discussion on writing about Cleveland. This was a fundraising event for Ohio City Writers, and it was held at the Happy Dog, the sort of neighborhood bar where you can get a hot dog with Froot Loops on it and, once or twice a month, listen to DJ Kishka, who is a prime example of geographer Jim Russell’s concept of Rust Belt chic.
The topic was whether or not there’s too much boosterism in writing about Cleveland, so perhaps unsurprisingly, the discussion felt less like this:
and more like this:
which makes me wish I’d come prepared to be more confrontational: if there’s one thing I’ve learned from pro-wrestling it’s that people like fights, and maybe it would’ve raked in a little more $$ for Ohio City Writers if I’d pulled someone’s hair or bestowed upon them a particularly obscene epithet.
(Frank, if you’re reading this, that means next time buy me a couple more drinks beforehand.)
As I said during the event, I’m less concerned with portraying Cleveland (and the Rust Belt) as a good place or a bad place, and just simply as a place that’s real and full of people whose lives may or may not be working. I am more interested in exploring the region’s relevance (or irrelevance) in a broader national (and international) context.
To be honest, I’m not even that concerned about Cleveland getting portrayed as a place where ambitions go to die (as it was on 30 Rock) or as a place where it’s cool to be a big fish in a small pond (Hot in Cleveland). (At least not in a fictional context.) My friend Kate Norris and I don’t agree on this point. If you would like to watch us cage fight about it, there will be a $5 cover charge.
And as far as unflattering stories on 60 Minutes, I fall more into the “any attention is good attention” camp because you don’t know who’s watching. A wealthy businessman who grew up in Slavic Village, perhaps, and who’s riddled with a fear that he’ll go to his grave with too much money on his hands, much like the fear that drove Andrew Carnegie.
(Sitcom idea: wealthy businessman who’s riddled with guilt about dying with too much money on his hands opens novelty candle factory in blighted Rust Belt neighborhood, employs sassy black woman as floor manager. Hilarity ensues.)That said, I am very interested in boosterism as a theme in literature, all the way from Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street and Babbitt to the most masterful 21st century parody of small town life in America, Wigfield: The Can-Do Town that Just May Not. In my own book, boosterism often provides comic relief to the more sober themes of filial responsibility, civic apathy, and our unfortunate tendency to confuse history and nostalgia.
After the panel, someone asked me if I really thought we had a unique enough regional culture to support our own literary voice. My beady little eyes glittered. Of course we do! So over the next few weeks I’ll be posting a series about what you need to do if you want to write Rust Belt fiction. In addition, we’re (at long last) starting a Cleveland Review blog, where you can expect to see even more content devoted to this subject. Stay tuned!