Southwestern literature is having a breakout year as writers from around the nation gather in Austin this weekend for the 18th annual Texas Book Festival.
Philipp Meyer, a former fellow at the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas, has received critical acclaim for “The Son,” which is widely perceived as the most significant Texas novel since the publication of Larry McMurtry’s “Lonesome Dove” and Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian” in 1985.
Austin-based New Yorker writer Lawrence Wright is a National Book Award finalist for “Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief,” after winning the Pulitzer Prize in 2007 for “The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11.”
Amarillo native George Saunders is a National Book Award finalist for his collection of stories, “Tenth of December.”
The University of Texas Press launched an ambitious publishing project that will examine the culture and history of Texas, beginning with a full-length history written by Austin’s Stephen Harrigan and continuing with 15 more books on various topics such as politics, music, film, business, architecture, music and sports.
Harrigan, meanwhile, recently published a widely praised collection of essays, “The Eye of the Mammoth,” illustrating why his good friend Wright considers him the best writer in the state.
Austin writer and Texas State University teacher Tim O’Brien won the $100,000 Pritzker Military Library Literature Award for Lifetime Achievement in Military Writing, which will be presented to him in November. Last year, the author of the National Book Award-winning “Going After Cacciato” won the prestigious Dayton Literary Peace Prize’s Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award.
Benjamin Sáenz, who teaches at the University of Texas at El Paso, became the first Latino to win the PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction for this year’s short story collection, “Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club.”
And the Michener Center recently announced that 17 former fellows have either recently published or lined up publishers for new books in the coming months.
With all these developments, it’s tempting to wonder whether Texas might be at the beginning of a literary renaissance – a flowering of creativity that could go on for years. But few literary critics and scholars are willing to go that far. In numerous interviews over the past several months, they either said that they thought the current literary scene was simply an example of natural growth – or that they don’t see anything unusual about all the recent activity in Texas letters.
The idea of being a cheerleader for Texas literature has been quite unpopular, and possibly unwise, since the 1981 publication of McMurtry’s Texas Observer essay, “Ever a Bridegroom: Reflections on the Failure of Texas Literature.” In the essay, McMurtry criticized what he views as the overpraising of the “Holy Oldtimers” — J. Frank Dobie, Roy Bedichek and Walter Prescott Webb. And in an updated 2011 essay for the Texas Observer, he said that “some Texas books are better than others — but none of it is major.”
McMurtry’s arguments might take some Texas readers by surprise, since McMurtry himself is a Texas writer who won the Pulitzer Prize for “Lonesome Dove” — and many people consider him at the top of the state’s literary ladder. But much of what McMurtry is saying has to do with semantics. Simply put, he doesn’t think that Texas writers, including himself, will be regarded as great writers in the long run.
In the summer of 2012, McMurtry sat down with students in George Getschow’s Archer City Writers Workshop, a graduate class under the auspices of the Frank W. and Sue Mayborn School of Journalism at the University of North Texas, and tried to explain his views.
He said that “in the silver light of history almost all writers are minor,” but he qualified his comments by adding that “literature moves on from one generation to another generation because of the work of minor writers. People like Dickens and Thackeray that looked like major writers when they were writing, don’t look so major. They’re not beyond reach. Literature is fed by minor talents. Mine is, certainly.”
While McMurtry acknowledged that he has been one of the few Texas writers who has looked at the state unsentimentally, he also pointed out that he has failed in some respects. “I’ve tried as hard as I could to demythologize the West. Can’t do it. It’s impossible. I wrote a book called ‘Lonesome Dove,’ which I thought was a long critique of Western mythology. It is now the chief source of Western mythology. I didn’t shake it up at all. I actually think of ‘Lonesome Dove’ as the “Gone With the Wind’ of the West.”
In the interview, part of which was recently published in Texas Monthly, McMurtry also fired off a few zingers about Cormac McCarthy, a widely regarded future contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature. “I think that his early books are not very good,” McMurtry said. “His great book, if he has a great book, is ‘Blood Meridian,’ but I’m not sure it alone lifts him out of the category of being a minor regional writer. I like, for myself, ‘No Country for Old Men’ better than ‘Blood Meridian.’ I think ‘Blood Meridian’ is a little windy.”
Although such comments are bound to sting a few people, McMurtry has significant allies among Texas writers and critics.
Don Graham, who teaches Southwestern literature at the Michener Center and who has written extensively about Texas culture, says he agrees “by and large … with McMurtry’s general assessment of Texas writing.”
“There is a fair amount of interesting regional writing from these parts, but there is very little, for example, that makes it into American Lit anthologies or that reaches a wider audience,” he says. “A book that I edited, ‘Lone Star Literature: A Texas Anthology,’ is a good introduction to the variety and quality of Texas writing, but again, most of the writers contained therein have not found national audiences.”
He rejects notions of any renaissance in Texas letters, especially when compared with that of the Southern Renaissance. “In my opinion, Texas cannot match the quality and output of novelists like William Faulkner, Robert Penn Warren, and Flannery O’Connor, or playwrights like Tennessee Williams, or poets like John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and, later on, James Dickey,” he says. “The Southern Renaissance addressed national issues by examining Southern life. The Southern writers were deeply literary and were incorporating elements of Modernism — in terms of technique, anyway — and they had a significant audience in the Northeast, the capital of Literary America. I just don’t see the same confederation of writers in Texas who command national attention and who do so by writing sustained works growing out of Texas as a place, a culture. I think Texas writing is done a disservice by uncritical local cheerleading.”
Then Graham adds: “Take John Graves, for example. Upon his death, a number of prominent Texas authors pronounced Graves to be a ‘great American writer.’ But for all of Graves’ merits, and they are many, he is largely known only in Texas and among scattered ‘nature’ writers in the Southwest and perhaps beyond, but he is not widely known outside of Texas. He had no national audience. The late Elmer Kelton is another example — beloved in Texas but outside of the formula genre Western crowd, unknown nationally. As for playwrights, there are none. Nor any poets with a national audience.”
Still, Graham sees some Texas writers as “major.”
“Without quarrelling about birthplace,” he says, “they are Katherine Anne Porter, Larry McMurtry, and Cormac McCarthy. There are many Texas writers whose work I admire, but they don’t add up, nationally, to a hill of beans. William A. Owens, William Humphrey, and William Goyen, all from East Texas, are very good writers now hardly known by anybody. It’s a melancholy fact, the sheer brevity of literary reputations.”
He does, however, have praise for Meyer’s “The Son,” which he considers “ambitious, daring, historically well researched, and vital.” He calls it “the greatest piece of Texas-related fiction of the past few years” and considers it “in a league with ‘Lonesome Dove’ and ‘Blood Meridian,’ both of which are 28 years old this year.”
As with Graham, many people agree with McMurtry, but with qualifications. Take for example, W.K. “Kip” Stratton, president of the Texas Institute of Letters, who thinks that what McMurtry said “had to be said by someone” and that he has given everyone a “really good — and necessary — jolt.”
But Stratton adds that he thinks “the state of Texas letters is the best it has ever been.”
“The national and worldwide interest in writers from or living in Texas has never been greater,” he says. “It’s a diverse group of writers getting the attention these days. As we move forward, the diversity will expand further, and the literary product associated with our state will grow ever richer as a result.”
In discussing McMurtry, Stratton says he thinks that the writer’s argument needs “a little context.”
McMurtry “said Texas writing was lacking, but he probably never considered the works of someone like Jim Thompson as being ‘Texas writing.’ Or Horace McCoy, who almost never gets considered a ‘Texas writer,’ ” Stratton notes. “Thompson and McCoy turned out some noir novels that definitely were not lacking. But this gets back to the diversity thing I mentioned earlier. At the time McMurtry was writing what he did, not many people considered crime novelists — no matter how literary their accomplishments — to be worthy of inclusion in the category of ‘Texas writing.’ And worse. A lot of people back then overlooked considerable accomplishments by Hispanic writers and others they considered to be outside the mainstream.”
Regarding what’s happening on the current Texas literary scene, Stratton has plenty to say. “As I make the rounds of different conferences, talk to people on both the East and West coasts, involve myself in conversations about filmmaking, about magazine journalism, about nonfiction books, about literary fiction, one name consistently comes up: Stephen Harrigan,” Stratton says. “Steve is very widely respected, and with good reason. His body of work is truly outstanding.”
He also has high praise for Meyer’s “The Son,” Ben Fountain’s “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” Jan Reid’s “Comanche Sundown,” Sáenz’s “Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club,” Manuel Martinez’s “Drift,” Wright’s “The Looming Tower,” Domingo Martinez’s “The Boy Kings of Texas” and John Philip Santos’ “Places Left Unfinished at the Time of Creation.”
The Michener factor
One of the most encouraging developments in Texas literature has been taking place in Austin, at the Michener Center.
Besides Meyer’s recent success with “The Son,” many other authors who have been Michener fellows have made a mark nationally, although some are writing not about Texas but about other matters.
Kevin Powers, who finished his master’s in 2012, had a powerful debut with “The Yellow Birds,” a searing fictional look at the experience of soldiers in the Iraqi war. It was a finalist for the National Book Award and won this year’s PEN/Hemingway Award for first fiction. His first poetry collection, “Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting,” is scheduled to be published in early 2014.
Domenica Ruta, who earned her master’s in 2008, published her memoir, “With or Without You,” earlier this year, to widespread acclaim. Emily Rapp, who earned her master’s in 2004, published her memoir, “The Still Point of the Turning World,” in March.
And Brian Hart, who was good friends with Meyer during his stay at the Michener, has sold his second novel, “The Bully of Order,” to HarperCollins, on the heels of 2009’s “Then Came the Evening.”
All of this has been a justifiable source of pleasure for James Magnuson, the director of the Michener Center, who has his own novel, “Famous Writers I Have Known,” coming out in January. “Certainly the Michener fellowships are drawing the best young writers in the country,” he says.
When asked about the state of Texas letters and whether there’s a literary revival, Magnuson says he thinks “there has been a real explosion in Texas literature in the last couple of years,” and he goes on to cite the books by Meyer, Fountain and Powers. “Kevin and Ben were National Book Award nominees for fiction in the same year. When was the last time that happened for two Texas writers? Larry Wright is a writer of national importance, and Steve Harrigan’s three Texas novels are a towering achievement.”
Still, even Magnuson hesitates to call what’s going in Texas as a renaissance. He thinks a better comparison would be to the literary activity that surrounded the Wallace Stegner fellowship program at Stanford University in the early 1960s. That’s where McMurtry studied fiction under Stegner, with such other writers as Ken Kesey, Peter Beagle, Gordon Lish and Robert Stone.
That period led to the publication of Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” among many other books and eventually resulted in the rise of the Merry Pranksters, who in 1964 stopped by McMurtry’s home in Houston during a cross-country road trip in a van called Further. McMurtry was lecturing at Rice University at the time.
Others share some of Magnuson’s sentiments. Betty Wiesepape, a senior lecturer at the University of Texas at Dallas and author of “Winifred Sanford: The Life and Times of a Texas Writer,” agrees with Magnuson that the word “renaissance” might not be the best way to describe what’s happening in Texas. But like Magnuson, she has “no doubt that the growth of university programs has had a positive effect on the development of Texas literature.”
While attending a conference in creative writing last spring in South Texas, she says, she saw how a “good writing program at the University of Texas(-Pan American) has lit a fire under some young Hispanic writers. … The students there referred several times to the ‘literary renaissance’ taking place in Edinburg.”
And she doesn’t give much credence to those who say that the “best writing in Texas today has been produced by transplants,” a reference to McCarthy, who’s from Tennessee; Meyer, who grew up in Baltimore; and Fountain, who moved here from North Carolina.
“So what?” Wiesepape says. “From frontier days to the present, the population of Texas has been largely made up of people who came here from other places. Most of those men who died at the Alamo came to Texas from the Deep South, and no one ever charges that they weren’t Texans.”
And that observation leads to a final point in the discussion.
The allure of the West
In 2000, Robert Brinkmeyer, then a professor of American literature and Southern studies at the University of Mississippi, published a fascinating book of literary criticism titled “Remapping Southern Literature: Contemporary Southern Writers and the West.”
In it, he argued that Southern writers were beginning to look at the South and re-examine its past “from the West,” and he explored why Southerners were turning to the much-maligned Western myth. Among the writers he cited were McCarthy, of course, but also Clyde Edgerton and the late Barry Hannah and James Dickey.
And six years before the publication of McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic “The Road,” Brinkmeyer suggested that the acclaimed author was chronicling “the destruction of the West by forces of twentieth century ‘civilization’ and ‘progress.’ ” He points, in particular, to McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, which included 1994’s “The Crossing” and concluded with 1998’s “Cities of the Plain.”
“The Crossing” ends “with the twentieth century’s most frightening image of uncertainty and anxiety, the atomic blast,” Brinkmeyer writes. And in “Cities of the Plain,” Brinkmeyer writes, “the military-industrial complex appears on the verge of completely engulfing the West and its way of life.”
Fast-forward to 2006’s “The Road,” and you can see the relevance of Brinkmeyer’s contentions that Southerners — steeped so heavily in the failures of the Civil War and slavery — were turning to the West to explore yet another myth, albeit one that traditionally represents individualism and heroism.
“Recent Western literature seems to becoming more Southern,” says Brinkmeyer, who’s currently the director of Southern Studies at the University of South Carolina. “It’s less optimistic, it’s less based on movement. It’s more about problems of settling down and making a life work.”
Brinkmeyer, an admirer of Eudora Welty, says he thinks Western literature is beginning to reflect what the Mississippi author tried to explain when discussing the use of place in fiction. She said the subject of her writing was the simple expression, “you and me, here.”
“That’s why I really love the early McMurtry, such as ‘The Last Picture Show,’ ” Brinkmeyer says, referring to the coming-of-age novel set in a small North Texas town. “I think they’re great works. They point forward to the best Western literature that comes afterward.”
And he says he is particularly impressed by Meyer’s Texas epic “The Son,” which he sees as being Southern “in its impetus of the extended family, the problems of escaping, the legacies and histories, the dark house. …. That’s Faulkner …. a Faulkner novel set in Texas.”
All of this suggests that Texas literature might be on the verge of change for the better. Meyer’s novel can be seen as an anti-Western with an edge, much like what McMurtry intended for “Lonesome Dove.” And that’s not a knock on “Lonesome Dove.”
And Fountain’s “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” tackles contemporary Texas culture head-on rather than looking to the past. In fact, it focuses on a Thanksgiving Day game with the Dallas Cowboys, and it plops several Iraqi war heroes into the spectacle. The result is a commentary not only on Texas culture, but also on the state of the nation.
Wright and Harrigan, meanwhile, continue to write sophisticated, penetrating nonfiction. And Hispanic literature is ripe for growth.
Texas might not be on the verge of a renaissance, as some argue, but it appears to be heading in the right direction.
A LOOK AT TEXAS AUTHORS, IN BRIEF
Texas is loaded with authors. The following looks at some of the most notable ones. The list is not comprehensive, and it doesn’t include authors who aren’t alive. Nor does it include genre writers or those who focus on children’s and young adult books, even though Austin is a hotbed for such writers. The list, however, is intended to highlight Texas authors who have received national attention for adult fiction and nonfiction. (Asterisks are by the the authors who are attending this year’s Texas Book Festival.)
Larry McMurtry: The dean of Texas fiction has written dozens of books about Texas and the West. He is most famous for 1975’s “Terms of Endearment,” and the 1985 Pulitzer Prize-winning “Lonesome Dove,” which was adapted into a successful TV miniseries.
Cormac McCarthy: Although he’s not a Texas native, his best-known books delve into the myths of Texas and the West. He won the Pulitzer Prize and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction for “The Road” (2006). “All the Pretty Horses” (1992) won the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. “Blood Meridian” (1985) was among Time magazine’s list of the 100 best English-language books published between 1923 and 2006. Literary critic Harold Bloom called “Blood Meridian” the “greatest single book since Faulkner’s ‘As I Lay Dying.’ ”
Tim O’Brien: O’Brien, a Minnesota native, is one of the most celebrated novelists living in Texas. He doesn’t focus on the state, however. He is known primarily for writing about war and its aftermath. He won the 1979 National Book Award for the Vietnam tale “Going After Cacciato.” Other notable works include “The Things They Carried” (1990) and “In the Lake of the Woods,” which won the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for Best Historical Fiction in 1995. Last year, O’Brien received the Dayton Literary Peace Prize lifetime achievement award. This year, he’ll receive the $100,000 Pritzker Military Library Literature Award for Lifetime Achievement in Military Writing. He lives in Austin and teaches at Texas State University.
**Ben Fountain: A former lawyer in Dallas, Fountain has gone on to win may awards, including a Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for “Brief Encounters with Che Guevara” (2007) and the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction for his first novel, “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.” The 2012 book was also a finalist for the National Book Award and a runner-up for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize.
S.C. Gwynne: The writer for Texas Monthly stayed atop the New York Times top 10 best-seller list for four months with “Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History.” The 2010 novel was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Gwynne lives in Austin.
Philipp Meyer: Meyer, originally from Baltimore, first shot to national attention with “American Rust,” which won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in 2009. He finished the novel while living in Austin as a fellow at the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas. That’s where he also wrote his highly acclaimed Texas epic “The Son.”
George Saunders: Born in Amarillo, Saunders spent his youth in Chicago and currently teaches at Syracuse University. His story collection, “In Persuasion Nation,” was a finalist for the Story Prize in 2007. He won the PEN/Malamud Award and is a finalist for the National Book Award this year for “Tenth of December.”
Rick Bass: Born in Fort Worth, Bass grew up in Houston. He writes both fiction and nonfiction, and lives in Montana. He was a finalist for the Story Prize in 2006 for the short story collection, “The Lives of Rocks.” He was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Critics Circle Award for his autobiography, “Why I Came West” (2009).
Justin Cronin: This faculty member at Rice University has written four novels: “Mary and O’Neil,” “The Summer Guest,” “The Passage” and “The Twelve.” He has won the PEN/Hemingway Award, the Stephen Crane Prize and the Whiting Writer’s Award.
**Jennifer duBois: The National Book Foundation has honored this Austin author in its “5 Under 35” selection, which recognizes promising young fiction writers. “A Partial History of Lost Causes” was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Prize for Debut Fiction. Her new novel is “Cartwheel.” She teaches at Texas State.
Other notable Texas fiction writers include Sarah Bird, Elizabeth Crook, **Owen Egerton, **Kathleen Kent, Jan Reid and Amanda Eyre Ward.
**Lawrence Wright: The Austin-based writer for the New Yorker won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction for “The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11.” The book also won the J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize. This Year, “Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief” is a finalist for the National Book Award.
Douglas Brinkley: The Austin resident and professor of history at Rice University is a frequent commentator for CBS News. His “The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast” won the 2007 Robert F. Kennedy Book Award. His biography “Walter Cronkite” was a Washington Post Book of the Year.
**H.W. Brands: The University of Texas professor has twice been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, for “Traitor to His Class” and “The First American.” His latest book is “The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace.”
Robert Caro: Although he doesn’t live in Texas, he has spent much of life writing the quintessential and sprawling multi-volume biographical project about Texas’ Lyndon Baines Johnson. He has received two Pulitzer Prizes in biography, the National Book Award, the Francis Parkman Prize, two National Book Critics Circle Awards and many other honors.
**Stephen Harrigan: The essayist and fiction writer is regarded by many literary types as the state’s most elegant prose writer. His recent essay collection, “The Eye of the Mammoth,” is one of the best books of the year. And his 2000 historical novel, “The Gates of the Alamo,” was a best-seller and received numerous awards.
**John Taliaferro: The former senior editor of Newsweek lives in Austin and is known for his biographies of John Hay, Charles M. Russell and Edgar Rice Burroughs.
Other notable nonfiction writers include **Hugh Aynesworth, Bryan Burrough, **Steven Davis, **Glenn Frankel, Don Graham, **Jeff Guinn, **Bill Minutaglio and John Phillip Santos.
Dagoberto Gilb: His first full book of stories, “The Magic of Blood” (1993) won the 1994 PEN/Hemingway Foundation Award. His collection of nonfiction essays, “Gritos” (2003), was a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award. “Hecho en Tejas” (2006) won the PEN Southwest Book Award. He is a writer in residence at the University of Houston-Victoria.
**Cristina Garcia: “Dreaming in Cuban” (1992) was a finalist for the National Book Award. She has also received a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Whiting Writers’ Award, a Hodder Fellowship at Princeton and other honors. She was recently a visiting professor at the Michener Center, and is serving as University Chair in Creative Writing at Texas State through next year.
Domingo Martinez: He traced his life growing up in a Texas border town in “The Boy Kings of Texas.” He was a finalist in 2012 for the National Book Award. He currently lives in Seattle.
Ben Sáenz: His latest collection of short stories, “Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club,” won the 2013 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. His young adult novel, “Sammy & Juliana in Hollywood,” was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, a Top Ten Best Book for Young Adults, and winner of the Américas Award.
Manuel Martinez: The San Antionio native is best known for his fiction about Mexican-Americans and immigrants. He’s the author of “Crossing,” “Drift” and “Day of the Dead.” He teaches at Ohio State University.
Sandra Cisneros: Her best-known works are “The House on Mango Street” (1984) and the short story collection “Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories” (1991). She received a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and is regarded as a key figure in Chicana literature. She lives in San Antonio.
Naomi Shihab Nye: Nye has won many awards and fellowships, among them four Pushcart Prizes, the Jane Addams Children’s Book award and the Paterson Poetry Prize. In 2012, she was named laureate of the 2013 NSK Neustadt Prize for Children’s Literature. Although she regards herself as a “wandering poet,” she refers to San Antonio as her home.
Carmen Tafolla: The author of more than 20 books was named the Poet Laureate of the City of San Antonio by Mayor Julian Castro. She has won the Americas Award, presented at the Library of Congress in 2010. She has also won two Tomas Rivera Book Awards and two ALA Notable Books.
Christian Wiman: Born in West Texas, he edited Poetry magazine for 10 years and now teaches literature and religion at Yale Divinity School. “The Long Home” (1998) won the Nicholas Roerich Prize. His latest book is the autobiographical “My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer” (2013).