Rachel Toor has a nice enough piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education about writing. Much of her advice is the exact stuff that I hammer into my students. However, one of the anecdotes she uses combines suburbia and maps in a gloriously infuriating way:

During a workshop with our graduate students, a visiting writer said, “Don’t write like a suburb.” He talked about how he always flipped through the pages of a manuscript to see what the look of the thing could tell him. I did the same thing when, as an editorial assistant, I had to choose which manuscript I wanted to read and report on next. I avoided the drafts that looked like they would be no fun because the text presented itself as boring blocks, with long uninterrupted paragraphs made up of endless sentences—the manuscript equivalents of army bases or grid cities. Instead, I went for those that presented themselves as appealing and interesting, more like maps of Paris or lower Manhattan.

Sure sure grey space is deathly. But when I open a Henry James novel I see lots of grey space, lots of really long sentences, and – here comes a shock – great fucking literature.

Manhattan is set up on a grid system. The map of lower Manhattan shows this grid system with slight variations:

Screen shot 2013-09-05 at 12.40.30 PM A grid system allows you to navigate the city. That’s how good, well-organized writing works too. The map of lower Manhattan, I’m happy to report, looks a little bit like a map of that midwestern metropolis Green Bay, Wisconsin:

Screen shot 2013-09-05 at 12.52.32 PMBoth cities turn their grid to the northeast. This is the reason that my brother-in-law always gets lost when he drives in Green Bay. It’s just slightly off. For some reason the visiting editor didn’t use Green Bay as an example. I’d say that’s because of the thing that bugged me the most about the anecdote.

“Don’t write like a suburb” is, like almost every catchphrase, a bit too facile. I doubt the writer meant a suburb like my home town, Carpentersville, Illinois. When I was moved there in 1977, it was an almost entirely white working-class suburb. By the time I moved to New Hampshire in 2001, Carpentersville was 40% Hispanic, and now it’s 50% Hispanic. It’s still working-class, but one corner of the town fancies itself, and they have found it hard to understand C’Ville’s identity. I was absolutely mortified to read about my home town as the poster town for anti-immigrant sentiment in the New York Times Magazine.

If I want to be kind to the visiting writer (and mix up the editor’s suggestions and hers/his), it’s the map of a suburb that drives the critique. Suburbs, with their culs-de-sacs and winding “aesthetically pleasing” roads, take you nowhere, in circles. Here’s the part of Carpentersville I lived in:

Screen shot 2013-09-05 at 1.06.24 PMAs you can see, Carpentersville doesn’t have a lot of “grey space” – it’s broken up by empty spaces. The long sentence of Route 25 is broken up by the shorter sentences of the bending Kings Road, the 45 degree Amarillo, and the weird half-loop of Sacramento Drive (none of which are my old neighbourhood – I lived on Papoose). True, the limited-access nature of each subdivision seems to preclude the kind of interconnections that an interesting piece of writing would achieve.

But what “write like a suburb” means is “boring,” for people who have boring jobs. I don’t know if Carpentersville even registers in the editor’s world: a working-class new-immigrant suburb where property values have remained stagnant. Places like Carpentersville – multilingual, multicultural – should be where the new and interesting writers emerge from. We can’t all live in Park Slope, after all.

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