Frank Bill first came to my attention in a piece that Eric Shonkwiler wrote for The Millions about Midwestern literature. Shonkwiler included Bill in a group of new Midwestern writers who were looking at the grittier side of Midwestern life. Bill recently published a piece in The Daily Beast called “Is Masculine Writing Dead?”. The piece made me think about Midwestern writing and Bill’s place in it.
The first thing that Bill wants you to know (he mentions it in the Beast piece and most interviews) is that he has never been to college. No, he has opted for a factory job that starts at 6:30 in the morning. He gets up at 3:30 every morning to write. He wants you to know that this takes incredible dedication. Bill’s Beast piece is a fairly boilerplate nostalgia for lost masculinity mongering. Bill knows how to field dress a deer, and he lives off of its meat.
Bill’s work reminds me of Michael Perry. Both of these writers want to tell you about how they are men of the people who have their finger on the pulse of rural America. Perry’s lack of self awareness has troubled me in the past. His man of the people bit is an affectation that I can’t get around. One of the most central questions of art is the artist’s relation to the society around him. He or she cannot simply be a man of the people, because the very fact that they are taking the time to record what is going on around them separates them from the rest of society.
There are many ways to deal with this fact, but pseudo-populism falls flat. The artist is necessarily an outsider, and this outsider perspective affords him some insights into the society he is writing about. I’ve written before about the coming Midwestern Renaissance, which like the Southern and New England Renaissances before it will reflect upon the regions past glory period. When Faulkner attempted to deal with Southern history, he struggled with the good and the bad.
Bill seems to be proud of his provincialism. Like another famous Midwestern writer he works at a paint plant. Sherwood Anderson famously wrote about the Midwest in Winnesburg, Ohio. Anderson had seen many parts of the world, and his ability to gain a critical perspective allowed him insights that Bill can never hope to achieve.