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The State of Texas Lit

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Perhaps another state honors its writers more than Texas, but if so I don’t know which one. We have the Texas Institute of Letters, the Texas Book Festival, Texas Writers Month, the Writers’ League of Texas, the Texas Literary Hall of Fame, and uncounted books-and-author events held in cities from Abilene to Houston.

We have statues of dead and living authors. The Dobie-Bedichek-Webb installation at Zilker Park in Austin celebrates the Texas Trio, and, odd but true, Sea World in San Antonio sports a statue of Katherine Anne Porter. Texas State in San Marcos has a newly minted statue of John Graves, who fortunately is still with us.

We have local shrines in little towns, avatars of the muse’s approbation. KAP’s childhood home in Kyle is a National Historic Site. In Rockdale the memory of George Sessions Porter is kept green by a historical plaque, the library, and occasional talks by visiting scholars. In little Cross Plains the little library has a special collection of books and memorabilia devoted to local star Robert E. Howard, of Conan the Barbarian fame.

And there is no paucity of centers. The University of North Texas used to have a Center for Texas Studies, now TCU has one with the same title; Texas State has a very active Center for the Study of the Southwest (read Texas); SMU has one, and the University of Texas has the James A. Michener Center for Texas Writers (formerly Texas Center for Writers). I’m sure I’ve left out a statue or two, a center or two. And of course there is no scarcity of scholarly writing on Texas literature or on courses in universities and colleges devoted to the study of that literature. Recent scholarship is doing a particularly good job of bringing to our attention the work of forgotten or overlooked women and minority writers. The full portrait of Texas literature in its multiplicity and, yes, complexity, is a work in progress.

I think the key to understanding all of this literary hullabaloo is that if Texans don’t celebrate the writing of their native state, nobody else is going to. Examples of the general disparagement of Texas and literary culture by outsiders are abundant. Here, for example, is an assessment of the presumptive tastes of Texas readers: “Even educated Texans have often preferred insubstantial humour books and western pulp fiction to ‘highfalutin’ writing.” This little bit of condescension appeared in The Economist in 1998, in an article by an anonymous visitor to what he or she regarded as a distinct oddity: the Texas Book Festival. Imagine thousands of Texans gathering to listen to writers. Mon dieu.

Writers from this region are stereotyped in equally reductive and ridiculous terms. Here is jacket copy from a collection of stories titled Southwest, published by a New York house in the 1980s: “Some were born among the sagebrush and the mesquite trees. Others traveled here from the soot-choked cities of the East. But all write with their feet dusty from the mesas or with fingers greasy from chicken-fried steak.” In the meantime other regions look after their own. New York, for example. This year the five fiction nominees for the National Book Award are all young women, and all five live in … New York. Only one of their books has sold 2,000 copies.

The most recent example of someone’s dismissing Texas writing occurred in a piece in The New York Review of Books in May 2004. The author, Benjamin Moser, reviewing Larry McMurtry’s Berrybender saga, took the opportunity to wax wise on Texas literature in general. According to Mr. Moser, “For a place of its size and importance, Texas has a remarkably thin literary résumé.” Since a new anthology, Lone Star Literature, had been published the year before, I wrote The New York Review of Books a letter that they of course did not publish, so Mr. Moser, I presume, still remains in the dark regarding the true state of Texas writing. Mr. Moser’s review roamed far beyond McMurtry’s career—the only writer Moser concedes as having any worth in Texas literature—to indict Texans generally for our well-known crassness and vulgarity. I would have thought that all of this was settled in 1960 in John Bainbridge’s The Super Americans, but apparently not so. In foreign climes northeast of the Red River, there is still a hunger for the clichés and gaucheries that constitute our ignorant lives. Mr. Moser writes of the “louche fictions” of Giant and Dallas (misusing the word louche in the process: It means shady, disreputable). Anyway, these “louche fictions” lead Texans to think of themselves as “flamboyant playboy millionaires.” As I wrote to The NY Review of Snobbery, I am a Texan, I ain’t rich, and I know it. But Mr. Moser lives in a better, more cultivated place than the Houston where he says he grew up. He lives in the Netherlands where, I can imagine, one never sees a surfeit of poppy paintings and windmill objets in the domiciles of Mr. Moser’s neighborhood.

The fact is, Texas has done a much better job of exporting its mystique than it has its truths—aided and abetted, of course, by Yankee expectations. And there is a whole cottage industry of professional Texans, some of whom write for this magazine, whose stock-in-trade is the exceptionalist view, that Texas is somehow fundamentally different from, and stupider than, the rest of the United States. According to this view, we are to the United States as the United States is to France.

But this may change in the future. Longtime scholar and Texas observer Tom Pilkington has recently argued in an essay in a new journal, Langdon Review of the Arts in Texas, that the very idea of a Texas literary tradition may be winding down. Says Pilkington, “… as the American population becomes ever more ethnically diverse, ever more mobile—ever more rootless and transient—regional ties and loyalties are weakened or obliterated. I do not foresee a Texas literary tradition, in anything like its twentieth-century form, surviving very far into the twenty-first century.” His point is that if Texas ceases to think of itself as a nation-state, then the allure of the mystique will fade away.

A woman from New York who has lived in Texas for 20 years and who cuts my hair at a salon in Austin, upon hearing that I was working on a book on the King Ranch, mentioned how much she liked the King Ranch Casserole—the sum of her knowledge of that legendary place. A young man at a Ford dealership, a native Texan, told me that he did not know why one edition of the Ford F-150 Pickup bears the King Ranch brand. My spell check system recommends “taco” for “Waco.” And so on.

Don Graham is the author of several books, including Kings of Texas: The 150-Year Saga of an American Ranching Empire, and editor of Lone Star Literature: From the Red River to the Rio Grande: A Texas Anthology. He teaches creative writing and literature at UT-Austin.