I think I debated Ben Lerner in high school.
I’m almost positive of it. He’s only a year younger than me, and my school definitely went to the same tournaments as the Topeka team. If we did go head to head, he most likely won. He was, after all, a 1997 national forensics champion for extemporaneous speaking.
The specific settings of The Topeka School, Lerner’s autobiographical novel about debate and forensics championships in the 1990s, were recognizable for me, from Russell High School to the Hypermart across from West Ridge Mall.
The novel itself is a coming of age story about a young teenage boy trying to surmount his “toxic masculinity” and become a full person. Lerner alternates chapters with fictionalized versions of his own parents, who discuss the difficulties in raising a child in the violent, macho culture of red state Kansas. Before long the novel reveals itself: It’s not a book set in Kansas, but against it. It is not a book that a Kansan would want to read, it is a book for New Yorkers who want to think they understand the red states.
To this end, Lerner refers to his alter ego, Adam, not as a denizen of Kansas but as an anthropologist of Kansas, writing in the first chapter, “He touched a wrestling state-championship banner hanging in the foyer with the distance of an anthropologist.” Like most anthropologists, he doesn’t know what the fuck he’s talking about. An anthropologist has nothing to say about common people because he needs a single story to tell about common people to those back at the university. This precludes common people from being individuals, with diverse opinions and lifestyles and experiences; all the better to pitch them as a monoculture to be explained away with a theory. It’s a trick that allows Lerner to spend a lot of time insisting on the homogeneity of the Kansas that surrounds him. At one point, Adam enters what he thinks is his girlfriend’s house, but all the houses are so similar it takes him a while before he recognizes it’s owned by a stranger. The neighborhood’s occupants “would all belong to the same grammar of faces and poses; the elements of the painted scenes might vary, but not the level of familiarity and flatness.”
And what is this familiar and flat Kansas culture? It is referred to as “Marlboro Man culture”; “Topekan tough guy stuff”; “acne-covered, baseball-cap-wearing, [and] sports-obsessed.” In the sections narrated by the stand-ins for Lerner’s psychiatrist parents, they speak of knowing “exactly no one in Topeka who was out [as gay].” Their neighbors are all pro-Vietnam War and anti-women’s liberation, but of course the shrinks, themselves coastal transplants, take the higher road, gently agreeing to disagree. This Kansas is instantly identifiable as red state culture, an easy mix of stereotypes of the uneducated, the working class, and the bigoted. What Lerner eliminates are the inconvenient details.
Even if we agree that Topeka is not precisely a liberal hub, it lies a mere thirty miles from the University of Kansas in Lawrence, which was roiled by demonstrations and occupations by anti-war protesters. It is an hour’s drive from Kansas City, where a lesbian separatist neighborhood called Womantown existed in the 1990s, when most of the book is set. But in Lerner’s version of Kansas, these things do not exist; The Topeka School’s Topeka is not a Topeka I recognize, at least culturally. There is no punk scene, no Leatherwood Studios, no independent film scene or Carnival of Souls, no riot grrl zines or indie comics, no William S. Burroughs living outside the city limits, no rodeo culture or country music revival, and of course no brown people.
But it’s important for the anthropologist to leave out anything that would contradict his working theory about how a people are, a theory that always says more about the observer than the observed. Adam, unlike the Kansans, is a poet who makes poetry, Lerner reminds us. “He could hardly have been the only boy who ‘ate pussy,’ in Topeka, but . . . some [in Topeka] were reading Rice and some were reading Clancy, some were reading Adrienne Rich or ‘Non-Interpretative Mechanisms in Psychoanalytic Therapy’.” Guess which is which! I bet you can’t! Lerner might have been born there, but his parents fret throughout about their decision to raise a son in Topeka, worried that their nature (intelligent, sophisticated, empathetic) will be overwhelmed by the city’s nurture. There are multiple references to the Herman Hesse short story “A Man by the Name of Ziegler,” wherein a man finds himself able to hear and understand the conversations of zoo animals and loses his mind as a result.
This red state culture—the term “red state,” coined after the 2000 election, is used in The Topeka School despite the nineties timeframe—finds embodiment in the character of Darren. His story intersperses Adam’s, told in chapters printed all in italics to cue you that “we will now visit the Other.” His life intersects with Adam’s mostly through his parents, as Darren is a client at the psychiatric institute where they both work. He is intellectually slow, lower-class, and a violent product of violence. Psychotherapy could have saved him, it’s hinted, but treatment is beyond his financial reach.
Darren is not allowed to narrate his own thoughts; somehow, despite being mostly illiterate, the narration of his sections sounds a lot like Adam’s. “There is fructose coursing through their bloodstreams and music loud enough to register as touch and the hardness of the floor they slide across in a dark shot through with light effects” does not sound like the guy who earlier admits that his teacher humiliated him in the fourth grade when he was unable to read aloud from a Dr. Seuss book.
But how could someone like Darren speak for himself? He is only a representative of the horde. He is not an individual but a tragic archetype running headlong into his red-capped fate. His prophesied act of violence—breaking a woman’s jaw with a thrown cue ball after she called him a faggot—is inevitable. On page four, Darren, in more implausible narration, tells us that “Long . . . before he’d taken it from the corner pocket, felt its weight, the cool and smoothness of the resin . . . the cue ball was hanging in the air, rotating slowly. Like the moon, it had been there all his life.”
The book ends as you would expect. Darren votes for Trump. Adam becomes an important poet and flees to Brooklyn. This splitting of fates along neat cultural lines found its intended audience in blue state middlebrow culture, where there is an outsize market for “explaining Trump country.” It earned Lerner a breathless profile in The New York Times Magazine, placement on many year-end lists, and invitations to public radio programs, where he, yes, explained how Trump happened. With his novel and his media positioning, Lerner was well-placed to deliver up red state culture as source material for the entertainment of the cultural elite, which he then legitimated with extra-novel commentary. What was lost was any sense that there might be a market for artistic work that comes from and speaks to fly-over country.
They Don’t Dream in Kansas City
As Nathalie Olah writes in Steal as Much As You Can: How to Win the Culture Wars in an Age of Austerity, “the publishing industry has accepted its fate as a marginal entity, whose responsibility is to serve the quiet, tasteful sensibilities of its middle-class readership.” In Olah’s view, the new culture war is not the traditional right-wing attack upon the avant-garde, but the tension between an art and culture world that has become dominated by the upper classes and the working class it leaves behind, struggling to gain entry and participate in the culture as anything other than consumer. But what is there to consume for someone in a small Kansas town, who isn’t interested in the interior goings-on of the urban creative class? Dragons, I guess.
While I remember buying Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting from a display table in the Salina, Kansas, mall even before the film adaptation came out, now that real estate is taken up with young adult novels, fantasy series, and other dystopic hellscapes. In the boutique bookstores of Kansas City, it is all candy-colored hardbacks, their titles presented in loopy script, the latest endeavors of America’s hardworking MFA industry. Olah defines these books as “mired . . . in a degree of introspection and literary stylistics that alienates almost anyone outside of the immediate, literary fray.” It is an insular culture that makes broad, sophistic claims to universality.
Before long The Topeka School reveals itself: It’s not a book set in Kansas, but against it.
Olah writes from a UK perspective, where class structure is perhaps the most useful way of understanding this cultural divide. In the United States, there’s a more pronounced regional divide, with the cultural industries centered almost entirely on the coasts. The only entry point for a Middle American is through the university system, which so dominates the cultural landscape that all five recipients of 2019’s National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 prize for “emerging writers” have MFAs, and more than half of the National Book Award for Fiction winners attended elite schools; eight of those winners attended Yale, Harvard, or Darmouth.
The push for greater college attendance that started with Clinton and Blair is often considered an undiluted good, though the inspiration for both campaigns was to undermine social welfare programs, as Olah documents, by propagandizing self-improvement and social mobility. But as apprenticeships disappear, as more and more entry level jobs require college degrees, despite art history knowledge rarely coming up when you’re working as a receptionist for a medical clinic, the college degree itself becomes more powerful and more necessary. It is now assumed that one must go to college in order to write a book, make a movie, direct a play, or even perform stand-up (many universities now offer Comedic Arts or Comedy Studies degrees).
But now, when their characters are from red states, these accredited writers and artists are congratulated for peeking outside their bubble. “I started writing this play immediately after the presidential election in 2016,” Will Arbery wrote about Heroes of the Fourth Turning, which is set in Wyoming. “There was a lot of talk then about ‘echo chambers,’ and having come from a small subsection of conservative America, I felt that I had a responsibility to provide audiences with access to those conversations.” Left out is the implication that the audience would be educated New Yorkers.
In the New York Times review of Fourth Turning, critic Jesse Green marvels that Red Staters would ever be the subject of a play. “They”—the conservative characters—“would not at first seem so different from you and me.” He continues, “What use are [conservative characters] to anyone, even liberals who want to understand what they’re up against?” The play seemed to teach Green an important lesson, about how people in red states watch the same television shows as him, which makes them worthy of empathy.
It’s hard for me to separate out that statement of intention to explain red state culture to a blue state audience with my experience of the Heroes of the Fourth Turning. The main characters of the play easily become Trump Voter types. There’s the gun-toting loner, the hypocritical Ann Coulter culture warrior, and the incel. The one conflicted figure is Emily, a Catholic who doesn’t believe people who work at abortion clinics or are trans are necessarily going to hell. She lives in Chicago and is friends with a drag queen, so she’s different. She is disabled, possibly from Lyme disease, although in the end her disability seems to have been a metaphor for the inner torment she suffers from her inability to reconcile Christian culture with secular culture. At the end of the play, she either suffers from a psychotic break or a demonic possession.
There is very little of interest to the play, unless you are trying to “figure out” what’s going on in Trump country. The playwright, like Ben Lerner, came out of MFA culture, so the play is tasteful. The prose is fluid, the sentences are stately. He restricts his characters to the university-educated, so they will reference the same philosophers its intended audience will have studied, to establish common ground. Dramaturg Ashley Chang tells us in an essay included in the script, “As Obama would go on to tell the New York Times, good books—like good plays—give us the time and space to sit with ideas that might move us or unsettle us.” The subject of her essay is whether we should feel empathy for the characters.
Cultural production, criticism, and programming are now governed, in their totality, by indoctrinated middlebrow assholes.
There was a moment from another play that this reminded me of, in Éduoard Louis’s History of Violence, a theatrical adaptation of his autobiographical novel of a violent attack he suffered from a one-night stand. When his lover starts to rob him, Éduoard tries to explain that they are the same. He is working class too. But all of the markers of coming from a lower class are gone, and his lover feels no solidarity. He has works of philosophy and literature on his shelves, his apartment is tastefully decorated in the bourgeois minimalist fashion, and there is no trace of the rural accent his sister in the play carries. He has assimilated, and the man who will eventually rob, rape, and try to murder him does not care about their shared origins. Watching this play, I was conscious of fitting in with the theater-going population of Dumbo, Brooklyn. I was indistinguishable.
Later I watched an alt-right YouTuber rally against the “elitist” and “nonsensical” cultural arbiters, as he told his mostly white, red state, un-degreed audience that the art world hated them. The “experts,” he argued, want you to feel stupid. I was struck by the fact that I didn’t disagree.
There are plenty of art installations lauded by critics that require a PhD in art history or a thorough reading of the artist’s statement to “get.” I listen to film critics talk about the brilliance of Greta Gerwig, and I think, “Jesus Christ, another pretty white lady trying to make her way in the city as a content creator, who gives a fuck?”
Yet more and more barriers are erected to prevent people outside the university system, like Lerner’s Darren, from becoming literate in whatever art they’re drawn to. It’s not just that most museums now charge $25 for entry and keep slashing their free days, it’s not just that opera tickets are astronomically expensive, theaters are closing all around the country, art and music classes are eliminated from school systems, and physical DVD rental stores are replaced by streaming services that don’t carry any movies made before 1980. It’s that cultural production, criticism, and programming are now governed, in their totality, by indoctrinated middlebrow assholes, educated beyond their intelligence, who assume that anyone from a red state won’t understand it or wouldn’t be interested.
I would struggle to argue to the alt-right YouTuber that Ben Lerner didn’t hate him. But I would argue against his position that the art world isn’t for us, us being the red state rabble. The working class, the uneducated, the failures, and the washed out. We are creators too. And we are allowed to circumvent the tastefulness of the establishment, the cultural gatekeepers, and the university powerhouse. The art world hates us, yes. But art doesn’t.