Small Town Bound:

Response to Harper's Magazine

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by John Clayton


In the September, 2000, issue of Harper's Magazine, Tom Bissell wrote an essay about the filming of a movie in Escanaba, Michigan, the town where he grew up (he now lives in New York). The meditation on differing opinions of small towns -- Hollywood's vs. Escanaba's vs. Bissell's -- included a lengthy section in which he quoted from and critiqued Small Town Bound. Here are excerpts from John Clayton's response:


Dear Mr. Bissell,

... as I got halfway through the article, I was delighted by this rich new tour of a territory I had traveled often before... It was thus quite a shock to see my own name. (I even stopped reading to think which other "John Clayton" you could be quoting. Couldn't be the ESPN reporter, nor the 19th century botanist, nor the jazz musician... don't tell me there's another one!) It was a further shock to see how much real estate I took up. Having just concluded that you had enough voice to carry this piece yourself, I was surprised to see you quoting from anywhere else.

And then, I must admit, I sighed in frustration at some of the ways you interpreted my book. For example:

* I don't believe the urban lifestyle is "toxic," and if memory serves I never used that word. The lifestyle doesn't work for some people (it didn't for me). Those people share some frustrations that may (or may not) be met by moving to a small town.

* I find rural protocol far less draconian than that of the suburbs. It depends on the town, of course. But I personally feel fewer societal impositions here than I did even in Boston.

* I hope my discussion of expectations was not merely implied. This was a central principle of the book, because so much frustration for individuals and small towns results from a mismatch of expectations. But it's not that you shouldn't expect very much -- it's that you shouldn't expect what you get in the city. Small towns are different places; to expect them to be mini-cities is to deny yourself (and, potentially, your new neighbors) precisely the qualities you sought in them.

* The fact that the small town is never "now" or "you" is indeed the reason I wrote the book, the gap I tried to bridge. Perhaps I failed at that, perhaps I have not fully bridged it myself. But to use the gap's existence against me is like telling the Wright Brothers that they intend to fly.

* I am not Norman Crampton and I eschewed his "Top 10" approach for exactly the reasons you cite. Despite their ridiculous foundation, such books do a tremendous amount of damage, and after you had so vividly targeted him, I was especially frustrated to find the trigger pulled on me.

* Though I have regrets about writing, "The good small towns are booming. The bad ones are dying," hypocrisy is not among them. This was a rueful observation, not a decree. You seem to be observing the same thing. My regrets center around vocabulary: this text seems especially pedestrian when juxtaposed with your high-octane prose. I could have gone back and polished those words. In particular, I could have better defined "good" and "bad." (Remember, I'm not Crampton. Indeed, for what it's worth, friends tell me I would really like Escanaba.) Furthermore, I could have expanded on the notion that "booming" is not a positive concept. Boomtowns are equally bereft of the unique qualities that people pursue in small towns, in ways that your citations of Provincetown and Beaufort barely hint at.

One aspect of your article that gave me pause was that the conclusion seemed disingenuous: a book editor suddenly discovering the notion of "audience." Yet [my audience is]... a targeted audience, people who feel vaguely dissatisfied with urban lifestyles and wonder if they might prefer a small town. It's a decent-sized audience, but by no means universal. In fact, the "anti-audience" for Small Town Bound is most substantially people who grew up in and fled the small town. Your perspectives are nearly opposite those of me and my main audience. (For example, I suspect you equated "boom" with "succeed," and did so because it's so ingrained in the rural psyche.) Neither is wrong, they're just different. I've had many rich discussions on the issue, and hope to have many more...

Though I felt the need to explain, I must also tell you that I felt a real thrill in having my favorite magazine trash my only published book. I have long dreamed of having my name in Harper's (though I didn't quite expect it this way...). You took my book seriously. You chose it over others that attempted similar aims. You engaged it, responding thoughtfully. You allowed me to play a far larger role in the cultural discussion than I had expected when I sent a tiny book proposal out into the world. My thanks go out to you.

John Clayton


* Order Small Town Bound through now

--- -- Revised: 11/21/2011


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