Gawker recently had a great little piece titled "Verlyn Klinkenborg Must Be Stopped
." For those who don't know, Klinkenborg is a New York Times
heavyweight who writes a column called The Rural Life. He published a book under the same title that I read about a year ago and that I absolutely love. The Gawker article by Hamilton Nolan is really funny as he picks apart Klinkenborg's latest column on the topic of mud.
The funny thing is, I both wholly agree and wholly disagree with Nolan. His critique has you chuckling with recognition and my first reaction to The Rural Life
was that it was yet another example of "hay porn." Hay porn is what I call a newly popular form of nonfiction in which an obviously highly cultured writer describes his or her life in a rural community with an emphasis on how rich it is, how hardworking the people are, how profound the connection to the land, how simultaneously mundane and profound the sacrifices it requires. The writer is out there mending fences, keeping an eye on his new calf's health, and rubbing the loam between his fingers before coming inside to read Seneca, while you, reader, are playing videogames and eating Lean Cuisines. Barbara Kingsolver's Animal Vegetable Miracle
is just one other entry in this burgeoning catalog.
Hay porn also delights in the particular and, to most, obscure language of farming and the natural world. It's poetic terms like "snow-matted goldenrod" and "deep, night-bright, iridescent black." But it's also, lest we mistake the farming life for a pastoral flight of fancy, "coiled larvae" and "quarter-sections of soybeans."
I have to say, though, that once I got over my defensiveness and my sense that the author is handing out what Jonathan Franzen calls a "backhanded boast," I found Klinkenborg to be wonderful. This is his life, after all. He's a wonderful writer, too, and I could fill a page with examples of his wonderful turns of phrases. But, more than that, following a mind that observes the natural world carefully makes you observe the world more carefully. Nolan mocks Klinkenborg for writing about stuff that no one knows about or cares about, but, once you start reading, you realize you do know about it. When he writes of March that "In every ditch, every hollow, a cold, sepia brew of last year's leaves was steeping in a basin of discolored ice," you know exactly what he's talking about; you see it in your own yard every winter. When he talks of an overcast day promising snow and says "by noon dusk seems to be in the offing" you can picture that too. And these recognitions make you feel included in the rich world of natural rhythms that he conveys. Because you are—you are part of that rich world.
This is what great literature does. It gives weight and significance to our experiences. That significance might be illusory, but it doesn't feel so when you're looking at the stars.