Why ‘Farm Lit’ Is the Best
Last weekend I moved just outside city limits, to 2.3 acres of Indiana farmland. On summer break from our teaching jobs at the university, my husband and I have been busy attending to our new brood of chickens, constructing large compost bins, and harvesting mulberries. Perhaps this helps explain why I’ve been drawn to memoirs of city-girls-gone-country—books like The Dirty Life: On Farming, Food, and Love by Katie Kimball. But as it turns out, the rest of the country shares my fascination with farmers.
In the hyperbolicly titled “Chick Lit Is Dead, Long Live Farm Lit!” at The Atlantic, Emily Matchar argues that chick lit—that genre of popular fiction which addresses modern womanhood—has evolved. Where our heroines used to flit from Manhattan martini bar to sample sale, they now bike from small-town cafe to heirloom tomato bed. Hot pink covers with stilettos have been replaced with earth tones and muck boots, and stockbrokers have been traded for men in Wranglers.
Matchar attributes the change in literature to our changing economy—after all, fewer people can afford martini bars and retail therapy these days—and to the increasing popularity of the New Domesticity movement. But I wonder if there isn’t something more behind this shift.
Thanks to technological advances, many of our daily activities have grown increasingly impersonal and decontextualized. We get money from a machine, not a teller. We pay for groceries at the automatic checkout with a swipe—no need to smile. We print postage labels at home rather than visiting the post office. We eat food we didn’t raise, grow, or even cook, and our first-graders can’t identify vegetables. We buy clothes made by people we’ll never meet in factories we’d be afraid to visit. We spend our days in temperature-controlled cubicles talking to people by typing at them on screens, and we spend our nights under the flickering spell of yet another screen. Almost all of our daily interactions are mediated by technology.
Could it be that we’re hungry for some more personal kind of face-to-face interaction? Perhaps the growing love for farm lit signals a deep human need that isn’t being met as much these days. The need to be surprised by small, firm red potatoes under the warm, black dirt. The need to talk with the librarian rather than self-scanning your books, to value a relationship over expediency. Aren’t these part of what makes us human?
I might be wrong. But while I think about it, I’ll be out checking on my chickens.
The pastoral genre always seems to flow from urbanization, no? But there’s still a lot of technology that makes pastoral living possible. :)
Yes, the pastoral genre did begin to really thrive just after the Industrial Revolution, didn’t it? And I’m thankful for technology – I’m certainly no Luddite. But I do find it helpful to consider ways in which technology changes our daily lives, and both the positive and negative consequences.
You raise some interesting suggestions, but I think it ultimately comes down to a longing for an ideal that doesn’t exist, whether it’s the past, a different part of our own country, a different part of the world or just a different partner. It’s all escapism, and it’s sad that it dominates our culture when what we really need is art that forces us to confront our problems.
You might want to read this on the site from a few months back, I found it very helpful: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/christandpopculture/2013/02/there-are-no-good-old-days/
I liked that article too.
I wonder if art can’t be both “escapist” – as you call it, art that enables us to live in another world for a while – and challenging, art that forces us to confront our problems. When I think about something like the Chronicles of Narnia, I find both of those components at work.
Maybe part of our longing for the ideal is – as CS Lewis suggested – a sign that we were created for something more than this.
Glad to hear it :)
I think there is a distinction to be drawn between ‘escapism’ and ‘fantasy’, something that has become far too blurred in my opinion. ‘Fantasy’ situates us in another world, so that by experiencing it we can learn more things about out world. Just as all good sci-fi is about inner space rather than outer space, so all good fantasy is about the stuff that the swords, elves and goblins represents.
‘Escapism’, on the other hand, I take as an insult. For me it means fiction that’s designed to make you not think, or engage spiritually, with the world around you. Whether it’s overly nostalgic period drama or empty-headed sci-fi, it causes us to switch off because it actively encourages us to forget our problems – to be a bit childish, in fact, by negating our responsibilities.
I would therefore class Narnia as a fantasy rather than escapism. Lewis wants us to be lost in the wonder of another world, but everything within that world is designed to make us think – whether it’s the Turkish delight or the deep(er) magic.
Your list comment about Lewis is interesting – will have to ponder that a little longer :)
All media doesn’t need to be “educational.” After a long day of studying or solving problems at work, it’s nice to get a little mental relaxation. Not that I ever turn my brain completely off because I don’t like media that is really morally repugnant, but the relaxation is one of many things that help me handle the stress and depressing aspects of life better. It’s not healthy or productive to think about problems 24/7. As long as we are doing a great job taking care of our responsibilities, nothing is going to fall apart if we don’t think about them for a short while.
It’s not a question of being “educational”, it’s a question of encouraging people not to run away from or seek refuge from their problems in culture. I appreciate your point about relaxation, but there’s a difference between relaxing and using relaxing activity as a means to forget or ignore. The price of freedom is eternal vigilance, and the same applied to our culture and moral compass.
Yes, the fantasy and the reality are worlds apart, with or without all the fancy farm equipment that’s available now. I know a lot of people who grew up on farms, so I know this to be true. But fantasy and fantasy art aren’t wrong or harmful as long as we’re not living vicariously through it all the time and we don’t get it confused with reality.
<—-"Of course country life is more attractive than the city." (said the country girl who's glad after 34 years on this planet to finally be in the cool group.) :-)
There are lots of reasons for taking up hobby farming. For one, the eggs taste much better. :-) But, honestly, we did it as a family in order to teach our children about economy, where our food comes from, about how to care for animals/what we have, and to show them the value of life given for us so that we may eat. We raised chickens, ducks (the funniest animals on earth), geese and all manner of other fowl, rabbits, goats (for milk and meat) and grew a good deal of our food. We also had dogs and cats. Yet my husband and I are physicians. We certainly didn’t need to do that. But it was a wonderful experience for all of us, and my now grown kids miss the animals a lot. Was there farm lit then? Yes, I remember Chicken Tractor and a lot of how to books. And a beautiful book titled Shepherdess.
Our experience was not escapist. It was educational, to confront our eating habits head on. Funny that now, because I so loved my animals, I’ve become a vegetarian.
Enjoy your chickens!
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