Writers defined Kmart realism


In the sprawling parking lot of contemporary American culture, the one with the wadded-up Burger King bags skittering across it like urban tumbleweed, Kmart is a Winnebago straddling two spaces. It's way too big to ignore.

From the perky preamble of its in-store public address system announcement - "Attention Kmart shoppers!" - to the moniker for Kmart's get-'em-while-they're-hot bargains - Blue Light specials - Kmart resonates.

But the most significant cultural contribution of the company, which filed for bankruptcy earlier this week and faces an uncertain future, may be its status as the only business establishment in American history to have served as the label for a major literary genre.

"Kmart realism," all the rage in the late 1980s, was a name that gradually came to be applied to a generation of emerging writers. Other major enterprises, either mighty or failed, have had no comparable impact on literature; as yet, there is no such thing as Enron realism.

It is unclear who first coined the term Kmart realism, but by the early 1990s, it was showing up frequently in critics' assessments of writers such as Bobbie Ann Mason, Tobias Wolfe, Ann Beattie, Frederick Barthelme, Mary Robison and Raymond Carver.

While its popularity as a reference term has waned somewhat since then, the style remains discernible in the works of current writers such as Joy Williams, Richard Ford and Eric Bogosian: a focus on lower-middle-class life in ubiquitous suburbs and the pervasive use of brand names.

For instance, in her novel The Quick & the Dead, Williams writes, "Trains passed through town four times a day, and Emily would oftentimes bicycle down to see them. There wasn't a station, just a Dairy Queen and a small park practically paved with long red Dairy Queen spoons."

Allusions to Kmart realism remain a familiar tool for literary critics, a way of indicating a style of austere writing. In his recent review of Angela Carter's short stories, Salon critic Bruce Barcott opines, "While her contemporaries were turning out Kmart realism in bare-bones language, Carter was a fictional maximalist who bathed in luxurious sentences."

Kmart realism "was an explosion in the culture" about a decade ago, said Lee K. Abbott, author of several short-story collections and the director of Ohio State University's graduate program in creative writing.

While brand names are frequently found in Kmart realism, the most crucial aspect of the genre is its subject matter: people whose lives are circumscribed by strip malls, trailer parks, rent-to-own stores, tattoo parlors, gun shops, fast-food joints and tanning salons. People whose lives are marked by rootlessness. People who keep a stack of change-of-address cards in the glove compartment, just in case.

"It was the first foray into the lives of the underclass," Abbott said. Its unofficial name was "trailer park fiction," he added.

Writers such as Carver, Mason and Beattie specialized in the lives of those who seemed to have missed out on something, those who drank too much, smoked too much, stumbled their way through marital problems.

Kmart realism, a term that may very well have been invented as a term of derision, enabled writers to deal frankly with people whom nobody would envy.

Kmart realism, Abbott said, allowed writers to deal forthrightly with a subject that has bedeviled Americans since that little skirmish with the monarchy-crazed Brits, a subject that permeates the culture but is often avoided in polite conversation: class.

Kmart realism is the antithesis of glitz, the opposite of glamour. It is Roseanne, not Dynasty. It is beer, not champagne.

John Lye, an English professor at Brock University in Ontario, Canada, included a lecture on Kmart realism in the modern fiction class he's currently teaching. Carver's short story "Where I'm Calling From" is the assigned reading.

"With Kmart realism, there's a kind of shallowness, with everything on the surface," Lye said. "There's no depth to that world."

To him, Kmart means "big, brightly lit fluorescent stores. No atmosphere, just merchandise. Nobody seems to be around to help you find anything. The merchandise is completely anonymous. There's a lack of resonance."

Kmart realism has its roots in the work of Ernest Hemingway, Lye said. "You don't give any emotion. The reader has to supply the emotion." Everything is flat and dull, reflecting nothing, promising nothing.

And if Kmart, currently struggling to keep its stores open and restructure its debt, can't make a go of it? What would happen to the study of Kmart realism if Kmart were gone?

"It becomes a footnote," Lye said. "But the memory of Kmart is going to be around for a long while. A decade after Kmart dies, people will know what you mean." This realism is the antithesis of glitz, glamour.

Julia Keller is the cultural critic for the Chicago Tribune.

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