The bumper stickers still read "No Place Else But Texas," an outward and highly visible sign of an inward and spiritual chauvinism that sometimes seems to run deeper than the Rio Grande. No place else, indeed. No place else would three of the most frequently run commercials on local television be these seen in Houston: a computer firm advertising "a new watchdog for the oil patch"; an airplane manufacturer extolling the joys of one's own private jet; and a drilling company commanding, "If you don't have an oil well, get one!"
But if that seems to confirm all the myths, I have discovered after an absence of six years that some things have changed. Like the skyline of Houston--now dominated by the designs of New York architects like Philip Johnson and I.M. Pei, and the aisles of Jamail & Sons Market in the richest square mile in America, where out-of-state accents now run about 50 percent--the literary landscape has been irretrievably altered by the influx in the last decade of newcomers from East and West and by the coming of age of a generation of younger, more urban Texans. Nowhere was that more evident than at last month's annual convening of the state's most prestigious literary society, the Texas Institute of Letters, under the live oak and pecan trees at Friday Mountain, a conference center in the blue and lemony hills outside Austin.
The 175-member TIL is easier to join than the River Oaks Country Club but harder than the inner circles of the Democratic Party. New members are selected each year for their literary achievement by the board of directors and are invited to read from their works at the group's meeting in April, a Saturday noon to Sunday morning affair where some business is conducted formally, a lot is conducted informally, huge quantities of beer and barbeque are consumed, and awards are given out to the year's best books by Texas writers. New members, eight in all, spanned a broad spectrum, from folklorist Bill Brett in full cowboy regalia, to poets Stanley Plumly, who taught at Princeton before he became co-director of the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program, and Naomi Shihab Nye, a young Lebanese-American woman from San Antonio whose second book of poems, Hugging the Jukebox, was a winner in the National Poetry Series and has just been published. So did TIL prize winners, including ex-New Yorker Phillip Lopate, who received the $2,500 Carr P. Collins Award for his collection of personal essays, Bachelorhood, and whose graceful acceptance speech thanked the membership for their "whole-hearted acceptance of a Jew from Brooklyn."
Once the province of good old boys, the Dallas Establishment and academics who genuflected to the memory of the Texas literary holy trinity, the late folklorists J. Frank Dobie, Walter Prescott Webb and Roy Bedichek, virtually unknown outside the state but held up as models to several generations of Texas writers, TIL's leadership has shifted to younger writers who have no allegiance to any of the above: president C.W. Smith, author of such novels as Country Music; vice president Beverly Lowry, whose three novels include the recent Daddy's Girl, winner of the TIL fiction prize; and such board members as Stephen Harrigan, novelist and Texas Monthly staff writer, and fiction writer Allen Wier, who now teaches at the University of Alabama. That group's power became clear when it succeeded last year in having the annual meeting moved from the fancy-dress ballroom of Austin's Driskell Hotel to the rustic surroundings of Friday Mountain, a move which angered some of the oldest members. "There are some people who just don't come anymore and that's too bad," said Lowry, "but this is a lot more fun and gives us a much better chance to know each other. The Dallas people are worried that it's moving out of their control, and they're right."
Still, lest it sound like young turks have taken over completely, one is reminded that the pater familias of TIL remains John Graves, author of such widely acclaimed books as Goodbye to a River and From a Limestone Ledge. The immediate past president of the organization, Graves bridges the generations; he is consulted and listened to on all matters of import, and seems just about universally admired and loved. As one younger TIL member put it, "He is our heart and soul."
Nor should it sound like the Texas Institute of Letters exists to squabble over where to meet or whether to serve Lone Star or Coors, nor even to give out awards. One of its primary functions is the funding and administering of the Dobie-Paisano Fellowships, which consist of two six-month fellowships, including a stipend and place of residence, given each year to deserving young writers, this year to black poet Harryette Mullen and nonfiction writer John Davidson (The Long Road North, a book about illegal Mexican aliens). TIL also administers 10 Texas Writer Recognition Awards, established this past year and funded by the Texas Commission for the Arts, the first time money has been given directly to writers by the state arts commission.
But perhaps nothing is as indicative of the seriousness and pluralism of Texas writers, and of the changes taking place among them, as is the self-examination that has been going on over the past year. It began with A.C. Greene's article in Texas Monthly on the 50 best Texas books, in which he called for more positive criticism and more outspokenness from within the ranks; continued with Texas Monthly editor Greg Curtis writing that Dobie, Webb and Bedichek no longer spoke for the region, but that Larry McMurtry, John Graves and William Humphrey did; and culminated in McMurtry's essay in The Texas Observer, "Ever a Bridegroom: Reflections on the Failure of Texas Literature." The McMurtry piece was, in fact, a chief topic of conversation at Friday Mountain, though much of the membership professed to be tired of the subject. In the end, McMurtry's widespread criticism of Texas writers--and he was hardest of all on himself--probably had a cathartic effect, though the demographic changes in the state make it no longer meaningful, if it ever was, to speak of a "Texas literature." Nor is self-examination likely to have much to do with what McMurtry hopes for, the appearance of a Great Texas Writer; as Smith observed, "Genius seems to have a peculiar disregard to where and when and who it wants to get itself born to, and about all we can do for the poor soul who gets picked is to discourage him or her from self-destructing and to stand back and admire what's been done when it's finished."
McMurtry refused to deal with "newcomers" like Lowry, a Mississippian who's lived here 20 years, or Max Apple (The Oranging of America), a 10-year resident, on the grounds that what they write has little to do with Texas. That is, perhaps, as it should be. The new energy one feels in Texas letters is simply due to the fact that so many good writers are, for one reason or another, now living here, and nothing is more responsible for that than the creation of the state's--perhaps one of the nation's--most ambitious creative writing programs at the University of Houston, co-directed by poets Plumly and Cynthia Macdonald. Donald Barthelme, a native Houstonian who long ago left for New York, has returned to teach at UH one semester a year. Lopate teaches there, and next year fiction writer/poet Rosellen Brown joins the faculty. Houston's Creative Writing Program also brings in visitors--this semester Joy Williams and William Matthews--and has employed writers already living in the region: Lowry and Shelby Hearon have taught there, as has Laura Furman, a New Yorker who was living in Texas at the time the UH program started and who is now teaching at Dallas's Southern Methodist University. Several UH graduate students are regularly publishing in such places as The New Yorker and Poetry, and while many of them come from all over the country, some are local residents who took advantage of the academic program when it became available. Pattiann Rogers, who had long been writing in her Stafford, Texas, home, entered the program when it began; last year her Expectations of Light was published in the Princeton University poetry series.
Writers from the University of Houston have also been instrumental in the formation of PEN Southwest, which, along with UH, sponsors a reading series at Houston's Museum of Fine Arts that has featured such writers as Peter Taylor and Susan Sontag as well as young poets Jorie Graham and Stephen Dunn. PEN Southwest has also begun the Houston Discovery Prizes, cash awards of $1,100 to a fiction writer and poet who have not yet published a book. This year the prizes were judged by Raymond Carver and Grace Schulman and went to two UH graduate students, Jacqueline Simon and Arthur Smith.
The message of all of this may be that, as C.W. Smith told the TIL audience, "All of our glory comes to us from the individual achievements of our members," but Texans, who like having things to brag about, are certain to welcome glory, no matter where it comes from.