A sprouting Cascadian canon

Paul Constant

April 19, 2016

Since August of 2014, co-founders Connor Guy and Alex Davis-Lawrence have published Moss, a self-described “Online Journal of the Northwest,” for free at mosslit.com. It’s a literary magazine that publishes quality longform fiction and non-fiction from, and interviews with, Northwest writers. Last week, Davis-Lawrence and Guy, announced that they were bringing on Spokane novelist Sharma Shields — author of the excellent The Sasquatch Hunter's Almanac — as a contributing editor, with a few more editors yet to be added. As an organization, they’re clearly on the rise. You can read issues of the magazine for free on their gorgeous website, or you can buy the collected edition, Moss Volume One, which serves as a mission statement for the site.

Moss is at the vanguard of modern Northwest literature. They publish pieces that are earnest, but not self-reflexively so; literary, but still accessible to a wide audience; and decidedly uninterested in the typical obsessions of New York-published literature—status, ennui, and emotional exhaustion. As opposed to the sorts of disaffected people you’ll read about in New York lit mags, the people in Moss’s stories feel things, want things, and know things. They belong in the world, and they want the world to acknowledge that they exist.

These are stories that could only come from this corner of the world. Corinne Manning’s story “Professor M” builds from one of the most overused clichés of modern literature — the flirtation between a college student and a professor — while stripping it of the ostentatious guilt and Puritanical sexism that the subgenre has accrued over the decades. Miriam Cook’s “Your Best Bet” ends with a startling image of a woman staring down a broken-toothed tiger. Matt Briggs contributes an essay about clear-cutting and its relationship to Northwest horror stories, particularly Twin Peaks.

In interviews with Guy and Davis-Lawrence, Northwest writers talk and think about what it means to be from the Northwest. Rebecca Brown discusses the shadow of believing all Northwest writers are in the shadow of giants:

For a while in the 90s, it was all Raymond Carver, Raymond Carver, Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolfe and Raymond Carver, dirty realism. I was on a panel once at some Northwest book festival thing, and the question was something like how do we get out of Raymond Carver’s shadow. But I looked around and it was like, “half the people on this panel aren’t under his shadow; open your eyes and read more widely!” Maybe two books I’ve done have that monosyllabic, bare realism, but the rest of them don’t.

And Moss examines the history of Northwest writing, too, in the form of an interview with Washington State University professor T.V. Reed about the legacy of all-but-forgotten Aberdeen writer Robert Cantwell. Though Cantwell was one of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway’s favorite novelists, his work has disappeared from the public eye — in part, Reed argues, because he was a regional author who was not interested in New York City or Chicago or other major population centers. The interview is followed by a short fiction by Cantwell, “Hills Around Centralia,” which details the aftermath of the Centralia Massacre, a battle between the American Legion and members of the Industrial Workers of the World in 1919. In the story, a principal attempts to explain the massacre to his students, but first he leads them in song:

America! America! God rest His grace on thee! And crown thy good. With brotherhood. From sea to shining sea. From the shining seas and from the alabaster cities the brave words rose, and when the song ended a vision of the great rich fields and forests lived and glowed in his mind. Alabaster, alabaster, he thought, treasuring the strange rare word, a church word that you could not use, putting it with the other deep words, freedom and majesty and liberty, in the hoard of precious words that could only be sung.

The other reason why Cantwell was ignored by history, Reed argues, was because he “was part of an entire movement that sought to overthrow capitalism in the 1930s.” He was someone who was writing those words that could only be sung about America—demanding a better deal for workers based on the rights laid out in the Constitution—and he was doing so openly and without shame.

Cantwell should stand as a kind of secular patron saint of Northwest literature. He wasn’t writing for the elites back east, but for his people out here in Washington, where we have shades of green that New York City hasn’t even discovered yet. In that way, Moss is continuing Cantwell’s legacy by planting a flag here and finding out what our writers have to say.

Books in this review:
  • Moss Volume One
    by Connor Guy, and
    Alex Davis-Lawrence

    January 01, 2016
    222 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy online

About the writers

Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.

Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant

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