An online search for Pacific Northwest addictions literature yields only ten results. Titles are all either memoirs or fiction, and one seemingly-misplaced academic guide to addictions careers in the region from 1998. Publishing companies have released fewer than one title each year to represent the region, even as representative literature from other regions gains significant traction. As addiction rates steadily increase throughout the Pacific Northwest, it becomes difficult to explain this blatant lack of regional addictions literature. Is it possible that this lack of representation in literature correlates with the region’s incredibly high addictions rate? Where does the responsibility lie for us, as publishers and gatekeepers, to produce literature that authentically reflects societal needs and cultural realities of the time? In this instance, has correlation led to causation?
The Seattle Times (a Pacific Northwest publication) recently featured Dreamland (2015), a multiple-award-winning chronicle of the country’s opiate crisis. Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (2016) recently won a Pulitzer Prize for its true exposure of what addictions look like. Neither award-winning bestseller even mention the Pacific Northwest, instead focusing on the Midwest. The last truly notable book that explicitly discusses addictions in the Pacific Northwest is the 2012 bestseller Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, which went on to become a hit movie featuring Reese Witherspoon. Post-release, it seemed plausible that Wild would bring light to plight of the PNW, yet ultimately the motivation behind Cheryl Strayed’s hike (recovery and rebirth) became overshadowed by the fact that she was a woman hiking alone (and an attractive one, at that). Rather than paving the way for a much-needed avenue of literary publication, this title became yet another journey of “universal self-discovery,” while ignoring some of the more specific, pervasive issues underlying Strayed’s particular journey. In this instance, popularity actually negatively impacted the author’s motivation for publication.
The addictions crisis in the Pacific Northwest has become so pronounced that President Obama openly called for a regional procedural overhaul in 2016. He asked for accountability, admittance, and a switch in how government officials (and residents) of the Pacific Northwest viewed the plights of others. An 2014 article on OregonLive announced that “303,000 Oregonians remain[ed] untreated” for their addictions, placing the state into “an undeclared public health emergency that affects every Oregonian, addicted or not.” The article goes on to cite stigmas, with people viewing addiction as a “moral failing,” an overarching lack of medical addictions training, and little allocated governmental financial resources as explanations for the problem. This is a reflection of one simple notion: many individuals that do not struggle with addictions believe that addictions do not apply to them. In an area as pervasively affected by addiction as the Pacific Northwest, this view is problematic. These preconceived, harmful notions can be overcome only through exposure to cultural realities. It perhaps, then, becomes our responsibility as literary gatekeepers to publish texts that expose these realities in an authentic way, to promote understanding, and ultimately, to progress.
Simon and Schuster recently released Running: A Novel (2017), a work of addictions literature which periodically mentions the Pacific Northwest. The mentions are vague. She released the highly successful novel How to Grow an Addict: A Novel (2015) and had an incredible opportunity to expose regional realities (the author herself is both in recovery and from the Pacific Northwest), yet the text does not mention the region even once. While this title was promoted throughout the region through reviews and the like, the lack of specific reference to location once again turns regional addictions literature into a “universal plight” that can “happen to anyone.” On one hand, this universality can appeal to a greater readership as well as expose how addictions do not discriminate—a good start. Yet for those specifically impacted by living in the Pacific Northwest and the specific precursors to addiction that exist in this region (Seasonal Affective Disorder, easier accessibility to opiates, etc.), universality does not resonate. Each region of the United States maintains its own set of problems related to the addictions narrative. The experiences are sometimes universal, but more often than not particularities explain more than commonalities, and to resonate with a reader a story must feel familiar. To that end, as publishers and, again, as gatekeepers, we must seek out this familiarity and provide opportunities for resonance among those who need it most.