I recently read a line from a critic that said Twain introduced an earthy, vernacular-rich aesthetic to American literature (obviously), but the comment made me wonder if earthy, vernacular-rich fiction is mostly out-of-style today. What do you think? I think it is.
In my experience, editors are sometimes scared of dialect and rural settings–settings where characters might not behave in ways deemed “appropriate” by liberal cosmopolitan elites. It’s an interesting irony: many of these highly-educated progressives display a smug regional bias that reeks of classism. The notion of “regionalism” itself–the history of that term–is interesting because implicit is the idea that there exists an opposite of “regional,” an a-regional, universal territory immediately recognized by all. Is it a coincidence that so many “regional” writers write about marginalized and/or working-class characters?
I know this: I am tired of reading stories in literary magazines that might as well be set in a shopping mall parking lot–even though we never get the name of the shopping mall or what distinguishes it from other shopping malls–stories where none of the characters have last names, where the style is uber-plain and neat and lacks voice, where the plots are always linear and clean and every other character is working on a doctoral dissertation or engaged to someone working on a doctoral dissertation. Last year, I went through a major literary magazine that accepts less than 1% of submissions and three of the four stories featured graduate students working on dissertations or theses.
Anyway, here are six contemporary works that continue the tradition Twain helped establish in the 19th C. I return to this list whenever I become despondent over this particular issue (or pet-peeve of mine):
1) Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping
2) Edward P. Jones, All Aunt Hagar’s Children
3) Jaimy Gordon, Lord of Misrule
4) Mark Richard, House of Prayer #2
5) Toni Morrison, Beloved
6) Lewis Nordan, Sugar Among The Freaks