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Cowboys, Dead Mules, and Other Regional Lit Cliches

 by Keith Goetzman


Tags: books, literature, regional literature, fiction, Christian Century, High Country News, Clyde Edgerton, Laura Pritchett, great writing, Keith Goetzman,

Dallas cowboy statue

When you read a Western novel, you know that cowboy hats may be involved, and when you read Southern lit you might expect the appearance of a moss-covered mansion. But these sorts of expectations from readers and publishers can be frustrating for writers who don’t want to fill their books with clichés.

North Carolina novelist Clyde Edgerton gets at this in an amusing exchange with writer Amy Frykholm at the Christian Century:

What is happening now in Southern fiction?  

Fiction writers are still dealing with that species of animal called human in a hot place where there’s plenty of reactionary fundamentalism and family loyalty and a history of living close to the land, along with a poverty that often finds little hope in the promise of America.

You once said, “Because I was born in the South, I’m a Southerner. If I had been born in the North, the West or the Central Plains, I would be just a human being.” Do we make too much of Southern culture generally or of Southern literature in particular? 

Maybe we do make too much of it—because it’s often loud and, in the case of good fiction, accurate. Whereas various media interpretations of the South are sometimes only loud. It’s always a bit of a downer for me when those not from the South start talking about front porches and sweet iced tea and quirky characters. I visualize the caricatured life and predict the next string of dead mule generalizations.

Western writer Laura Pritchett makes a more pitched complaint in “The Western Lit Blues” in High Country News:

I’m a writer who writes about the West and the people out here. You know, the tough outdoorsy folks who populate Western books. People who hunt, camp, ride horses, and love to gut fish. Men and women who live on ranches or fall in love with ranchers. Or the folks who have a kayak on their Subaru and suntan marks on their feet from Chaco sandals, and the people who fall in love with suntanned, Subaru-driving kayakers.

… But I have to say: Even though I am similar to my fictional counterparts, I am also not them. There’s more going on with life out here in the West than is often rendered in books. We Westerners are more complex and worldly and unique than what I sometimes find on the page, frankly. And as a writer, a reader, an observer, and a half-assed cultural critic, I’m starting to get a little worried.

Pritchett acknowledges that some of her peers are broadening their scope—“the oil drillers of Alexandra Fuller’s nonfiction, the odd lovers in Rick Bass’ novels, the Spanish-infused language and Chicano influence in Aaron Abeyta’s poetry”—so it’s not that writers can’t and won’t push boundaries. It’s just that a self-perpetuating mythology can stifle artistic innovation:

Co-creation. That’s what I’ve been thinking about lately. How books create our self-identity, and our identity gets captured in books, and back and forth it goes like some frenzied feeding machine. I read, I reflect, I transfer. So do you. Books and life feed each other, and then they create a monster of an ideology that we feel obligated to live up to.

Sources: Christian Century, High Country News

  Image by crowt59, licensed under Creative Commons.