Like Frozen Ice?

Back when I was investigating graduate schools in pursuit of becoming the World’s Oldest Living Graduate Student ™, I came across an odd description of the University of New Hampshire’s Master’s program in English and Writing in a comment online. Someone who’d analyzed the writers teaching in the program and the several famous student writers who’d graduated from it complained that the fiction the program produced had “too many trees in it.”

This struck me, as Sue Miller once wrote in response to a misguided review of The Good Mother, as “breathtakingly stupid.” Don’t all stories happen somewhere? And doesn’t the set of all possible somewheres include the places with trees?

Those ancient coals were blown up into fire once more by a recent review of a Vermont writer headlined Howard Mosher is a regional writer you need to know. I suspect the reviewer, whose work I respect, was gifted with that headline by someone less thoughtful but regardless my hackles rose and my ears turned red.

First, to deal with the writer in question: Howard Frank Mosher, until his death last winter, was probably the closest living American writer to Mark Twain we have in breadth, scope, and sympathy for his characters. The fact that he lived and worked in northern Vermont and that his fiction was set there had as little to do with its worth as the fact that he once shotgunned a bad review against the side of his barn. His characters were as rich and deep as any you’ll meet in fiction and his stories as universal as well.

My reaction to the “regional” label stems from a belief that too many people use it thoughtlessly as a way of denigrating fiction that is heavily concerned with place, especially if the place is somehow distinctively different from the (generic) city. It’s as if the headline for the Mosher review said: “Well, it’s pretty good considering it’s only about those crazy people in the Northeast Kingdom.”

The term also suggests that everyone inside the so-designated region should be flattered to be so recognized and that no one outside the region might have an interest in anything going on in it place except as a mildly interesting bit of anthropology.

Good fiction is mainly about characters, of course, but characters have to live somewhere. And great fiction twines those characters inextricably with their place, their geography and weather and seasons and, yes, their trees. By the logic of the person who complains about too many trees or tags a novelist as regional, Dostoevsky was a regional writer. Virginia Woolf. And on and on.

It’s difficult enough to convince people to read fiction. Tagging a book or a writer with such a diminishing adjective does no one—reader or writer—any service. Looked at from outside? We all live somewhere and write about some place, which makes naming someone a “regional writer” about as tautologous talking about  “frozen ice.”

About Richard Cass

Dick is the author of the Elder Darrow Jazz Mystery series, the story of an alcoholic who walks into a dive bar in Boston . . . and buys it. Solo Act was a Finalist for the Maine Literary Award in Crime Fiction in 2017 and In Solo Time won the award in 2018. The third book in the series, Burton's Solo, came out in 2018 and Last Call at the Esposito in 2019. Sweetie Bogan's Sorrow was published in 2020, to thunderous pandemic acclaim. The sixth book in the series, Mickey's Mayhem, will come out in 2021. Dick lives and writes in Cape Elizabeth.
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5 Responses to Like Frozen Ice?

  1. Well said. Was Tony Hillerman a ‘regional’ author? I doubt it. Same for Carl Hiaasen and John D. MacDonald. How about Tim Hallinan? The value of someone who lives and writes in a different part of the country is that by reading them, you get a virtual cultural immersion in the world around them. I’ve learned a huge amount about the Iron Lake country by reading Kent Krueger’s Cork O’Connor mysteries. If given a choice, I’d far prefer a regional label for myself because it tells the world that I ‘get’ my people and places.

    • Richard Cass says:

      Thanks, John. I would take your interpretation of the label over others. I feel like many reviewers look down their schnozzes at work where character and place both push the story forward.

  2. David Plimpton says:

    True enough.

    The ocean, lakes, mountains, the plains, the desert, the mean streets are all universal motifs that, like trees and forests, transcend any particular region, suggesting place as well as mood, personality, character, metaphor, conflict.

    The other way a “regional” tag mindlessly does a disservice to a writer like Mosher is not only in suggesting the writer is limited in his perspective, but also that only people from the region will be interested in reading his or her writing, and, as you say, it’s tough enough to find readers these days. Discouraging potential ones doesn’t help.

  3. Richard Cass says:

    Thanks, David. I agree–love or hate the writing but don’t dismiss it for where it takes place.

  4. Barbara Ross says:

    Believe it or not (and I am in no way comparing myself to Mosher–or Faulkner or O’Connor or anyone else tied to a place) when my Maine Clambake series was rejected early on, it was because it was “too regional.” “They’re looking for something more generic–like cupcakes,” my agent said at the time. But it turns out (quel surprise!) that readers love reading about other places. Books from my series have been the librarian’s choice in the Salt Lake City library system. One reader in Montana wrote to me to describe a harrowing two hour trip to her nearest Cosco to buy lobster to make one of my recipes. And so on.

    Generic, of course, is the recipe for terrible writing. Specific is the remedy. I agree the label is intended to diminish, but for me, it does not.

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