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.”