Today, to prepare to teach Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find”—one my favorite stories—I read an excerpt from Mystery and Manners, her book of essays, speeches, and commentary on writing and the writing life. At one point, she is responding to several stories that she has read from a student writers’ workshop. She says, “With the exception of one story, there was practically no use made of the local idiom.” And then later, she adds, “. . . when the life that actually surrounds us is totally ignored, when our patterns of speech are absolutely overlooked, then something is out of kilter. The writer should then ask himself if he is not reaching out for a kind of life that is artificial to him.”
I don’t consider myself a regional writer, although both novels I’ve written take place, for the most part, in a small town near the Appalachian mountains in Virginia. The reality is that my prose is flavored with the region, but not over spiced. It’s important to give a sense of place through language, but I try to avoid calling up regional stereotypes to confirm for my audience that, yep, that’s how them those folks talk down there in that there holler. The truth is that my home town of Marion, VA, which is the inspiration for the town in my manuscripts, has all sorts of people in it and always has, from the highly educated to the illiterate, from the wealthy to the poor, from the provincial to the worldly. All strata of society play roles in the functioning of town life, and my desire is to represent as many different perspectives as possible.
But I worry. I worry because the town I present in my novel may not be the town that people expect me to present. The truth is that I grew up in a privileged household, went to boarding school, lost my Southwestern Virginia accent, went to college, and have since lived elsewhere. So much of the literature that comes from that area is about the harsh lives of mountain folk. I was never mountain folk. I was town folk and lived very comfortably. In fact, my family has been town folk for many generations.
When O’Connor writes, “The writer should then ask himself if he is not reaching out for a kind of life that is artificial to him,” I get a twinge of anxiety. I fear that, because my version of Appalachia doesn’t conform to the common stereotypes of that region, readers will think it “artificial.” I hope this won’t be true, but stereotypes are powerful things—so is reader expectation.