Are You William Faulkner? Check Yes or No

An article in the current issue of The New Shetlander made me recall a writing teacher in college who, when asked about composing in the vernacular, gave this response. “You should ask yourself one question: Am I William Faulkner? If the answer is ‘no,’ then you should never write in the vernacular.”

I’m not sure where the contempt for writing in the phonetic language of the people you’re depicting comes from, but it’s definitely a deeply-ingrained idea. Any time a writer tries to accurately transcribe the dialect of a particular American subculture, he or she runs the risk of appearing deliberately amateurish (or, as Raymond Chandler said about James M. Cain, “faux naif”). It’s assumed, I guess, that the writer simply doesn’t know better and is writing the way he or she speaks and thinks. There are exceptions, I’m sure, but I can only think of one: Alice Walker’s The Color Purple.

In contrast, poet Mark Ryan Smith, in the aforementioned New Shetlander article (“Shetland Poets, Learn Your Trade: The Kind of Poetry I Want”), says, “Poets and writers should try and find the best language for their own ideas and should be encouraged in their search . . . There is nothing inherent in any medium of speech or writing that makes it superior to any other medium.”

In speaking to him about the article, he added, “We are lucky in Scotland that we have such a strong vernacular literature. This is probably due to the fact that our two greatest poets, and two of the world’s greatest, Burns and MacDiarmid, both wrote extensively and brilliantly in the vernacular. Their work gave writing in the Scots languages validity and worldwide recognition. I don’t know how many other countries have vernacular poets of such importance and I suppose all vernacular poets in Scotland are, in a very broad sense, following on from the beginnings these two poets made.”

Here in the US, comparable claims could be made for the prose of not only Faulkner but of Mark Twain*, yet it seems to have had the opposite effect: instead of encouraging others to emulate them, it has set standards that most writers cannot achieve; therefore, the reasoning seems to be, it’s a sign of presumption and immaturity to even try.

As a Southerner, elements of my native dialect creep into my writing, often times without conscious intent. And yet when I write a Southern character, I back away from truly reproducing the speech patterns and rhythms that are genetically as much a part of me as my blue eyes (for example, “I don’t know” pronounced as one word, “iowntno,” as well as one-syllable words [“damn”] turned into two-syllable ones [“dayum”]). Instead I try to suggest the dialect, which is like tasting the flavor of a steak without sinking your teeth into the meat.

Clearly, I’m not William Faulkner. Therefore, if that college professor was correct, his tools are essentially off limits to me unless I want to risk ridicule and being thought an amateur. Eventually, as our society fragments and each culture embraces its own artistic language, will we then see these vernacular expressions as legitimately sound as anything written in grammatically proper terms?

I don’t know. That is, iowntno.

*Ironically, Faulkner had a low opinion of Twain, calling him, “a hack writer who would not have been considered fourth-rate in Europe, who tried out a few of the old proven ‘sure-fire’ literary skeletons with sufficient local color to intrigue the superficial and the lazy.” (as quoted in Bad Press: The Worst Critical Reviews Ever.)

2 Comments on “Are You William Faulkner? Check Yes or No”

  1. Alex, this is such an interesting topic. I write historical novels as well as fantasy, and I find it really hard to hold back on the vernacular, yet, when I do, I get complaints from crit partners and other readers that the low-class characters sound too educated. Argh. And I can’t really write them in the vernacular in my current work anyway, because it is set in 1524, and any attempt by me to write in that vernacular would be impossible to read. I find myself skating close to Dickensian / Oliver Twist-ish prose at times, and ruthlessly edit it out in horror. The street urchin dropping his ‘haitches’ is almost a cliche (to me, anyway) and there I am, doing it myself. Double argh. So I am trying to convey education in word choice and rhythm of speech, and we’ll see how it goes.

    Another book where the vernacular is used (the book is set in New Orleans) is A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. The character of Joe in particular doesn’t hold back on his vernacular speech, and it was one of the things about the book I loved.

  2. And you were reading The New Shetlander because…?

    I recently acted as judge for two different contests (Golden Heart and Great Expectations)for the YA Catagory. And it struck me how difficult it was to write in that vernacular. If an author uses too much “kid talk” is is awkward and it seems like he or she is trying too hard. But if not, then it doesn’t seem real. I’m not sure what the answer here is. Of course, I don’t speak that language anymore, either…

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