Posts Categorized: Fiction

Dialect and Bias

“Well… yawl have looked long enough. What you think about them?”

“We been watching… who they now?”

“Displaced Persons…. Well now. I declare. What do that mean?”

“It means they ain’t where they were born at and there’s nowhere for them to go—like if you was run out of here and wouldn’t nobody have you.”

“It seems like they here, though… if they here, they somewhere.”

The above is excerpted from Flannery O’Connor’s story “The Displaced Person,” published in 1953 in the collection A Good Man is Hard to Find. Since O’Connor’s death in 1964, the way we use dialect in fiction has changed significantly. The dialect in which O’Connor wrote her characters’ dialogue was complex enough in the 1950s. Sixty years later, it seems to me that the use of dialect is a dying practice—not least because with each passing decade it’s become increasingly racially, politically, and socioeconomically problematic. Dialect can also signal the contemporary reader to read a character as ‘other,’ which in turn can take that reader out of the story and discourage identification with the character.

But dialect can also be powerful. Nothing conveys a character’s voice and tone with as much immediacy. And in a time when reading has become an essentially visual experience—the text we read online and on our phones is compressed, abbreviated, translated into symbols—dialect can encourage the reader to connect with the written word on an aural level.

Visitors to the site The Dialectizer can input text and have it translated by a computer program into a number of dialects, including Jive, Cockney, Elmer Fudd, Swedish Chef, and even Hacker (the last of which I suspect isn’t a dialect at all, since it’s only ever typed, not spoken…). Imagine reading the following in a story, a familiar joke I ‘translated’ into a dialect the site calls Redneck: “Whuffo’ did th’ possum crost th’ road? To git t’t’other side.” In the work of a contemporary author, I imagine that little line would come off as satirical at best, offensive at worst. For the writer, though, particularly during an era when creating dialect is as simple as inputting text into a Web site, it can read as lazy characterization.

Ultimately, I suspect that the problem of dialect is just one facet of a much larger one: Good dialogue—like a good man—is hard to find.

What’s your opinion of dialect in fiction? Is it an outdated practice? Or can it be used wisely? We’d love to know your thoughts!

National Novel Writing Month

Today I ran into a colleague of mine who looked particularly haggard. It being the rear-end of a long and grueling semester, I thought nothing of it at first. But after watching her fall asleep during office hours and noticing the black pies pooled below her eyes, I asked how things were. Great, she assured me. I must have looked at her skeptically though, because she proceeded to explain that on top of her teaching and coursework, she has undertaken quite the task: writing a 50,000 word novel by the end of November. This means a little more than 1,600 words a day–no small feat! The novel must be new (no copy pasting from older writing) and all the original work of the author, and more than one word. Other than that, no rules, except the clock!

As I heard this I wondered a) at her sanity and b) at the type of writing a project like this fosters. On further reflection though, I can’t help think this is a pretty neat national campaign, especially in a culture less than obsessed with the written word. The value, I think, becomes less in finishing a 50,000 word masterpiece in 30 days, and more in putting up a valiant effort. Many people never finish, and only one wins the official contest, but the benefits are far greater. Making writing a habit, approaching it as a creative challenge worth pursuing, embracing it as a way of life–all things National Novel Writing Month fosters–are things I believe in.

I’m not a fiction writer but a poet, so the idea of writing 50,000 words scares me silly. That being said, I think I can learn from my fellow writers–part of writing is putting something on the page every day and believing in one’s ability to write something grand. It’s about writing as part of a community and encouraging each other in creative pursuits. About the powers of chocolate and caffeine and the inspiration procrastination can lead to. We’re halfway through November, so I don’t think I’ll be writing a novel this month, but I will be writing. Every day.

Tell us about your novel writing experience, or get going. Only 14 days left!

Contests Off the Beaten Path

Last week, I received an email from the Missouri Review about their 5th Annual Audio Competition, which welcomes audio submissions in poetry, fiction and audio documentary. It was a welcome reminder that literature exists not just on the page, but also somewhere else—in sound, and in memory. Then, this morning, I got a notification from Geist, the fabulous Canadian quarterly, about this year’s Annual Literal Literary Postcard Story Contest. For this year, their eighth, Geist editors are requesting that each entrant hand-make a postcard, then write a story inspired by it, finally submitting both elements together.

Inspiring stuff!

Missouri Review and Geist’s original, multimedia approaches to the literary contest got me thinking about how contest call-outs can serve as encouragement for writers to work outside their comfort zone. Would you ever hand-make your own postcard prompt, if no one suggested it? Would you think of recording a short story, weaving it together with music? We writers are solitary beasts. Contests—especially themed ones—offer us lonely folks both an opportunity to expand our repertoire and a way to connect with wider communities.

In fact, there are contests out there specifically for writers who identify with particular groups. The Saints and Sinners Literary Festival Short Fiction Contest is open for work with LGBT content about—what else?—saints and sinners. If you’re a lady writer, you’re in luck: WOW! Women On Writing is sponsoring a Flash Fiction Contest this fall; there’s another flash fiction contest, Feminist Flash 2011, is open to any genre of work, 200 words or less, with a feminist theme; and the organization A Woman’s Write is holding two contests, one for previously unpublished novel manuscripts and one in creative nonfiction.

Of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg. There are hundreds more writing contests out there, each with a slightly different slant. If you have a favorite themed contest, feel free to share it with us!