The New American Regionalism

Detective (hans van den berg, CC BY 2.0)

An untested opinion I’ve held for a many years:

Modern mystery fiction has supplanted 19th-century American regional literature, sometimes known as “writing of local color,” as its dominant form.

Regionalism is most strongly associated with Southern writers like Kate Chopin and Joel Chandler Harris, but local color writing sprung up from all over the country. Charlotte Perkins Gilman (“The Yellow Wallpaper”) cataloged New England’s parochialism while Bret Harte wrote roaring tales of California’s Gold Rush. Scholars make distinctions between the terms “regional literature” and “writing of local color,” but I’ll use them interchangeably here.

Regionalism in America faded after the turn of the century to be replaced by a more consensus-based literature. Perhaps the twin rise of mass literacy and mass media contributed to regionalism’s fade, although it did not go extinct. Faulkner and Jean Toomer wrote well after the turn of the last century, and wrote using techniques that would have been foreign to the earlier regional writers, but their fiction is unmistakably grounded in regionalism.

But did regionalism truly fade away? Or was it replaced by something else?

It seems to me that mystery fiction quietly—almost subversively—filled in regionalism’s absence. Every major city in America is host to at least one major crime or detective writer, from Seattle (Aaron Elkins, G. M. Ford) to Boston (Robert Parker, Dennis Lehane) to Chicago (Sara Paretsky) to New Orleans (James Lee Burke), all representing their respective locales in their work. Name almost any place in America today and you’ll find crime writers prowling its dark corners. In the process, they’re introducing the region’s colors and textures to a national audience.

More than any other form of fiction today, mystery is concerned with setting. Science fiction has almost no restrictions when it comes to setting. Fantasy explicitly takes place elsewhere than the here and now, otherwise it’s not fantasy. Romance fiction has setting too, but it’s concerns are before the fireplace and in the bedroom.

Even contemporary American literature—”fiction of literary intent,” so-called hard realism—is not as connected to setting as mystery fiction. Too often stories from the small literary magazines feel as though they could take place in any city or suburb or small farm, whichever backdrop suits the characters and the emotional arcs they traverse.

Perhaps the only other form of American fiction so tied to setting is the Western, a genre that not coincidentally shares a great deal in common with the American mystery, especially the private eye genre.

I’m not saying other forms of fiction don’t possess a setting, or that they don’t concern themselves with setting. I’m saying that, for the form as a whole, mystery adopts a priority for regions—regionalism—other forms do not.

In mystery, scenes unfold on streets with names and in bars with a history. A great mystery reads like a travelogue of a town, a neighborhood, or a county. The American mystery has a tradition of hewing to real-world settings, such as the streets of Nob Hill in Hammett’s stories and novels. Ed McBain’s “87th Precinct” police procedurals make take place in a fictional New York City borough, but it’s the Big Apple all the same. Sue Grafton’s stand-in for Santa Barbara (“Santa Teresa”) is so Southern California, you can imagine The Eagles cutting a single about it.

This, I say, is the New American Regionalism. Mystery writers delight in bringing alive their surroundings, and by doing so they share their surroundings with their readership. Local color means local characters and local charm. Look at what stylist Elmore Leonard did so expertly did in his Florida novels, capturing the many dialects and cultures within Miami. The Encyclopedia Britannica’s entry of local color concentrates on “the features and peculiarities of a particular locality and its inhabitants.” This fits Florida crime writing to a T, with an emphasis on the peculiarities and particulars of the genre’s always-colorful cast of characters (Leonard, Carl Hiassen, Edna Buchanan).

My first inkling of the connection between regional writing and mysteries came to me twenty-five years ago living in San Luis Obispo, California. An ever-reliable bookstore there stocked a case of local writers, including several mystery series. Perusing the back cover blurbs, it was apparent the writers had mined the peculiarities and particulars of San Luis Obispo County for all it had to offer. My cynical younger self found it ludicrous, these over-boiled private eyes and steely Lt. Detectives walking the mean streets of San Luis Obispo, a place ranked “one of the happiest cities on Earth.”

Over the years I’ve lightened up. I came to realize the mystery writers of SLO Town were merely doing what all regional writers have done in America: Explore, critique, and celebrate they places they live.

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Philip K. Dick on realism, consistency, and fiction

Philip K. Dick: The Last Interview and Other ConversationsI recently dove into the so-far-superb Philip K. Dick: The Last Interview and Other Conversations (from Melville House, publisher of the increasingly-intriguing Last Interviews collection) and am enjoying every page. I’ve written before about my semi-tortuous negotiations with PKD’s novels, and am finding (some) justification for my issues in these interviews with him.

With PKD I remain hamstrung: he’s more of a speculative fiction (and philosophical) writer than the run-of-the-mill hard sci-fi writer, which is right up my alley; I absolutely love his questions of existence, identity, and freewill that lay the foundations of his novels; and he’s a Bay Area writer to boot. And yet I find him to be a flawed writer, one who was so-very-close to writing perfect novels but had trouble overcoming basic hurdles, such as the cardboard characters and sci-fi’s obsession with “ideas” over story.

(For the record, my list of great PKD novels, in no order, remain A Scanner Darkly and The Man in the High Castle. I’m sure PKD’s fans find that list ridiculously short and astoundingly obvious. I still pick up his work now and then, so who knows, maybe I’ll find another one to add. PKD was more than prolific.)

In The Last Interview, PKD mentions to interviewer Arthur Byron Cover his early affinity for A. E. van Vogt. (I recall being fascinated with van Vogt’s Slan in junior high school, a book built from much the same brick as Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land.) PKD observes:

Dick: There was in van Vogt’s writing a mysterious quality, and this was especially true in The World of Null-A. All the parts of that book do not add up; all the ingredients did not make a coherency. Now some people are put off by that. They think it’s sloppy and wrong, but the thing that fascinated me so much was that this resembled reality more than anybody else’s writing inside or outside science fiction.

Cover: What about Damon Knight’s famous article criticizing van Vogt?

Dick: Damon feels that it’s bad artistry when you build those funky universes where people fall through the floor.

It’s like he’s viewing a story the way a building inspector would when he’s building your house. But reality is a mess, and yet it’s exciting. The basic thing is, how frightened are you of chaos? And how happy are you with order? Van Vogt influenced me so much because he made me appreciate a mysterious chaotic quality in the universe that is not to be feared. [Emphasis mine.]

It’s the questions after my emphasis that make the book’s back cover (“How frightened are you of chaos? How happy are you with order?”), and for good reason: they seem to strike near to the questions asked in all of PKD’s work.

But I’m interested in the line about the building inspector. Damon’s review of Null-A is dismissively brief (but I suspect what’s being referred to here is Knight’s essay “Cosmic Jerrybuilder”), and I’ve not read Null-A, but in principle I line up behind PKD on this one. Reality is not as sane and orderly as many writers would have us believe. If I’m critical of contemporary literature’s fascination with “hard realism”—obsession, really—it’s because I think PKD has put his finger on a kind of shared truth: reality is fragile, but what a thorough facade it provides. It’s one thing for the average person to think they have total understanding of things they have no access to—the heart of a politician, the mind of a celebrity, the duplicity of a boss or coworker—but it’s truly tragic when a writer writes as though they have this reality thing all sewn up.

In contemporary literature, there are many moments where the narrator (either first-person or third-) will have some moment of clarity into another person’s life. Often this moment is the epiphany, although it’s barely epiphanic. (See Charles Baxter’s “Against Epiphanies” for a better argument on this point than I’m capable of producing.) These moments are the obverse of contemporary lit’s obsession with quiet realism, its cult of poignancy. But there’s chaos in our world, and it produces strangeness and unexpectedness that is neither poignant nor tied to fussy notions of realism. These fictional moments of clarity usually reveal what the writer fantasizes the world to be—a charge usually leveled at genre fiction.

My only quibble with PKD’s observation is that I don’t see chaos as an external dark force in the universe tumbling individuals and civilizations about in its hands. We are the chaos. We produce it. I’m less concerned about the wobble in Mercury’s orbit than the ability for just about anybody to murder given the right circumstances. (See the 2015 film Circle for an exploration of just that.)

The human psyche is like a computer performing billions of calculations a second. Most of the results are wrong, some off by orders of magnitude. But the computer smooths out the errors (in its own calculations and others’) to walk a thin line of existence and consistency. And the computer tells itself that its footing is steady and sure, when in fact it’s walking on the foam of statistical noise. The number of calculations it gets right are the rounding error.

Update: Shortly after posting this I discovered Damon Knight partially backtracked on his criticism of A. E. van Vogt:

Van Vogt has just revealed, for the first time as far as I know, that during this period [while writing Null-A] he made a practice of dreaming about his stories and waking himself up every ninety minutes to take notes. This explains a good deal about the stories, and suggests that it is really useless to attack them by conventional standards. If the stories have a dream consistency which affects readers powerfully, it is probably irrelevant that they lack ordinary consistency.

Reading closely, Damon isn’t exactly agreeing with PKD’s comments (or mine, for that matter), but he does concede some flexibility on the supposed rigid strictures of fiction writing.

From three acts to trilogies: The fall of “tight, gapless” writing

John August. (Mai Le)

John August. (Mai Le)

Over at Grantland, Kevin Lincoln makes a deft observation about the current (sorry) state of Hollywood’s output, which has gone from “tight, gapless screenwriting” to scripts focused on world-building, sequels, expansion, rebooting—in other words, franchising.

Lincoln quotes screenwriter John August:

Most screenwriters are essentially world-builders, and the nature of screenwriting is to create a universe in which these characters live, so that’s really exciting for screenwriters … it’s this weird blend of wanting to create the best two-hour movie you possibly can and having to sort of function as a TV showrunner, charting out the whole series, even though as a screenwriter, you’re only going to get paid for that one movie.

I have some interest in how Hollywood screenplays are crafted. (Truth be told, I’m more interested in how three-act scripts are structured, Hollywood or otherwise.) What concerns me with Lincoln’s article—beyond the ouroboros death-spiral that is the quality of Hollywood filmmaking today—is how this world-building dynamic is present in fiction too, particularly ebooks, a universe I’ve been wading into over the past twelve months.

If you search Amazon for independently-published novels labeled “contemporary” or “literary fiction,” you’ll discover your options are limited. (Or, if you’re like me, you might say “the field is wide open.”) Genre fiction is a another story. Science fiction, mystery, fantasy, dystopian YA, romance (and so on) are well-represented in the world of independently-published ebooks. Over-represented, maybe.

Some see that as a knock on the quality of independent electronic-only publishing, but the same situation is found across the publishing spectrum. Hardbound, paperback, big name New York publishers, small press publishers, even vanity presses—genre outnumbers the contemporary/literary world by an order of magnitude. (At least in the realm of books. By my reckoning, literary magazines outnumber genre magazines by two orders of magnitude.)

Someday I’ll write up my thoughts on genre fiction, but for now I’ll say that I don’t see the above situation as a problem in particular. I would like to see contemporary and literary fiction better-represented in the world of independent publishing, but I’m just one voice in a sea of many.

Three acts? Or three (or more) books?

My problem is where August’s observation about screenwriting intersects with independent publishing. Having spent a bit of time searching blogs and so forth for tips on breaking into the world of ebooks, I’ve again and again seen two connected strategies emphasized: world-building and sequels.

Group photo.

Group photo.

What’s that mean? Build a world, a big world, and explore it over the course of several books. This strategy has been the cornerstone of comic books (“the Marvel Universe“) and genre fiction (“A Lt. Detective Malone Mystery”) for decades now. Hollywood is finally waking up to the possibilities. And so are ebooks.

The ebook marketing wonkthink goes something like this: Write a catchy, addictive first novel that introduces your main character, builds the world, and stocks it with complementary secondary characters to be developed later. Give the first ebook away for free. Then write sequels that continue the story and develop your pantheon. Progressively increase the price of your ebooks as the series grows. When you’ve published the last ebook in the series—or reached a natural breathing point—package them together as a “boxed set” (there’s no box, just bits) and price it higher still.

Done right, the individual ebooks may be priced from free to, say, $4.99. The boxed sets can be sold as high as $19.99—the cover price of a physical book in a physical bookstore. With Amazon’s KDP Select, the author pockets 70% of that $20 purchase price. Not bad.

That’s the theory, but are sequels and world-building producing great reads? I’m not a connoisseur of modern genre fiction so I can’t say. I’m curious what hardcore genre fans think. Personally, I recall in my teenage years picking up Book One of various science fiction series only to discover its entire purpose was to introduce characters and describe the world’s physics and technology—in other words, sell me on buying the rest of the series. No thanks.

I know this: I haven’t gone to a movie theater in years simply because I can’t stomach what Hollywood is shoveling out the door these days. (This comes from a guy who grew up collecting Avengers comics and praying for a movie version.) They’ve rebooted Spiderman three times. “With great power comes great responsibility.” Yeah, got it.

Does it work?

Looking over Amazon’s Kindle Top 100 (paid ebooks, not free) and mentally discarding editions released by major publishers (and therefore available in paper form), I do see a number of independent ebooks that are part of a series. However, they’re all the first volume in the series (save for one boxed set selling for $0.99). I estimate two possibilities, and they’re not exclusive:

  1. The authors are selling the first book but failing to maintain readership throughout the series.
  2. The authors are big enough names they can sell the first volume rather than give it away for free.

In other words, I can’t tell from this limited data set what to make of this situation. I will say it’s tough as hell to crack the Kindle Top 100, so kudos to the authors. Also, this exercise of mine is rife with problems, so don’t let it stand as the final word on anything.

Note that I’m not terribly interested in the profitability of this world-building strategy. I’m more curious how other writers attract—and keep—the attention of readers. Do you really have to write a multi-volume genre series to succeed? I hope not.

I love the idea of tight, gapless screenwriting. I love even more the idea of tight, gapless fiction. For whatever it’s worth, that’s what I’m trying to do here.