At the Back Fence Issue #317

September 15, 2008

From the Desk of Anne Marble:

Them Thar Hills

It happened to me again the other day.

I had a hankering for a Western novel and was buying books by new popular Western writers. My picks included new authors Cotton Smith and Peter Brandvold, and those of established Western writers like Elmer Kelton.

I picked up a book from Wayne D. Overholser, an established Western genre writer. The blurb described a Western hero suspected of murder and a tomgirl heroine. This sounded neat! Encouraged, I glanced at the first chapter and read this pithy phrase: “How thar, Shane!” a man called. “Heerd you was in Washington. Confabin’ with the big bucks.”

Heerd? Confabin’?

I went into that sentence like a half blind heffer into a sod buster’s chicken wire. I just het all that them thar dialect. It makes them books too blasted hard to read.

By cracky.

I did buy the book, but I reckon the dialect will be challengin’ to get through. Here’s another example: A Zane Grey novella I picked up started out well with With jingling spurs a cowboy stalked out of the post office to three comrades crossing the wide street from the saloon opposite.

Nice. I like that. You’ve got concise descriptions, action, conflict, a hint of more to come. Then he opened his mouth. “Look heah,” he said, shoving a letter under their noses. “Which one of you longhorns has wrote her again?”

Look heah! As you might have guessed, I can’t put up with that darn tootin’ dialect. It took some trying for me to pick up both the Overholser and the Zane Grey – that and reading the well-written introductions that talk about how danged good the novels are. Well, pardner, I finally gave in and bought some of them thar books. Now I find myself talkin’ funny.

Another offender was Mercedes Lackey’s fantasy novel Takes a Thief – not one of her best novels of Valdemar, but fun. The book, inspired by Oliver Twist, features a hero named Skif, a thief from the poor section of the city. As such, the story is full of the cant of the street. For example,“Not bad done, fer a little. Noboddie never pays mind t’littles. Ye cud do better, though. Real work, not this pilferin’ bits uv grub. I kin get through places a mun can’t, an ye kin get where I can’t. We might cud work t’gether.” Even in the middle of narrative, you’d have a line like this from Skif’s point of view, like “Where ‘ud it hurt if ‘e bought for a week? Wouldn’ ‘e get it cheaper that way?” It gives me the sense of a fantasy version of Dickens’ London. It also gives me a headache. Looking back and rereading portions of it, I’m surprised I enjoyed the book as much as I did. Maybe I skimmed much of the cant.

And dinnae get me started on Scottish romances. Maybe dialect is part of what makes Scottish romances feel, well, Scottish. But for me, it can make an otherwise good book drag. Also, how many of the people writing these books have heard real Scottish people speak? Obviously not, because I watch Craig Ferguson on a regular basis, and I can understand his monologues clearly. But maybe these writers think Star Trek’s James Doohan was actually born in Scotland. Nope. He was from Vancouver, British Columbia.

Why can’t Scottish heroes sound like David Tennant in this interview or this one instead?

I’d much rather Laura Kinsale’s For My Lady’s Heart, despite the Middle English. “Your Highness, I pray you, if it displease you not — I advise all haste to continue” gives me a better sense of time and place than something like “Nay. I am just nay verra comfortable depending upon men I dinnae ken at all. I have ne’er been away from Dunsmuir so have ne’er been without someone I ken weel near to hand.”

Scottish dialect aside, Mark Twain is often credited with popularizing dialect. He is sometimes referred to as the first truly American writer because his characters sounded like Americans, not like the English. But reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn can be a challenge – and very few authors have Twain’s grasp of dialect. Maybe he created a monster?

Take the word “heerd.” Please. How do you pronounce that? Yup, I don’t know many cowpokes, but do they really pronounce “heard” like that? I can imagine them saying “heared,” but not “heerd.” Then you have writers who will write something like “I hurd you waz coming.” Uhm. Aren’t “heard” and “was” already pronounced “hurd” and “waz”? What’s with the funny spellin’ in those cases? Those authors ain’t writin’ no dialect, thar making fun o’ their characters.

Also, Twain used dialect to make Americans sound like Americans. But some writers wind up using it to make them sound like ignorant Americans. The guy who said “heerd” went on to say, “Ain’t heerd so much cussin’ since I was hyar last time. That what you call civileezashun?”

Overholser was using dialect to show us that the speaker, Purdy, was a simple man, part of a dying breed, who saw through the veneer of what the West called “civilization.” For me, though, the dialect came on so thick that it made me wonder if Purdy had been kicked in the head by a mule a few too many times. It also made his lines too dangblasted hard to read. Each time he spoke, I had to read more slowly to figure out what he was saying. Then my mind would get stuck on trying to pronounce his dialect, and I’d go in circles, wondering if people really spoke that way.

Maybe that’s why today’s Western authors tend to avoid dialect, or at least use it sparingly. Take Mike Kearby’s recent book, Ride the Desperate Trail, a Western about Free Anderson, a buffalo soldier and freed slave. Free’s style of dialogue depends on the circumstances. When trying to reassure his blinded mother, he says, “It’s a fine a day as we’ve had in a while.” In the middle of action, he could say, “They aim to burn you out. Just let me have a chance.” And in another scene, he says, “I will tell you both, my men do treasure mustangs you sold us. My goodness, they are magnificent beasts!” You get the sense of dialect, but Free doesn’t come across as a simpleton. Far from it. Instead, you get the sense of someone raised in the South, someone who can be all business when needed, but someone with a bit of the poet in his soul.

Compare that to the dialect in Kathleen Woodiwiss’ Ashes in the Wind. The heroine is hard enough to understand when she travels about disguised as a boy. (“My manners is jes’ fine, Yankee. It’s your’ns what got me riled. Ain’t yer ma ever tole you it weren’t nice to point?” But the slave dialect! The first time we meet one of her slaves, the slave responds with “Law-w-w-sy!” Boy did I know I was in for some impenetrable dialect. Later, later, we’re treated to “Lawsy, I sho’ glad it was you Miz Roberta was a-comin’ to see. I been sittin’ here ponderin’ what I was gonna tell Mastah Angus should his chile come to harm by all dese here scalawag Yankees.” Yeah, that’s easy for you to say, but not easy for me to read. If you read through reviews on Amazon, you’ll learn that even fans admit the slave dialect has to be “suffered through.” The Yankee hero, on the other hand, says things like “There seems to be adequate cause to believe an error has been made.” Apparently being a Yankee doctor means you get to sound like Mr. Spock from Star Trek.

But of course, Yankees are allowed to speak intelligently. As Robin pointed out in her ATBF column on chick lit, there seems to be an unwritten rule that in literary fiction, Southerners must be portrayed speaking in impenetrable dialect:

Why was literary fiction, mostly published in New York, so obsessed with poor Southern white people who spoke in dialect? Week after week the New Yorker published short stories about poor Southerners and suburbanites, the likes of whom were known to few outside New Canaan, Connecticut or below the Mason-Dixon Line (if there – I have had my doubts whether those New Yorker editors had a clue about the South).

I’m sure most authors think they’re doing us a favor when they write thick dialect. They want to give us a flavor of the way people speak – even if they don’t know how they really sound. Maybe they’ve read dialect in books, so they’re sure Southern people really talk like that, even if the closest thing to a Southerner they’ve met is someone from Trenton, New Jersey. But some writers may want to portray Southerners and stupid and uneducated. Luckily, if Ride the Desperate Trail is any indication, at least today’s authors of Westerns are growing away from that tradition. But imagine if Woodiwiss had written Ride the Desperate Trail. Instead of saying “I will tell you both, my men do so treasure those mustangs you sold us,” Free might well have said something like, “Lawdy, suh! Like I tole you both, mah men do treashore dese mustangs you done sold us.” Lawdy save us!

In 2001, the late Elizabeth Mansfield gave an interview to AAR’s Rachel Potter. In it, Mansfield said: “There’s a kind of trick to writing dialect. The writer should make only small, suggestive changes, rather than try to make in altered spelling a replica of the real accent. Most of the time it’s enough to make small hints, like dropping the final g in a word, like ‘goin’ or changing ‘you’ to ‘ye.’ Too many spelling distortions can distract the reader.”

That’s the problem with so much dialect. Some authors, such as Mansfield and Laura Kinsale, can suggest it through speech patterns and the like. Yet too many authors think more is less. So instead of characters who announce that they are “goin’ to the general store,” you might have characters who are “goin’ to the genrul stoor and pickin’ up sum taters.” Uhm, what?

Me, I’m gonna go to the bookstore and grab some books without too much dialect, you heeer me?

Anne Marble