Saturday, November 22, 2008

Another Word About Reviews and a Thought on Dialect

Ah, the joy of reviews.  I too have heard that Harriet Klausner has never met a book she didn’t like, but when it’s your book she’s praising, it’s hard not to think that in that one case, at least, she’s particularly insightful.

I am fascinated by my reviews. They teach me a lot, sometimes stroke my ego, sometimes make me want to stop writing and take up ditch digging. Often they tell me more about the reviewer than the book. Readers will often love something about your writing that you never anticipated. For me, I’ve been amazed at how readers have taken to the recipes in the books. Apparently people love to read about food.

A few months ago I found a new review of The Old Buzzard Had It Coming that appeared in the Norman Transcript. This is the Norman, Oklahoma, daily newspaper, so I was glad to see that they had reviewed the book. We lived in Norman for several years in our youth, so I feel rather like Norman is “back home”.

I’m afraid I don’t know the name of the person who reviewed the book for the paper. The byline is just “staff writer”. I cannot tell if the writer is a man or a woman, so I’ll just vary my pronouns when I refer to her. The review is generally good - he says many very nice things about the book, all of which I appreciated very much. However, she didn’t like the dialog — or more precisely, the dialect — at all. To wit : “…Alafair Tucker is a unique character with depth and intelligence. She’s strong, makes a mean peach pie and can gossip with the best of ‘em — but she doesn’t sound like it. In between wonderful insights and a nice background tale of early Oklahoma life, Casey forces her heroine to spout cliches like ‘I’ll swan’...” 

I have a distinct feeling that this reviewer is young, and that he is an intellectual. I also have an instinct that she’s a native Oklahoman and very concerned about sounding like a hick.  I know the feeling. 

I’m very very aware of  dialect when I write, and often worried about it, too. I do in fact use terms and phrases that are now cliche. And the reason is that this is really the way my grandparents talked, all of whom were teens and twenties in the 1910’s. In truth, I don’t write exactly like they talked, because it would not be understandable if I did.

I grew up determined to speak English in as standard a fashion as I could. My parents were college educated, but their parents and older relatives weren’t, so I grew up around country people. My most schooled grandparent graduated from the eighth grade, which was as far as most people in that time and place could go. One grandparent only got as far as the third grade. But just because you didn’t get very far in school doesn’t mean you aren’t smart. Michael Caine, who is Cockney, once said that people too often judge your intelligence by your accent.

Writing dialect is dangerous business, any as any writer knows. It’s really hard not to sound ridiculous, and so most teachers warn students away from it. Now that most people no longer use such a strong dialect, I find that I miss it. To me it sounds like my warm and loving childhood, and that’s why I try to give a flavor of it in my writing. Whether I’ve succeeded or not is debatable, but I’m sure I will continue to try.

Sometimes reviews are weird and interesting, too.  Another Buzzard review that I particularly enjoyed came from another web site called My Reading Corner — A Book Review Blog ( This review was posted on Feb. 11, 2006. The reviewer summarizes the plot, then notes: “The writing style is humorous, and odd.”  

That pretty much summarizes my view of humankind. All it’s members are very humorous and odd.  That includes reviewers.

P.S. tomorrow, our guest blogger is the wonderful Ann Parker, author of Silver Lies, who is going to fill us in on the Women Writing the West conference that I had to miss last month.

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