I don’t much care for comfort and solace fiction. I like fiction that perturbs in major or minor fashion, fiction that plays off a reader’s assumptions, going in. Because if you haven’t roiled a reader’s status quo, you haven’t made her or him ponder and brood. You’ve simply entertained, like a clown or a monkey or a hack.
In Austin, Texas, of all places, Cris (Mazza) and I got on the subject of writer labels. I’ve been called a poet, a prose poet, an essayist, a novelist, a short story writer, an experimental writer, a realistic writer, a sci fi writer, a Southern writer, a woman writer and a few other unprintables. Of that list, Cris declared, Southern trumped all. Probably she’s right. Because critics, editors and gobs of readers seem to assume one’s region of origin is even more defining than gender. That said, I haven’t lived in the South for 25 years. That said, I do on occasion write about the South.
Am I Southern-influenced? Absolutely. The famous Southern oral tradition is also a tradition of interruption and meander. When I listened in on my relatives telling stories on Sunday afternoons, I wasn’t hearing one relative tell a story. It was a group effort. The narrative moved forward, diverged, digressed, circled round and started again. I was listening to a story, following that story, but it was, in every case, a fractured narrative. Day in and day out of my childhood I overheard the most vicious of remarks, content wise, delivered by grown-ups in the loveliest of tones and cadences. Right there: a formative lesson in the distinctions of delivery and meaning. If you live past the age of five and are paying any kind of attention, you already know all there is to know about power politics. But it took a few years before I learned to type.
When I moved to California (and not until), I was asked to declare an allegiance, to clarify my niche. Was I a Southern writer? A feminist writer? A poet turned novelist or a novelist turned poet? Choose one and only one: a, b, c. The Southerner in me finds that funny. California. Anything goes, but tell us, tell us: Which team are you on? Which side are you really rooting for?
Writers that early on warped me in a good way. For an independent study course in college I read all of Va. Woolf’s novels. I was partial to The Waves. But the first book I read that took my head off, so to speak, I read immediately after college, in the wintertime, on Martha’s Vineyard, in the tiniest of rooms. Stein’s The Geographical History of America. Not a novel, but a book whose language left me bug-eyed, just bug-eyed, nevertheless. The movement of the prose. Where it went, when it went, how it went (with and without commas). And of course what made it go. (“These are ordinary ideas. If you please these are ordinary ideas.”) Jane Bowles, Beryl Bainbridge, Alice Thomas Ellis. The extraordinary Nancy Lemann. All writers who knew and know that stories are limber, that sentences and paragraphs can flex.
That fictional bugaboo: “unsympathetic characters.” I have to rant a bit here. Have to. When I hear complaints from students and from people in the writing trade who should know better that this or that character is “unsympathetic,” I bristle and sulk. Accept the terms of that rigid dichotomy of characterization and still the derision makes no sense. Who plays off the “sympathetics” if not the “unsympathetics”? More fundamentally: what’s unsympathetic for one reader may be entirely sympathetic for another. Why pretend a uniformity of reaction that doesn’t exist? Heathcliff, Humbert Humbert, Madame Merle. Make a list of literature’s unsympathetics, then try, just try, to imagine those novels without them. No tension, no propulsion. No plot.
Recently I got asked at a reading why I chose to write about someone as “offensive” as Kitty Duncan, one of two main characters in my novel, The Invented Life of Kitty Duncan Benedict Roberts (Chiasmus Press). I could have replied: “I don’t find Kitty Duncan offensive.” I could have admitted: “To write only about the inoffensive would bore me stiff.” But someone at the back of room caught my eye. She was smiling, wagging her head. She vaguely resembled my Aunt Madeline. I took that to be a sign, a prompt, to “go Southern.” So in my very sweetest voice I said: “To entertain.”
*Kat Meads' short fiction can be found in the current issue of Other Voices magazine (Other Voices 45).