August 25th, 2006

Very random thoughts on Two-A-Days and the Southern experience and writing about it

Don't be too hard on me--this is not a coherent argument. It's one of those topics that's so close to me, I may never be able to write a coherent argument about it. But I'm interested in your perspective.

susanw posted kind thoughts about MAJOR CRUSH recently. But she opened with this:

Major Crush (Jennifer Echols, 2006) is a band geek romance. A band geek romance set in rural Alabama, which the Smart Bitches Who Love Trashy Novels gave an A- review. So naturally I had to try it, though I had my doubts. I so rarely read books set in rural Alabama where I actually recognize the place, where it's not some over-the-top caricature of racist evil or rosy-tinted smalltown good.

This took me aback. Honestly, when I wrote the book, I didn't give the setting much thought. The book is loosely based on my my experience as a high school drum major, so I set it in a town loosely based on the town where I grew up. No-brainer.

However, in the past few weeks, as I've moved between projects and brainstormed about future ones, I've wondered about the wisdom of setting my books in Alabama, especially for YA novels. I mean, I live here, and I'm not stupid. I've lived here most of my life, and most of the people I've known have not been stupid. But so many times online, I have encountered people who could not BELIEVE an intelligent person was from Alabama. And of course on TV, if you hear banjo music, you know there's a joke coming about Alabamians inbreeding and picking their toes in public. I think this is the fault of the movie DELIVERANCE. Which is sad for both the South and the banjo, which my dad has played since he was in medical school.

If people are going to be prejudiced against me and my books the instant they hear I'm from Alabama or my books are set here, wouldn't I be better off hiding my Taylor Hicks fangirl status and setting my books in some nondescript River Heights, like Nancy Drew books?

OR, more to the point of Susan's comments...if I set a book in small-town Alabama and I DON'T include an over-the-top caricature of racist evil or rosy-tinted smalltown good, have I inadvertently disappointed reader expectations, stepping outside the bounds of the Southern genre? I actually had an argument with Smart Bitch Sarah last October about her review of Lani Diane Rich's EX AND THE SINGLE GIRL, in which she said,

My disappointment with the book was the setting and the unlikely compactness of the cast of characters in light of that setting. Granted, this is not an epic novel that closely follows several generations, but to set a story in a small town in Georgia would imply a larger group of people with whom the heroine is very familiar, because a small town, once you walk back into it, encloses you with everyone and everything familiar. To reduce the cast of the story to Portia, her three relatives, her best friend, and the partners and romantic interests of those women seems to cheat the setting. Further, the South is itself a personality and a character, and while the characters themselves are well acquainted with Southern charm, hospitality, and indomitable strength, there wasn’t a great deal about the town of Truly to make it clear that it was, indeed, in Georgia.

My response back then: that you post this, I am thinking back over the YA romance I’m about to finish [I was talking about BOY IN BLUE, not MAJOR CRUSH]. I know the small town Alabama setting is authentic, because I lived it. But I wonder if you are going to tell me I am cheating the setting because I don’t have the heroine wandering around the court square, stumbling into pillars of indomitable strength.

Maybe the small town Southern setting has become such a genre unto itself that readers feel cheated if a writer doesn’t include the expected (and, indeed, hoped-for) markers: the tea party, the cotillion, the uncle on a Civil War reinactment battlefield. And maybe this genre is such a scary monster (tho she be planted with azaleas) that she insists novels of ALL subgenres conform.
Granted, this is not an epic novel that closely follows several generations, but that’s what you want, because you saw peaches.

It was with all this in mind that I watched the MTV premiere Wednesday night of TWO-A-DAYS, a reality series about high school football set in Hoover, the Birmingham suburb next door to me (literally next door--I live on the boundary line). My two main reactions:

1. A surreal feeling. I can't believe someone has filmed a reality show about the high school down the road from me. Here's the website where they have made these normal 18-year-old kids seem like stars. Perhaps the weirdest thing during the broadcast was all the commercials. MTV is more guilty than any other network I know of having 10 minutes of show and 20 minutes of commericals during any allegedly 30-minute episode. So there are commericals for football movies and new hip sports stuff, and all this slick marketing of...the high school down the road from me, y'all.

2. Headache-inducing postmodernity. The show right before TWO-A-DAYS is LAGUNA BEACH, which I watched for the first time last week because it has been so hyped in all the teen magazines. As I complained to cchant, I was very confused by LAGUNA BEACH. It is either the best-acted fiction drama ever or the most obviously staged reality show ever. On the fiction side, the main players are, without exception, beautiful and apparently 25 years old (they are supposed to be in high school). On the reality side, they are dorks, and all they do is sit around and eat sushi and say "like" a lot and plot to stab each other in the back.

TWO-A-DAYS had a lot of the same predictable plotlines, to the point that my husband started using his high whiny teen voice, imitating them. I got mad and told him to go watch JAG (the stupidest show ever, and his favorite) in another room, please. But for the most part, I was not sure why someone would make a reality show about...reality. It seemed very real to me. The people seemed real and familiar, as if they were someone I might run into at a PTA meeting (!) or as if they were eating hamburgers at the very restaurants where I regularly eat hamburgers (!). The Southern accents were my accent. The obsession with football is something I haven't experienced myself to that degree, as a chick. But my husband played and still attends lots of games at our old high school, which has gone to the state championships twice in the past few years (in the class smaller than Hoover). I don't find the obsession with football at all strange.

Yet it must be strange, or they would not have made a reality TV show about it. Right? I was listing in my head all the things I did not find strange but that people from other parts of the country probably would: the obsession with football, the accents, holding hands and praying in the locker room. Does TWO-A-DAYS seem strange to you like LAGUNA BEACH seems strange to me? And, for my it strange in a bad way? Should I pack up my works in progress and move to River Heights?
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