Editor’s note: This story, which originally appeared here, is republished on Carolina Public Press through a content-sharing agreement with The Tuckasegee Reader.
By Bill Graham
On Oct. 21, writer Randy Boyagoda reviewed mountain novelist Charles Frazier’s latest book, “Nightwoods,” for the Sunday New York Times Book Review section.
The novel, set in the Southern Highlands in the 1960s, is the second since Frazier wrote the extraordinarily successful Cold Mountain over a decade ago.
Boyagoda’s review, in one of the nation’s most influential publications, was critical of Frazier’s book and his style in ways that many in the southern mountain literary community found condescending and in some ways bizarre.
For example, Boyagoda, a faculty member at Ryerson University in Toronto, chided Frazier’s “cheap ornamentation” in his use of many material objects – cigarette brands, pinball machines – without what the reviewer considers broader cultural touchstones of the time, like the Civil Rights movement. And he argued that Frazier’s colorful prose was too much so.
“At their worst,” Boyagoda writes, “[Frazier's] books offer something … like baroque costume drama starring hothouse Southerners with M.F.A.’s: their words and interior lives are so incessantly stylized and exquisitely evoked that they come across less as believable people than as literary confections straight out of Willy Wonka’s Faulkner Factory.”
Later he adds: “It’s too bad the writing gets in the way of the storytelling — or, to be truer to Frazier, it’s plangently unfortunate the writing style gets all up and troublesome-like in the whisper-leaved way of the true and fine telling of this terrible and valiant tale of priapic violence and distaff recompense.”
Tuckasegee author and poet Thomas Rain Crowe took umbrage, and rallied the literary legions. In a letter to Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus, Crowe wrote: “ … in the future, I’d like to suggest that the Editors at your newspaper be more pro-active, screening their reviewers who are writing about parts of the country and literary traditions of which they are not familiar, so we’ll stop getting these kind of misinformed rants against the South, its history, culture and literary traditions.”
Other regional authors chimed in, and ultimately a lively personal exchange kicked up between Crowe and Boyagoda. Excerpts from that exchange, along with teasers to other reviews, appear in the sidebar to the left. Read on below for Crowe’s letter in full, followed by those of some other Frazier supporters:
First, the single letter the Times printed as a follow-up, from Corey Mesler of Memphis.
To the Editor:
I must take exception to the condescending tone of Randy Boyagoda’s less than generous review of Charles Frazier’s new novel, “Nightwoods” (Oct. 23). Boyagoda complains of the “surplusage” of Frazier’s prose: “A little girl doesn’t hurt her nose,” he writes, “she ‘pierced the wing of her nostril.’ ” The implication from this and other examples is that Frazier is overwriting, using unnecessarily flowery language. This would be true if language were only a way of passing on information, but it is a far more sophisticated tool than that. Shakespeare could have had Romeo say, “Where is Juliet?” The meaning is there. But the poetry, the gravitas, is not.
Frazier is a lyrical writer, and a fine one at that. If there were only one way of writing, say, like Hemingway, there would be only one writer: Hemingway.
Thomas Crowe, author of “Zoro’s Field.”
Have just read Mr. Boyagoda’s review of Charles Frazier’s Nightwoods and was shocked by the reviewer’s smug anti-Southern bias as well as his ignorance of Southern culture and history–which has become something of a trend, I’ve noticed, in recent years coming from the “liberal” northern press. Boyagoda labels Frazier as a paint-by-numbers kind of writer using the epithet of “surplusage” to accuse the author of writing “baroque costume drama starring hothouse Southerners with M.F.A.’s….[who come] straight out of Willy Wonka’s Faulkner Factory.”
Clearly, Mr. Boyagoda has never set foot in the rural mountains of western North Carolina, where Nightwoods is set. Let me just point out, quickly, a few things that this reviewer got wrong in his review of Frazier’s book. First of all there are no “hothouse Southerners with MFAs in any of Frazier’s books. Secondly, Charles Frazier’s prose style does not even vaguely resemble that of William Faulkner. Thirdly, Boyagoda criticizes Frazier for “including nothing of lunch-counter protests or Freedom Riders or the Civil Rights movement,” calling this would-be oversight “thin verisimilitude.”
Having grown up in the rural area of western North Carolina that Frazier is writing about, I can tell you that there was no sense of any Civil Rights movement in this region of western N.C. during the 50s and 60s. Few people even went out of the valley in those days and didn’t read the NYTimes and couldn’t get radio or TV signals, so they didn’t even know that all this Civil Rights business was going on. And if they did, it didn’t affect their lives cause there were no issues of race in rural WNC to speak of–as there were (and in some cases still are) only white Europeans living here. And apparently Boyagoda doesn’t know his geography, either, as the Civil Rights actions during the 60s happened in Charlotte and Greensboro, Alabama and Mississippi, which are a ’fer piece’ from Graham County.
Fourthly, Boyagoda criticizes Frazier’s writing style, calling it “bad writing” and “rank imagery,” while focusing on Frazier’s use of rural Southern Appalachian dialect and metaphors. In essence, he accuses Frazier‘s prose as being “precious and overwrought.” In the same paragraph Boyagoda hypocritically uses some of the most precious and overwrought language I’ve ever encountered in a book review–”plangently unfortunate,” “priapic violence,” “distaff recompense.” I don’t think this reviewer would know a good metaphor if it hit him upside the head.
In the end, and in the future, I’d like to suggest that the Editors at your newspaper screen their reviewers who are writing about parts of the country and literary traditions of which they are not familiar, so we’ll stop getting these kind of misinformed rants against the South and its history and culture. These kinds of reviewers, and Boyagoda in particular, are just writing to impress themselves with their faux knowledge of Southern culture and their ten-dollar words, cause they sure aren’t impressing anyone down here–who all love Mr. Frazier‘s books.
John Lane, author of “My Paddle to the Sea,” “The Best of the Kudzu Telegraph,” “Circling Home” and others (More)
Am dissappointed in the review of Night Woods in NYTimes today. What a hatchet job. How could they give this novel to some 34 year old Canadian to review? No respect. Reviewer writes, “At their worst, these books offer something more like baroque costume drama starring hothouse Southerners with M.F.A.’s: their words and interior lives are so incessantly stylized and exquisitely evoked that they come across less as believable people than as literary confections straight out of Willy Wonka’s Faulkner Factory.” Give me a break.
Wayne Caldwell, author of the Cataloochee novels (More)
The reviewer of Charles Frazier’s Nightwoods (Oct. 21, 2011) refers to “literary offenses.” The only one I detected was that your staff assigned such a prejudiced and vituperative reviewer to this entertaining and well-written book. Shame on you.
Rob Neufeld, author and book page editor, Asheville Citizen-Times (More)
To the Editor:
I did not laugh when I read Randy Boyagoda’s sneering parody of Charles Frazier’s “Nightwoods,” though his review of Oct. 23 was laughable. “Furniture doesn’t just age with time and use,” Boyagoda complained about Frazier’s writing, but is, to quote the novel, “buffed to a pale silver nub by many decades of buttocks.”
In its context, that line is a jocular one, as the heroine, Luce, is ushered into the parlor of intelligent, kind spinster teachers who live in the equivalent of amber. It is a good line, which actually ends, “by many decades of buttocks dating back nearly to the Grant administration.” For those acquainted with Southern culture, that’s a reference with weight.
Boyagoda also laments, “It’s too bad the writing gets in the way of the storytelling—or, to be truer to Frazier, it’s plangently unfortunate the writing style gets all up and troublesome-like in the whisper-leaved way of the true and fine telling of this terrible and valiant tale of priapic violence and distaff recompense.”
With his grotesque and inaccurate parody, Boyagoda has shown his weak hand. “Plangently unfortunate” is purple prose, which Frazier would never write. “All up and troublesome-like” is colloquial rural Southern talk, a bigoted poke and, more importantly, a use of different voices within a sentence, an act of bad writing that Frazier never commits.
When Boyagoda concludes his rant against “surplusage” in prose, he writes—in his own prose voice: “To conjure a specific time and place in its material charms but effectively ignore its most significant human complexities is thin verisimilitude, if not cheap ornamentalism.” Now, I’m laughing! Did I miss the point? Is Boyagoda’s whole piece a parody of bad reviewing?
The more serious issue is the New York press’ sometimes stunning inability to appreciate great literature from the South, in this case, the mountain South, where writers have combined a rich and sophisticated story-telling tradition with a deep education in world literature. I ask the editors of the “New York Times Book Review” to please go to reviewers familiar with the region to provide reviews worthy of the “Times’” authority.
Lamar Marshall, editor of “Wild South” (More)
What would you expect from a Canadian/Yankee jackass (Boyagoda) with a Southern chip on his shoulder? He pulled half of his reject, never-used adjectives from his wore out desk thesaurus to awe the English-deficient NY Times audience into believing he has actually mastered English. He clearly is no expert on American English. Why Ryerson University would employ him when there are ten thousand more qualified to do his job is a mystery to me.
Barbara Duncan, author, poet, songwriter
I can’t believe the snotty, parochial reviews in the New York Times and L.A. Times. I posted on the LA TImes site, where the reviewer did not even seem to have read the book. Unbelievable.
Ted Olson, author
Fascinating! I’m glad you all challenged the reviewer to account for his opinions. It’ll be interesting to see if the NY Times publishes any of the letters-to-the-editor. Thanks,
Sebastian Matthews, poet and editor of “Rivendell Journal”
What a mean-spirited & crappy review. Yuck!
Of course there is nothing more, nowhere more, provincial than New York.
Frazier’s own response? Well, said Crowe, Frazier doesn’t read reviews.