Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Guest Blogger: Laura Benedict

The first non-academic criticism of my writing was scathing, and it came long before I became a published novelist.

My Prince Charming had whisked me away from the fleshpots of St. Louis and my corporate job at the Mega Beer Company to settle with him on his family’s dairy farm in West Virginia. “Write,” he said. “Let’s make your dream of being an author come true.” What a sweetheart he was, and is.

I’d never lived in the country. Every time I stepped out our door to plod—in my spanking new LL Bean boots—through the muddy yard to the car, or shut the bedroom window against the odor of the aged cow manure that had been spread over the cornfield a few hundred feet from the house, the theme song from “Green Acres” started up in my head. No lie. But I wasn’t miserable. It was an adventure, and I came to love the place—especially after I dug and planted my own flower garden, had a baby, and broke my arm crashing into our storm door as I was running from a feral bitch whose puppy had strayed into our yard. We were there six years, and I’d move back in a heartbeat.

Along the way, I tried to make sense of the unfamiliar culture around me. Having grown up in Louisville, Kentucky, I knew southern, but not country. So I wrote essay after essay about my new life. The men in the area particularly puzzled me. They called me “ma’am” a lot. At first it freaked me out, but now I kind of miss it. The essays eventually got picked up for radio by WVTF, the NPR affiliate out of Virginia Tech that covers vast parts of Virginia, Tennessee, and West Virginia.

One of my favorite essays to write was about the evening that Oscar, a neighbor, came to inquire if any of his cattle had wandered through a busted fence and onto our farm. My husband was upstairs, and I’d just gotten out of the shower, and put on a robe. When I answered the door, there was Oscar. “Have you seen my cows, ma’am?” he said.

The situation was funny. And vaguely mortifying. Particularly because Oscar was kind of cute, and was known to be a bit of a flirt. But everyone knew he adored his wife and eight hundred children, so it was a safe kind of funny.

Here are excerpts from the letter that a Mrs. M. C***** sent to the radio station in response to the essay:

“Dear Laura, [note the inappropriately familiar tone] I am seated at my word processor, still nauseous from listening to your essay on public radio….It is obvious that you have taken text from an x-rated adult movie, though I am quite sure that you are much too well bred to have ever seen one, and therefore have not the vaguest idea of what it all means. Your line of getting out of the tub to answer the door, finding a Nordic man stripped to the waist and fresh from sweat, gives you away….Of course, you continue your ego-massaging essay, never considering that your audience may be able [sic] ascertain that sexual fantasy is not only the domain of junior-high school girls, or that your transparent whiter-than white exterior sugar coat of social elite is cracked; your ridiculous fantasy of self-aggrandizement shows, and while it may be the stuff of lady-like wet dreams, it is not entertaining or enriching to your listeners.”

She goes on to make mention Freud stroking his beard and smiling. I think the station’s news director was right to call her on all the sexual subtext in her own letter when he kindly wrote a response in my defense.

There’s one thing I like about this letter: Mrs. M. C***** doesn’t hold back on the moral harping. She gets right in there and calls me names. She’s so delightfully personal and insulting! I like to take this letter out and read it when I stumble onto some squealy Amazon or blogger review. A puny “not recommended” or “will not read anymore from this author” can’t compare to “self-aggrandizing” or “…sugar coat of social elite is cracked”—it doesn’t even matter that I’m not even sure what she means. It’s just darned creative, don’t you think?

But, seriously—Keep in mind that people are always the stars of their own shows. Their criticism—educated or not—usually has way more to do with them than it does with the work they’re criticizing. Remember that, and you’ll be able to laugh at the worst that the Mrs. M. C*****s of the world can fling at you.

Laura Benedict is the author of the thrillers Isabella Moon and Calling Mr. Lonely Hearts. Sometime after Halloween, the second volume of Surreal South: An Anthology of Short Fiction, which she edited with her husband Pinckney Benedict, will be available from Press 53. Now when she writes essays, she calls them blogs and posts them at Notes From the Handbasket and Wardrobe by Sam.

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