When Great Writers Use Bad Vernacular

Tom Wolfe looking white

Tom Wolfe looking white

The audio version of this post appears below. Just click on “play”

Tom Wolfe is a white guy, a very white guy, right down to that suit he’s been wearing since 1962. Tom says it’s to disarm people in order to get them to see him as a kind of Martian and therefore devoid of any preconceptions about anything – an empty cup to be filled up by the thoughts of whomever he meets. I think he may have drunk some of that Acid Kool Aid while researching for his work back in the 1960’s. I’m pretty sure when people look at Tom Wolfe they see a white guy looking white.

So, it is with great disdain and an almost palpable pain I suffer through his use of what’s commonly known as the black vernacular. I really do love Wolfe’s writing until I get to phrases like this from A Man in Full, in which Wolfe attempts to write some Rap lyrics:

GIRL, CAN’T KNOCK IT, SAY BE

LIMBO!

SHANKS AKIMBO!

HEY! YO! YOU UNLOCK IT!

GONNA TAKE IT OUT MY POCKET!

AN’ THEN I’M GONNA COCK IT IN-

CHOC-OLATE! MECCA! UNNHHH

You get that? I don’t. Never heard a Rap song like that before. Tom should have consulted Tupac who was still alive at the time. I would have subbed out that portion of the writing. “Shanks akimbo?”

There are so many examples of just this kind of travesty throughout all of his work. Bonfire of the Vanities is replete with this nonsense and after the first read renders the story unreadable a second time, which is a real shame because the rest of the book is so great.

The interesting thing is, Wolfe is less likely to use this questionable tool with his white characters. In A Man in Full, the protagonist is Charlie Croker who Wolfe describes as a Baker County Georgian from below the gnat line and who came from humble beginnings. Ok. I bet just about anyone living in the United States has an idea how that guy would speak. Occasionally, Wolfe qualifies a phrase or a word from Charlie just to remind us where Charlie hails from by having him use a pithy Southern phrase, as such: “Juh hear that? It’s easy to bet blue chips when you ain’t even got table stakes.” There. Just in case I had forgotten Charlie was from below the gnat line, I got it back. I don’t have to be slapped in the face with Tom Wolfe’s take on a deep southern accent in print form.

And, that’s the way it should be. Good narrative should set up the reader to understand exactly what the character is all about including how he/she would sound off the page.

W. Someset Maugham

W. Somerset Maugham

W. Somerset Maugham pisses me off in the same manner as Wolfe. Luckily, he doesn’t do it nearly as often as Wolfe. Maugham came from an upper class British family and I think it’s fair to say that anyone who knows anything about him shouldn’t have a problem with the moniker “aristocrat”. All of Maugham’s stories do exactly what they are supposed to do – put you in a scene, which makes you feel as if you are part of the story. To me Maugham is absolutely seamless with his narrative until he does something like this from Liza of Lambeth:

“Yus; she says she’s goin’ ter give you somethin’ if she can git ‘old. I should advise yer ter tike care.”

Yeah, ok, I got the jist. But, half the flippin’ dialog in the story is written that way. Admittedly, I’m not up to date on my turn of the twentieth century cockney – but, I’d be willing to wager neither was a dandy like Maugham even though he was employed as a doctor in a working class hospital at the time. I don’t think working in and amongst a certain population qualifies one to speak or write their language. Most of his stuff is written as if talking from the top down social strata-wise; to have him revert to this kind of thing is just insulting.

Does this mean Wolfe is a racist and Maugham is a classist? Not at all, but I do believe they both get away with using that horrible vernacular mechanism because they aren’t bigoted in their respective categories. Wolfe used his cast of New Journalism to mold stories that bring out the differences in race, ethnicity and class in a bold and raw manner. In fact, it became the template for all of Wolfe’s novels and a good portion of his other work – chronicling the injustices as he saw them. Maugham isn’t quite as easy to parse. He has such a huge library of material, some of which does have a common theme, but nowhere near as obvious as Wolfe’s. I do think it’s clear through his work that Maugham had a fascination with the lower classes.

There certainly are times where a writer will get more oomph out of slipping into the vernacular of this or that genre. I found myself in this situation this past winter. In one of my unfinished (aren’t they all?) novels, I have a Scottish character whose personality is layered with brashness, rudeness, and egotism all wrapped up in a coat of animosity towards everyone. I had to decide whether to describe his speaking manner with a few cues here or there, or flat out pull a Wolfe/Maugham and get the Scottish accent on screen. I agonized over this for weeks, each time I started to create the dialog indicative of a Scottish brogue; I called myself a hack and then deleted the whole scene.

In the end, I used a Scottish translator and went the Wolfe route. Am I a hypocrite? Probably. But, here was my reasoning: Nigel, was a minor character who only showed up briefly in one scene and I felt his effect on that scene had more impact when spoken in his native tongue. It was all of about fifteen lines of dialog after which Nigel disappears into the Santa Barbara sunset. I’ve read that page a million times and I’m ok with it.

Well, now that I’ve bashed Wolfe and Maugham, I’ll just sit here and wait for the onslaught!

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