The Critics’ Corner
Globalspeak and Realism
by Don Webb
Bewildering Stories receives submissions from all over the world, and we expect our readers are as widely distributed. In fact, I’ve sometimes been asked where Bewildering Stories itself is located. I don’t know how to answer. On the Internet it’s only by exception that anyone knows or cares where you are. I’m reminded of a medieval image of the universe, which Blaise Pascal made famous: a sphere whose center is everywhere and its circumference, nowhere.
The Internet’s ubiquity creates a conundrum, or at least some practical considerations:
We don’t want to put unnecessary obstacles in the way of readers’ understanding.
Many contributors use acronyms that are in common use in their own localities but that readers on the other side of the world will see only as a kind of secret code. I’ll make up an example. If a character in a story says, “I’m going fishing in the UP next week,” he’ll be understood by readers in northern Wisconsin and parts of the lower peninsula of Michigan but by almost no one else. The solution: the writer needs to ask himself whether readers in India — or Indiana, for that matter — will know where the character plans to go.
Some contributors use the equivalent of product-placement advertising. For example, some like to have their characters drink Budweiser. It’s a well-known brand, but why name it unless you’re getting paid for it? Solution: tell the readers somehow, if you must, that the characters are guzzling cheap swill or sipping a delicious beverage — there’s no accounting for taste.
We don’t want to throw up unnecessary obstacles to realism.
I think you can see the problem coming from afar. If you write for someone on the other side of the world, you may slip into a kind of “globalspeak,” a universal dialect. The danger is that it may be too bland: everybody will understand it, but nobody will want to read it.
All literature has a context in time and place. The national epics of Europe are filled with names of people and places that meant much to the audiences of yore but mean little or nothing to us. And yet the references are no obstacle; the epics are well worth the effort to read.
Regional literature has its place. We sometimes receive submissions in which characters talk in a kind of modern urban dialect. That’s very tricky: the dialect can’t be reproduced literally; few readers will understand it, even if they plow doggedly through the unorthodox spelling.
Perhaps the worst example comes from one of the world’s greatest novelists, Honoré de Balzac. In one of his novels, a character speaks with what is supposed to be a German accent, and the spelling reflects it throughout. The novel is unreadable. Solution: tell the readers what the character is doing, give an example, and then transcribe the rest of his dialogue in standard spelling.
In like manner, some of the stories of Joel Chandler Harris, known for his tales of Bre’r Rabbit, are written in a dialect of the southern U.S. I understood them only when my grandmother — a native speaker of the dialect — read them to me. I doubt that even modern computer vocalization software could achieve that feat.
In this and recent issues, we’ve seen examples of regional realism. In Chris Bailey’s “The Reckoning,” a character speaks in a British slang best understood by the people of his locality, but readers everywhere can get the gist of what he says.
Ron Van Sweringen’s “Rescue on Ragtop Mountain” is set in West Virginia, but the place is incidental, and language does not get in the way. The story illustrates, rather, the mentality of rural America in the first half of the 20th century. The story is culturally time-bound but nonetheless understandable anywhere.
Finally, Victor Ocampo’s “Synchronicity” poses an unusual problem. At the end, Felix del Mundo is reunited in the afterlife with his beloved wife, Dolores. He addresses her as “Dolor.” The name will come as an acute surprise to some readers.
Father Vladimir has already pointed out that “Dolores” comes from the Latin dolor, ‘pain’ or ‘grief’, which gives us the poetic word “dolorous” in English. And “Dolores” has a religious connotation. Now, how can Felix address Dolores familiarly? The nickname “Lolo” might be used in Mexico, but it would sound ridiculous in the solemn context of Felix’ and Dolores’ reunion.
The author has kindly explained that “Dolores” is commonly shortened to “Dolor” in the southern Philippines. Who knew? Filipinos. Readers will be grateful for the cultural gloss; it expands our linguistic world view and adds a touch of realism to the story .
It’s said that the first rule of writing is to write what you know. It’s also been said: “The second rule is never to let the first rule stand in the way of a good story.” I would add only: don’t advertise unless you’re paid for it. And remember your audience: try to make sure the rest of the world knows what’s going on.
Copyright © 2012 by Bewildering Stories