I’m not important enough for anyone to ask me my opinion on rural writers. Thankfully, I’m the type who gives his opinion without solicitation. We’ll call it a gift.
Growing up as something of an outsider in rural Kansas, my thoughts vary. Generally, I believe that coming of age outside a city gives writers a different skillset than those who grow up in urban neighborhoods. This is not to assert that Appalachia or the Great Plains have a literary advantage over Chicago or Seattle. That’s simply untrue; great writers come from both places. However, stories from—or set in—the quieter parts of the world have indelible which make them unique.
Small towns have a way of equalizing people. All are forced to use the same grocery store, go to the same school, and be buried in the same cemetery. One is less isolated, and the class boundaries are quite hazy. That doesn’t stop the wealthier country folks from trying to set themselves apart. Social tension is inherent in the fabric of the place, a net benefit to the writer. No matter the characters’ efforts, towns are so small that the snobs still end up pumping their gas next to blue-collar workers and meth-lab cooks. That makes for good storytelling.
Furthermore, the whole Bible Belt is immersed is a faith crisis, one of mediocrity and lethargy. Flannery O’Connor echoes this when she writes that the rural world is not Christ-centered but Christ-haunted. Religion is no longer the center, but it is certainly the bedrock. Churches are full of families who go out of duty and rhythm, not belief. A people’s sense of place may be strong physically—they are Kansans, Georgians, Minnesotans—but their spirits wander. Automatically this elevates the plot from the physical to the metaphysical. Such conflict between word and deed intrigues the reader and adds depth to a narrative.
If the fiction’s setting is not rural, these advantages also apply to the writer. Authors who grow up rurally see vignettes of every layer of society. The rich folks are still human, constrained by mundane tasks like groceries or pumping gas. They cannot pay enough money to exempt themselves from living as a part of society. This can inform a writer’s perspective in humanizing both the wealthy and the poor.
Secondly, writers who see the faith crisis of the rural world are at an advantage. Many who claim faith are faithful in culture only. While Christmas is a quasi-universal holiday in Oklahoma, the celebration of Jesus’ birth is exceedingly rare. Living with only a nominal framework ascribe is a shaky existence. Flimsy cultural frames can be destroyed quite easily, producing the “crisis of faith” authors must experience. While authors are not required to experience everything they write about, questioning long-held presuppositions will do their writing a world of good.
The list goes on. I admit it’s quite obvious the canon of successful literature is not restricted to rural fiction. However, I find that the modern mind is preoccupied with the conveniences and cultural mores of the city rather than those of small places. One can learn from both, and authors from the two can prove to be just as capable. A Pulitzer to any other name smells just as sweet.
For more reading on this topic, consider Mystery & Manners by Flannery O’Connor. It is a collection of essays edited posthumously by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. Most relate to the work of writing fiction, specifically Catholic and Southern fiction.