When Fiction Rocks!


Florence Dore, Novel Sounds: Southern Fiction in the Age of Rock and Roll. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018. xiii + 178 pp. $85.00; $28.00 paper.

On the heels of Bob Dylan’s 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature there was an immediate outpouring of debate in both academic and popular circles, on Twitter and in the press. The fury on both sides was, perhaps, predictable. Should the world’s most prestigious literary award be allowed to go to a popular rock- and-roll songwriter? Dylan himself seemed aware of the criticism, and in his unconventional Nobel acceptance speech—a twenty-seven minute spoken word recording accompanied by jazz piano—he tackled the question head on: “When I first received this Nobel Prize for Literature, I got to wondering exactly how my songs related to literature.”1 In the folksy audio-essay that follows, Dylan reflects on his many literary influences, from Buddy Holly and Lead Belly to Don Quixote, Moby Dick, and The Odyssey. Dylan claims that Odysseus, not unlike the heroes of blues ballads, is “a travelin’ man, but he’s making a lot of stops.” For Dylan, song-writers and writers of literature are influenced by the same themes, the same stories: love, loss, violence, suffering, and so on. Although Bob Dylan is not the only musician to reflect on the confluence between music and literature, his Nobel win has sparked renewed interest in the relationship between literature and popular music more generally.

As Florence Dore notes in the coda to her new book, Novel Sounds: Southern Fiction in the Age of Rock and Roll, Dylan’s Nobel Prize did not signal that literature and rock are no longer divided along high/low lines; instead, it was another sign that they never were. Dylan’s ballads, which have attracted a number of more serious studies in recent years (including Sean Wilentz’s Bob Dylan in America [Double day, 2010]), serve as a touchstone throughout Novel Sounds.2 However, Dylan’s songs are not the book’s primary subject; instead, Dore turns to the mid-century novels of Southern writers in order to identify a shift in literary approaches to the vernacular that took place in both the literature and the music of that era. Novel Sounds, as Dore puts it, attends to the “thematic resonance between 1950s Southern fiction and rock,” and illustrates how writers such as William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Robert Penn Warren drew on vernacular ballads in ways that echo their rock-and-roll contemporaries (3).

The line (or lack thereof) between literature and music has been a popular topic for scholars of twentieth-century literature, and the recent turn toward sound studies has enabled scholars like Dore to think more broadly about literature’s resonant qualities. The field of African American studies has produced especially strong work on literary sound. Jennifer Lynn Stoever’s The Sonic Color Line: Race and the Cultural Politics of Listening (New York UP, 2016), for example, articulates the ways that sound and music have shaped Americans’ perceptions of race. Brent Hayes Edwards’s Epistrophies: Jazz and the Literary Imagination (Harvard UP, 2017) and Emily Lordi’s Black Resonance: Iconic Women Singers and African American Literature (Rutgers UP, 2013) examine the links between transmedial African American texts and music.3 Like these studies, Novel Sounds also considers the influence of blues figures such as Bessie Smith and Lead Belly on writers, but it does so in the interest of linking the blues to the emergence of rock and roll. Although there are many excellent scholarly works dealing with blues and jazz writing, and music critics like Greil Marcus have offered insightful views of rock music’s place in American culture, to date there have been very few works of scholarship about the relationship between literature and rock and roll.4 Novel Sounds, which treats a range of authors and texts, is a welcome addition to the growing field of literary sound studies and fills a critical hole in the scholarship.

Part of what makes Novel Sounds such a useful contribution is its focus on understudied mid-century texts by both canonical writers and those who have fallen out of popularity. Compared to interwar modernism, the literature of the midcentury is woefully undertheorized. Novel Sounds explores works by William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor as well as lesser-known fiction by Robert Penn Warren, Donald Davidson, Carson McCullers, and William Styron, and identifies a previously unnamed subgenre of literature that Dore calls “minstrel realism” (5). While minstrelsy in an American context typically references blackface performance, the term “minstrel” as deployed by Dore is meant to evoke its older medieval connotations in addition to the term’s racist past. Minstrelsy for Dore refers to traditions of oral ballad singing broadly speaking and the attempts of writers and critics to co-opt that aesthetic in the creation of Southern fiction as a genre. That element of love and theft in blackface minstrelsy that Eric Lott has written of (and Bob Dylan sings) is not entirely absent here; instead, it is one piece of a larger literary mode.5 As Dore argues, these novels and stories portray “vernacular ballads” and constitute a “new brand of realism” that was simultaneously “global, electric, and white” (2–3).

Dore’s decision to tackle the whiteness of Southern fiction is deliberate. While noting that she might have included other non-white writers from this era such as Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin— African American authors whose fiction of the 1950s deals directly with music—Dore focuses on Southern white writers precisely because of the strange racial dynamics asserted by many of these writers and the New Critics who promoted the ballad tradition as a white tradition in order to establish the field of Southern literature. By reframing these fictions as minstrel realism, Dore reveals how white writers simultaneously reinforce and trouble the racial boundaries placed around their works. Arguing that rock was always an interracial genre, Dore forges connections between novels that dabble in the blues and the music of Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan, among others. Both musicians and writers of the time drew on and reworked what she refers to as “vernacular ballads.” Dore never fully addresses the issue of appropriation; instead, her critique implies a latent subversion at work when African American musical forms appear in the works of white southern writers—one that undoes the racial logic of the ballad form. But one wonders whether such subversion is deliberate for writers like Faulkner and O’Connor, neither of whom were known for particularly progressive views on race. (Faulkner notoriously advocated that attempts at integration “go slow.”)

The argument that many of these works are subversive in the ways rock and roll was subversive makes more sense in light of the racist logic applied to the ballad by the New Critics, several of whom were part of the Southern Agrarians.6 Indeed, some of the most interesting analyses in Dore’s book have less to do with rock and roll music than they do with a re-evaluation of the New Critics and the works they valorized, including the highly influential anthologies Understanding Poetry (1938) and Understanding Fiction (1943), edited by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren. Through these anthologies, particularly Understanding Poetry, Brooks and Warren shaped the ways a generation of readers approached and understood literature, ushering in an era of close reading and defining an emerging canon.7 The canon promoted by Brooks and Warren is glaringly white and male, and their inclusion of vernacular ballads such as “Frankie and Johnny” and “The Daemon Lover” seemed poised to root poetry in oral, embodied experience, laying the foundation for a (supposedly white) Southern literature. But by the 1950s and the early years of the Civil Rights movement, the cracks in this foundation were beginning to show. In her first chapter, Dore reveals these flaws through her smart readings of novelistic adaptations of ballads, including Robert Penn Warren’s 1959 The Cave (based on “The Death of Floyd Collins”) and Donald Davidson’s 1953 The Big Ballad Jamboree (based on “The Daemon Lover”) alongside Bob Dylan’s 1961 “The House Carpenter” (a version of “The Daemon Lover”). “Both Davidson and Warren wrote about ballads to explore the decades-old claim that literature originates as music,” Dore asserts, but while “Davidson chose ‘The Daemon Lover’ to consolidate and affirm a white Southern literary tradition,” Warren did something else (34). Written nearly two decades after the initial publication of Understanding Poetry, Warren’s novelistic reworking of “The Death of Floyd Collins” contains an air of white guilt, exposing the “uncertainty at the heart of the literary field Warren was at that moment helping create” (47). As further evidence of the ballad’s racial instability, Dore points to Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” as a protest song. But the allusions to the racial ambiguities of Dylan’s own ballad mining are less exciting than her provocative readings of these novels in relation to the New Critical approach to ballads.

One of the larger threads that Dore unravels across Novel Sounds regards the ways sound technologies such as records and radio undermined and reshaped the relationship of realism to orality in twentieth-century Southern fiction. While the New Critics had tried to frame Faulkner as an agrarian and modernist, for instance, Dore illustrates how Faulkner’s later novels like The Town (1957), which has a decidedly more realist style, are more rebellious in their critique of a South that was increasingly suburban and commercialized. The aesthetic of The Town is more global and contemporary than Faulkner’s earlier novels, saturated in the world of radio, and for this reason Dore argues that The Town becomes recognizable as a rock novel if considered as a near contemporary of Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 (1966). Radio and recording are also key contexts for Dore’s reading of Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” and Carson McCullers Ballad of the Sad Café as subverting the embodied notions of femininity through the technologizing of their craft. The fetishizing of records in William Styron’s Set This House on Fire (1960), meanwhile, highlights a mechanical aesthetic that one also finds in the electrified sounds of rock and roll. Here, recordings of a blues singer like Lead Belly (whose influence on rock musicians is well documented) catalyze one character’s admission of white guilt. Recordings—particularly of African American singers—create a “fantasy of bodies to remedy the virtual South” (106). Even though Styron’s novel is depicted as spoken, orality is often displaced by recordings. The larger point Dore establishes by tracing technological genealogies across these texts is that these so-called Southern agrarian novels, supposedly so attuned to orality, were actually portraits of a more modern South.

Dore’s readings of Southern fiction against the New Critical discourse and in the context of sound technology are dynamic and compelling, but at times one wishes that Novel Sounds included at least a few readings of the many ballads and rock songs referenced. For a book about rock and roll, there is surprisingly little discussion of the music itself. For example, Dore alludes to the ballad “Frankie and Johnny” in multiple chapters but never discusses the content of the song’s lyrics or the fact that the murder ballad was based on real people and real events in turn-of-the-century St. Louis. Although the ballad is included in Understanding Poetry with the author listed as anonymous, scholars have been able to determine that it almost certainly originated with African American songwriter Bill Dooley.8 While it is true that the ballad has many notable versions, that erasure matters. Dore claims that, “without even a single rock and roll song in their high-literary pages, [these novels] were nevertheless profoundly about rock and roll” (1). But what is rock and roll about? Although I do not doubt the fundamental soundness of her claim, it might resonate more strongly with further analysis of the music itself.

Some of the most illuminating moments in Dore’s book occur when she troubles the line between fiction and song and points to the contemporary rock novels of Jonathan Lethem and Michael Chabon. In these moments, one senses that Novel Sounds might lead to a compelling sequel that would look at such novels alongside the music itself. With books like Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer prize winning Visit from the Goon Squad (2010) and Hari Kunzru’s critically acclaimed White Tears (2017) making best seller lists, the rock novel continues to be a salient genre. Florence Dore’s Novel Sounds offers a fascinating prehistory of these books and the relationship between rock and the contemporary novel.

University of Nevada, Las Vegas


  • Jessica E. Teague, assistant professor of English at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, has published articles on sound recording, August Wilson, Amiri Baraka, and Charles Mingus. She is the author of Sound Recording Technology and American Literature: From the Phonograph to the Remix (forthcoming from Cambridge UP).

  • 1 Bob Dylan, Nobel Lecture, 5 June 2017, www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/2016/dylan-lecture.html.

  • 2 See also Kevin J. H. Dettmar, editor, The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan, Cambridge UP, 2009; Richard F. Thomas, Why Bob Dylan Matters, Harper-Collins, 2017; and David Yaffe, Bob Dylan: Like a Complete Unknown, Yale UP, 2011.

  • 3 Other recent works that consider the relationship between African American writing and music include Tsitsi Ella Jaji’s Africa in Stereo: Modernism, Music, and Pan-African Solidarity, Oxford UP, 2014, and Carter Mathes’s Imagine the Sound: Experimental African American Literature After Civil Rights, U of Minnesota P, 2015, which both explore sonic narratives of Afro-Diasporic resistance. The connection between music and literature has similarly been a popular topic for modernist studies, with standouts such as T. Austin Graham’s The Great American Songbooks: Musical Texts, Modernism, and the Value of Popular Culture, Oxford UP, 2013.

  • 4 Greil Marcus’s popular writings on rock are numerous; see for example Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music, Plume, 1975, and Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth-Century, Harvard UP, 1989. Critical studies dealing with rock and literature tend to focus on one or two figures, including most recently Casey Rae’s William S. Burroughs and the Cult of Rock ‘n’ Roll, U of Texas P, 2019.

  • 5 Dylan’s 2001 album Love and Theft borrows its title from Lott’s influential 1993 book, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class.

  • 6 For an evaluation of the relationship between the New Critics and the Southern Agrarians, see Edward D. Pickering, “The Roots of New Criticism,” The Southern Literary Journal, vol. 41, no. 1, 2008, pp. 93–108, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40593240.

  • 7 Nearly all of the authors that Dore includes in her study were also included in the New Critical anthologies.

  • 8 Cecil Brown’s essay “We Did Them Wrong: The Ballad of Frankie and Albert” offers a detailed history of the song and its origin. See The Rose and the Briar: Death, Love, and Liberty in the American Ballad, edited by Greil Marcus and Sean Wilentz, W. W. Norton, 2005, pp. 123–46.