Southern Strategy

Over the weekend I finished a forthcoming novel I’m reviewing that’s set in the South during the Civil Rights Movement. It’s likable and thoughtful enough, and occasionally funny, but also filled with what felt like obligatory noises about Southern-ness: sweet soul music and down-home cooking, church and okra, racism and hospitality, and so on. So I’m sympathetic to Chris Tusa‘s impatience with the familiar moves that Southern fiction makes. Writing at storySouth, he discusses his failed effort not only to find writers who are interested in writing about the contemporary South, but who also avoid dealing in the usual pieties when they do (via):

Being born and raised in the south, with the usual affinity for O’Connor and Faulkner, I began searching Barnes and Noble and Amazon.com for southern writers who presented a fresh contemporary perspective of the south. As I searched and searched, what startled me most was the shear lack of such literature. Instead of modernized contemporary versions of the south, too often I found regurgitated versions of The Color Purple set in a contemporary context. In fact, it’s nearly impossible to find any contemporary southern literature these days that doesn’t contain the usual slew of traditional southern stereotypes that we, as southerners, have all grown to hate.

There are exceptions, I’m sure. But a few years back, when I reviewed the 2007 edition of New Stories From the South, I was surprised at how few there were—and this in a book that was supposed to promote the latest trends in regional writing. The sole story from the collection that remains memorable is George Singleton‘s “Which Rocks We Choose,” which upends a lot of these cliches and speaks to why writers cling to them. The main character signs up for an odd distance-learning class on Southern culture, and his text is a three-volume book titled, The South: What Happened, How, When, and Why. The joke is that no such book could possibly exist; the joke is also that so many people still try to write it.

For all the discussion of whether regional fiction in general is dying, I wonder if Alan Heathcock isn’t on to something. His debut story collection, Volt, is set in a rural small town that’s deliberately placeless—its residents are churchy in a way that implies the South, but there are too many cornfields for that to be the case. In any event, Heathcock deals little in talk about history, heritage, legacy, or any of the things that might give the stories a sense of rootedness—useful in this collection’s case because so many of its characters are defined by their instability. Heathcock discussed his intentions with Bookslut:

It started off as based off the small town of Lynnville, Indiana, where my mother grew up. But I found it too limiting to stick to the rules and temperament of a real place, so I began to add touches from many different place, Chicago included. Now Krafton doesn’t represent a place so much as a people, a worldview. I’m keeping the place slippery simply because I’m not interested in making a statement about place. If I said that these stories were in Illinois or Texas or North Carolina people would immediately reduce them down to what they know about those places, would adhere whatever right or wrong ideas they had about that region. In a way, my work is more expansive because I never say where we are, allowing the reader to settle in and only worry about the complexities of the people and their stories.

7 thoughts on “Southern Strategy

  1. Over the weekend, I finished reading the last fifty blog posts of Mark Athitakis about First World literature. They’re likable and thoughtful enough, and very often humorless, but also filled with obligatory reader-friendly reductionism about American fiction, the role of the critic, links to other pieces (without commentary and without taking any specific stand), an overall lack of rigor, and so on. So I’m sympathetic to Jack Cade, a character appearing in Shakespeare’s EDMUND WILSON VI, when he says, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the critics.”

  2. Interesting post. Instability and rootlessness are now as much of a literary cliche as the unimagined rewrites of the south. As someone whose work is rooted (I think) in place, I believe both place and placelessness can be phoned in. That’s bad lit.

  3. What’s the name of the novel you mention? (I know it’s not out yet.) Also curious to know if there’s any kind of post-“The Help” surge in novels that deal with maids and other aspects of black-white domestic interaction in that era. Seeing any novels of that ilk on the way?

    1. Hi Alex,

      As a rule, I avoid naming books I’m reviewing until the review actually runs, out of respect for the publication that gives me the assignment. Many outlets have explicit rules about this in their freelancer agreements; this one doesn’t, but I think it’s good form anyway. The review should be in the world in about a month, and I’ll try to remember to disclose here then. (Feel free to nudge.)

      I can’t think of any Help-like novels coming down the line, but I also haven’t looked that closely.

  4. I think Mr Heathcock’s got the right idea… But on the larger issue, I have to weigh in. I am from, and still live in, the South, am a certified bibliophile, and I rarely pick up a southern novel. The reason? Precisely those over-plowed stereotypes touched on in your post. The sort of simple-minded, momma-lovin, car-racin, whiskey-tippin blueprint followed by so many southern authors is both tiresome and, frankly, offensive to me. A handful (William Gay and Cormac McCarthy e.g.) are so talented I don’t mind full immersion in the culture. Otherwise, I seek out quality contemporary lit, whatever the setting- and the more appealing contemporary works I’ve read, by and large, do not reside down here in Dixie. *And btw, I just thought of A Man in Full, by Wolfe. Haven’t read it but it is set in Atlanta, modern day. Maybe there’s a rare exception.

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