“Place in fiction is the named, identified, concrete, exact and exacting, and therefore credible, gathering spot of all that has been felt, is about to be experienced, in the novel’s progress. Every story would be another story, and unrecognizable as art, if it took up its characters and plot and happened somewhere else.”
Mention the term Southern fiction, and people typically think of the works of Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner, Ron Rash, or Charles Frazier. The term evokes scenes of snowy-white cotton fields, simmering tension between characters sipping bourbon, or protagonists haunted by an aching nostalgia for a rural life long gone.
Most folks wouldn’t associate memory uploads, runaway AI systems, or megacorporations as proper subjects for Southern fiction. But maybe my article on cyberpunk author William Gibson might just change your mind. It’s the featured post over at the Abbeville Institute blog. Read it there, and comment on it here. Enjoy!
Writing in the New York Times, Margaret Renkl grapples with the nature and resilience of the Southern literary tradition. Not only does Southern literature claim such past greats as William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Eudora Welty, but modern-day Southern writers, such as Wendell Berry, Ron Rash, and Ann Patchett, who continue to build on that tradition. How can this be, Renkl asks, in a region that is undergoing such profound changes? Her conclusion is worth considering:
It has all made me wonder: What if being a Southern writer has nothing to do with rural tropes or lyrical prose or a lush landscape or humid heat so thick it’s hard to breathe? What if being a Southern writer is foremost a matter of growing up in a deeply troubled place and yet finding it somehow impossible to leave? Of seeing clearly the failings of home and nevertheless refusing to flee? … Maybe being a Southern writer is only a matter of loving a damaged and damaging place, of loving its flawed and beautiful people, so much that you have to stay there, observing and recording and believing, against all odds, that one day it will finally live up to the promise of its own good heart.
Much has been said about how art often arises from pain, something the South has known all too well. Sometimes, suffering can lead to insights not obvious to those who have evaded bad times. In addition to such recurring themes as the joys and anguish of family, history, and nature, Southern literature often questions the triumphalism and confidence in progress seen in the works of Northern writers. And yet, Southerners love their heroes, characters who press on despite the odds, as well as tales of glory and derring-do. Robert E. Howard’s stories are well-known for both their pessimism about progress and their celebration of courage in desperate situations.
I’d argue that the chief attraction of Southern writing is the genre’s celebration of the human ability to stagger to one’s feet after disaster and relish the beauty and mystery of life despite it all. As William Faulkner wrote in The Sound and The Fury, “Wonder. Go on and wonder.” Good advice.
My wife and I saw “Bright Star” yesterday. We loved it. You will too, and I’ll tell you why.
On the surface, it’s a typical musical, bustling with subplots about young love, the pains and joys of family relations, and Southern gothic melodrama, all peppered with timely comic relief. But it’s really about writing, editing, and language itself. Steve Martin (yes, that Steve Martin) wrote the book, and in addition to his accomplishments as an actor, director, and musician, is a gifted writer. He knows what it’s like to be rejected, to hang in there, and finally get that first manuscript published.
Billy Cane, just returned to Zebulon, North Carolina after serving in WWII, has a bad case of the writing bug. It’s so bad, he’s willing to leave his beloved home town and move to Asheville to endure the rigors of pleasing a demanding editor and her good cop/bad cop assistants. All writers will appreciate young Billy’s exchanges with his editor, who’s brutally honest with what she sees as a promising talent. At one point, she shoves a manuscript back at him as if it’s toxic, then lets another dangle in her fingers and says, “This may be acceptable if you delete 300 words.” Poor Billy scans a few pages, scratches his head, and replies, “Could you tell me WHICH 300?”
There are many references to the Southern writing tradition. Steve Martin, who was born in Texas, knows a thing or two about language’s ability to uplift, to wound, and to connect with others, familiar and rich themes often explored in Southern literature. This musical is a celebration of faith in one’s family, in one’s ability to persevere, and to hope. If you get the chance, don’t miss this one. It’s a winner.
My article on Manly Wade Wellman, once known as “the dean of fantasy writers,” is featured on the Abbeville Institute’s blog:
Manly Wade Wellman never penned an autobiography, despite the fact he published 500 stories and articles, won the World Fantasy Award and Edgar Allan Poe Award, and even edged out William Faulkner to win the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine Award in 1946.
Yet, in one of his most famous short stories, Wellman did reveal how he must have seen himself throughout his career, from a crime reporter for The Wichita Eagle, to Assistant Director of the WPA’s Folklore Project in New York City, and finally as “the dean of fantasy writers.” In “The Desrick on Yandro,” the protagonist, John the Balladeer, has to sing for his supper to a group of “ladies and men in costly clothes.” Confident and entertaining despite his modest attire and outsider ways, John charms the crowd with forgotten classics, including “Rebel Soldier.” Like John the Balladeer, Manly Wade Wellman was a rustic but worldly singer of old ballads, as well as a walking, talking ambassador and promoter of traditional Southern culture wherever he went.
Read the rest at the Abbeville Institute, and Like here.
Laura Cooper makes the case that we can better understand and appreciate Marcel Proust if we consider him in the Southern literary tradition. She begins by offering a handy introduction to what constitutes Southern writing:
Eudora Welty thought it came from the cultural habit of tight, specific focus, on the land and the people close at hand:
“The Southerner is a local person – to a degree unknown in other sections of the United States. The Southerner always thinks of himself as being from somewhere, as belonging to some spot of earth.”
Then there’s our collective past, what Willie Morris called the “burden of memory and [the] burden of history” we all carry “in our bones.” We’re the writers we are, [Flannery] O’Connor explained, because we have had our Fall. We have gone into the modern world with an inburnt knowledge of human limitations and with a sense of mystery which could not have developed in our first state of innocence – as it has not sufficiently developed in the rest of our country.
In Walker Percy’s blunter terms, Southerners write like we do because “we lost the War.”
I occasionally hear the argument that regional styles are confining, but I disagree. You can’t write without having something to say, and nothing propels a story forward like a clear and urgent worldview. The acknowledgement of human limitations is a much-needed brake on a society racing down the dead-end road of conquering and re-engineering nature through gene splicing, Frankenfoods, and Posthumanism.
Walker Percy’s assertion that Southerners write the way we do because “we lost the War” not only ties in with O’Connor’s point about accepting human limitations, but also recognizes what gives Southern fiction its universal appeal. The history of the rest of the world includes the bitterness of losing a war and being occupied; the North never experienced that.
Identifying and embracing the local is not limiting at all, but the starting point for discovery and learning. As George Eliot once observed, “A human life, I think, should be well rooted in some spot of native land, where it may get the love of tender kinship for the face of earth, for the labors men go forth to, for the sounds and accents that haunt it, for whatever will give that early home a familiar unmistakable difference amidst the future widening of knowledge … The best introduction to astronomy is to think of the nightly heavens as a little lot of stars belonging to one’s own homestead.”
“The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may well be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience. When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock — to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.” Flannery O’Connor
The Southern Gothic tradition, as pioneered by such writers as William Faulkner and Carson McCullers, as well as O’Connor, is noted for its stinging indictment of modern life. Southern Gothic tales feature shocking violence and criminality committed by bizarre, larger-than-life characters clawing for survival in a society that has broken down. Magical and supernatural forces often intervene in unexpected ways.
Read the rest at Abbeville Review, and like it here.