“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 best fiction and writing blog posts from around the ‘net, all guaranteed to make you a [insert adjective for your region] Shakespeare. Inspired by ron.
Joanne Jeffries and Julian Yanover – Poets University Infographic
Erin Beth Liles – Creating Lifelike Fictional Characters
Distance Landaverde – A Love Affair with Organic form
Miguel Olmedo Morell – Three representations of the fall in Lovecraft’s dream cycle
Penstricken – Ten Writing Commandments
J. B. Henry – Interview With Tom Abrahams
Ron Rash – How I Write
Novelist and teacher M. Thomas Gammarino experienced an epiphany when he taught two courses in the same semester, one on science fiction, and another in modernism. Gammarino expected the two genres to clash, but happily discovered they supplemented each other. The reason, he explains in this Omni article, is that all art aims to enable us to see the world more intently by presenting it in unfamiliar and challenging ways:
In his 1917 essay “Art as Device,” Russian formalist poet Viktor Shlovky gave us the term ostranenie to describe the primary function of art. The term is usually translated as “defamiliarization,” though it literally means “strange-making.” The job of art, in other words, is to renew our eyes by making the familiar appear strange. Other modernists had— or would— put forth variations on this idea, from Mallarmé’s “Donner un sens plus pur aux mots de la tribu” (purify the words of the tribe) to Ezra Pound’s “Make it new,” and modernist critics regularly invoke this idea to illuminate the sorts of linguistic experiments writers like Gertrude Stein and James Joyce were up to.
I heartily agree. Both fantasy and sci-fi renew one’s sense of wonder in ways literary fiction cannot. That’s not to say literary fiction is incapable of reawakening the awe we felt as a child discovering our shiny, new world. Energetic, evocative writing in any genre helps us re-imagine the world around us, forcing us to see it anew. But literary fiction tends to focus on the inner world, while fantasy and sci-fi direct us toward the outer world — or even toward new, imagined worlds. Speculative fiction always goes big, reminding us of our role in society, the world, and the universe itself.
That’s what makes fantasy and sci-fi such powerful springboards for the imagination.
“The aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means and hold it fixed so that a hundred years later, when a stranger looks at it, it moves again since it is life. Since man is mortal, the only immortality possible for him is to leave something behind him that is immortal since it will always move. This is the artist’s way of scribbling ‘Kilroy was here’ on the wall of the final and irrevocable oblivion through which he must someday pass.” – William Faulkner
The latest edition of Aurora Wolf features my short story “Witch Flambé.” Set in and around modern-day High Point, North Carolina (my home town), it’s about two old friends now in vastly different circles who team up to clear a young lady who’s accused of setting fires at her employer’s “guerilla dinners.” Someone’s casting spells on the “underground dining” events, and our protagonists must seek out the help of a Scots-Irish granny witch.
Appalachian Granny Magic is one of those old Southern ways that have recently enjoyed renewed interest:
The tradition is a very old one, dating all the way back to the first settlers of the magical Appalachian Mountains who came over from Scotland and Ireland in the 1700’s. They brought along their even older Irish and Scottish Magical Traditions with them. Those two ‘old world’ Traditions were then blended with a dash of the local tradition of the Tsalagi (Now, called the Cherokee Indians.)
Because of the rural and secluded nature of the Appalachian community, the old customs, wisdom, and practices were not as often lost, forgotten, or ‘modernized’ as the ‘old world’ traditions that came over to other, more urban areas of the ‘new world.’ Therefore, one will often find that ancient Irish or Scottish songs, rhymes, dances, recipes, crafts, and ‘The Craft,’ are more accurately preserved in Appalachia than even in Ireland or Scotland.
This story was a blast to write. It has just about everything I love: good food and drink, old friends, the surprisingly enduring power of the past, nature’s astonishing ability to rejuvenate — all topped off with a delightfully scary confrontation at the end. I hope you enjoy it.