Tuesday, May 31, 2005

My Southern Summer

I'm shaking things up around here with a little project for myself. This summer (which began yesterday, Memorial Day, as all good norteamericanos know) I will read approximately one book per week by a Southern writer, and I will look for something interesting to say about each book here on the web site. Along the way, I may bring in some non-fiction or other contextualizing works, such as movies or music, but the primary focus will be on fiction by writers from the American South (which, perhaps, is not necessarily the same thing as a Southern fiction?). One book per week seems a little low to me, but I want to leave room for myself to cheat with, say, a Saul Bellow novel if the red clay grime gets to be too much.
Why am I doing this to myself, you may well ask? Several reasons. For one, like many educated (yes, I flatter myself) latitudinally challenged Americans, I am ambivalent about the whole matter of Southern-ness--when I even think of it at all. Lately I feel especially beset by Confederate apologists, racists, right wing fundamentalist Christians, and bigoted regional provincialists (discriminating based on the you're from? I kid not). The mantra of staxvoltjazznashvilleexceptforhotcountryflanneryoconnorcormacmcarthyetal only works against such an onslaught of ignorance for so long without need of replenishment. It is said that Southerners write good stories, that there is such a thing as Southern literature. While I have my (admittedly untested) quibbles and doubts about the latter, it is undeniable that a lot of writers I admire are Southerners. I hope to find more good books this summer and to remind myself that the South is not monolithic, that there are good things--even cool things--about it.
I also hope to get something out of this as a writer. If nothing else, I will have read a number of books, some of which I'm sure will be good and from which I can learn some craft. But my writing is stalled right now. Though I have done a little work, I've never really recovered my writing routine after we moved back in January. I hope this project will turn by mind back to things lit'ry. And while I'm generally wary of provincialism in any kind of art, I'm also curious to see if I will see myself at all (as a person of Southern extraction and as a writer of, um, North Carolinian extraction) in these Southern books. I've always admired my share of Southern writers. If you read books in English, you just about have to. But I tend to feel most simpatico with writers who decidedly are not Southerners--e.g., Jonathan Lethem, Jeffrey Eugenides, Nick Hornby, David Foster Wallace, George Saunders. (That list is sort of random, but it's representative.) Who are the Southern equivalents? Do I fit in?
With my motivations out of the way, I'll say a little more about what I do and do not intend to do with this little exercise of mine. I am not in school, and this is not a term paper. I have a list of potential reads, but I'm not aiming to cram a survey of Southern lit into my summer. I intend to read widely, including popular fiction as well as literary fiction, and I intend to read on my whim. I don't want to find myself slogging through a book because someone thinks it's important. Also, while I'm sure I'll reach a tentative conclusion or two about this or that before the frost gets the tomato plants, and while I'll try to support my opinions with evidence, this isn't a rigorous academic study. I intend to carry out my study more by observation of fiction in the wild than by reading criticism, biography, history, etc. (I'm not against reading criticism, history, and so on by any means, but I do have limited access to scholarly resources, not to mention limited time. Perhaps someone can make a recommendation?
That having been said, I do have a couple of questions to help me focus my thoughts as I begin reading.These may seem pedestrian to anyone who has actually studied Southern literature, but I am at the beginning. I will have to start there. What is Southern literature? How does it differ, if it does, from literature written by people from the South? What commonality is found between Southern literary fiction and Southern popular fiction? (Yes, I may have to play loosey-goosey with definitional arguments to get any arguing done at all.) How does Southern literature differ across regions? Across time? What contemporary "camps" of Southern literature exist, and how do they fit into the American literary scene as a whole? Finally: what the hell is the matter with South Carolina? Doesn't anyone down there know how to write?
Too much to answer in one summer, especially based only on the twenty or so books I will probably get read. But what the hell?
What's in it for you, my perhaps imaginary reader? If my project doesn't interest you per se (and not all that long ago it would not have interested me one iota), perhaps you'll learn of a book that's up your alley. I'll try to get in a good snark here and there to keep it lively.
First up: Here We Are in Paradise by Tony Earley, a writer from my neck of the woods, the mountains of North Carolina.


  1. Imported on behalf of: mck
    **You must miss school...**

    The debate of Southern lit vs. lit written by Southerners sounds like the sort of argument that left me to roll my eyes and dream of the day when I would never have to take another seminar.

    Heh heh, mocking SC. Tom Smith up to anything good?

    And you forgot to mention your county of origin, since that matters to some of us. Is it Buncombe? (Cuz people from Yancey are irredeemable hicks, though of course they're not as stupid as them what comes from Avery.)

    Are imaginary readers related in any way to imaginary numbers?

  2. Imported on behalf of: Dan

    I read that as Jazz 'n Asheville.

    Representing Buncombe County Westsiieeede.

    (Madison County is where you have one full set of teeth per extended family).

    Many of the bookstores around here feature "local" authors. Usually, they're amateur historians or "I was poor and ain't got no learnin'" autobiographers. I talked to one guy who was signing his book. Basically, his book was all about how he didn't know he was poor until he finally left Robbinsville (as an adult). There was a lot of "we walked to school in the snow, uphill both ways" in his book. I bought a copy for my dad because either Father's Day or his birthday was around that time. It was pretty much a retelling of all those character building tales he regaled me with as a young 'un (up through, well, about an hour ago), but presented humorously rather than condescendingly.

  3. Imported on behalf of: Dan
    **holy crap!**

    scrap that "Southern Authors" thing. Here's a summer reading list for you: http://www.humaneventsonline.com/article.php?id=7591

    Sorry for the elephant taint.

  4. Imported on behalf of: Lee Capps
    **Hillbillies are an oppressed minority too**

    mck: Sorry about the bit of seminar-ism. I don't really miss grad school classes, but I do miss spending some time thinking about books. The Southern lit vs. lit written by Southerners is interesting to me for several reasons, but mainly for the personal reason that I think some (a lot?) of what I write does not necessarily signify as Southern writing, despite Southern setting and so on. So I'm interested in looking at other writers like that. It won't surprise me if I find out, however, that all but the most flagrant Lee Smith rip-offs are actually one of these edge cases at least some of the time. I'm already seeing it in the Tony Earley book. (I wonder if he's from Yancey county?)

    Dan: thanks for that list. I've read about a quarter of what's up there. A pity the person writing the blurbs hasn't. Most annoying is the one about the Communist Manifesto (which we had to read in 9th grade Economics over on my end of Buncombe county, thank you Mr. "Lucky" Lucksavage).

    Now let me set you guys straight about where the real hicks are. We always felt a little sorry for those bumpkins in Mitchell County, but even Buncombe County had its issues: It was said those students at North Buncombe HS were one happy family, if you know what I mean.

  5. Imported on behalf of: Dan
    **The List**

    I was taken aback that someone would see fit to compile a 10 most harmful books list. The irony of Mein Kampf being #2 on that list is delicious.

    The people on the other side of the paved road are jackasses.

  6. Imported on behalf of: mck
    Re: The List. Another annoying thing is they claim "most harmful," but only a few describe how the book actually did harm (e.g., did the copies of *Mein Kampf* *really* increase anti-semitism, enable the Final Solution, etc.), or even, in some cases, what harm it did (e.g., the *Feminine Mystique* blurb, which consists of an ad hominem/feminem attack); i suppose they're just such standard conservative bugaboos that we're supposed to already know the harm. Not daring enough to put the Quran on there, were they? Got some good chuckles about dishonorable mentions Darwin, Foucault, and Gramsci. Yeah, *lots* of people been reading them latter two.

    Re: Lee Smith rip off/southern lit. A weird thing: So far as I have read Southern Lit--admittedly on the poppy end of the spectrum--I've always found that I love one of the author's novels/collections, and find myself unable to finish or enjoy most of their other works. Lee Smith, Clyde Edgerton, Margaret Maron and Barbara Kingsolver* all fall into this category for me. Lee Smith felt like the worst "betrayal" when I read her transparent attempt at an Oprah book.

    *Am wondering now if she's Southern. Know she lives in AZ now, but thought she was from KY. This may be a misperception leading into your whole bigger question. Strange that her great Southern novel (in my pov) is set in the Congo.