- Published: 02 November 2017 02 November 2017
Some people argue that the south isn't really the capital-S South any more. After all, with chain restaurants and social media and people moving in and out of the region (mostly in) all the time, it's pretty easy to make a case that America's growing more homogenized every day. Is an upscale suburb in Atlanta really all that different from a suburb in Seattle or Houston? And if the south is just a slightly more humid version of Everywhere USA, does that mean southern literature is doomed to slowly die out?
First of all, spoiler alert: No. Not even close. Southern literature, to borrow the words of William Faulkner isn't merely enduring, it's prevailing. The confusion comes from the fact we've been defining "southern" all wrong for years.
You can't just open a book in Louisiana or South Carolina and think your work is done. Geography is the most shallow approach possible to setting and calling a book southern based on theme isn't much better. People like to say that southerners write about family, faith, race, and redemption but let's face it - pretty much all writers tackle these topics. I personally think what makes a book southern isn't where it's set or what it's about, but is more a function of how the story is told. Here are three factors in evoking that elusive southern style.
It's conversational. Southerners lean toward a certain type of voice, one that grows out of an oral storytelling tradition. The southern voice weaves and rambles, with long sentences and plenty of asides, gradually getting to the point in a way that's more circular than linear. It may be an old south grandpa on the porch or a new south woman in the wine bar, but the message is the same: Pull your chair closer. I have a story to tell. So seriously, closer. I'd only say this to you.
I once burst into laughter when I overheard two young female baristas in a Starbucks. One of them asked "What'd you do last night?" and her friend sighed and said "The wrong thing." Now that's the start of a perfect southern story, even if this particular Starbucks did happen to be in Philadelphia. There's a confessional aspect of the Southern story. We just can't stop washing my dirty laundry in public. I'll show you my shame if you show me yours.
Of course, when a regional voice grows out of a oral tradition, it's no surprise that the books come out sounding like human speech. I recently met a woman who narrates audiobooks for a living and she told me southern writers were her favorite. She's a New Yorker and I originally assumed it was because she liked playing around with the accent. Yeah, that was part of it, she said, but the truth is that southern books are just plain easier to read out loud.
It's Biblical. Another thing unique to the southern voice is that it was raised on the poetic cadences of the King James Bible, which means that at times it takes on a weird formality. It may sound contradictory to say that the southern voice is on one hand casually chatty and then on the other hand employs the most exalted of speech, but this winding back and forth between the highest and the lowest types of diction is precisely what gives southern fiction its secret sauce. Flannery O'Connor was especially gifted at getting her characters down and dirty and then suddenly employing an elegant "as if" midway through a sentence, drawing back the curtains of realism to reveal the heavenly realms beyond. We southerners are hanging by a thread to this earthly realm and expecting the rapture pretty much any minute. It makes our writing style a wee bit schizophenic.
And the weird thing about southerners suddenly veering off-road into religious language - you don't have to be a churchgoer to pick it up. My son in law is a devout agnostic but his four year old, my granddaughter, is quick to yell "Lord help," if she overturns her orange juice. I think we suck the holy spirit in through sheer osmosis.
It's tribal. And one final quirk of the southern storytelling style. We have to be one of the few categories of writers left who use the collective "we" and "our." You see it in a classic like Faulkner's A Rose for Emily or Marybeth Whalen's modern tale of a high school football community, When We Were Worthy. Southerners will assemble themselves into a tragic chorus at the slightest provocation, wailing "We just didn't know what to think when Lucy didn't show up for bridge." There's a kind of tribal unity that sometimes filters into southern stories, reminding us that while we've certainly (ahem)had our squabbles in the past, we're quick to pull together if we perceive a threat from outside the circle.
So there's more to Southern fiction than what you write about or where you set your stories. But as long as southern writers keep quilting together a voice that has elements of conversation, church, and collectivism, I think our fiction will stay alive and well - and utterly distinct.
Kim Wright is the author of Last Ride to Graceland, Love in Mid Air, The Unexpected Waltz, and The Canterbury Sisters. A two-time winner of the Lowell Thomas Award for travel writing, she has been writing about travel, food, and wine for more than twenty years for magazines such as Wine Spectator, Self, Travel & Leisure, and Vogue. She also ballroom dances competitively. Kim lives in Charlotte, North Carolina.