New Fiction from the Unsettled South
Is a story still "Southern" if it sounds like a bulletin from Anywhere, U.S.A.?
"Rootedness used to be the core quality of Southern culture," writes Nashville native Madison Smartt Bell in his introduction to New Stories from the South 2009: The Year's Best. Bell goes on to note that the lives of contemporary Southerners have taken on a "nomadic quality" that competes with the former importance of place. It's certainly true that the South has adopted the unsettled ways of the rest of the country. Sanitized Southern suburbs differ from sanitized suburbs elsewhere only in the magnified presence of guns and churches—and that presents a problem for this collection, the twenty-fourth in the series. Many of the stories reflect that new rootlessness and thus don't really seem to merit the anthology's proud regional label, "from the South." Their dialogue has a faint twang, and their authors often—though not always—have Southern roots, but without characters shaped by the history and geography that distinguishes the region, they just don't seem very Southern.
A case in point is Jill McCorkle's "Magic Words," a beautifully constructed narrative of intersecting lives, in which a bored wife's adulterous liaison is interrupted by a violent act of which she is unaware. God and race, the twin Southern obsessions, have walk-on roles in "Magic Words," but McCorkle's narrative could be set anywhere in America. Likewise, Knoxville writer Michael Knight's "Grand Old Party," another tale of adultery and violence, nods to the South's gun culture and pervasive conservative politics, but could just as easily take place in San Diego.
By contrast, "Fly Away, Breath," set in Wendell Berry's fictional town of Port William, Kentucky, evokes a distinctly Southern perspective in its first sentence, by tracing the unbreakable link between time and place for its protagonist: "Andy Catlett keeps in his mind a map of the country around Port William as he has known it all his life and as he has been told about it all his life from times and lives before his." Andy's story is inseparable from the particular landscape he inhabits. The more contemporary, hard-edged "Muscle Memory" by Katherine Karlin, set in post-Katrina New Orleans, is deeply rooted in the history and spirit of the city. It is a story of New Orleans—truly regional fiction in the best sense.
There's every reason to believe that the South can continue to have a literature of its own long after its agrarian, segregated past has vanished from living memory. For that to happen, however, Southern writing has to be understood as something more than a collection of authors who have clocked time at a Southern university, or as a marketing gimmick that promises readers some echo of Faulkner or Welty. The new Southern literature will consist of stories rich with the details of its particular cities and its surviving countryside, stories that could spring up nowhere else.
Published Tuesday, 6 October 2009