Being southern (if not by birth, then by choice) comes with its perks.
We have our own dialect, our own cuisine, and our own literary genre. And even as the rest of the country homogenizes (thanks to TV, chain restaurants, and mall culture), Americans continue a love affair with all things southern.
It’s hard to find a bookstore not boasting a hot-pink display of the latest Sweet Potato Queens escapades, a Food Network show without a cameo by Paula Dean, or a multiplex void of the romantic-comedy drawl of Matthew McConaughey.
But what about real life, beyond the Hollywood screen kiss?
Charleston’s own Lee Brothers have turned the greater U.S. on to everyday southern-style cookery, former presidential hopeful John Edwards is on a mission to reveal the everyman face of southern Carolina culture, and even the on-trend memoirs filling bookshelves and bestseller lists are lacing tell-all accounts with “y’all” and “bless yer heart.”
Well, sort of.
A southerner’s memoir doesn’t require a litany of colloquialisms any more than cornbread demands pork cracklins. There are as many ways of writing a book as there are literary tastes, and as the definition of southern culture evolves with the changing times, so does its literature.
But is there within the current memoir craze an emerging southern voice?
Defining the terms
Bret Lott, professor at the College of Charleston (and author of Oprah’s Book Club selection Jewel), says he believes there is a definable southern literature.
He cites acclaimed author Walker Percy (The Moviegoer), who once explained the wealth of southern writers is due to losing the Civil War.
“It seems like a glib answer,” Lott says. “But because we lost, southerners have been confronted with what we can’t be and what we can’t do.
“We’ve confronted our limits. That’s one thing I believe has a great deal to do with burnishing the soul of people who are from here: It’s this deep understanding that we thought we were something — and we aren’t.
“People in the rest of the country don’t necessarily know that,” Lott says.
Marc Smirnoff, editor of Oxford American, offers an open-ended definition.
“If the author is southern, his or her book is southern,” he says. “If a book intertwines with the South, then it’s southern even if written by an Italian.”
Oxford American, with the tagline “the Southern magazine of good writing,” publishes southern writers and/or works on southern themes.
Lott, a native Californian raised in a southern enclave, says a sense of loss is inherent in southerners. It’s a similar cultural animus driving great Jewish, Irish, and (burgeoning) Native American literature.
“It just makes you have to deal with who you are in humility,” Lott says.
Bill Koon, author of Hank Williams, So Lonesome and professor of American literature at Clemson University, says the “southern” label can be problematic.
“Applying a term like that can imply some kind of regionalism or local color,” Koon says. “And for that reason, a lot of serious southern writers resist it.
“I cast a big net when I identify southern writers: people from this region.”
Memoir as illumination
Charleston boasts an impressive roster of memoirists, from 18th-century naturalist William Bartram to spiritual author Sue Monk Kidd to popular author Pat Conroy, whose 2003 memoir My Losing Season chronicled his school-age love of basketball at The Citadel. A more recent South Carolina memoirist is former Clemson student Brad Land, who recounted a terrifying fraternity hazing experience in his dark 2004 memoir Goat.
Such self-exploration is the fodder for deeply personal tales of discovery and growth. Once associated largely with the end-of-life musings of those who’ve lived adventurous lives, the contemporary memoir has become more myopic than biographical, adopted by young writers as a format for recounting a singular and often harrowing experience without the healing benefits of time.
The apex of this trend was A Million Little Pieces by James Frey, the writer first lauded and then publicly decried by Oprah Winfrey. It was that car-crash of a book, about Frey’s alcoholism and drug addiction at the tender age of 23, that sucked readers in. Then later, it spit them back out as the truth surfaced that Frey had, indeed, fabricated parts of the tale.
Augusten Burroughs, the author of Running with Scissors (culled from his own troubled youth and bizarre family life), has been embellishing truth with fiction for years, as has former Carolinian David Sedaris, whose anecdotal writing asks his readers to believe he can account, word for word, conversations and other minutia from his childhood.
It could be argued that many truths, if only for the sake of good entertainment, benefit from a bit of fanciful revision.
And yet Frey touched a nerve, one that may well be responsible for the declining popularity of memoir. Then again, if that’s the case, Lott suggests, then readers read to pity the troubled lives of writers. But he believes they don’t.
“You read to be illuminated,” Lott says.
Memoir as confession
Memoir has no bounds except that it be true (or mostly true). While telling all is hardly a regional delicacy, there is something distinctly southern in the sleight of hand that occurs with a controlled confession.
That is what memoir is: an exposé in which the teller holds all the cards and reveals exactly what he or she wishes to reveal. Nothing more, nothing less, apropos of Dixie’s many ironies, a region where gentility and bigotry once went hand in hand, where turning the other cheek shares moral real estate with the right to bear arms.
Along with a built-in paradox, there’s an inherent conversational style within southern writing (see Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind or Wilma Dykeman’s The French Broad).
Most of us can agree that there is indeed a southern genre within literature. Writers from any part of the world, whether specializing in fiction or non, have a tendency to, at least once in their lives, embark upon autobiographical work.
Perhaps it’s just that human urge to make a personal mark on the world. For southern writers, this art of telling seems to seep into not just the intentional works of memoir but, to varying degrees, all of their work.
After all, Thomas Wolfe was nearly run out of town on a rail for his thinly disguised portrayal of his family and neighbors in Look Homeward Angel.
It’s a 20th-century reversal of Frey’s 21st-century situation: Readers used to get mad about too much truth in the telling.
Memoir as reflection
As regionalism fades in the rest of the country, the colorful (if sometimes contrary) character of the South presents a beacon for those seeking slices of authentic American experience.
“Regionalism is fading, but it has not yet faded,” Smirnoff says.
And though Koon isn’t convinced southern lit will maintain its distinction, he says a lot of writers his age “know first hand about the dramatic changes in the South, but the region’s distinctness diminishes with each generation.”
Part of that blurring of lines comes with the changing face of the region.
Immigration brings to the forefront a host of new voices. Latino literature now takes its place in the new southern canon, just as Asian-American writers are rising in popularity nationally.
Lott, who edited the literary journal Southern Review for three years, included three or four pieces by Mexican-American writers in that publication’s southern issue. Meanwhile, tried-and-true styles are challenged because literature is evolving.
Back to where we started
That returns us to the question of what exactly renders a writer southern.
More than a ZIP code, it’s a cadence, a penchant for rambling, and a taste for history close at hand.
But it ultimately seems to be like pornography: You know it when you see it.
Smirnoff names Mark Edmundson, Mary Miller, and M.O. Walsh as new southern voices to listen for. Ron Rash, Lee Smith, and Josephine Humphreys make the list of contemporary writers who’ve earned their places on our shelves.
As for what the southern memoir is, that remains an open question.
“I can use the term ‘southern’ and I can use ‘memoir,’ but I don’t think I want to bring it down any further than that,” Koon says. “I would say that southern fiction often contains a lot of memoir, a lot of looking back. I don’t think southern writers deliberately pursue those issues, though. They write about the world they know.
“They don’t exploit it. They just do it.”