Sunday, June 24, 2018

Writers from the South (North, East & West) -- read them all

Status updates cycle through Facebook so quickly. A person from academia posted the other day that he was searching for justification for teaching a course on southern literature at his university. Can't find it now to respond in person but I've been thinking a lot about it and have some thoughts.

My first response is this: you study southern literature because its fun. I am a former student of Harry Crews at University of Florida and you haven't lived until you've read Feast of Snakes and Karate is a Thing of the Spirit.

Fantastic fiction writers abound: Bobbie Anne Mason, Carson McCullers, Connie May Fowler, Alice Walker, George Saunders, Walker Percy, Eudora Welty, Kaye Gibbons, Tim Gautreaux, William Faulkner, Lewis Nordan, Flannery O'Connor, etc. Alas, I know very few southern writers under 40. That's my loss, I'm sure. I could remedy that by reading more litmags with roots in the South: Georgia Review, Chattahoochee Review, storySouth, Carolina Quarterly, Snake Nation Review, and many others. If these mags are doing their duty, they are publishing up-and-coming writers in the South and those of us who carry the South around like a beat-up copy of a Faulkner novel.

So study southern literature. As long as you read the books. Read them all.

South Carolina's Pat Conroy wove the South and family and military traditions into his novels. I looked forward to reading a new Conroy novel. I was transfixed by "The Prince of Tides." Southern angst, crazy families, suicide, escaped convicts, tiger attacks -- you don't get many of those in southern novels. That was a doozy of a dysfunctional family. Too bad they made a movie. We got too much of Barbra Srreisand as Susan Lowenstein and not enough of the Wingo family.

At first encounter, I wasn't all that impressed with Flannery O'Connor. Then in grad school I took a class on the short story. I started writing short stories and reading new authors to understand their secrets. I read "A Good Man is Hard to Find" and realized it was a twisted tale and a work of art. It possessed some of that magic you get in a great story. O'Connor imbued her stories with the mysticism of her Catholic faith and the South, a wicked combination. Her characters vibrate with life. The Misfit's final words about the grandmother are harsh and mysterious and I still don;'t know exactly what they mean. He kills Grandma, we know that. But his motives remain mysterious. Like faith itself -- beautiful and unknowable. One thing that helped me understand her stories is reading her collected letters in "The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor."

That's it, isn't it? The great stories shine with a fire lit by the author. When you read Raymond Carver, you are beset with his yen for demon rum. He's not of the South but his work possesses some of those elements. Nebraska's Willa Cather seems to have dragged Southern Gothic elements over the prairie from her Virginia birthplace.

Read them all.


RobertP said...

well, yeah. Faulkner alone make it worth it to study Southern literature. I had my eyes opened when I took a class at UF that was just on Faulkner. Recently re-read As I Lay Dying which is a great introduction to Faulkner.

I remember as I was reading my favorite book ever-"ONE Hundred Years of Solitude" (thank you Mike) that it was like Faulkner taken up a notch. And then read in his autobiorgrphy Garcia Marquez was indeed influenced by Faulkner.

So, question answered

Michael Shay said...

It seems odd to me that any prof would be searching for a rationale to teach southern literature. But as you know, liberal arts majors are under attack from Know Nothings like Fla. Gov. Rick Scott. He doesn't approve of science, either. These days on campus, it may take extra effort and paperwork to justify book learnin'.