A friend of mine asked if I was a Southern writer.
I grew up in the South and I try to write, so I almost said yes. I hesitated and, in my hesitation, recognized that the question was not rhetorical. (See - Southern writers do too know what “rhetorical” means.) Anyway, I said I’d get back to him after I thought about it for a while. After some consideration, I’m not so sure if I’m a Southern writer or not.
I think that Southern writers are supposed to be distinguished from other writers by their attention to personal relationships, their descriptions of personal hygiene and bodily functions, and their poor spelling. I have the pore speling down pat, but am a little squeamish on the other matters.
To be perfectly honest, I never really understood the entire sub-set of the “Southern Writer.” I think that a lot of the mystique surrounding the Southern Writer involves the thought that if we make a cult out of looking for something then it must both exist and be important. I’m not sure either is true.
I was never sure if the cult of the Southern Writer was established to separate them from the rest of the writing community for their own good, or for the good of the rest of the writing community. Writing is writing. It’s either good or bad. I never understood why it should be also north and South.
Charles Frasier, the author of Cold Mountain, is never described as the author of a damn good book. He is always described as the North Carolina author of a damn good book. It’s almost as though the reviewer is surprised that someone from the Tar Heel state could write a damn good book. What about Tom Wolfe and.... and.... oh hell, never mind.
Surprise and over-achievement must, therefore, be elements of the Southern Writer.
Faulkner wrote chapter-length sentences and paragraphs about people you would never want to know, doing things that would get most of us arrested ( or at least talked about in church on Sunday.) He also used language in a way that was often difficult to understand. I think he spelled most of the words correctly but, since few people understood them in his context, it didn’t matter. Using some of those words in his convoluted sentence structure was almost the same as misspelling them.
Faulkner’s language made it damn near impossible for the people he was writing about to read or understand what he had said about them. It was like James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” Many a college student started that book looking for the parts that got it banned and ended-up (like I did after most of my dates in high school) alone, frustrated, and confused.
Since most of the things Faulkner was saying were not complimentary, using almost another whole language to describe them strikes me as cowardice. But, since Faulkner is the definitive Southern writer, making fun of your neighbors behind their backs to their faces must also be an element of Southern writing.
Maybe it’s subject matter. A lot of Southern writers seem to deal not only with the relationships between family members, but the troubled relationship between the races. That can’t be it. Seriously, Harper Lee could have set To Kill A Mockingbird in the racially divided neighborhoods of say...South Boston. God knows they have more than enough Boo Radleys. It would work, and the racism would translate well into the northern inner city. You expect it in Meridian, Mississippi so stereotypes must be an important part of Southern writing.
The kindly old judge assigning the case to Atticus Finch and Atticus Finch taking it, twisted the stereotype. That too must be a part of Southern writing.
I can read and understand Lewis Grizzard, Roy Blount and Dave Berry. They are Southern writers and poke gentle, and at times not so gentle, fun at their neighbors in words we can all understand. They do it to their faces, but escape retribution by peppering the writings with stories of hunting dogs and references to Spam, boogers and bodily functions. I don’t know if this is Southern writing or not but, if it is, I have a problem — I don’t know any good hunting-dog, alcohol-tinged, cousin-abusing, booger stories.
OK, there is the one about my uncle and the the frozen piece of boar raccoon anatomy and the jar of white lightening. But that kind of story can’t be all that separates a Southern writer from the rest of the world. Maybe it’s having an uncle like that and having that story floating around in your mind that makes the difference.
Anyway, I spent a good part of my adult life self-exiled from the South. After graduation from the definitive Southern school, the army sent me away and kept me away for a long time. Let’s see, a white, Southern boy, Citadel graduate going into the army — no stereotypical behavior there.
Even after I left the army I remained west of the Mississippi because I liked the west. I didn’t get the claustrophobic feel of trees, kudzu, family, televangalists and silly politicians closing in on top of me that I got in the low country of South Carolina. Out west there was no swamp-soaked, kudzu-camouflaged low country, so I could always see any money-borrowing second cousin or tounge-talking, snake-handling preacher coming.
I returned to the South for a while and, while my ability to spell had not improved, my ability to maintain a good, old fashioned, gunfire-exchanging, last-will-and-testament changing, Southern relationship had gone the way of the $.25 bottled coke. I’m not sure if you can have just the bad spelling without relationship problems and still call yourself a Southern writer.
Anyway, I guess I’ll have to work on the relationship part.
Someone once asked how porcupines made wild, sweaty, porcupine love and the answer, of course was: carefully, very carefully. I’m not sure if “carefully” is how true Southerners maintain all family relationships, but that is how my family does it and they’re the only relations I have to talk about.