Friday, December 12, 2008

Is it Possible to Write Southern Literature Without a Drunk Terrorizing the Family?

Sonny Brewer & Co. concocted a terrific event in Fairhope, AL, in late November where a wide variety of southern writers appeared. Getting to meet the writers at Southern Writers Reading and experience their work was deeply moving.

But as I sat in the audience, spellbound, listening to Tom Kimmel sing and Rick Bragg read, an idea began to creep into my head: What if southern men ever stopped drinking too much? What if they stopped terrorizing and abusing their families? What if southern women stopped being enablers or martyrs? Would there be any more southern literature? Could the genre exist without these particular stereotypes?

I hope so. Because surely we've had enough generations of this sort of thing to sufficiently explore its artistic potential. It seems like a crucial time to bring this up. Southern lives have long been fodder for the rest of the country, both as literature and as parody. I'm a comic writer, I love comedy. But, in my opinion we've reached a point where if we continue in this vein, we'll be reducing our own culture to absurdity.

It may actually be absurd. My life is. But maybe it's time to get the drunks into treatment, get the martyrs and enablers into therapy, and move on if at all possible. This is because for every great artist who is somehow able to emerge triumphant (or apparently so) from this morass, there are thousands of other people who do not.

For the sake of these others, artists need to do more in their writing than just survive. They need to go farther in processing, transforming, and redeeming their trauma. A description of the battlefield is not enough to lift my soul.

Every single person on earth is operating with a battered soul. And every person on earth faces significant challenges in their life (whether or not we are in a position to know what those are). Maybe we'd get farther toward helping create a better world if we did more than simply catalog our heartbreaks before committing them to paper.

And goodness knows, there's gotta be more aspects of southern lives to ponder than alcoholism, violence, and professional victimhood.

At least I hope and pray that's true.


Anonymous said...

Southern drunks are abundant, but no more abundant than other regions. Southern enablers do not only enable drunks. Southern drunks and enablers only appear colorful because southern culture is infused into the spirits of our writers.

Russ said...

there is an incredible amount of unpacking to do with the ideas presented in this short piece. thanks for this...seriously. i enjoy having the societal norms, particularly when the idea of the southern drunk is a little revered, questioned.

gvlwriter said...

Bravo, Carolyn! In his 1947 classic, "Indirections, For Those Who Want to Write," Sidney Cox says that one compelling reason to tell a story is that you're irked about something. A couple of bad wars and a bad president led to THE PLUNDER ROOM, which will be published Jan. 20. Along with the entropic slide from the Greatest Generation to Generations Jones/X. And you're right: Increasingly irksome are the Southern belles, ding-dongs, wingnuts, caricatures and, yes, drunks. And while THE PLUNDER ROOM, in fact, DOES feature an affable drunk, he's neither mean nor abusive - and he's not much enabled (he gets a bar of soap shoved between his dentures), he's fairly amusing and he's really shady (fetched from a Honduran prison). Point being, we absolutely do need to start thinking outside the bottle, dry out our poor besotted souls and start telling richer, deeper, more sober truths before everything we produce devolves into 100% 100-proof caricatures. (Email me through my Website if you want some interesting stories about a few characters you may know.)