Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Authentic Southernism

I've been thinking a lot lately about what makes a Southern book authentic. I suppose that I can blame my job. I have the most wonderful job in the world. I really do. I'm the managing editor of a regional Southern magazine, Longleaf Style.

In our articles about life in our neck of the woods, Northeast Alabama, we try to not be cliché about the South and our selection of authors has to be grounded in authenticity. And, so in this quest for authentic Southernism, I’ve asked myself lately, “Theresa, what does it really mean to be authentic in Southern literature?”

Does it mean the dialect should break every grammar rule in the book? Does it mean there has to be at least one reference to plantations, white columns, cotton picking, fried chicken, okra, humidity and race relations? Does it mean that somebody has to be done wrong to be appreciated? Does it mean validity comes from dysfunction and survival?

I’ve written about my clear-cut infatuation with Kathryn Tucker Windham in previous posts, but I've also come to appreciate Daniel Wallace, Rick Bragg, Mark Childress, Fannie Flagg, Alex Haley, Willie Morris and Diane McWhorter after features in the magazine.

From them I learn of the people who influenced them and how they are able to capture the small details about Southern life in unexpected ways. In getting to know the authors and the stories behind their books, I’ve also discovered that authenticity is not forced. It just happens. Southern authors don’t just wake up one day and decide to be Southern.

For the most part they are writing about their life. In their books you will find pieces of them sprinkled throughout. They shine a light on our culture and world, sometimes on things we would rather keep hidden in the dark. The classic writing advice “Write what you know” might work for a lot of people, but it seems that most Southern authors “write who they are.” And, that is why as we read and re-read Southern books, we feel like the authors and characters are part of our family. We see ourselves in these books. That’s pretty darn authentic if you ask me.

So, I pose this question to you. What is it about Southern literature that makes it authentic to you? Surely I'm not the only one that has put down a book after rolling my eyes too much from reading the Southern cliche's, which caused me such strain that I had to make a pitcher of sweet tea to regain control of myself.

Additional Note added after I had a cup of coffee and looked at my calendar: Speaking of Southern authors, today is the release of Pat Conroy's latest book, "South of Broad." I'm sure I join many others in looking forward to reading it!

1 comment:

sleepwriter said...

To me, a true Southern writer can address any topic. A cliche comes about when someone is trying too hard to appear Southern in order to appeal to people who know nothing about the South.

It's not like CCR trying to sound Southern - music is easier for an artist to emulate other styles. A true Southern writer wants to avoid stereotypes.