From a little after two oclock until almost sundown of the long still hot weary dead September afternoon they sat in what Miss Coldfield still called the office because her father had called it that--a dim hot airless room with the blinds all closed and fastened for forty-three summers because when she was a girl someone had believed that light and moving air carried heat and that dark was always cooler, and which (as the sun shone fuller and fuller on that side of the house) became latticed with yellow slashes full of dust motes which Quentin thought of as being flecks of the dead old dried paint itself blown inward from the scaling blinds as wind might have blown them."
First line of William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!
Thank you so much for all of the support regarding my book. You’ll never know how much your sweet words meant to me!
**** When I think back to my initial experiences with Southern lit., William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Eudora Welty loom large.
If you’ve read William Faulkner, you might remember the first time that his writing dazzled and also, perhaps, confused you. (My husband Daniel refuses to read any of his books because I made the mistake of giving him The Sound and the Furyas his introduction to Faulkner. Oops.) You might still remember the first time that you read the closing paragraphs of Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” and thought: “shit just got real” (or maybe something more eloquent). And you might remember the incredible humor and authenticity of Eudora Welty’s “Why I Live at the P.O.”—in my mind, one of the greatest short stories of all time. [If you haven’t read O’Connor or Welty’s stories, check out the links. They go to the short stories discussed here!]
I don’t want to deny the amazingness of these three authors. In fact, if pressed, I say that Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!is my favorite book of all-time.
But as I started delving into more Southern lit., critical race theory, women’s lit., etc. I started thinking more about what I read, why I select specific books to read for pleasure over others, what texts are on/were on the class syllabi for the classes that I’ve taken and the classes that I taught, why they were on there and not other texts and/or writers, etc.
All of this FINALLY brings me to the main point, my thesis, if you will: it’s important to acknowledge and appreciate the diversity of southern literature and the diversity of the southern experience. We need to read and discuss more Southern texts written by (and/or which feature characters who are) people of color; GLBTQ; contemporary; poets; Southern Appalachian; and/or urban, etc., whether we’re reading for a survey course or for pleasure.
And all of that FINALLY brings me to the meat of my post today: I’m naming ten of the Southern fiction writers that I think should be read more, with the disclaimers that I focus on contemporary lit. (as in, published within the last 20ish years) and I’m leaving out so many amazing authors for the sake of keeping the post pretty brief. (Ahh, I’m literally experiencing anxiety right now at the thought of how many authors I would include on this list that I can’t because of my own dumb rules.)
Here we go:
Jesmyn Ward: I read Salvage the Bones(2010), the recipient of a National Book Award, a couple of years ago and I was blown away by the strength and rawness of Ward’s writing. Salvage focuses on an African American family, their neighborhood, and larger community during Hurricane Katrina. Ward’s other books have been highly recommended, including Men We Reaped(2013) and The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race (2016), both of which are on my to-read list.
Wiley Cash: Cash is an incredible Southern Appalachian writer. A Land More Kind Than Home(2012) centers on a set of brothers and their family, which is falling apart. Some elements of the story will likely feel familiar to you, but others, like the fact that the mother is involved in a snake-handling church, likely will not. This Dark Road to Mercy(2014) is equally powerful. It focuses on a similar family dynamic except in this case the siblings are two sisters whose long-absent dad reappears following the passing of their mother. These are fast, engrossing reads that I really enjoyed.
Peter Taylor-Wow. Peter Taylor is the amazing author of A Summons to Memphis(1999), which won a Pulitzer, and I hadn’t even heard of him until my PhD comps. exam two years ago. I LOVED this book. First line: “The courtship and remarriage of an old widower is always made more difficult when middle-aged children are involved—especially when they are unmarried daughters.” From what I remember about this book, it was genteel, beautifully written, and quietly devastating. His short stories, of which I’ve read only a few, are fantastic too.
Amy Greene: Greene is another Southern Appalachian contemporary writer and one of my current favorites. Her first book, Bloodroot (2010) has some elements of the supernatural in it, while her second, Long Man, is more of a realist book which focuses on the flooding of a TN city by the TVA. If you love reading about strong, resilient women, rejoice! You’ll love her books.
Natasha Trethewey: If you’re like me, you don’t often grab a volume of poetry when you’re in the mood to read. But Trethewey’s volume Native Guard(2006), recipient of a Pulitzer Prize, is absolutely incredible. She writes compellingly, beautifully, and insightfully about topics like growing up interracial in Mississippi (think about the fact that interracial marriage was still a crime until Loving v. Virginia in 1967), her mother’s murder, and the Native Guard—“one of the first all black regiments to fight in the Union Army during the American Civil War” (thanks Wikipedia). Consider the closing lines of her “Native Guard” poem: “Beneath battlefields, green again, / the dead molder—a scaffolding of bone / we tread upon, forgetting. Truth be told.” Chills. If you don’t want to buy the volume of poetry, check her work out at the Poetry Foundation, poets.org, and The New York Times. You won’t regret it.
Lee Smith: I would guess that even if you haven’t read Lee Smith before, you’ve seen her books for sale or at a local library. She’s a prolific author; three of my favorites are Oral History(1983), Fair and Tender Ladies(1988), and Guests on Earth(2013). When I read her books I feel like her characters are people that I know. She reminds me of Eudora Welty in that way. If you’re new to Smith, I would recommend starting with Oral History: it’s a quick, multi-generational read that I think anyone would get lost in.
Anne Tyler: She writes masterfully about family dynamics in A Spool of Blue Thread (2015) and Vinegar Girl(2016). According to Goodreads, she has “57 distinct works.” Yowza. I always really, really enjoy her books and I need to read more of them.
Dorothy Allison and Kaye Gibbons: Ok, so I’m cheating here, but only because I love both Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolinaand Gibbons’ Ellen Foster. Both books are told from the perspective of a young girl and both will intensely move you. The first line from Bastard Out of Carolina: “I’ve been called Bone all my life, but my name’s Ruth Anne.” The first line from Ellen Foster: “When I was little I would think of ways to kill my daddy.” I dare you not to fly through these books with your heart in your throat the entire time.
Ron Rash: I can always count on Ron Rash to write something visceral and haunting; something that hits me deep in the gut but that stays with me long after I’ve read it. Rash is the author of Serena(2008), a book which I adore because it features strong womanhood (and in this case, some dangerous strong womanhood, too). Serenawas made into a movie starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, but as far as I know, it was pretty much sent straight to Netflix. (I know, I know. I’m surprised too.) If you’re new to Rash, I would probably start with Serena and then move on to his other brilliant reads, Saints at the Riverand The Cove(2012) among them.
Randall Kenan: Author of A Visitation of Spirits, a powerful read about a gay African American teen. This is a book that I haven’t read in six or so years, but I remember that when I read it, I thought it was unlike any other Southern lit. book I had read before. I’m going to borrow some of the book’s description from the book jacket: “Brilliant, popular, and the bright promise of his elders, Horace struggles with the guilt of discovering who he is, attracted to other men and yearning to escape the narrow confines of Tim’s Creek.” This is a book that I would eventually like to re-read.
So there you go. Ten authors that you should check out if you’re feeling the hankering to get lost in Southern lit. but aren’t sure where to go. Who's your favorite Southern author?