My wife presented me with this volume recently. Now, having read its eighteen stories from the (new) South, I have to admit – pay attention here, this is confession time – editor Edward P. Jones' selections have dispelled some myths for me. To wit:
1 – Southern literature is alive and well. I had thought there was nothing particularly authentic about Southern writing anymore (my apologies, Tommy Hays). I had thought the South had become the New South – a self-homogenized version of these United States that couldn't be distinguished from the rest. Admittedly, these eighteen authors have among them two or three that recognize the New South for what it is, but are able to distill something uniquely Southern from our pseudo-South, soy milk pap.
2 – Such collections ( at least this one) are diverse in writerly background, style, subject matter, and voice Some authors here have creased faces, others countenances fresh as babes. Some seem, from their bios, to be blue-collar, some academic, some black, some white, male and female. The collection is as rich as the South we drawling types love to remember. One among the eighteen approaches Flannery O'Connor's gothic stories, I'll admit, and some seem to have drawn inspiration from Cormac McCarthy's earlier works.
3 – All MFA writing isn't fatally flawed. In fact, my favorite story of the collection is by one Holly Goddard Jones, Life Expectancy. What drew me to this one wasn't a uniquely Southern voice, setting, story, or prosaic quality. Instead it was a small, motley collection of characters that captured me from the start. This is rarely true of short fiction, but Miz Jones, an MFA grad and academic, pulled it off. I'm almost always off-put by stories with obvious authorial agendas, but this time I forgive the story of a high school girl basketballer seduced and impregnated by her dastardly coach. Both main characters are much more than cliches, and the girl surprises in the end.
4 -My most humbling confession has to do with my being able to read these stories as an editor might. In so doing, I turned thumb down on some mighty good short stories in picking a favorite. Rick Bass' Goats, for instance. James Lee Burke's A Season Of Regret. Jakob Loomis, by Jason Ockert. And Angela Threatt's Bela Lugosi's Dead.
Now I understand rejection slips a bit better. While an eminently credentialed editor picked these eighteen from some inner preference, I became more aware through these 347 pages of my own whys and wherefores regarding reader taste. Jones said, "I need a sense that the world, for even one character, has shifted, whether to a large or a tiny degree."
I'm down with that. But my tastes seem to be a little more free-flowing when it comes to short fiction. As in music, I like pieces that surprise me emotionally. And for this to happen, I need strong but flawed characters. All here aspire, most succeed, but Miz Jones gets my nod as best of the litter.
For the writers out there, this publication has to be up your alley, for this reason: the editors list in the back some nine pages of Southern-related litmags that New Stories From The South tends to draw from. So pull the necessary fifteen bucks from your beer and Ramen money and, as I've done, get educated.
And by the way – – I'll be celebrating completion of my MLA degree for the next couple of weeks with a trip for me and the Missus – a ride down the Danube River. Next post will be mid-November.
Farewell To Arms
On October 27th, I defend my literary project for my Masters of Liberal Arts degree. Ahead lie five days of rehearsal on my part, a re-assimilation of facts, dates, insights. My focus for the defense could best be posed as a question. Did these German (and Soviet) combatants lose their humanity over the span of four years of the nastiest fighting known to man?
I believe they did not. While having their minds invaded by Nazi dogma, they seem to have remained for the most part true to human drives. If this doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, I’ll let you know.
At this point I’m five chapters from the end of my manuscript on H-U Rudel. I’ll be into February finishing and polishing. My thanks and heartfelt sympathies to all those who critiqued, put up with my cranky, protective nature, and all that.
One of my writing colleagues, Peggy Millin, has had a quote of hers – from one of her publications – bleed onto the web and resurface on OPRAH, of all places. Goes to show, the vagaries of the literary world, as well as the staying power of good writing. You go, Peggy!
Poets and Writers
The Nov/Dec issue contains an interview with Toni Morrison, arguably the U.S.’s premier person-of-letters today. I don’t often find anything relevant in such interviews, but TM is a giant, and this one deals! Don’t miss it.
This from a recent issue of the London Times Literary Supplement-
Autobiografiction: "We are familiar with the idea that all creative writing must be autobiographical in some way", but the Edwardian writer Stephen Reynolds understood that foggy notion, as Max Saunders shows, in a valuable and almost wholly overlooked contribution to literature. "Fiction can be 'autobiographical' in many different ways; yet the relation between the two remains a major blind spot in the theory of modern literature."
Along the same lines, what would be the proper name for “non-fiction?” This tag tells us what the genre purports not to be, but what is it, really, especially since it allows for fictionalization?
Banned Books Week
We’ve just been through Banned Books Weeks, a noble attempt by libraries to bite those who would ban books. Cynically, I think it’s a non-issue, particularly for the near-two-thirds of the U.S. public who don’t read, or read only pulp and Cosmo. Still, a few good readers in a nation mean a lot. One of the primary tenets of literature is that challenging your beliefs, preconceptions, cultural biases, etc. makes you a better thinker, despite your reaction after having read a given controversial book. Without that gauntlet being tossed between the book covers, you become narrower and shallower, which is bad news for any political state that purports to be a democracy.
Poets and Writers
There’s an excellent interview in the latest copy of P&W with Molly Friedrich, one of the big name NY agents. I urge you to read it on the P&W website, but a couple of her comments deserve mention.
First, for the fiction writers out there, she’s yet one more voice saying: “Fiction is being published less and less. The stakes are higher.” What she means is that the big pub houses are still willing to put out major bucks for fiction, but it has to have an immediate payoff. And she’s yet one more proponent of upping royalties and cutting advances.
Another point: When asked what thing makes her job the hardest, she’s not talking pitching a book. Or rejections. Or slowly bringing a writer with talent along. “It’s the whining,” she says. To be succinct, she wants, demands, professionalism from editors, as well as authors.
Read the article – this is what life is like at the top of the publishing food chain.
Last week, we delved into Faulkner’s storyline of the poor, eccentric Bundren family’s adventure in burying family matriarch Addie. This week, I thought I'd try to plumb Faulkner’s writing technique in this novel.
First, I should say I’m not a Faulkner fan. Not that I’m a lazy reader, you understand. But a reader’s attention can’t drift while reading his books – if you do, you’ll miss something vital in his dense-as-poetry prose. It’s almost as if he delighted in playing games with the reader. As a result, academics love to parse his writing technique for meaning and hidden intent. And I suppose I can’t escape my mini-stab at that here.
First, there are the multiple points of view – by my count, thirteen separate perspectives, including that of the deceased Addie. Why would Faulkner do this?
The first answer is that by Faulkner's time, modern prose had drifted away from the omniscient point of view of the eighteenth and nineteenth century novel. Keeping to one omniscient point of view narrows the story’s perspective; however, new conventions of technique have ably handled that.
Henry James, I believe, was one of modernity’s earlier experimenters with multiple points of view. The idea in doing doing-as James-did is, ironically, to gain a broader viewpoint on characters, settings, and story. Even though an old-fashioned narrator claims to be “omniscient,” the story is seen and described through the narrator’s rather lens. But with multiple POVs, a story can be told from conflicting viewpoints – even viewpoints that negate others. This adds resonance, multidimensional depth.
I’m sure Faulkner was aware of this and used these POVs to that purpose, but I think he also had something else in mind. He seems to have wanted to use these multiple viewpoints to show the fragmented reality of the Bundren family – each unhappy and barely coping in his or her own, private way. Clearly the story bears this out.
But does Faulkner’s use of the technique work in this respect? In my mind – barely. My main complaint with Faulkner has always been his disregard of the reader’s comfort in experiencing the story. But he was always an excessive personality, and his too-many POVs were eventually toned down in Southern literature to five or less, particularly by the likes of Doris Betts and Cormac McCarthy.
Faulkner’s writing was also the prototype for the Southern Gothic literature that came to full fruition under Flannery O’Connor, and that is still popular – again through such writers as Cormac McCarthy. One of the more perplexing traits of Southern Gothic has been its subliminal humor. Such stories depict the agony and depravity of poor Southerners, how they cope with numbing lives. Humor, then, is a leveling device, showing the strength of soul of these people, much as blues music has done for Southern blacks.
Faulkner uses this technique fairly well, but once again he trifles with excess, leading many readers to laugh at his forlorn characters – not to lead them to empathize with the Bundrens, to experience that strength of soul within them.
All too often, the characters here come out of their rural, illiterate voice to espouse some of Faulkner’s own ten-dollar words, leaving his characters on the doorstep of caricature. Still, he prose can be majestic in As I Lay Dying:
“Overhead the day drives level and gray, hiding the sun by a flight of gray spears.”
“Cash…holds the two planks on the trestle, fitted along the edges in a quarter of the finished box. He kneels and squints along the edge of them, then he lowers them and takes up the adze. A good carpenter. Addie Bundren could not want a better one, a better box to lie in. It will give her confidence and comfort.”
In this last passage Faulkner worms his way into his own unique view of metaphysics – that as long as one is remembered, and has had progeny, he/she lives beyond the body. Not a particularly novel thing to ponder these days, but in his day, likely revolutionary.
Actually, revolutionary is the proper word to describe Faulkner’s literary ground-breaking, here and in other of his later works. These novels had warts, but his developing technique spawned more literary progeny than he could have imagined. In that sense – and by his own seeming metaphysical rules – William Faulkner will live a long literary life.