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.