How to become a “Southern Writer” – it’s easier than you think

6 Sep

One of the most frustrating things about my writing life is the fact that I am not considered a “Southern writer.” Since reviewers in the South are obsessed with the genre, and since the volume, if not the quality, of output of those who cling to it is prodigious, there is little time left in the busy schedule of the shapers of literary taste to consider any other kind of writing. The fault is mine, of course. If you live in the South and write books, they should be “Southern.”

So why aren’t my books “Southern?” They are set in the South. They are even set in a small town in the South. What’s more, they involve an outsider, who has moved to said small town in the South. Unfortunately, those are about all the items I can check on the list of what makes a book “Southern.” There are no mentions at all of the Civil War, nothing about the Bible, and TJ’s wife Grace’s quest for her next margarita hardly qualifies her as a strong woman overcoming adversity. The humor is not specifically southern in that it doesn’t involve rambling yarns about neighbors, relatives or farm animals.

So, it would seem that I have a choice. On the one hand, I can remain true to my calling as a literary giant, addressing the universal themes of the absurdity of corporate life, thereby ensuring the continued neglect of my work by all reviewers within a six hundred mile radius. Alternatively, I can invest in a white linen suit and, having strolled out to the porch with a mint julep and my laptop, proceed to make my hero T. John Dick find religion and punctuate his staff meetings at SuperPumps with homely reminiscences of quirky relatives. “My Uncle Zeke once had the exact same problem with a slump in third quarter sales…” I would be selling my soul, but also a lot more books.

But wait, there is a third way. According to Jerry Leath Mills, writing in Southern Cultures, (Volume 6, Number 4, Winter 2000, published by The University of North Carolina Press), what defines a work of literature as “Southern,” is not a matter of geography, nor state of mind, as claimed by lesser authorities on the subject, who have based their definition on “a variety of intangible qualities, such as a strong sense of place, a concern with history, an interest in religion, a propensity for “gothic” elements of horror and the grotesque, a strongly biblical narrative tradition, a deep sense of loss and defeat, and so on.” These things count, of course, but Mr. Mills argues convincingly that “the single, simple, litmus-like test for the quality of southernness in literature… is: Is there a dead mule in it?”

Mills bases his theory on a survey of around thirty prominent twentieth century southern authors, citing two hundred instances of the presence of one or more specimens of Equus caballus x asinus (defunctus) in the works of writers such as Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy, Clyde Edgerton, Erskine Caldwell and many more. He classifies them by cause of death – beating, freezing, fall from cliff, collision with a train, and even decapitation and hanging. Interestingly, he points out the stark contrast between the dead mule’s ubiquity in Southern literature and the rarity with which real Southerners actually encounter one.

I encourage all serious students of Southern literature to read Mr. Mills’ brilliant essay, and also to read my next book. I haven’t yet decided what it will be about, but it will certainly contain a dead mule or two. And don’t worry – you’re bound to hear about it – it will be widely reviewed.


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