Why Southern Writers Are No Longer Great

This is a springboard from the Appalachian writers comments I’ve made over at my main site. Specifically, though, I want to blog about the things holding back writers who identify themselves as Southern.

In her introduction to NEW STORIES OF THE SOUTH 2008, ZZ Packer makes some interesting points about the difference between being a “southern” writer and a “Southern” one. Despite some oddities that creep into her critique, she opens a meaningful dialog about how the notion of region can curtail artistic powers of invention. Unfortunately, it is a dialog that too few writers, even those writing for small presses, have joined.

Granted, writers work within a market, and there are fewer markets more unforgiving towards

ZZ Packer

ZZ Packer

unpopular image than the book world. However, the “southern” literary set has failed in the most important aesthetic mission. They have given themselves over to easy banalities. A brief look at author interviews on the Internet reveal this in short order. Instead of using the ready forum of a truly free and independent media, too many writers today spend their time answering predictably unrevealing questions about how many words they write per day, what guilty reading they enjoy and any number of other tabloid irrelevancies.

Certainly, this isn’t a Southern failing alone. It is part of a book culture trend that is largely related to the growth of book clubs (both online and offline). While reading continues to grow in relative proportion to readers of adult fiction, the expectation of what Literature is supposed to do and who it is for have undergone a fundamental change. Writers have become subject to the whim of popular approval, even when individual authors are experiencing increasingly smaller readerships.

The quality of reader has suffered because writers have been more indulgent of popular opinion. This trend has also been supported by a culture of peer acclaim within the writing community. In trying to boost other writers, there has been a lack of discrimination. The banner of regionalism has been cause for many Southern writers of note to endorse derivative and underaccomplished writing. This has to stop if we are to create a renewed culture of aesthetic excellence. Wise criticism starts not in the academic world, but with the judgment of renowned artistic writers.

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