Back in 2011 I did the Southern Lit reading challenge, and I've not done one since. Partly, I like to try different challenges and I try to keep the number of challenges I do to a reasonable number, but as a Southerner who lives in the South and who claims to love Southern Lit, I read a fairly small amount of it. And after a recent disappointing Southern read, I think I've sort of figured out why.
Classifying all books that are published from a quarter of the country as simply "Southern Lit" does a disservice to readers (as does the classification of "Western Lit," and the biggest disservice I think we do is ignoring "Midwestern Lit" altogether. But that's a rant for another day.) There are some types of Southern books that I like, and some types that I don't, and when such a broad brush is used to paint an area of literature, it's easy to get bum recommendations. Just as a mystery reader will have strong opinions on cozies versus noirs versus police procedurals versus PI mysteries, I think we need to break up Southern lit into its parts.
What is a difference between Southerners and Northerners? Northerners hide their crazy aunt up in the attic whereas Southerns set her out on the front porch. A lot of these novels take advantage of this adage and pepper their cast with several funnily cranky old ladies who speak their minds and say what everyone else is thinking but keeps to themselves. Think of "Ouiser" in Steel Magnolias. But with more corn pone.
Like humorous, but taken down a notch. These books do have a more straightforward, traditional plot, but with some oddball characters mixed in. You might cry as well as laugh. Humor can be used to heighten serious situations, and when done well, it's stunning. When done poorly, it feels forced, like everyone is a secondary character from Gilmore Girls and no one is completely sane.
This might be the one Southern offshoot that is currently widely used. In these books, everything goes bad. Everyone is evil (well, there might be one redeemable character, our hero). No one obeys the law, everyone's drinking moonshine, and they might shoot you just for sport. Kissing cousins of the Hatfields and McCoys, these novels are dark and often don't have happy endings.
Nearly everything in this category is related to a single historical period, the Civil War (and immediately before and after.) I do wish people would branch out more as most of the South, particularly the coastal areas, was settled nearly as long ago as New England and the Mid-Atlantic. As a Southerner, I am occasionally disheartened that Yankees often seem to not know that there truly is any history in the South before 1850.
These books take themselves way too seriously. No one cracks a smile. Descriptions are taken to a new level. Tone and atmosphere are of utmost importance. Pretentiousness is a good thing. Wants to be Faulkner but for heaven's sake, no one even wants to read his books and they are Great Classics.
What I would love to see are more books that are mysteries or women's literature or thrillers, that just happen to be set in the South. Plenty of people live in the South who have fairly ordinary lives, who aren't eating Moonpies and marrying cousins and secret racists and quirky just for quirky's sake. It's so refreshing when I read a book set south of the Mason-Dixon line that is just a normal, regular book. Yes, setting is important, but why in the South must setting be Everything? Why must it dictate plot and character? Why must books set here reflect long-ago stereotypes? I'm sure it's partly because the majority of editors and agents are Northerners, and stereotypes are all they know and understand of the South. But for those of us who do live and work here, we'd love to see a few more books that reflect our normal, everyday lives without making us all out to be kooks who fly Confederate flags and would lynch people if we thought we wouldn't get caught.
I love good Southern novels. But there are a lot of Southern novels that I won't be reading. Just setting a book near my home isn't enough to persuade me to read it. Are any other Southern readers out there as frustrated by the state of Southern literature as I am?