Is Southern storytelling better?

by DG Martin

“Bad Southern Lit is like Bad Southern Oysters – nothing will make you sicker when it’s ‘off.’ Just as nothing can ever taste better than sea-salty raw oysters on the half-shell when fresh, when real.”

So writes Hillsborough author Allan Gurganus in his introduction to the just published edition of New Stories from the South-2006, an annual collection of short stories set in our region.

Gurganus is the first “guest editor” of New Stories. Last year, after 20 years of making the selections, founding editor Shannon Ravenel stepped down.

When Ravenel edited New Stories, we looked to her to help us answer the question of what, if anything, distinguished Southern writing from that of the rest of the country. Ravenel was carefully conservative about asserting any great differences or special features of modern Southern writing. She reminded us that, as the South has changed and become more like other parts of the country, so has its literature.

Gurganus takes a different tack.

Take a clue from the title of his introduction to this year’s collection, which is “The Rebellion Continues, at Least in the Southern Short Story: Battle Notes while Choosing 2006’s New Stories from the South.”

He is an unapologetic partisan advocate for the merits of Southern writing.

Southerners, he says, since they are better storytellers, turn out to be better storywriters. Gurganus lays out some of the reasons why. For instance, he writes that Southerners are “championship grudge-bearers. That’s excellent training for staying the world-class rememberers we are. It’s an odd recipe but the proof is in the stories. Take our itch for feuds and duels. Mix in our family pride over’… well, over our family pride. Add history, acreage, the witch’s brew of slavery, start – then really lose – a war, stir with 20-20 memory, flavor to taste. Hang over a hickory fire. Then age it good.”

Raising the question of whether other regions of the country might also have some claim to writing stories, he responds, “I’m sure that other regions – stretching West to Easterly – take better care of their picket fences. Certainly their small-town papers devote fewer column inches to downtown gunplay, to property-line disputes leading to the use of contested fence posts as cudgels. More orderly record keeping might go on in those distant lands of conifers and frostbite. But as for their impenitent brilliant lying? As for their in-depth knowledge of codes, tricks, sacraments, and livestock? As for their feeding fat into the blue campfire called Fiction?

“Naw,” says Gurganus. But, as he reminded us at the beginning, bad Southern writing, like bad oysters, can be horrible.

He writes: “Like the Bible parables that oftentimes inspire them, Southern stories can come front-loaded with tag-line lessons. Others are so nostalgic for our cotton-picking past, they resemble the cutesy Mall Art you’ve seen while trying not to.

“Such plaques show three small farm-girls, bonnets in profile worn over matching gingham granny-dresses: they are depicted herding a row of pretty geese about the girls’ same height. (Now, on farms I knew in Eastern North Carolina, geese would have fought all children’s sticks and guidance. Geese that size attack kids so little! But not in ‘art’)”

Gurganus’ essay and the discussions it will provoke make this year’s New Stories an important book for Southern readers. Even more valuable are the stories he selected for us to read.

For North Carolinians he brings us new work from three of our state’s most respected and successful young writers, Tony Earley, Quinn Dalton and Daniel Wallace. He includes North Carolina native Ben Fountain’s “Brief Encounters with Che Guevara,” which is the title story of Fountain’s brand new book. East Carolina’s Luke Whisnant also demonstrates his writing power.

These and the other stories in this year’s New Stories not only showcase the talents of their writers. They also force readers to confront some of the painful and poignant features of the historical and the modern South. We learn that some of the very factors that Gurganus tells us make for better storytelling are not always such good things.

With such a provocative opening essay and stories that entertain and challenge, this year’s New Stories is a mandatory pleasure.