So you wanna be…a Southern Writer?Posted: September 21, 2011 | |
O procrastination ye art with me again.
Yep, writer’s block and having somewhat of a weekend has pushed this post back a few days. I’m trying to expand my horizons (and hopefully my site stats) on The South Will Blog Again with some different subjects. Today, I’m going to tackle that pinnacle of Dixie high culture known as Southern Literature.
I’ll be honest with y’all, this is tough for me. I’m not the huge fan of Southern Lit many of you would expect me to be. For one, I think the biggest fans of our regional literature are usually Northerners (more on why that is later). Second, I’m trained as a historian, so 95% of what I read, and have always enjoyed reading, is non-fiction. Third, I went to Ole Miss.
Now, Ole Miss is indeed a great institution to study Southern Lit, perhaps even the greatest. But THAT is the problem. When you attend the University of Mississippi you get “force fed” a lot of it, and I do mean A LOT. I don’t care if you are studying anthropology, history, political science, or sociology you will end up reading William Faulkner at least ONCE during the semester. And that got old. It’s sort of like William & Mary graduates I know who don’t like colonial history much. You can’t really blame them.
So for awhile I tended to eschew Southern Lit even though I learned a bit about it. Now, years later, I like it and appreciate it much more, and indeed Faulkner’s “Intruder in the Dust” is my favorite book of the 20th century.
So, excuses (and introduction) out of the way, I shall channel my inner Willie Morris and bring you my guide to good Southern Literature in case you WANT TO BE A SOUTHERN WRITER.
(click on any picture to enlarge and read text)
You Wear White After Labor Day and Drink Bourbon for Breakfast
In order to be a good Southern writer you have to look like a Southern writer. Remember, almost all of the publishing houses are in New York. New Yorkers don’t want to see some “Southern” writer walk in and look all normal. Normal doesn’t equate good “Southern” literature. Listen to me carefully…this is between us…if Yankees begin to realize that the South is pretty much like the rest of the country, only with a bit of a drawl, then they won’t spend their money on our books. To them, we are living in a kudzu filled jungle with snake wielding preachers, ravenous marauding mountain men, chainsaw wielding retarded cousins locked in basements, and eccentric plantation dwellers hell bent on gossip and guff. As long as we “play possum” and look and sound eccentric they’ll never actually BELIEVE we’re quite ordinary. Then you can write anything you want.
Take Tom Wolfe for example. Mr. Wolfe comes from my neck of the woods near Richmond, VA. Long ago, and he tells this better than I, he decided to wear a white suit. Now years ago, white suits were common in the summertime in the South but not so much up North. It was kind of like seersucker is now. In any event, he kept wearing them day after day until he became “that man in a white suit”. The white suit became his personality until he had the years on him to develop a good personality of his own. He was and remains a great writer but you see the white suit got him in the door. And no matter how much he cracks jokes, and satirizes the left in savvy “radical chic” Manhattan circles, his soft drawl and white suit keeps getting him invited to all the best parties. Everybody likes a guy in a white suit, and he can then say and write anything he wants. Pure genius.
Wolfe taught me the importance of a good trademark. My own is to wear a bow tie, although people seem to be copying me now. Oh well. But once you have a trademark, you must own it, and then you can be as “Southern” as you want.
William Faulkner had a few trademarks of his own. He is almost always depicted smoking a pipe. The pipe was and remains to a lesser degree a symbol of outmoded sophistication. Remember, a good Southern writer can be sophisticated, but it is best if that sophistication is a product of a by-gone era, like white suits, and bow ties.
Faulkner also had another trademark. He was never seen too far away from a nice bottle of bourbon. Now lots of famous writers have taken a dip or two into the “fire water”. But remember, you are reading this to become a “Southern” writer. To be a Southern writer you need to stick with bourbon or mixed drinks that are bourbon-derived such as the mint julep. If a Southern writer then goes out on a bender and causes a scene, if he’s found with a bottle of bourbon, it can be written off as “research”. But other drinks? Be wary! Could you imagine a Southern writer stumbling through town drunk off of Appletinis?
By the way Faulkner once wrote that “civilization begins at distillation!” And doesn’t that just sound like something a Southern writer is supposed to say? See, he knew what he was doing.
Say Your Mother was a Fish and you’ll Win a Pulitzer
Once you have established the proper eccentric attire and personality you will be able to start writing. There you will undoubtedly face the dragon of writer’s block. If so, remember to write about places, things, and funny characters that you know. True, in reality much of this will be pretty boring, so you will need to embellish. But remember you have that trusty bottle of bourbon I told you about. That should help turn Sam the nice Grandpa at the Feed Store, into “Jeremiah Sam” the Shotgun wielding prophet and so forth.
You can get weird and grotesque at this point too. Now, now, I know that most of us down here are law abiding God-fearing people. But, and this is key, Yankees think we are all hiding some dark, hidden, sinister secrets. So the weirder and more insane your characters are the more “Southern” you will seem. You might just get a Pulitzer Prize out of it. If you rise that far you can write any crazy ole thing you want and call it “stream of consciousness”.
By the way, stream of consciousness does not work for undergraduate creative writing assignments. In school you have to write about how much you communicate with trees. Or at least I did, but my Grad Student teacher was English so maybe that was why.
Okay, so now I’ve got you set on how to look, act, and write. The next part is much trickier. And that is how to market yourself.
Now some of you are saying “but I want to write REAL Southern literature, and be true to myself and my art”. To that I reply “Hogwash!” I’m trying to tell you how to become a great Southern writer. To be that, you have to be an erudite backwoods philosopher with a penchant for corn liquor and grotesque characterization. And you do that for one thing and one thing only, to make money. If you want to write for people and not make any money and say whatever you want, then start a blog…
In any event, once you’ve published your first piece you have arrived on the scene. But you haven’t made it just yet. To really MAKE it you have to have one of your books be adapted into a movie. This is good for several reasons. First, since only 3% of Americans read books, your work will then be viewed by millions more people. Second, you’ll be able to hobnob at better parties around eccentric movie people who are more interesting and better looking than eccentric book people. Third, you’ll be able to criticize the adaption of your book (even though you helped write the screenplay) giving you more sympathy and credibility in the publishing world.
So to make a good Southern book that will be adapted for Hollywood, you’ll have to work much harder on your characters. One shortcut I would suggest is to create parts for Robert Duvall. If you create a character and can close your eyes and hear and see Robert Duvall playing the part in film then you have a winner. I kid you not, although technically a Yankee (but of Southern ancestry) Mr. Duvall gets Southern accents (and there are hundreds) right. He plays strange Southern characters perfectly. Remember To Kill a Mockingbird? Great book, great film, and it was capped off by Duvall’s portrayal of Boo Radley. He did a phenomenal job and he didn’t even speak.
Film adaptations are great for another reason. People who didn’t know who you were will then go out and find your book and read it. They will fall into two camps. Camp one will be the nerdy people who will champion your cause and say the film (which you also wrote) wasn’t true to the author’s intent. Camp two, will be the people who think your “book sucked” and Tom Hanks totally saved it on screen. Either way as long as the check clears you should be happy.
But film adaptations are no match for the REAL key to long term literary and financial success. To achieve this you must have your book selected for Oprah’s book club. Oprah has a lot of power. You know you have a lot of power when you don’t need a last name. Every woman in America has been programmed to do whatever Oprah tells them. And every man married to that woman has been programmed to do what she then says. So if Oprah picks your book as her feature book of the month you are set for life. Toni Morrison, Cormac McCarthy and others (all amazing writers) sold 10X the books post-Oprah. Even Faulkner became a best seller again decades beyond the grave. If you do make an appearance don’t forget your trademark wardrobe and “Southernisms”. Oprah will play along and get what you’re doing. She’s from Mississippi after all.
Friends, if you follow these steps you will become a great Southern writer. You will create a fictional world full of scamps, scoundrels, and scalawags, that will charm the rest of the nation and the whole world. You might even get enough Yankees to buy your books that they will take a pilgrimage down South to see “what inspired you”. And that is good for our economy down here. (See: Oxford, Mississippi).
In all seriousness, I firmly believe that within each and every Southerner is a good storyteller. Although in truth we realize that our region is more similar to the rest of the country in reality than in print, there are some things pretty special about our culture. Our way of life is slower, our traditions are held dearer, and our crazy relatives and self contradictory ways are pretty dang funny. We do have a story to tell even if we embellish it for the Northern folks. For embellishment and tongue in cheek humor is really what Southern writing has always been about.
If you’ve read this far I hope you got that!
Well, I think I got over my writer’s block. Next week I’ll tackle another topic new to me as I’ll bring you the third article in this series with SO YOU WANT TO HAVE A SOUTHERN COOKING SHOW.
Until next time,