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An Appreciation of Southern Fiction

Most of the books I just placed in categories of humor, violence, racial interactions, and weirdness are multidimensional works that also address poverty, romantic relationships, the mythologizing of American history, and much more.
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As someone who has often visited but never lived in the South, who am I to write a blog post about America's southern fiction?

Well, I just finished Cormac McCarthy's Suttree. I've read many other "non-northern" novels such as Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God. I'm aware that 2012 is the 50th-anniversary year of the movie based on Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. I'm also aware that Charles Portis' True Grit isn't about a truly small portion of a storied southern breakfast food.

The novels in the above paragraph, and other examples of southern fiction, often contain one or more of these "grains": humor, poverty, violence, religion, weirdness, racial tension, not-very-repressed emotions, women who are emotionally stronger than they might first seem and ne'er-do-well men. Heck, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" -- to quote (out of context) the title of that famous short story by Georgia-born writer Flannery O'Connor.

Of course, lots of fiction from elsewhere in the U.S. and the world also contains the above elements, but somehow things often feel heightened in southern literature. That's the case even in the books many of us can't quite understand, like The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner of Mississippi. (Well, the title offers a clue to what that book is about -- it's a history of punk rock, right?)

Some of the funniest southern fiction? I'd have to include, among other books, Erskine Caldwell's Tobacco Road and God's Little Acre, Charles Portis' Norwood and The Dog of the South, and much of Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

The most violent? Several of Cormac McCarthy's superb novels, especially Blood Meridian and No Country for Old Men, and parts of The Border Trilogy: All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing and Cities of the Plain. The semiautobiographical Suttree (recommended by commenter "donnyraindog") is less violent, but it's brooding and disturbing -- as well as riveting, grimly funny, and full of McCarthy's stunning prose. A book minus much of a plot, but it doesn't need one as readers follow the life of Cornelius Suttree, a college-educated man from an affluent family who chooses to live among the down-and-out in Knoxville, Tenn.

Southern fiction with racial tension, racial inequality, and perhaps some racial harmony? Suttree, To Kill a Mockingbird, Alice Walker's The Color Purple, Toni Morrison's Beloved, Alex Haley's Roots, Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind, Kathryn Stockett's The Help and Carson McCullers' The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and The Member of the Wedding.

Wonderful weirdness? McCullers' Reflections in a Golden Eye and her "The Ballad of the Sad Cafe" short story, to name a couple of fictional offerings by southern writers.

Of course, most of the books I just placed in categories of humor, violence, racial interactions, and weirdness are multidimensional works that also address poverty, romantic relationships, the mythologizing of American history, and much more.

Other well-known authors partly or mainly associated with the South? Rita Mae Brown, Pat Conroy, James Dickey, Fannie Flagg, Dorothea Benton Frank, Charles Frazier, John Grisham, Carl Hiaasen, Barbara Kingsolver, Walker Percy, John Kennedy Toole, Robert Penn Warren, Rebecca Wells, Eudora Welty, Richard Wright and many more. There's also Larry McMurtry, who I think kind of straddles the line between southern fiction and the western genre -- as is also the case with Cormac McCarthy in some of his books.

And if you want to discuss playwrights, Tennessee Williams can't be forgotten. But forget about New York -- finance novels being in the southern genre, even though Wall Street is in southern Manhattan!

Who are your favorite authors at least somewhat associated with the South, and your favorite novels or stories by those writers?


Dave Astor's 2012 memoir Comic (and Column) Confessional includes a preface by Heloise and back-cover endorsements by Arianna Huffington, "The Far Side" cartoonist Gary Larson, and others. Those three also appear in the partly humorous book, along with other famous columnists and cartoonists and people such as Hillary Clinton, Walter Cronkite, Coretta Scott King, and Martha Stewart. If you'd like to buy a personally inscribed copy (for less than the Amazon price), contact Dave at