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  • Reading 21st-Century Southern Fiction
  • Patrick E. Horn (bio)

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When we asked some of our favorite writers, scholars, and literary critics for their thoughts on the state of “21C” southern fiction, many demurred that they didn’t know the field well enough to comment. By definition, 21C fiction includes only novels and short stories published since January 1, 2000; the more cautious among us might argue that it’s too soon to judge this field with any certainty. Untitled wall study, by Kenny Cole, 2010, courtesy of the artist.

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When we asked some of our favorite writers, scholars, and literary critics for their thoughts on the state of “21C” southern fiction, many demurred that they didn’t know the field well enough to comment. By definition, 21C fiction includes only novels and short stories published since January 1, 2000; the more cautious among us might argue that it’s too soon to judge this field with any certainty. We understand these sentiments, but with all due respect to Faulkner and friends, we wanted this special issue to focus on what was fresh and new in southern letters. For me, this was a labor of love, culminating almost a decade after moving to Chapel Hill to study southern literature, that move itself a dream long deferred.

The question of what qualifies as southern fiction—or southern literature more broadly—has long vexed literary critics. In 1930, Howard Mumford Jones grilled Donald Davidson, one of the self-styled “Fugitive Poets,” about Davidson’s essay on “The Trend of Southern Literature” because, as Jones complained, “You nowhere explicitly state what it is you mean by the southern quality of Southern literature.” Davidson declined to supply a definition.1

Standard descriptions of what makes southern literature and culture distinctive (if not “exceptional”) are by now familiar to most bibliophiles: an insistent sense of place; the strong influences of family, community, and religion; rural and agrarian folkways; an obsession with history and/or the past (read: slavery and its legacies—Civil War, segregation, and racial strife); the gothic and grotesque; biscuits, grits, barbecue, collards, sweet tea, and moonshine; moonlight and magnolias; the list goes on and on. But such symbols of southernness are fraught with stereotypes, and they rarely tell the whole story.

In 1996, Jerry Leath Mills suggested (with tongue-in-cheek, but citing an impressive array of examples) that southern literature could be identified by a single litmus test: “Is there a dead mule in it?” Mills categorized over 200 literary examples of dead mules, or Equus caballus x asinus (defunctus), by the mules’ various causes of death—including overwork, beating, drowning, asphyxiation, being hit by trains, falling into subterranean caves, and many more. But these days a good mule is hard to find, so we turn to more abstract and hopefully less morbid strategies for surveying the field. In this issue’s “Twenty, Twenty-One” roundtable feature, writers and critics offer their own weird and wonderful assessments of southern literature in the present moment.2

For far too long, southern literature was considered the exclusive province of wealthy white men, even though women and people of color have been in the South and writing about it for at least as long. Early anthologies of southern literature were overwhelmingly populated with works by white male writers that generally supported the Agrarians’ view of southernness as a rural and “autochthonous” culture that sprang “naturally” from southern soil. But by the onset of [End Page 15] the twenty-first century, the “South Region” contained the largest percentage of the U.S. population (with 35.6 percent of all residents, regardless of citizenship status; the “Midwest Region” was second with 22.8 percent), and 72.8 percent of the South’s population was categorized as “urban.” Moreover, only 65.7 percent of these southerners racially identified as “White alone,” or white and non-Latino. In other words, more and more of the soil from which southerners and their cultures emerge is paved, and fewer and fewer of these southerners are white males.3


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Standard descriptions of what makes...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 14-19
Launched on MUSE
2016-10-26
Open Access
No
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