Reading Matters

Danger ahead: Collapse of Southern literature?

In a 1999 issue of The Oxford American, Rutherfordton native and Vanderbilt novelist Tony Earley talks about his theory that most bad Southern writing is descended directly from Eudora Welty’s “Why I Live at the P.O.”

Mind you, Earley calls Welty’s short story a “bona fide work of genius,” and “one of the best stories by any writer, anywhere.” However, Earley believes that lesser writers, in trying to imitate this story, have unfairly perpetuated a stereotypically Southern story.

Here’s what he says:

“And as a Southern writer -- even one who tends to be as thin-skinned, testy, and self-righteous about this issue as I am -- I have been tempted to lower the IQs of my characters, name them Something-or-Other Bob, and stick their illiterate backsides to a Naugahyde La-Z-Boy in order to make myself popular and sell some books. The real danger arises when too many of us at once give in to this invidious urge.

“In creating our own literature, a Southern literature, we often go for the quick laugh, the easy buck, the cardboard character. When we do that, we eat away the foundation of that literature from the inside. My fear is that, eventually, because of our willingness to feed on, without replacing, the tenets and traditions and subjects given to us by our predecessors -- Welty, Flannery O’Connor, and William Faulkner, most prominent among them -- Southern writing will collapse and bury all of us, leaving only kudzu, grits, and a certain vaguely familiar voice to mark the spot.”