Southern writing lives online

Authors Blake Butler, Mary Miller, and Scott McClanahan have brought Southern writing to the Internet era

The author Blake Butler.
Joeff Davis

Authors from the South were once enamored with the idea of being Southern writers, but today the description has become more complicated. The romantic idea of the gentleman novelist has given over to the fear of being pigeonholed as a regionalist while still carrying the burden of great Southern literature of the past. Some modern-day Southern writers, like Daniel Woodrell, Tom Franklin and Ron Rash, still carry on the gothic traditions that came from writers like Flannery O’Conner, James Dickey and Cormac McCarthy. But the South is morphing into something unforeseeable by those earlier generations. The rapid move from an agrarian to an industrial and now to a digital society has caused much of the Southern tradition to feel distant, even silly — beer koozies with the face of Robert Johnson, the original bluesman, are sold on Beale Street in Memphis and William Faulkner was on the list to become the new mascot of Ole Miss. But a new Southern culture is developing; what some once labeled the New South (the rise of industry) has now become the Digital South.

There is an emerging group of younger Southern writers who are witness to this digitization of the South. These younger writers use the Internet to connect with national and international audiences in ways unavailable to the generation just before, and they’re redefining what “Southern literature” means.

Blake Butler, who lives in Atlanta, is one of this new group of Southern, digitally connected writers. Though none of his work takes place in the South. In fact, it isn’t set in any recognizable place at all. Along with Tao Lin, Butler has become the poster child of this generation of writers whose careers started online. He is the founder of the website htmlgiant, which is the go-to place for a number of independently published writers and a site that continually launches young authors like himself. Butler’s work is about the claustrophobia of self and language. His 2011 novel “There Is No Year” (Harper Perennial) is about a family who moves into a new house and encounters a “copy family” (their exact replicas except for the mold in their mouths) and other increasingly mysterious and paranoid events. Butler strives for a highly stylized black canvas of language that evokes mood rather than narrative. This may owe to his presence on the Internet, a densely populated nonplace.

Butler avoids calling himself a Southern writer. “I certainly don't feel part of a Southern tradition beyond the fact I grew up here. The South, to me, doesn’t really exist on paper, and authors who are looked up to as the figureheads of Southern writing couldn’t feel more alien to me,” he told me. “I like being nowhere, and I want to go deeper into the nowhere.”

Yet Butler’s work shares similarities with the tradition he distances himself from. The impact of writers like William Faulkner and Barry Hannah is hard to ignore. Faulkner, after all, was an experimental writer — “As I Lay Dying” and “Requiem for a Nun” being obvious examples — and Butler takes after his inventive narrative structures and dark subject matter. The influence of Hannah’s muscular, baroque sentences are on display in Butler’s writing as well.

However transportational the Internet can be, no one writes in a vacuum, and the effect of living in the South and knowing its literature, even if you reject it, is hard to escape. Because the South is a defeated nation inside the most successful nation in history, it has always been a place in search of an identity. The contradictions of self and place are constant 21st century problems as well. What does it mean to be from somewhere if you can be everywhere? A fight for identity as a citizen of a place you don’t fully understand — what could be more Southern than that? 

Mary Miller
Dolores Ulmer

In Faulkner’s masterpiece, “Absalom Absalom,” the main character, Quentin Compson, is coaxed into telling a story about the South by his Canadian roommate at Harvard. The tale Quentin shares is a horrific one of fratricide and the perversion of Southern womanhood that mirrors his own sister’s struggles, which (as we know from “The Sound and the Fury”) will cause Quentin to kill himself. The roommate asks Quentin why he hates the South and Quentin gives the best answer any good conflicted Southern boy can give, “I don’t hate it.” Lesser authors expound on what they love about the South. But those who have succeeded in Faulkner’s wake are perhaps engaging in a subconscious explanation not of why they love the South, but why they don’t hate it.

Some writers at the end of the 20th century were rewarded for becoming expats in the North, while their colleagues who stayed home saw their careers suffer. Richard Ford, a Mississippi native, moved north, avoided setting most of his writing in the South. He was awarded a Pulitzer, published in The New Yorker many times and sold widely, while writers like Larry Brown and Barry Hannah, both fellow Mississippians, were ignored by prestigious New York-based magazines, never won major awards and never reached Ford’s numbers. But the Internet is allowing Southern writers to transcend the cliquish New York literary world and find indie presses around the country with the same distribution power and cheaper publicity methods than their larger counterparts.

Mary Miller is a native Mississippian and has spent most of her life in the Deep South. Her first collection “Big World,” with its precise stories and strong narrators, owes much to Susan Minot, Denis Johnson and Mary Robison. It was published by Hobart, an independent press based in Ann Arbor, Mich. Thanks to social media word of mouth, the book became an underground classic. Her stories are powerfully simple tales that feel like they could’ve been written at the height of ’80s minimalism. Liveright/Norton will release her first novel, “The Last Days of California,” in the spring of 2014.

Thanks to the Internet, Miller is a global citizen tapped into the zeitgeist, but many of her readers still cling to stereotypes, wanting her to write like and talk like a Southerner. Miller tells this story: “I remember I gave a reading in New York once and the person introducing me said I was from Mississippi. After the reading, a man approached me who seemed rather irritated. He said, ‘You’re not from Mississippi. You don’t even have an accent!’ At that point in my life, I had lived in Mississippi my entire life. I remember thinking how odd it was that he thought I was pretending to be from somewhere I wasn’t. Why would anyone do this? I had to try to explain why I didn’t have the accent he thought I should have.” 

Scott McClanahan

Scott McClanahan is a West Virginian and, like Miller, he writes about his native land. He shares a similar sensibility to his fellow Appalachian Breece D’J Pancake, the cult author whose short life yielded just one highly lauded book. McClanahan, like Pancake, writes introspective stories about the ghosts of his home. He published his first two books himself, passing on offers from large publishers because he knew he could keep more money by selling the books himself. He travels the country like an itinerant preacher, giving live performances of his work, a traditional-feeling mode of promotion that is only possible because of connections he’s made through the Internet. His latest book, a “Biography of Place” called “Crapalachia” (Two Dollar Radio), records his early life. McClanahan takes on the subject of his home with a contemporary wariness of “truth.” He recognizes that all place in writing comes from imagination: “I think all great novels are non places inside the brain. James Joyce’s Dublin isn’t Dublin. His Dublin is an act of his imagination.” The Internet provides a setting for fictions in its own right, a place of invention, where myth can supersede real life.

McClanahan’s stories also touch on what has long been the third rail of Southern fiction, poverty. Even though his characters suffer the indignities of foreclosure, welfare and generational unemployment, he never uses poverty as a prop. He sees poverty as having more to do with one’s identity than any state border. “I'’m sure your mama and how much money she has in her pocketbook has more influence on you than the mountain or the river next to your house or even whether you have an accent or not,” he says.

Southern literature is something that was once clearly definable. Race, religion, class, violence and language were central to the its aesthetic. The world has changed and Southern writers with it, but above all, the region’s literature has remained about mythmaking as explanation — creating a story to understand who you are and where you come from. All American writing shares this to some extent. Huck Finn, Jay Gatsby, and Dean Moriarty are all mythmakers, but the Southern writer not only creates characters who tell myths in search of identity but chronicles a whole society in need of one.

The South has been on the wrong side of history for so long that its artists perhaps feel a need to create a different narrative of individuality, an explanation of itself for outsiders. Faulkner, it could be said, did not trace Southern history in his fiction; he invented (or reinvented) it. It is storytelling at its most basic. If Jorge Luis Borges’s infinite library has come to life on the Internet, so too has Faulkner’s lament for the death rattle of the South. The residue of its troubled past and grand literary heritage will linger for many years to come, but, as this new crop of writers shows, the literature it produces won’t look anything like it did before. 

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