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September 16, 2009

Pub Notes: Writing South

From Flagpole Magazine (Athens, Georgia):

Hey, y’all: the new Oxford American is out, “The Southern Magazine of Good Writing,” “Proudly published from The University of Central Arkansas.” This is the Southern literature issue (“Southern Literature Is Never Dead It’s Not Even Past”). That’s kind of like Golf World putting out its golf issue, because the Oxford American is always about Southern literature, even in its music issue—coming next: don’t miss.

The Oxford American couldn’t make it in Mississippi once author John Grisham’s generous support was withdrawn, and it went out of business, only to be resuscitated by the University of damn Central Arkansas, which gives the OA the freedom to publish what it wants, without being bound by the iron laws of advertising. So, it’s an editor’s dream and a publisher’s nightmare: long on copy, short on ads, though the ads also tell much about literary attractions in the South—new books, bed & breakfasts, literary pilgrimages, festivals, historic homes, museums, hotels and barbecue joints.

I haven’t read it all, none of the fiction yet, but there are two types of people here in Athens who will not want to miss this issue: those who love Southern writing and those who don’t know anything about it. You could just say “writing,” without tacking on Southern, of course, but the OA is unabashedly Southern in its outlook, even when viewing the South as a portal to the universal.

Even if you didn’t grow up reading writers from around here, this issue is a great place to nose around, because many of the greats get treatments, along with some of the obscure. There’s a lot of writing about writing and about not writing; there’s a wide array of writers and subjects, and as a sort of centerpiece, accompanied by sort of an apology by the editor for doing it, there’s a listing of the 10 best Southern novels of all time, with the winner being Absalom, Absalom! and the other nine being more accessible. Interestingly, the large panel of judges includes some notable Athenians, including Jim Cobb, Hubert McAlexander, Judith Ortiz Cofer and Donn Cooper. (Yes, To Kill a Mockingbird made it.) There's also a list of the five best Southern works of non-fiction and a bunch of underrated Southern books.

Among the small collection of poems included in this issue is one, “Deep Trash,” by Jeff Fallis, unofficial Poet Laureate of Athens.

This Oxford American is so large and diverse that there’s barely space here even to list all the articles and stories. The heavy hitters get their due: Faulkner, Welty, (the original) Wolfe, O’Connor, McCullers, and there’s a lot of other writing about writers and place and what it means to black writers and to white writers to be Southern. There’s also a nice attempt by Bronwen Dickey (yes, his daughter) to remind us of Ralph McGill’s lonely fight as “Southern Enemy Number One” to drag his beloved South into the 20th century through his daily columns in the Atlanta Constitution preceding and during the Civil Rights period.

And, typically, there’s a lot of wit and fun in here, too. One of the resident wits, Roy Blount, Jr., who had been sounding more and more like the professional “Southerner in New York,” is relinquishing his regular column, because he feels that he no longer has a lot of fresh observations on the South, not being here and all. But here comes Jack Pendarvis, who appears ready to hit running in Blount’s brogans, with a wonderful meditation on Blount and Woody Allen and wit and perceptions of the South.

The publisher, Warwick Sabin, who’s trying to be a writing publisher, weighs in with a welcome push-back at Malcolm Gladwell’s cheapshot jab in The New Yorker questioning Atticus Finch’s commitment to civil rights.

The Oxford American may be too Southern for your tastes, but it is the thinking Southerner’s front porch for conversation about good storytelling, good eating, good music, good living and what it means to be Southern with your eyes and your mind open. Even if you just recently got here, the OA will help you understand who you are and where you are. Don’t let the racists, bigots and haters take away your Southern heritage and the love of your native land. Fight back! Arm and entertain yourself with the Oxford American: you’ll find reassurance and reinforcement within its pages. And your mama will be proud.

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