Local Color, Elevated

by Elizabeth Lutyens, Editor in Chief

“One place comprehended can make us understand other places better,” said Eudora Welty in 1935. Her wisdom echoes throughout the writing of Flannery O’Connor, Zora Neale Hurston, Carson McCullers, Thomas Wolfe, and of course William Faulkner, among other lions and lionesses of the so-called “Southern Literature” pantheon.

Almost sixty years later, a listing of favorites on Goodreads, under the heading “Best Southern Literature," includes those stellar names, along with contemporary additions, a mixed bag of “favorites” from Charles Frazier and Toni Morrison to Pat Conroy…to Nicholas Sparks. Strange list-fellows united by one commonality: writers whose works fit the Goodreads category of “books set in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia.”

Location, location, location? Must art grow from roots in the soil of a specific place or region? Does anyone call John Updike’s work “New England Literature”? Or Lorrie Moore’s “Midwestern Literature?”

Over the years a sub-category has risen to the fore, one close to home for those of us living and working in Western North Carolina: “Appalachian Literature." At its zenith is Ron Rash, one of our own (he’s on the faculty of Western Carolina, a member of the University of North Carolina system and is a native of nearby Boiling Springs). After writing prolifically about this region in his poetry and short stories and novels, Rash’s star grew brighter nationally (and beyond) with the publication of Serena. Yet, in a review of this novel, hailed as containing the best opening line in American literature, Janet Maslin felt the need to acknowledge that Rash was “a writer whose reputation has been largely regional despite an O. Henry Prize and other honors…"

How does Ron Rash feel about the “regional” tag; specifically being called an “Appalachian writer”? He responded in an interview in the Daily Beast (February 27, 2013): “I have mixed feelings about any adjective in front of the word ‘writer.’ Chekhov has talked about this, that any designation besides writer (Russian writer, whatever) was a diminishment. I’m proud to be from the region. But sometimes it seems to me that there’s an implication of ‘just’ an Appalachian writer or ‘just’ a Southern writer. That kind of diminishment is bothersome. If a writer is any good, he or she has to both evoke and transcend the region.”

This is certainly the idea behind our Editor’s Choice feature, I Know Exactly Who I Am: Diverse Voices in Appalachian Writing. In his essay, Guest Editor Grey Jones chose to highlight two submissions that “were neither elegies to isolation, nor odes to homogeneity. They were rebuttals to a centuries’-old othering of place and culture…to pervasive stereotypes and socially constructed identities supplied by local color writers. These negative stereotypes depicted Appalachian people as isolated, uneducated, primitive, and in every way, homogeneous.” He is able to point to the positive with the writings of the two authors he chose to illustrate his theme: “More contemporary Appalachian writers are, however, owning the narrative. They are confronting the myths that abound concerning Appalachia and its people.” Jones, like Ron Rash, asks that we “experience a rebirth in which we evolve the ideology while maintaining the cultural traditions.”

Evoke and transcend.

Elizabeth Lutyens teaches the Prose Master Class in the Great Smokies Writing Program. For more about her, go to www.elizabethlutyenseditor.com