Reviewed by: S.L. Weis
New Stories from the South 2009, the twenty-fourth annual volume in this series published by Algonquin Books, offers a sampling of the year’s best short stories which are either set in the Southern United States or authored by Southern writers. The authors featured in this volume ranged from established Southern writers, such as Wendell Berry, Pickney Benedict and Cary Holladay to debut authors, and while the stories varied widely in content and tone, all were generally of high quality. A few, such as Stephanie Soileau’s Camera Obscura, Wendell Berry’s Fly Away, Breath, were exceptional.
If a Southern anthology captures the collective unconsciousness of its population, then how do their struggles and dreams differ from those of other regions? How does a story capture place? What does it mean to be Southern? How can this be contrasted with what it means to be more generally American, and do themes like alienation, teen pregnancy, desperate love and suicide have a greater significance in the south than elsewhere? Or are these themes common to the broader cultural landscape in an age of disrupted families, economic decline and the homogenizing effect of mass media? These are all reasonable questions that, given the geographic emphasis, resound from the pages of this volume. In fairness to its editor, this does not reflect a lack of editorial focus. In his introduction, Madison Smartt Bell described his struggle with these questions as he selected the pieces for this volume. He described the diversity of topics and treatments in hopeful terms, as a departure from focus on the Old South, the Confederacy and racial tensions to a broader set of concerns more reflective of what he called the new south’s rootlessness.
Katrina, which surfaced in one form or another in a few of these stories, has emerged as a metaphor for this new rootlessness; for the way the South has been torn apart and is re-emerging in unexpected ways. He argues that the South has, like the rest of the country, largely moved beyond the false duality of race and has adopted a broader, less stereotyped character. However, one thing that seems to be virtually absent in this set of stories is the lyrical Southern dialect, arguably one of the most distinctive facets of Southern literary tradition. While it is true that Southern dialect is often misappropriated and used as shorthand for a number of derogatory characteristics, it would be hoped that Southern fiction could reclaim those stereotypes and place them in a context more befitting the reality of the New South, rather than to wipe out the Southern flavor of the language in favor of uniformity.