Gurganus Does the South Proud
Review of New Stories from the South: The Year’s Best, 2006, edited by Allan Gurganus.
I’m generally leery about these “best of” collections—the quality of the work is almost always spotty, and one frequently gets the sense that it wasn’t so much the “best of” as “the best way” – to pay back friends, to promote students, to curry favor. The fact that such series not infrequently choose guest editors like Beck or the mega-novelist/screenwriter of the moment, rather than people whom we might reasonably expect to possess a certain amount of judgment with regard to contemporary writing, doesn’t add to their credibility.
Allan Gurganis, however, is an exemplary writer and a trustworthy editor, and he’s brought together much more good work than not in this anthology. But as always, the quality is variable: There are still too many Iowa workshop “epiphany” stories here and, in a few others, the authors are struggling much too hard to show how Southern they are, inserting as many items as possible from the “Approved Tropes of Southern Fiction List”; at times, that is, the cornpone and huntin’ dawgs get a little thick. Still, there’s a great deal to like and respect in these stories, and Gurganis has interesting and provocative things to say about his selections in his opening essay.
Indeed, the question of how “genre writing” defines itself and is defined is always intriguing. When Gurganis speaks of southerners’ almost genetically inherited “sense of loss” or the way that southern writers are “connoisseurs of disaster,” it’s interesting to speculate whether that’s really what makes southern writing southern or whether writing that satisfies those broad categories (to name only two) tends to satisfy a set of predetermined expectations and is thus chosen as emblematic of the category. In other words, a tautology. There are surely southern writers who are writing in entirely different traditions, and there are surely non-southern (geographically) writers who write passionately and effectively about loss and disaster (I think of Keith Banner, for example, whose writing is arguable very “southern,” though his roots are in Indiana and Ohio). Nonetheless, with the exception of perhaps the southwest (on a more minor scale), I can’t think of another regional literature that has produced more fine American writing, and Gurganis has done an excellent job in bringing together this more-than-respectable sampler.