Some of my favorite Southern authors, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Conner, Thomas Wolfe, and James Dickey, just to name a few, all have one thing in common: they didn’t write gentle fiction. They wrote Southern gothic.
Southern gothic focuses on the depravity of our beloved South and typically has characters that are deeply flawed, eccentric, and…usually violent. Every southerner has read about some of these people in the newspaper. Several of us may even know a few. (Heck, I’m probably related to a couple.)
Nevertheless, we learn from these novels. They hold up a mirror to parts of our culture and ourselves that we would rather not discuss or think about. But we read them because they represent some great literature. Albeit, after we’re done we typically contemplate sticking our head in the oven.
But the problem with Southern gothic is this: the gothic viewpoint is not a complete and true picture of the South. Growing up in rural Tennesee, I saw plenty of prejudice, exclusion, and ignorance perpetuated by a host of bugger-eating morons hanging off every rung of the social ladder. But I also knew a richer, kinder South; one that was permeated by an abiding sense of community, a love of the soil, and a devotion to family, friends, and faith. There was also an unquenchable desire to find laughter in the ordinary day. Admittedly, much of the South has changed, but the values of that agrarian culture are still firmly rooted.
So, here’s the difference. I write about the same South that Faulkner, Wolfe, and Dickey wrote about…the same quiet, ordinary people with the same sins, joys, sorrows, and hopes we all share. But I’m inclined to write about the more redemptive aspects of Southern life, of how flawed people -sometimes willingly and sometimes reluctantly- make courageous choices based on the enduring values that are embedded within them and in their culture.
And I do this under the prose style of gentle fiction.
In truth, gentle fiction is actually an approach to writing that crosses multiple genres. The characters tend to be likeable and redemptive, relationships are a central focus, and the stories generally have an upbeat or positive ending despite the pitfalls of real life and real conflicts.
What you won’t be getting in gentle fiction is a lot of icky blood and guts or graphic sexual descriptions detailing plumbing and positions. Don’t misunderstand; these things can occur in the story because, well, people are people. But effective and elegant writing can invoke the reader’s imagination much more explicitly than tawdry narration or sleazy dialogue.
And, ironically, even though gentle fiction stories are typically infused with quite a bit of wit and laughter, (shucks, I know mine are) they also have the powerful capacity to invoke deep emotions and genuine tears.
The gentle fiction approach to writing is nothing new. Let me offer a few examples: Jane Austin, Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, James Herriot, James Fennimore Cooper, Mark Twain, Louisa May Alcott…and the list goes on and on. As well, many present day writers broadly fit within the boundaries of gentle fiction, including: Maeve Binchy, Francis Macomber, Patrick Taylor, Lisa Wingate, Ann Bates Ross, and, of course, Jan Karon.
But there is one huge problem with writing gentle fiction. The ranks of the critical literati don’t much care for it, particularly in Southern literature.
Wiley Cash’s wonderfully crafted and highly lauded 2012 novel, A Land More Kind Than Home, is an excellent example of modern Southern gothic and has received dozens of accolades from the literary press including The New York Times Editor’s Choice Award.
Conversely, you won’t find a single Los Angeles Times or New York Times Book Review on any work of Jan Karon, who has historically been a number one best seller and has sold millions upon millions of books. Gentle fiction is not seen as having literary significance and the aforementioned critics seem to like southern literature best when we handle a snake or two, smoke Marlboro’s on the porch in our mumu and curlers, and drop the occasional shout-out to Sun-drop. For them to take notice… not only do you have to leave the laundry dirty, you have to hang it in the front yard.
But ultimately, I am convinced that novels such as the Watervalley Series more accurately reflect the contemporary culture that truly exists in the South, stories that celebrate the everyday challenges, the comic frustrations, and the eccentricities of ordinary people.
In the end, I’d like to believe that the stories of Watervalley are a needed breath of fresh air. These glass half-full tales are my love letters to small town life. With each of them, (More Things in Heaven and Earth, Each Shining Hour, and The Splendor of Ordinary Days –to be released 10/15) the reader experiences the delightful possibility of not just being entertained, but of being transported; of being reminded… if only for a few sublime hours, of a life that is rich and wise and wonderful.
Now, go drink a Sun-drop and fry something! (Hey, the critics might be reading this…so, I’m covering my bases.)
I’m Jeff High…and for now in Watervalley, that’s pretty much the high point.