Social historian Carl N. Degler once described the South as a region “where roots, place, family, and tradition are the essence of identity.” Nowhere does this seem more apparent than in South Louisiana. Degler’s descriptors are the elements that gave rise to Southern literature, and in an age where literature’s value and existence are constantly questioned or threatened, Southern literature remains a strong, necessary genre.
Certainly Southern literature has had its share of challenges. Earlier this year, Oxford American‘s then editor, Marc Smirnoff, criticized a rival Southern magazine for publishing what he labeled “Media-Falsifications of the South.”
Even more recently, The Millions, an online magazine and literary site, featured an article with the words “the Death of Southern Literature” in its headline. The writer, Baynard Woods, declared it time to “bury the term.” The best thing for the genre is to kill it off and sacrifice “the adjective ‘Southern’ for the sake of what really matters here, which is literature,” he said.
Still, Southern literature isn’t dead and won’t be anytime soon. It remains too relevant, and too much is at stake. Plainly put, until the South, particularly Louisiana, is no longer segregated from the rest of America and exoticized by outsiders, Southern literature will continue filling a void in American literature.
In Baton Rouge, the changing literary scene isn’t really changing. Literature still plays a vital role in the cultural landscape of the area and state. The annual Louisiana Book Festival, one of many state festivals celebrating writers and books, demonstrates just how important literature is to the area.
Greg Langley, newsfeatures editor for Baton Rouge’s The Advocate, explained to C-Span last November that when it comes to books, people here want a story about them. “The local angle is still important,” he said. Of course, that local angle is uniquely Southern and even more uniquely Louisianan.
“Books will never go away as long as we have a story to tell,” Langley also said. People here not only want to read what’s familiar to them, they also want to tell their often misunderstood stories, a characteristic shared with the rest of the South.
Southern writer William Faulkner famously wrote in his 1936 novel, Absalom, Absalom, “Tell me about the South . . .What’s it like there? What do they do there? Why do they live there? Why do they live at all?” 76 years later, Southern literature is still answering those questions.