New Stories from the South: The Year's Best 1999by Shannon Ravenel (Editor), Tony Earley (Preface by)
It was an anthology that began simply enough: as a way to gather together the best kinds of writing going on in the South. It was also a way, back then, for editor Shannon Ravenel to keep tabs on who was writing what. Some of those voices that she heard first are now well-known: Barbara Kingsolver, Robert Olen Butler, Marly Swick, Rick Bass, Abraham
It was an anthology that began simply enough: as a way to gather together the best kinds of writing going on in the South. It was also a way, back then, for editor Shannon Ravenel to keep tabs on who was writing what. Some of those voices that she heard first are now well-known: Barbara Kingsolver, Robert Olen Butler, Marly Swick, Rick Bass, Abraham Verghese, James Lee Burke, Larry Brown.
Our goal is still the same-to find the most original and affecting stories. And this year, in our newest tradition, we're pleased to include a preface by Tony Earley, which calls into question the message of one of the most-anthologized Southern stories of our time.
The 1999 edition gathers stories by: Michael Knight, Pinckney Benedict, Richard Schmitt, Clyde Edgerton, Andrew Alexander, Mary Clyde, Richard Bausch, Tony Earley, Michael Erard, Rick DeMarinis, Heather Sellers, Kurt Rheinheimer, Ingrid Hill, William Gay, Janice Daugharty, Mary Gordon, George Singleton, Tom Franklin
Laura Payne Butler, and Wendy Brenner.
An indispensable resource for aspiring writers, students, and readers of Southern fiction, New Stories from the South also includes the story behind each story. We continue to offer an updated list of magazines consulted by the editor, along with a complete list of all the stories selected each year since the series' inception, in 1986.
The Old South of decaying mansions, men in seersucker, and women in lace is well recalled in first-rate tales by Charles East ("Pavane for a Dead Princess"), who meditates on the phenomenon of elderly ladies and their young male companions; by Pam Durban ("Gravity"), who beautifully records the decline of a once- distinguished Charleston family; and by Ellen Douglas ("Julia and Nellie"), who offers a tale of friendship transcending serious religious conflict. The rural and working-class South provides its own meaning and wistfulness: In Judy Troy's "Ramone," a young girl relocates to the small Texas town where her stepfather's father lies dying; in Patricia Elam Ruff's moving and elegiac "The Taxi Ride," an elderly woman, tired but happy in her long marriage, finds a welcome friend in a courtly cab-driver; in Janice Daugharty's "Along a Wider River," a former sharecropper watches his old boss fumble and die while fishing; and in Rhian Margaret Ellis's "Every Building Wants to Fall," a fatherless girl, feeling powerless and hopeless as well, discovers a perverse strength in causing her friend's epileptic seizures. Some inspired low comedy (and more class conflict) comes from two familiar experts: Tim Gautreaux's "Little Frogs in a Ditch" is a droll tale concerning a no-account loser who sells common roof pigeons as homing pigeons; and Lee Smith's unsparing "Native Daughter" turns on the conceit of its haughty narrator, a pretty girl from Kentucky who doesn't realize that her clubby male companions consider her easy trash.
Robert Olen Butler's tetchy introductionwith its bristling at the notion of "Southern" fictioninsists on the universality of art, but his fears are misplaced. The superb stories here quietly demonstrate that the universal always resides in the particular.
Read an Excerpt
from the Preface: Letter from Sister-What We Learned at the P.O.
I have a theory-perhaps unformed and, without question, unsubstantiated-that most bad Southern writing is descended directly from Eudora Welty's "Why I Live at the P.O." Welty's story smacks of a certain now-familiar sensibility, rife with caricature, overstated eccentricity, and broadly drawn humor, that has come to represent Southern writing and, through that representation, the South itself.
It would be difficult, if not impossible, to read much Southern fiction and not come upon story after story faithfully cut from our landscape and culture, using the template provided by Welty in 1941. The characters in "Why I Live at the P.O." possess the prototypical, colorful Southern names that, in the musical sound of their regional specificity, have come to promise colorful Southern doings: Papa-Daddy, Uncle Rondo, Stella-Rondo, Shirley-T., Sister. They eat green-tomato pickle and, on the Fourth of July, sport about in flesh-colored kimonos while impaired by prescription drugs. They live in Mississippi. They grow long beards and illegitimate children and mismatched sets of breasts.
In delicious, honey-coated accents they utter the delicious, honey-coated statements, void of any real importance, that fall sweetly on the ears of book-buying lovers of stereotype everywhere. "Papa-Daddy," Stella-Rondo says, when she's looking to stir up trouble, "Papa-Daddy! . . . Sister says she fails to understand why you don't cut off your beard." Uncle Rondo, after he has donned Stella-Rondo's flesh-colored kimono and illegally ingested God knows what prescription narcotic (he's a pharmacist), cries, "Sister, get out of my way, I'm poisoned."
So faithfully have the conventions of "Why I Live at the P.O." been copied by succeeding generations of writers, so dominant has the regionally identified literature laid out by the story become, that Welty might well have titled it "How to Exploit the People of the Nation's Poorest Region and Get a Really Big Book Advance." All of which is at least shameful, if not artistically criminal, because "Why I Live at the P.O." is a bona fide work of genius, not only one of the best short stories produced by a Southern writer, but one of the best stories by any writer, anywhere.
The genius of "Why I Live at the P.O." lies not in the story that the narrator, Sister, tells us-which is, without question, broadly told, colorful, eccentric, and side-splittingly funny-but in the story Sister does not know she is telling us. In her hysterical attempt to win us over to her side in a seemingly inconsequential family dispute, Sister inadvertently reveals the emotional and spiritual burdens that she and the members of her family must pull through their lives. Stella-Rondo has been abandoned by a traveling salesman who might or might not be her husband, leaving her to raise a daughter who might or might not be illegitimate. Uncle Rondo is a shell-shocked veteran of World
Meet the Author
Tony Earley was selected by Granta as one of today's best young writers, The New Yorker featured him in its best young fiction writers issue, and his first novel, Jim the Boy, became a national best-seller. He is also the author of a highly praised collection of short stories, Here We Are in Paradise. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, with his wife and teaches writing at Vanderbilt University.
Shannon Ravenel has edited New Stories from the South since 1986. Formerly editorial director of Algonquin Books, she now directs her Algonquin imprint, Shannon Ravenel Books. She lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
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