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Connoisseurs of disaster 

Allan Gurganus talks about the narrative edge of Southern storytellers

click to enlarge Allan Gurganus - PHOTO COURTESY OF ALGONQUIN BOOKS

Since 1986, the New Stories from the South anthology from Algonquin Books has distilled the year's best Southern fiction from the hundreds of stories published annually by Southern writers, in regional magazines, or about the South as a whole. This year, for the first time, series founder Shannon Ravenel did not make the editorial decisions, leaving that honor to the anthology's first guest editor, Allan Gurganus, author of (among other things) Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All.

It's a rare privilege to write about a book in which you are personally thanked. One of the stories in the volume was originally published in a small-press literary journal I'm involved with called Backwards City, and the author was kind enough to thank me in his bio. I wish this meant I could take credit for the excellence of the anthology, but that honor is all Gurganus's.

"I think I'm in a unique position to see just how much work Shannon Ravenel has done," he says. "It's just an unbelievable amount of reading--and she did it for 20 years in a row."

By the end, he confides, "I really got to get a kind of appetite for it. When they said 'This is the last batch,' I won't say I was disappointed--but I felt satisfied."

What is it about the South that lends itself to an anthology like this? Why do we need Best New Stories from the South, but not Best New Stories from the Upper Midwest or Best New Stories from New Jersey? Gurganus is asked this question a lot.

"All stories are about resisting loss. All stories are about people in trouble. Having lost a war that we started, I think we're uniquely qualified to talk about what losing really means. In narrative, winning comes out of losing, and so we have an edge."

In addition, the continued importance of religion in Southern life should not be overlooked, he says. "For better or worse, religion is still very important in the South, and religion has the benefit of making stories seem urgent and central, and making parables out of human life. It helps us see actions as moral or immoral, which is the starting point for stories."

Race, of course, is also a crucial subject. "It may be the great subject of American life," Gurganus says, "beginning with how we treated the native population in order to get what we wanted, and then began to import other types of people to do work for us we didn't want to do. All of these things make Southerners uniquely qualified to tell the American story."

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No two stories in the volume are alike, with diverse styles ranging from Cary Holladay's robust and earnest historical fiction "The Burning," set in 18th-century Virginia, to George Singleton's characteristically hysterical satire "Director's Cut," to Enid Shomer's ultramodern "Fill in the Blank," which is built around a banal personality test with such questions as "If I were an bird, I'd be a ____." At first glance, you might suspect that the only thing uniting these stories is geographical proximity, the fact that somehow, somewhere in the publishing process, the word "Southern" got attached.

But underneath nearly all of these stories is that paradoxical combination that Gurganus says defines that quintessential "connoisseur of disaster," the American Southerner: an all-encompassing, all-pervasive sense of the inevitability of loss, and alongside that, a sense of humor.

"A sense of humor is an essential driver's license for being a Southerner--you have to be able to take and tell a joke," Gurganus said. "Jokes are about embarrassment, about failure. Viagra jokes come to mind. It's all about somebody who can't do something and is trying very hard to do it and usually gets into terrible trouble as a result. Jokes are also a great refuge for people who are not succeeding.

"Jokes are a consolation in a bad situation. When Charlie Chaplin falls down the stairs, it must be very painful for him, but we laugh."

The editor of next year's edition will be Edward P. Jones, whose The Known World won the Pulitizer Prize in 2004. Gurganus pushed hard for Jones as his successor, not least of all because he felt strongly that it was important for an African-American writer to have a turn choosing the best new stories from the South.

With so many stories being published each year, how should Jones begin? How will he ever get from over 800 finalists to the 20 or so stories that will make up New Stories from the South 2007?

Here's Gurganus's strategy: "I look for a voice I haven't heard before. I look for a situation that may be familiar but seems in some way new. I'm still waiting for the great Mexican-American Southern gothic writer. I think that all the new people in the South have new types of information to give us about our old and new traditions."

How do you know when you've found a great new voice? "It's one of those things where you know it when you feel it. A great story won't let you go. I think that's how you tell the difference between something that's just a book and something that's literature--literature is what remembers longest."

Allan Gurganus and co-editor Kathy Pories will join Quinn Dalton, Daniel Wallace and Luke Whisnant--all authors featured in New Stories from the South--at Quail Ridge Books & Music in Raleigh on Sunday, Sept. 17. Gurganus, Dalton and Wallace will also read at the Regulator in Durham on Monday, Sept. 18.


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