I always want to read Southern fiction in the summer; I think it’s the heat and the long, lazy afternoons on the porch that make me want to drink big glasses of iced tea and dive into a deliciously languid book. (Books can be languid.)
Works of Southern fiction often revolve around large, extended families; I can’t think of any books set in the Northeast or Midwest that are as family-oriented as most Southern fiction. I’m from a tiny family that originates in New England (both of my parents are from Massachusetts), and I didn’t grow up in the same town as my cousins or grandparents. I think part of my attachment to Southern fiction is mild jealousy. I wish I could live in a big house surrounded by people who loved me no matter what.
And in that big house, there would be food. Oh, the food. I did not grow up with Southern food, which is probably another reason why I love Southern fiction. I was raised on baked chicken, brown rice, and steamed vegetables, which all definitely have a place in my diet today, but you know what’s even more delicious than brown rice? Bacon. And pork. And greens. And coconut cake. Thank you, Southern cooks and chefs, for creating the most amazingly wonderful American cuisine I have ever had. If I didn’t melt when it’s warmer than 85 degrees out, I might move to Savannah or Tallahassee just for the food. Lush, wonderful descriptions of meals make Southern fiction even more fantastic.
There’s also quite a bit of ghostly mystery in a lot of Southern novels, especially those set in Louisiana. I am huge fan of anything horror/fantasy/science fiction, and when those genres are combined with Southern prose, I am a happy reader. It’s the kind of stuff I can sink into and not leave for a long time.
It’s kind of weird that I have such a penchant for Southern novels; I’m from New Jersey, and have only been to the South a few times. (In my personal Southern experiences, the best thing was Waffle House. Everything else was too hot and frustrating. The Atlanta airport is the worst place on earth.) I don’t know the South like I know the Northeast, or even the Midwest, and I’m a pretty recent Midwestern transplant. Maybe it’s the mystery and strangeness of the South that I love so much, and the way these writers convey the region.
Here are just a handful of Southern writers that I love, and their best works (in my opinion). I know this list is woefully incomplete, so leave me your favorite Southern writer in the comments!
There is one story in here that made me throw the book across the room. It is so incredibly creepy and unexpected and amazing. Truman Capote is the kind of author a lot of people can’t stand, so try some of his stories before moving on to this novels.
A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories by Flannery O’Connor
Flannery O’Connor reminds me a lot of Shirley Jackson; her stories are short, brutal, and often extremely disturbing. O’Connor knew how to capture Southern life, warts and all, using clear language and imagery. This is a great collection.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
This is a lovely story about friendship, justice, and growing up. Lee’s character of Dil was based on little Truman Capote, who lived in her neighborhood when she was writing the novel.
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
This novel is set in the Belgian Congo in 1960, but the main characters are a family from Georgia. Kingsolver manages to make this novel both Southern and colonial at the same time.
A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams
What a devastating, strange play. This is a Southern play that sort of pantomimes being Southern; it’s still worth a read, and the movie version with Marlon Brando is great.
The Little Friend by Donna Tartt
A girl’s brother is mysteriously killed, and the girl spends the next ten years figuring out what happened. Donna Tartt was born in Mississippi, where the novel is set, and it’s dripping with intrigue.