Living national treasure Padgett Powell comes to Orlando to teach us about Southerntude 

The fine minds behind the Burrow Press family of products have been bringing fiction to the people of Orlando for five years now, by publishing books, commissioning anthologies, editing an online literary journal, broadcasting a radio show and presenting a quarterly literary series. Five years is a nice round number, deserving of a fitting birthday celebration; with their traditional generosity, Burrow will give us two.

First, this Saturday, Functionally Literate presents a reading by writers' writer Padgett Powell – and considering the amount of attention his latest book has received since its publication was announced, this can be placed squarely in the category of what Hollywood types call a "get." Then, next Wednesday, Oct. 7, they host an edition of the international touring event Literary Death Match, which pits four local writers against each other in a no-holds-barred competition. The Padgett Powell reading (at which Gainesville's Rebecca Evanhoe and the very Southern singer-songwriter Beth McKee will also appear) promises to be a less violent, if no less irreverent, affair.

Powell has been revered in literary circles since his first book, Edisto, came out in 1984; it was nominated for the American Book Award for best debut. Soon after, he began teaching at the University of Florida in his hometown, Gainesville, and now runs the MFA writing program there.

His latest virtuosic collection of short stories, Cries for Help, Various (Catapult, 200 pages) puts another wing on the house of Greatest Living Southern Writer that he's been building for three decades. In our research, we learned that Powell prefers email interviews, so we sent him a few questions. A few desultory-on-our-part questions were answered succinctly: "Favorite Florida writers?" "Charles Willeford, Joy Williams, Pete Dexter." "Do you enjoy reading your work to an audience?" "When you get an audience that gets the first joke, that realizes literature is not church, reading can be fun." But with another aimless question – "How would you define 'Southern lit,' and where would you place yourself in that canon?" we struck gold.

Padgett wrote, "As it happens, just yesterday I addressed this at some length in formalizing a course here at UF we call a tutorial. Perhaps TMI, but you asked," adding: "I am by Barthelme and Mailer out of O'Connor, I hope."

The appended "Tutorial in Southerntude" was both instructive and metonymic, being a perfect example of the thing it purports to dissect. We present it in full here (below), feeling unwilling – and unworthy – to paraphrase the harmonious whole. Consider it a backgrounder for Saturday's reading, or yet another free gift: a syllabus for Southern self-study.


By Padgett Powell

The tutorial, of which you are required to take one, is to be a list of five to seven books (the requirement is actually undefined, but this was the load back when the tutorial was better defined and when three tutorials were required) that the student reads, preparing for a one-hour talk about the writing. The work is in the reading, and it is to show a young writer some things he or she has not seen before that may inform his or her writing, whether via technical illumination, canonical lacunae filling, seductive imitation, anti-seductive repudiation, what is fun and what is not fun, we’ve gone off the rails of parallelism let’s get out of this sentence.

In the present instance, the tutorial is in Southerntude. The books constitute an odd list that purports in no way to be properly representative of anything. But it may give a useful and different foundation for envisioning the tradition. At the least I think you will find it interesting.

You may find, too, that this list will prepare you to comprehend what is meant by Southern literature, toward answering the question What is Southern Literature? if you should ever have to pretend to know the answer. If you are smart, having read this list will prepare you to leave the room when the question is raised and the Earnests commence the knowing.

You may think of this list as a pedigree. Some of the writers are progeny of some of the other writers. Walker Percy is the son of Faulkner and O’Connor, and Tennessee Williams is his queer older cousin. Donald Barthelme is out of them all by Samuel Beckett. Irish writers are Southern writers. Barry Hannah is Barthelme’s brother except he has some Choctaw in him and grew up in Clinton Mississippi instead of Houston.

The list eschews more obvious writers (O’Connor, say) for lesser known (e.g., Taylor and Spencer) because everyone knows the obvious and is free to go get them. It perversely has two Caldwells for no good reason. It eschews a writer’s “best book” (that would be The Moviegoer in the case of Percy). It contains Donald Barthelme who is not on any Southern-writer list elsewhere because of the obtuseness that attends the critical cubbyholing in re Southerntude. It does contain the obvious Faulkner not because he is Faulkner but because Absalom! Absalom! is the best thing ever done by man squirrel hunting with whiskey.

The list is 11 books, a big-ass tutorial. You are free to walk away, intellectually poorer but not exhausted. But if you are cracked (which is part of Southerntude), have at it.

  • Patriotic Gore, Edmund Wilson. (Then run down one book he makes interesting to you, preferably among the earliest writers, and read it.)
  • Tobacco Road and God’s Little Acre, Erskine Caldwell
  • Collected Stories of Elizabeth Spencer
  • Collected Stories of Peter Taylor
  • The Last Gentleman, Walker Percy
  • Hard Candy, Tennessee Williams
  • Airships, Barry Hannah
  • Overnight to Many Distant Cities, Donald Barthelme
  • Absalom! Absalom!, William Faulkner
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