Thursday's Rant: Cut the Cornpone, Ya'll

When the book The Help first hit bookshelves, it received both praise and condemnation for its "Southern voice," something that I have a strong opinion about (surprise, surprise).
I suppose there’s a reason that the South is the only geographic area of the U.S. to have its own major genre of literature (well, if you don’t count Westerns). After all, there are enough quirky characters, class tensions, long-rooted melancholies, traditions, religions, accents, and storytellers in the region to fill millions of volumes.
When it’s done right, Southern lit is sublime. Think William Faulkner, Harper Lee, Tennessee Williams, Carson McCullers, Pat Conroy, Fannie Flagg, Clyde Edgerton, Jill Conner Browne, Kay Gibbons, Doris Betts…and the list goes on. In their deft hands, the Southern voice and the Southern character ring clear and genuine.
But then there are writers, Southern and not, who insist on moving from character to caricature. It irritates me when a non-Southern writer does it. It astounds me when a Southern writer does. If the writing is bad, the characters usually fall into one of two categories: mint juleps or moonshiners.
The mint juleps drape themselves decoratively on the veranda (there's always a veranda), fan themselves slowly while looking out over their expansive lawns, and remark on how "Ah wish ah still had momma's pearls for the debutante ball, Muffy."
Then there are the moonshiners, the hillbillies who don't wear shoes, who marry their first cousins, and who holler "Pa! Where's them hawgs at?" Thanks to the bad writers, there are a lot of people in other parts of the country who still believe that all Southerners fall into one of those two categories.

I just had someone from Chicago ask me yesterday how we refer to the Civil War - do we prefer "The War Between the States" or "The Northern Aggression." Seriously? First of all, I can't remember the last time I even talked about the Civil War. It doesn't come up in daily conversation. Sheesh.
I just read a book by a writer from North Carolina who had a clever idea – Southern girl makes good in the big city – but she ruined it with cliché and cornpone. Her book was most definitely of the mint julep variety, with a breezy Bridget-Jones-from-down-South flavor. I was prepared to love it. I’m from the South, I've worked in the big city, and the book was full of recipes. Who doesn’t love recipes in a novel? I just wish the author had steered away from the over-the-top grits-and-gravy routine.
And no, I won’t name her. Maybe it’s my own Southern roots showing, but I feel that if someone took that much time and effort to write a book, she deserves a little slack in the criticism.
Let’s just end here with a plea: If you’re a writer and you are not Southern, please don’t try to use the accent. It’s almost always obvious. It can be done, but just tread lightly. Use any of the Southern writers above as your guide.
And if you are Southern, don’t slather it on like butter on cornbread (see? perfect example of what not to do). It’s almost as painful as listening to Julia Roberts (from Georgia, let’s all remember) with a really bad Southern accent in Steel Magnolias. Ya'll know what I mean.
And for the record, The Help came pretty close to getting it just right.


  1. Mmmm-hmmm. You nailed it. And also? The people who say "'Y'all' is singular; 'all y'all' is plural" either don't know what singular means or aren't actually Southern. (I'm loving your blog, BTW.)

  2. Amen, says your transplanted Southern sister :)