Photo by Peter Dutton

Photo by Peter Dutton

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First, Tell Me What Kind of Reader You Are

This is an excerpt from an essay first published in the Oxford American.
It appears in its entirety in Long Time Leaving: Dispatches from Up South.

When people of the Northeast ask what I do, I long for one of those professions that would certify me to respond as follows:

“Before I answer that question, I am ethically obliged to inform you that as soon as I do answer, our conversation will be billable at $200 per hour or portion thereof—and the answering of the question itself shall constitute such a portion, as will what I am telling you now, retroactively.”

That would dispense with a lot of idle conversation in which I find myself bogged down in the Northeast.

“What do you do?” people ask.

I say, “I’m a writer.”

And people of the Northeast don’t respond in the way you’d think people would. They don’t say, “I knew a writer once. He could never sit still in a boat,” or “Yeah, that’s about all you look like being, too. What do you do, make it all up, or do the media tell you what to say?” or “Uh-huh, well, I breed ostriches.” I could roll with any one of those responses. One reason there are so many Southern writers is that people of the South either tell a writer things he can use, or they disapprove of him enough to keep his loins girded, or they just nod and shake their heads and leave him to it. But people of the Northeast act like being a writer is normal.

“Oh,” they say with a certain gracious almost-twinkle in their eye, “what kind?”

What am I supposed to say to that? “Living”? “Recovering”? They’ll just respond, “Oh, should I have heard of some of your books?” I don’t know how to answer that question. And I’m damned if I’m going to stand there and start naming off the titles. That’s personal! Can you imagine Flannery O’Connor standing there munching brie on a Ry-Krisp and saying, “Well, there’s The Violent Bear It Away. . . .”

People of the Northeast don’t seem to think it is all that personal. They seem to think that you can find out about books by having a schmooze with the writer, in the same way they might think you can find out about whiskey by chatting up someone in personnel down at the distillery.

What I want to do, when somebody asks me what kind of writer I am, is sull up for several long seconds until I am blue in the face and then, from somewhere way farther back and deeper down than the bottom of my throat, I want to vouchsafe this person an utterance such that the closest thing you could compare it to would be the screech of a freshly damned soul shot through with cricket song and intermittently all but drowned out by the crashing of surf. But I was brought up to be polite.

I was also brought up Methodist and went to graduate school, so I can’t honestly say what I want to say: “Self-taught annunciatory. I received a vision out of this corner, of this eye, at about 7:45 p.m. on January 11, 1949, and since that moment in earthly time I have been an inspired revelational writer from the crown of my hat to the soles of my shoes. And do you want to know the nature of that vision?

“The nature of that vision was a footprint in the side of an edifice, and the heel of it was cloven and the toes of it was twelve. And how could a footprint be in the side of an edifice, you wonder? Especially since I stood alone at the time, stark naked and daubed with orange clay, in a stand of tulip poplar trees some eleven miles outside of Half Dog, Alabama, way off a great ways from the closest man-made structure in any literal subannunciatory sense. That footprint could be in the side of an edifice for one reason and one reason only: because—”

But then they’d just say, “Oh, a Southern writer. What are grits?”

I don’t live in the South anymore. I maintain you can’t live in the South and be a deep-dyed Southern writer. If you live in the South you are just writing about folks, so far as you can tell, and it comes out Southern. For all we know, if you moved West you’d be a Western writer. Whereas, if you live outside the South, you are being a Southern writer either (a) on purpose or (b) because you can’t help it. Which comes to the same thing in the end: you are deep dyed.

Whether or not anybody in the South thinks you are a Southern writer is not a problem. Englishmen thought of Alistair Cooke as an American. Americans thought of him as English. So he was in good shape, as I see it: nobody kept track of whether he went to church. . . .

The language needs a second-person plural, and y’all is manifestly more precise, more mannerly and friendlier than y’uns or you people. When Northerners tell me they have heard Southerners use y’all in the singular, I tell them they lack structural linguistic understanding. And when they ask me to explain grits, I look at them them like an Irishman who’s been asked to explain potatoes.

All too often in the Northeast, writers themselves seem to regard being a writer as normal. When people ask a Northeastern writer what kind he or she is, instead of expostulating, “What do you mean what kind? Getting by the best I can kind! Trying to make some kind of semi-intelligible sense out of the goddamn cosmos kind! If you’re interested, see if you can’t find a way to read something I wrote! If I knew it by heart I would recite the scene in Marry and Burn where the fire ants drive the one-legged boy insane (which I’ll admit I think almost comes up to what it might have been, but it’s not simple enough, there are too many of’s in it; I couldn’t get enough of’s out of it to save my life!); but I don’t carry it around in my head—I was trying to get it out of my head; and even if I did, reciting it wouldn’t do it justice! You have to read it”—a Northeastern writer will natter away about being poststructuralist or something. And everybody’s happy. Writers fitting into the social scheme of things—it don’t seem right to me.

Grits is normal.