Jim Fleming: Ever ride a bus or a train and notice everybody’s reading the same three or four books? It’s a phenomenon that drives Charles McNair crazy. He’s the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, and an avowed champion of Southern Literary Voice. McNair told Anne Strainchamps that a handful of opinions from critics out of New York and L.A. carry too much weight and keep unknown voices from rising to the top.
Charles McNair: Well, let me give you an example of two writers that I believe would be celebrated internationally if they didn’t live where they happen to live. Both of these live in Arkansas, which is not renowned as a center of cultural taste making, unless you like Wal-Mart. I would say that these two writers, one is named Donald Harrington, and the other is named Charles Portis. Both have written a number of books. I’d say of the two, the better known is Charles Portis. He wrote True Grit, and he wrote a great book called Norwood. These are central figures in American writing today, in my opinion. There’s another writer, Kevin Brochmeier. He is younger, he is more celebrated. He also is living, I believe, now in Arkansas and from Arkansas, so we have these three names who I believe, had they been west coast names, anywhere around Hollywood, or on the east coast, anywhere around that great pulsar of communication, the New York scene, would be widely celebrated, and as famous as Norman Mailer or let’s say from the west coast, Joan Didion.
Anne Strainchamps: Now why is that, do you think, because I would imagine if we were to call Lev Grossman, say, the book editor at Time Magazine, or John Thurber at the L.A. Times, or Michiko Kakutani at the New York times, they would say not only do they not care where a writer lives, often they don’t even know.
McNair: I’d say that’s true. Certainly for Lev, he’s a friend of mine. I’ve known him for a few years. He’s also a darn good writer himself, so naturally he’s going to know what good writing is. I think that in this case, Marshall McCluhan was right, the medium is the message. It’s where they write, it’s the megaphones they have that matter more than anything else. If you are in New York and you are writing for Time Magazine or The New York Times, or The New Yorker, you have, for better or worse, an opinion that seems to matter more than the opinion from Atlanta, Georgia, or from Moscow, Idaho. There are a hundred million people who live in the south. Why isn’t it so that some cultural voice here matters everywhere else, the way The New York Times matters, or the way the L.A. Times matters out there? I have a number of theories about this and probably none of them account for it wholly.
Anne Strainchamps: Well, what are some of your theories?
McNair: For one thing, the south hasn’t helped itself much by being as ornery as it has proven to be through the past several centuries. You start out with a losing nation, the south lost the Civil War, and hence you retire to the loser’s corner and you sit and you brood for a hundred years, and out of that there did leap some voices and some folks got noticed over years, but in the main it was, as H. L. Mencken pronounced it, â€˜the Sahara of the Bozart.’ Now that is an attitude that took hold and rightly or wrongly, there is a stereotype about that. I remember a Lenny Bruce line from the Lenny Bruce years of the 1960's. He was making a to-do about how the southern accent is the least respected accent in any speaking idiom anywhere, and he made the point by saying, â€˜if Albert Einstein had talked like this, there wouldn’t be no bomb.’ That is a quote from Lenny Bruce. Now there is great truth in that.
Anne Strainchamps: On the other hand, there are entire college classes taught on the great southern writers. We produced this show out of the mid-west. I’m pretty sure there aren’t any college classes on great middle western writers.
McNair: Well, there should be, and I would say that I’m not only arguing this case for the southern, the hundred million people in the south, although I’m from Alabama and a deep southerner, but also for these other propenquities that ought to have a cultural voice that people listen to, that people harken to.
Anne Strainchamps: It’s interesting that one theory that you didn’t mention would have to do with money. I mean a huge pile of the nation’s money is centered in New York and another huge pile in Los Angeles. Those are simply the places where, if you want to start a national newspaper or a national arts magazine, that’s where the money is and that’s where you start it. Surely that’s part of the picture?
McNair: I don’t think that that’s wrong in any way. I don’t think, though, that if one is an artist, that one would accept that that has to be the way that people get attention. I’m the Books Editor at a little magazine that popped up out of nowhere in Decatur, Georgia. It’s called Paste Magazine, and when we were a paper publication, we were finalists for four years in a row in general excellence for the National Magazine Award. It’s like the Oscar of the magazine world. We were nosed out one year by National Geographic, one year by New York Magazine, so a very fine magazine. We have evolved due to necessity and probably smartness, to on-line only now and Paste is making money. We position ourselves as being signs of life in culture and we hoped that this publication somehow or another would become an influencer, a place where people came as a destination to hear not what New York thought, not what L.A. thought, but culture with a southern accent. What did people think who lived down here, this hundred million folks. You know, we have a lot more in common with this voice here than we do with the voice in New York and the voice in California, and you would say the same for the people in the mid-west. They should have something there. The tragedy is, you talk about the money, I look around this landscape here. There is not one single newspaper that speaks with a regional voice anymore.
Anne Strainchamps: The internet, of course, is springing up and lots of people can publish there and find a readership. Do you possibly see a kind of new renaissance of regional writing, regional culture because of the internet?
McNair: Well, again this is almost at odds with the idea of celebrity in a way. You can be a hometown hero easier now through the internet. The question is, how do you jump over the barricade of the hometown and into the larger picture? I think that’s not easier than it used to be. I think that rather than being the great democratizer, what the internet has become and offered us is the great segmenter. It allows people who believe one thing, to burrow ever deeper into that one single thing that they believe, at the expense of seeing and running and colliding into other ideas, and other influences, so I am not sure that the internet is the answer to this question of parochiality and this question of local versus national attention getting.
Anne Strainchamps: Well, I‘m curious, in 2011 you wrote a review of a time travel novel called The Revisionist, and you said it was a really, really good novel, maybe great, but you pointed out that it had the bad luck to come out about the same time as Stephen King’s last book, which was also about time travel. The result was, King’s book got reviewed, The Revisionist didn’t. Did the fact that you pointed that out in print make a difference, do you think?
McNair: Well, it made a difference to me and to that writer. At least there was my little megaphone and my little voice saying to this great wide world, a thing that ought to have been said about that book. I think that Tom Mullen, that writer who wrote The Revisionist, is going to be a very big writer if and when that stardust ever falls on him. It depends on others. It’s terrible to think that it depends on others, that it can’t happen just by dent of your own talent and your own skill, but it has always been that way, and we go on about Hollywood, but nothing is more true than that good luck accounts for very much out there and it’s likely true in New York. Good luck accounts for a lot of things, not just the skill and I believe that I would probably be right in saying that there are writers in Brooklyn and in Queens and in downtown Manhattan who are having the same lament that we are discussing here, that somehow or another, the powers that be swing those arc lamps across the heavens in other directions, not on them, and what’s to be done. I’d love to remedy that.
Jim Fleming: Charles McNair is a Pulitzer Prize nominated author and the Books Editor at Paste Magazine. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia. Anne Strainchamps spoke with him.