10 Contemporary Southern Authors You Should Be Reading

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Today marks the release of Ron Rash’s excellent new novel, The Cove , and the book, a World War I love story set in the wilds of the Appalachian mountains, has gotten us on a serious Southern literature kick — particularly contemporary Southern literature, because we’ve read about all the Faulkner we can handle for one month, and accordingly, we’ve put together this list of contemporary Southern authors that are definitely worth carving out some reading time to delve into. There has been much chatter about the state of Southern literature — what it means, what it once meant, what it should mean — but we only have one criteria: that it’s written by a Southern author, and that it’s amazing. We’ve limited our list to living authors, which excludes recent giants Barry Hannah, William Gay, and Harry Crews, as well all the classics (Faulkner, Lee, Welty, O’Connor) who defined the genre. Click through to check out our list of contemporary American Southern authors you really should be reading, and let us know if we’ve left off your favorite in the comments.

Ron Rash

Born in Chester, South Carolina, Rash is poet, short story writer, and novelist, and currently teaches as the Parris Distinguished Professor in Appalachian Cultural Studies at Western Carolina University. Like his newest novel, and his amazing 2008 book Serena (think Macbeth in the mountains of depression-era North Carolina), Rash’s work is often set in the Appalachian South, but his exceptional storytelling always fills our heads with mysteries and hard truths in brutal, brilliant prose.

Jesmyn Ward

Born in the small rural town of DeLisle, Mississippi, and currently an assistant professor of Creative Writing at the University of South Alabama, Jesmyn Ward is one of our favorite contemporary writers, Southern or no. Her second novel, the beautiful, fiercely written Salvage the Bones , which follows a family in the two weeks surrounding Hurricane Katrina, won both a 2011 National Book Award and a 2012 Alex Award. In an interview with The Paris Review, Ward said, “The stories I write are particular to my community and my people, which means the details are particular to our circumstances, but the larger story of the survivor, the savage, is essentially a universal, human one.”

Kevin Wilson

If you haven’t heard about Kevin Wilson’s debut novel, The Family Fang , by now, well, we just don’t know what to tell you. Wilson, who lives in Sewanee, Tennessee and teaches at the University of the South, followed up his excellent short story collection Tunneling to the Center of the Earth last year with a wacky, satisfying, Wes Anderson movie in book form that we highly recommend you pick up. After all, we’re convinced that Wilson is destined to be one of America’s great writers for years to come.

Ann Pancake

Another Southern author who writes about Appalachia, Pancake’s distinctive writing style is lushly visual, the very sounds of her sentences sometimes meaning as much as the words within them. It seems like such a style would contrast with her descriptions of modern poverty, but somehow, Pancake paints a picture that holds you fast and sings in your ear. Her first novel, Strange As This Weather Has Been, was published in 2007, and described by Wendell Barry as “one of the bravest novels I’ve ever read.”

Padgett Powell

A student of Donald Barthelme, Powell takes the Southern literature genre standards — pickup trucks, slow talk, beer, race — and infuses them with a dark absurdity, reflecting them perfectly and then flinging them on their heads. He hit the scene back in 1984 with Edisto, a hilarious novel about a precocious 12-year-old, and has only gotten weirder from there, novel by novel. His 2009 book, for instance, The Interrogative Mood: A Novel? , was composed entirely of questions posed to the reader, in a delightfully postmodern head-scratcher. If he keeps on getting stranger as the years go on, well, that’s fine by us.

Percival Everett

Born on a military base outside Augusta, Georgia, and raised in Columbia, South Carolina, Everett writes some of the funniest, most piercing prose around, tackling everything from cowboys to romance novelists to race in a deft modernist style. Everett made headlines over twenty years ago when he refused to continue a speech at the South Carolina State House because there was a Confederate flag on display — kicking off a controversy that ended (years later) in the flag’s removal. But he deserves bigger headlines for his fiction, including his recent novel I Am Not Sidney Poitier , a hilarious, smart, self-referential book about a young gentleman named — you guessed it — Not Sidney Poitier, which won the 2010 Believer Book Award.

Dorothy Allison

Though South Carolina native (and card-carrying Fellowship of Southern Writers member) Allison hasn’t published a book since her 1998 novel Cavedweller , she continues to have a profound impact on the Southern literary tradition — not to mention the literary tradition in general. Her first, semi-autobiographical novel, Bastard Out of Carolina, a National Book Award finalist, will tear your guts out. We guarantee it.

Kevin Brockmeier

Born and raised in Little Rock, Arkansas, Brockmeier writes fantastic (and often fantastical) short stories and novels, for which he has won many awards, including no less than three O. Henry Prizes. Inventive and often strange to the point of being discomfiting, Brockmeier’s landscapes may not always be quite the South, but they are a strange other land no matter where you’re reading them from.

Fannie Flagg

Born in Birmingham, Alabama, Fannie Flagg is a woman of many trades — an actress (she was in Grease!), comedienne (she wrote for and eventually co-hosted Candid Camera), and a novelist, perhaps best known for Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe , which became the film Fried Green Tomatoes. Her writing is as funny (and candid, you guys) as you’d expect, and she remains a bastion of popular contemporary Southern fiction.

Cormac McCarthy

We couldn’t put together a list like this without our favorite Southern Gothic/Post-apocalyptic/Bloody Western modern classic machine, now could we? Well, we might have — though he’s often lumped in with the contemporary Southern literary tradition, McCarthy was actually born in Rhode Island, but went to the University of Tennessee, “moved to a shack with no heat and running water in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains outside of Knoxville,” and now lives outside of Santa Fe. So while he’s not Southern by blood, he’s Southern by choice — and he backs it up with every gut-wrenching paragraph.