In the hit song “Guitars, Cadillacs” Dwight Yoakam croons the ideal description of Nashville. It’s a town so famous for country music it has its own television series. The Grand Old Opry … The Ryman … Music Row. The Music City vibes comes alive when you visit the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Johnny Cash museum, or the dozens of honky tonks staged with musicians dreaming of stardom.
Yet since 1989, on the 2nd weekend in October, Humanities Tennessee proudly holds the Southern Festival of Books (#SoFestBooks) in the Legislative Plaza in front of the Tennessee State Capitol. The festival welcomes 60 exhibitors, 200 authors, and 25,000 visitors to the center of city that relishes catchy lyrics over literature.
Like all big city book festivals, the three-day event is crammed with panel discussions, readings and author signings, and it brings in NY Times bestselling authors such as Curtis Sittenfeld (Eligible: A Retelling of Pride and Prejudice), John Hart (Redemption Road) and Gayle Forman (Leave Me). Several acclaimed authors use SoFestBooks to promote their new fiction.
Donald Ray Pollock and Brad Watson were paired together on a panel to discuss their latest releases. Watson, a Mississippi native now teaching in Wyoming, introduced Miss Jane, an intriguing Southern tale about a woman born with a genital birth defect that caused permanent incontinence and prevented her from even having intercourse. The story was inspired by Watson’s real live great-aunt who was a constant yet mysterious presence in his family. The heroine refuses to be viewed as someone less valuable. She’s determined to forge a rich existence in the harsh life of rural Mississippi at the beginning of the 20th century. She struggles to make friends, connect with her kin, and experience romance. In hearing Watson describe his work, the audience understands that this was a book he was ordained to write, despite the fallout from his own family.
The highlight of the SoFestBooks weekend was Donald Ray Pollock’s admission that when he started his recently released The Heavenly Table, the Jewetts weren’t the main characters, but they became such palatable creations that they took control of the narrative. His writing is dark and doesn’t rest easily on the reader’s mind, but he is a rising master who draws comparisons to Flannery O’Connor and Cormac McCarthy. Pollock offers more than the pleasure of captivating tales; it’s equally rewarding to hear about his writing life. He willing acknowledges his own wandering path, trading a safe union job and pension for an MFA and a full-time writing career. That innate drive is apparent in his relentless dedication to refining his craft. He has his writing office and a daily regimen. He reads two books a week. He re-typed 75 classic novels to genuinely understand and appreciate their use of each element of fiction. His confession became motivation.
While not as diverse as other literary festivals, SoFestBooks did offer moments for attendees to experience the genuine voice of the South. Mary Arno (Thanksgiving) and Carrie Mullins (Night Garden) participated in the Mysteries of Southern Girlhood: Two Novels panel. Each of their books recast Southern girls and women. They’re not portraying the typical delicate belle reliant on the kindness of a dashing gentleman to resolve their conflicts. That character didn’t even exist in Gone With The Wind. Arno’s and Mullin’s novels represent the way real women deal with the real issues of drug addiction and sexual abuse. True Southern women don’t hum away their days sipping cool drinks waiting on their husbands to return home. They solve their own problems in their own way.
Nashville might have more of claim to the fabric of Southern Literature than many believe. In the West End, Vanderbilt University spawned Robert Penn Warren and The Fugitive Poets, most notably John Allen Ransom and Allen Tate. With their dystopian vision of a post-Reconstruction industrialized South, Warren and The Fugitive Poets called for a different future, one that didn’t believe in the myth of Confederate valor. They longed for a return to agrarian values, born of the land and our Creator. This is a message more than relevant for today, and establishes Music City as the ideal location to celebrate the enduring power of the written word.