An Artist’s Statement, via Autobiography, Part Three

*You ought to read “An Artist’s Statement, via Autobiography,” Part One and Part Two first.

My writing and editing work has focused primarily on neglected Southern voices, characters, personalities and stories. When considering ideas for new projects, I often ask myself, “What has no one done before?” So far this approach has landed me squarely as a “writer of rare books,” as Will D. Campbell has dubbed himself. I’m not famous, nor will I probably ever be. But I get a word here and there, from people all over the US, commenting usually on my either my Clark Walker book or my John Beecher book, letting me know that at least somebody is paying attention . . .

For me, this work of finding and writing about neglected aspects of Southern culture is not about money or awards. The books I write or edit will not be big sellers, and I know that when I start work on them. For that matter, the Treasuring Alabama’s Black Belt curriculum guide was given away free and mainly appealed to humanities teachers in Alabama. The Life and Poetry of John Beecher is about a poet who disappeared from mainstream culture for twenty-five years before I began writing about him in 2005, and the book retails for $99.95, which would be prohibitive even if the book was accessible to read. Even though it had the greatest sales potential of any book I have written, I Just Make People Up retailed for $45, was released in January 2009 (after Christmas, and during the month the bottom really fell out of the economy); the publisher also refused to give it a full listing on Amazon, having it listed only as a Marketplace item, until it had been out for more than a year. I probably won’t ever win a Pulitzer or National Book Award. I doubt if I will ever write a book whose subject has broad appeal . . . because if everyone was interested enough in it, there would probably already be a dozen books about it and I wouldn’t worry about adding to it.

The work that I do has importance, though, in our “Information Age.” If there is not sufficient and easily accessible information about a subject, it disappears. If we can’t “Google it,” it may as well not exist, in some ways. And being a writer who doesn’t want to write another book about William Faulkner or Martin Luther King, Jr. . . . well, it leaves me to do what I do. My next two forthcoming books are an edited collection of memoirs about growing up in the South during and after the Civil Rights movement, and then a book about modern-day Alabama. The former is contracted and nearly finished, though the latter is a work in progress.

Southern culture needs to be understood in the context of more than George Wallace vs. Martin Luther King, Jr. Yes, these men were archetypes of the struggle, but stereotypes and oversimplifications bore me, and they offend me. The beauty of Southern culture is its complexity, and its characters, and its hypocrisy, and its nostalgia. I may be a fool for chasing the minor characters of Southern history, but so be it.

[more in the next entry, “An Artist’s Statement, via Autobiography, Part Four”]

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