When Clay Risen emailed recently to share the sad news that the Nashville Scene‘s books section was folding, I wondered how he thought local writers would be affected. Risen isn’t exactly a southerner, but he grew up in Nashville. He bristles when critics of the South traffic in caricature, and he’s dedicated to reading and nurturing the region’s literary talent. I’ve followed Risen’s work since reading his insightful 2004 response to Charles Simic’s Down There on a Visit, and I’m looking forward to his A Nation on Fire: America in the Wake of the King Assassination, which is out next week. Below are his thoughts on the collapse of books coverage at the Scene — and other alt-weeklies.
Last week the big news coming out of Cooper Square was that the once-venerable Village Voice had let go yet another of its legendary contributors, Nat Hentoff. But the ever-shrinking coffers of its parent company, Village Voice Media Holdings, also claimed a victim far away from downtown Manhattan: the book section at the Nashville Scene.
The Scene’s books section was one of the best in the South, willing to take risks on new reviewers and little-known books — in 2002, Margaret Renkl, the Scene’s literary editor, gave me my first freelance gig. The section lasted a long time, given the rate at which regional outlets for literature and serious criticism are rapidly dying off: Last year the Atlanta Journal-Constitution cut its full-time book editor, Teresa Weaver, and it seems every year brings a new, potentially fatal challenge to the Oxford American, now a quarterly run under the stewardship of the University of Central Arkansas. The South, it seems, is one step closer to the “Sahara of the Bozarts,” in Mencken’s famous, caustic phrase.
Which isn’t to say the South is devoid of the literary arts. There are scores of great writers, young and old, working in a self-consciously southern idiom: Beth Anne Fennelly, Joe Formichella, William Gay, Silas House, Ravi Howard, Tito Perdue, Ron Rash, and George Singleton, to name just a handful. Many of them live in clusters, like Fairhope, Ala., and Oxford, Miss., where they support each other and live in symbiosis with musicians, painters, sculptors and filmmakers.
But unlike other arts, literature relies heavily on other writing for sustenance and promotion. Enjoying a book requires a serious investment of time, and often money, whereas music streams free over the radio. Readers need critics to point out which books are worth picking up and to help them understand what they’ve read once they’re done. That’s why book sections like the Scene’s are so important: Alt-weeklies, predicated on giving voice to local, under-represented news and activities, shine light on writers overlooked by outlets like the New York Times (likewise, they provide a great avenue for young journalists and critics like myself to get in on the act). Blogs are great, and in some ways better than book sections, but there’s nothing like a book page in a local, general-interest publication to “cross-pollinate” interest among people who might otherwise never come across serious discussions of the printed word.
Novelists will continue writing and publishing without venues like the Scene’s book section. But don’t be surprised if a few give up because even their neighbors have never heard of them.