Whose South are we talking about, exactly? On Don’t Quit Your Day Job, edited by Sonny Brewer

First things first, the subtitle’s off. Half the essayists in Don’t Quit Your Day Job: Acclaimed Authors and the Day Jobs They Quit explicitly reveal that they don’t quit work in order to write, and almost none of them have gotten to the point where they can make a living through writing. More importantly, many of these essays don’t really concern how the discussed jobs relate directly to the author’s writing style, thematic concerns, or even the writing process. Pat Conroy’s “Deacon Summer” and Steve Yarbrough’s “So, You Want to Play Some Football?”, which are among the best in this anthology, don’t touch upon writing at all.

Instead, Don’t Quit Your Day Job is a collection of writers writing about work. With few exceptions, the day jobs were held during adolescence and early adulthood. (Late-bloomer perspectives—including pieces by Larry Brown, Janis Owens, and Howard Bahr—are as welcome as they are rare.) On an individual level, the essays are almost uniformly strong, and editor Sonny Brewer deserves credit for corralling the writers together here. Whether it’s Clay Risen kvetching about working at a credit-card call center, or Joshilyn Jackson making up an imaginary boyfriend to entertain her office co-workers, or Tim Gautreaux DJ’ing at the worst south Louisiana radio station in history, nearly all the contributors exhibit strong control over character and place. Tom Franklin’s “Delivering” (about pizza delivery), Barb Johnson’s “For the Good Lies” (carpentry), and Silas Brown’s “Why I Worked at the P.O.” (well, for the P.O.—he was a mail carrier) do the added work of discussing how labor can expose class fault lines.

If you’re paying attention at home, you’ll note that all of the names I’ve listed above are southern writers. Brewer admits as much in his introduction:

As we fished around for a title… John Luke, my teenage son, said to me, ‘Why don’t you just call it, Don’t Quit Your Day Job: Southern Writers and the Day Jobs They Quit.

Badabing! I loved the seesaw irony of it, and the simple truth of it. Right at the deadline, I was told to take out Southern, for that would keep it off the shelves of three-quarters of the country’s bookstores… Winston Groom told me to just let readers discover, once they’re in, that they are in the South with the writers in this collection.

So, Don’t Quit Your Day Job has not only a theme but a general perspective: southern and contemporary. That would be fine, except that Brewer’s conception of the South is awfully limited, which is to say awfully familiar. In Brad Watson’s “‘What Thou Love Well,’” about his uncle’s salvage shop, we find a clarifying passage:

The smells of the bay were those of the axle grease, blackened motor oil, gasoline fumes, Prince Albert cigarette smoke, and the unmistakable particular pungent odor of perspiration from hard-working white men in the bay-shaded summer heat. (I knew the particular and unmistakable pungent odor of hard-working black men from visiting my maternal uncle’s farm in the country, but this is in another story.)

That passage is gorgeous but also telling. As I read through Don’t Quit Your Day Job, a problem kept gnawing at me, and it took Watson’s parenthetical aside to pull it out. Why isn’t anyone in this collection telling the story of those black men? Where are the black—or nonwhite at all—contributors to this volume? And where are the black folks within this book? Although race is one of the defining flashpoints of southern culture and history, it’s hardly broached at all in this book. When it is, it’s through oblique reference or casual condescension. Case in point: In “Job Experience,” Winston Groom writes about reporting on a race riot in Washington, D.C., in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination: “I had never been to a riot, but let me tell you, it was weird—and scary to be the only two white guys among about two hundred thousand rioters enraged because somebody had gunned down their head man.”

Right there, a generation of black political frustration and the complicated legacy of a major human rights figure is reduced to a glib soundbite about a “head man.” Now, I know Groom’s being ironically smug—it’s the same aesthetic/political pose he pulls in Forrest Gump. Still, I can’t help but think that an editor with a broader range of experience might have wondered why black folks are rarely treated as more than parenthetical asides, or just as abstractions to teach a lesson to the white writer, in Don’t Quit Your Day Job. A more forward-thinking editor might have worked harder to include a fuller range of perspectives about working in the region.

Full disclosure: I am a black southerner living in Jackson, Mississippi. Further disclosure: I didn’t expect, nor did I want, this anthology to be a treatise on the African American Experience in the Modern South. Not at all. Don’t Quit Your Day Job is, and has to be, a reflection of its editor’s experience and aesthetics. Brewer, certified white man from Alabama, calls upon his friends. We all do. But our friends have a tendency to look and sound like we do. This, perhaps, explains the absence of any prominent black—or, again, nonwhite at all—participants to this anthology of 23 essays. There’s no Randall Kenan, Natasha Trethewey, Ernest Gaines, Tayari Jones, Yusef Komunyakaa, Rita Dove, or even Edward P. Jones. Since Brewer reprinted a piece by Larry Brown (who died in 2004, six years before this book’s publication), there’s no reason not to publish an essay or book excerpt by the (still-alive) Albert Murray, who wrote the groundbreaking South to a Very Old Place and who’s from Brewer’s home state.

The volume’s scope is limited in other ways, too, ways that narrow rather than expand our ideas about the South. Few of the essays are based in large cities—Atlanta, New Orleans, Raleigh-Durham, Memphis, Miami, Birmingham, Charleston—or in ancillary suburbs, even though southerners (like the rest of the United States) live in these areas more often than not. Certainly, that encroachment has negative aspects. Let us not, however, forget the positive ones. Cities, with their ethnically and culturally diverse populations, tend to more readily allow for “fringe” groups to coexist with the mainstream. LGBT people, punk and avant-garde folk, South and East Asian immigrants, Jews and Buddhists and Muslims, Sudanese refugees, and third-generation vegan post-hippies have all found places to live and form enclaves within the South. While it would be nice to write that these folks find freedom in the boondocks, and that’s true to a degree, they most often find purchase in urban areas and college towns.

All of these elements, of course, aren’t on the fringes of southern culture, or they aren’t anymore. It’s hard to imagine contemporary hip-hop without the influence of Virginia’s Missy Elliott and Timbaland’s production, without Atlanta’s OutKast and Cee-Lo Green. American indie rock would look radically different without R.E.M., B-52’s, and Neutral Milk Hotel, all of whom hail from Athens, Georgia. These artistic pioneers, once considered oddball, are fixtures in American pop culture and, no matter where they hailed from, all germinated in cities and college towns. Of Montreal, despite the name, is as southern as Elvis Presley.

You wouldn’t know it, though, from Don’t Quit Your Day Job. As I forged through the anthology, I increasingly missed the complexities that those points-of-view bring to our understanding of work and to the ways we comprehend the South—whether as insiders or outsiders. Though Brewer aims to subtly upend expectations of southerners, his collection ends up reinforcing the well-worn stereotypes. Brewer’s South is the South we expect to see, the South we mock on TV. Unfortunately, it’s not the real South, or at least not all of it.

That’s a shame because, again, the individual essays within Don’t Quit Your Day Job are strong. Even the duds—by John Grisham and Winston Groom, in particular—tend to be failures borne from high ambition. It’s no fault of the writers that this anthology reveals more about the editor’s anxieties about the old South than it means to, and reveals so much less about the current South than it could have.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Atlanta, GA. He is the co-author (with Daniel Couch) of Bob Mould's Workbook (Bloomsbury, 2017). His work has been published in The Quarterly Conversation, RogerEbert.com, Bookslut (RIP), The Comics Journal, The Baseball Chronicle, and other periodicals. Twitter: @walter_biggins.
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