Top Ten Tuesday: Ten Underrated Southern Novels

We’re back for Top Ten Tuesday again. Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly booking meme sponsored by The Broke and the Bookish. This week, we’re all discussing underrated books and/or authors. I’ve decided to return to my Southern literature theme, this time with underrated Southern novels. So, without anymore ado, here’s the list:

1. The Violent Bear it Away–Flannery O’Connor

O’Connor is better known for her short stories than either of her novels, but this one shines, not in spite of, but sometimes because of, its imperfections.

2. Suttree, Cormac McCarthy.

McCarthy is one of those authors who is sometimes-and-sometimes-not considered Southern, but for my part, Suttree cemented the Southern influences on his work and placed him in the category of Southern writer. With a well-cast set of grotesque characters, McCarthy’s novel is both devastating and entertaining, and it’s a shame this novel has been overshadowed by his other works.

3. Oral History, Lee Smith.

A complex picture of an Appalachian town and its inhabitants, Smith’s 1983 novel winds its way through time and place. It meanders a bit, but it’s well worth the meandering, and it’s worth nothing that in doing so, it mimics truly oral histories.

4. True Grit, Charles Portis.

So what is a famous book doing on this list? At this point, many have forgotten or just don’t know what it’s not just a twice-made film, but that it’s a harrowing and smartly written novel, as well.

5. Gods in Alabama, Joshilyn Jackson.

Often dismissed as “chick lit” (which is its own separate fight, that innate dismissal), Jackson’s novel is poignant and cleverly written, and there are moments of piercing clarity in her prose.

6. The Watermelon King, Daniel Wallace.

I laughed, and I cried, and I experienced just about every emotion inbetween. Wallace’s story is a kind of folk-tale, and it’s incredibly layered.

7. Of Love and Dust, Ernest Gaines.

Gaines is one of the most prolific black Southern voices that I’ve ever read. And this is probably one of his best novels, though it often gets overlooked because there is so much other good work in his oeuvre.

8. The Land, Mildred D. Taylor.

We often forget about the children of the South, and about the children’s literature. But there’s a rich history of it. And Mildred D. Taylor, whose Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry won the 1977 Newberry, is a master of Southern children’s literature.

9. The Member of the Wedding, Carson McCullers

McCullers’ first novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, gets most of the attention. But The Member of the Wedding is a neglected and beautiful text, and in Frankie we see the germ of many Southern adolescent girls to come, such as Dorothy Allison’s Bone in Bastard Out of Carolina.

10. A Visitation of Spirits, Randall Kenan.

An odd book to round out the top 10, this one is nothing short of haunting, as its title suggests. I wish I could explain more, but, well…It’s one of those that would be ruined by too much explanation, its magic gone.

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23 Comments

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  1. I’m a book-whore too, but primarily non-fiction, currently. If I ever retire I’ll work my way through the many novels I haven’t had time to devour since leaving the university setting. Adding these to my list.

    LOVE this: “which is its own separate fight, that innate dismissal”

    xx,
    mgh
    (Madelyn Griffith-Haynie – ADDandSoMuchMore dot com)
    – ADD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching co-founder –
    “It takes a village to educate a world!”

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  2. I love Flannery O’Connor and I actually have a compilation of her work that includes The Violent Bear It Away on my shelf that I’ve never read. Maybe that’ll be next!!

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    1. It’s definitely worth it, although it’s a flawed novel. Her short stories are tighter, better structured, but there’s something charming in the flaws of the novels. It’s very difficult to explain.

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  3. I’ve read mostly O’Connor’s short stories, I think, in a couple of different classes in college. And I read Blood Meridian, which I must admit made me disinclined to pick up McCarthy ever again.

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    1. Yeah, Blood Meridian is really dense. And in some ways Suttree is, too, but it’s not quite as philosophical. McCarthy can be really difficult—The Road and Suttree are probably my favorite of his novels because of that.

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      1. It was the graphic, detailed violence that got me. I understand it’s a non-romanticized western… but anything that can have a dead baby tree as background description isn’t my kind of book.

        The Road is pretty dark, too, but less so.

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        1. The Road is really dark—there’s lots of cannibalism, including cannibalizing a baby. It’s just that everything in it is dark, I think, and it’s the end of the world, so the darkness feels somehow more appropriate. I don’t really mind graphic violence (although I’ve gotten less able to stomach it over the years) as long as it has a reason for being in the story and works to advance it in some way.

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    1. I do enjoy Gibbons, but I think her work has garnered a lot of attention, especially those two, so they didn’t quite make the underrated list!

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  4. Thanks for the reading list. These sound great. I would add Sue Monk Kidd to your list of must reads: The Secret Life of Bees and her newer title The Invention of Wings

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    1. I do enjoy Sue Monk Kidd’s work—But if I tried listing all the underrated Southern books out there, I’d still be writing this list next year!

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