This is an argument that will almost certainly interest no one but Southerners.

Marc Smirnoff of The Oxford American has an entertaining rant about the Southern lifestyle magazine Garden & Gun.  He writes, in part:

Suddenly, it all came back to me and I noticed the fury I had forgotten. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, the only Southern magazines I recall seeing in Oxford, Miss., were Southern Living andMississippi. Both magazines flaunted a South that seemed cordoned off for the private use and pleasure of wealthy white people. In those pages, I did not see the poorer, grittier, younger, and slightly more integrated South that I was coming to know. Nor did I encounter good writing. By then, I had fallen hard for Southern lit and the complete absence of intellectually adventurous writing in these and related publications repulsed me. I had been told—over and over—that to understand the South you had to understand how utterly committed natives are to toasting, if not imbibing, tradition. So how in the hell could anyone publish words from here while daring to ignore the South’s profound and penetrating literary heritage? (Answer: To make money.)

… The gist of my problem with Garden & Gun is that I perceive in it a similar exclusivity—a similar whitewashing of the South.

More:

There are also cracks in the specific G&G lifestyle that is so thunderously advocated. Add up all these gorgeous pictures of fox hunts, mint juleps, turkey hunts, polo matches, refurbished mansions, forest-sized gardens, pure-bred beagles, expensive fishing reels, silver flasks, artisanal knifes, engraved rifles, sexy riding crops, and what do you get but a near-replaying of The Old South Plantation Myth? Of course, the Myth is being updated so that it’s greener (“conservation” is a G&G catchphrase), sportier (everyone is an “avid sportsman”—phew—and not an actual plantation owner), hipper, younger, sexier, wittier—and on better terms with gender and race. But the New Myth still toys with much that is unspoken.2

There is nothing wrong with improving The Plantation Myth (or—do I really need to say it?—with hunting or fishing or polo), but the claim that this Myth universally embodies “the Southern lifestyle” needs to be analyzed. The lack of humility and awareness in not even being able to say “a Southern lifestyle” is perverse—and revealing.

In a recent segment on CBS This Morning, the current editor of Garden & Gun, David DiBenedetto, was asked if “any subjects [were] off-limits” to the magazine.

DiBenedetto: “Yeah. Politics, religion, and SEC football.”

 There’s more where that came from, if you’re interested.

Let me offer a half-hearted defense of G&G, as a subscriber. When I saw the sporting issue, and saw that it was all about rich white Southern gentry putting on their expensive togs, and hitting the woods, I wasn’t offended. I laughed at it. It has nothing to do with me, but so what? I like the magazine’s stories about craftsmen and bars and restaurants of the South. I like Roy Blount Jr. and Julia Reed. I do not aspire to be the kind of person who finds G&G to be a perfect distillation of my lifestyle. I was over at a friend’s house the other day, and saw G&G on his coffee table. He’s not the Southern gentry either, but I bet I know why he subscribes. He loves Bourbon whiskey, and loves talking about it. G&G is the kind of magazine that will run features about Bourbon, and craft distilling, and good bars in the South. He travels a bit with his job, and would like to keep up with where the most interesting places throughout the South are to have a drink. G&G gives him that. Southern Living is what our moms read.

A while ago, a writer for a magazine called me and asked me about G&G, and whether a magazine that doesn’t cover race, politics, religion, or football can ever really be about the South. I said yeah, why not? You wouldn’t want to get your entire picture of the South from G&G. It’s basically a lifestyle magazine for a certain kind of middle to upper middle class Southerner. It’s Southern Living for people who are too hip for Southern Living. I’m actually interested in race, politics, and religion (SEC football, not so much), but I don’t think you have to pull a long face every time you talk about the South. I spend all day online reading about race and politics and religion; when I go to bed at night, it’s pleasant to devour the eye candy in G&G. Me, I love food and food culture. Check out G&G’s coverage of oysters. I’m supposed to hate this magazine because it writes about Southern oysters, but not about Selma, or Baptists, or Bobby Jindal, or the LSU Tigers? Come on.

Smirnoff writes:

I’m no longer bothered by magazines that obsess over subjects I don’t, whether it’s food or gardens, poodles or football, pot or guns. I simply ask that they not make claims about representing the entirety of life in their pages if, in fact, they fail to do that.

But you are! Hence this rant. And then:

Oh jeez, did I forget to mention that I am laughably biased when it comes to G&G? My bad! I owe penance if I fooled anyone into thinking I am impartial. Let me be explicit: I am very jealous ofG&G for having six times more subscribers than The OA. If, in magazine-circulation terms, this is the equivalent of penis envy, I’ll even cop to that. Is that explicit enough?

Six times more subscribers than The OA! Well, there you have it.

Look, magazine rivalry is a good thing, usually. I haven’t seen a copy of The OA in ages; I should give it a try again. I probably have more in common with what’s in its pages than what I see in G&G. Still, I don’t mind saying that it’s a relief to me to be able to read about the South without having religion, politics, race, or SEC football shoved under my nose, especially because I can’t recall the last time I’ve read anything original or interesting in a magazine or newspaper about any of those subjects as they are lived in the South today. Without question, those are important subjects to the life of this region, but sh*t, sometimes, you just want to go to the party and talk about the whiskey.

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33 Responses to Whose South Is It Anyway?

  1. theOtherWill says:

    So. Artisinal craft bourbons, or standby’s like Evan Willams?

  2. philosopher says:

    I do absolutely love the OA, but it can no better claim to speak for ‘the South’ than G&G. It speaks to a very particular, literary-minded-but-not-so-highfalutin-I’d-eat-ribs-with-a-fork-or-anything-like-that segment of the population.

    It is perhaps a particularly Southern affliction we have as Southerners, that we are find ourselves driven to try to figure out what ‘the South’ means — we are captive to the very idea, indeed, of their being such a thing as _the_ South. Even while we recognize that there are of course, many, many very disparate ways of being a Southerner, and many, many different ‘Souths’, in that Sense. I just don’t see people from other regions engage in this sort of activity so much.

    It is our blessing & our curse — but more of a blessing! — to be from a region that has enough of a sense of itself to think that there should be _some_ sort of an answer to the question, “What is the essence of _here_?”.

  3. Michael Brendan Dougherty says:

    I’m not a subscriber, but I will be. Garden and Gun is one of my favorite magazines. And for exactly the reasons above: it talks about Alabama clothing designer Billy Reid, and bourbon, and sports that I would enjoy if I were a Southern millionaire. It is escapism – and while I wouldn’t mind a more serious feature piece here or there – I don’t mind not having that either.

    I wish my region could produce a magazine like G&G.

  4. Chris says:

    I like Garden and Gun and your posting introduced it to me. The writer seems to think that the *South* is one place with one culture. It isn’t. Its a vastly diverse place. The culture of eastern Tennessee where I am from is vastly different than that of Alabama or Mississippi. Here we were pro-union during the civil war because we did not have plantation agriculture to a large degree. The South of Faulkner is alien to our experience. To me G&G is the South I aspire to live in, a South of horse racing, bourbon, bars, artisanal foods, and nice brunches rather than NASCAR and Baptists. G&G does not aspire to represent “*The South* and no one publication could possibly do that. What really bothers me is this idea that the south is best represented by the “Southern” novel writers like Eudora Welty or Flannery O’Conner. Mark Smirnoff needs to get a life.

  5. Bill Pearlman says:

    My father lived in SC for a few years. Nice weather, friendly people. And a bottomless cup of iced tea in restaurants. Can’t say anything bad.

  6. TWylite says:

    Regional wealth porn: cartoon-y high gloss stagings of the lifestyles of the rich and fabulous. Every area needs its own version of this.

  7. Jon says:

    My impression of Garden and Gun is that it is to the South what New York Magazine is to New York – by and for a particular upscale, young, hip demographic.

  8. MargaretE says:

    When Garden & Gun started it out, it wasn’t quite as… fluffy. I’ll never forget a magnificent piece I read there, which – as luck would have it! – I’ve just found online. It’s Doug Marlette writing about Walker Percy, and it’s wonderful…

    http://gardenandgun.com/article/i-was-binx-bolling

  9. Mary Russell says:

    LAst time you linked to G & G mag I read an article about Morgan Freeman and how he was moving back to Mississippi where he’d been born in “the thick mud of segregation”. I thought, this is so over the top that it’s worthy of Ignatius J. Reilly.

  10. Floridan says:

    The content of magazines are designed to attract the sort of subscribers who will attract advertisers. That being said, using the title “Garden and Gun” allows men the cover to read a lifestyle magazine. Were it called by another name the publication might seems a bit effete.

    (And yes, I’ve seen the magazine).

  11. MattSwartz says:

    I can’t think of too many things duller than artificial grit-for-grit’s-sake.

  12. Caroline Nina in DC says:

    Not that it helps matters, but I have to say I agree with both you AND Marc Smirnoff. I do get tired of what, for a lack of a better term, could be called “the rich coastal retirement South,” and aside from his own jealousy about G+G’s success, what he may be reacting too is the overwhelming tendency of the kind of people that live that lifestyle (cursed word) to think that they, indeed, ARE the apotheosis of the South.

    At the same time, the pleasures of a good dinner and good manners and a good gin and tonic and gardenias in bloom are not cliches, either–but living realities that don’t obtain as much in Washington, DC, where my family and I live now.

    A good friend of mine who is a Faulkner scholar and I used to have something along the lines of a drinking game that involved having a shot every time there was the obligatory reference to Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman or a picture of barefoot children and shacks in a documentary/news report/ about our home state of Mississippi.

  13. Calidali says:

    You know, it’s funny how your post reflects the same feelings I have about my home town. I’m from Orange County, California. It wasn’t called “The OC” when I was growing up in the 1980’s; it was generally middle class with some exclusive pockets of wealth and quite a few poorer neighborhoods. The plurality of kids at my high school were Latino and Vietnamese and would probably never have been depicted in The OC tv series or The Real Housewives of OC. Most parents were police officers or electricians or school teachers or truck drivers. I guess I have mixed feelings on how Orange County is depicted. On one hand, it’s kind of fun when others recognize where you’re from; on the other hand, popular culture has not proven to be an adequate vehicle to explain the stories of, say, the Latinos and Vietnamese kids I grew up with.

  14. JR says:

    I like G&G for light reading and OA for literary writing. OA’s annual Southern Music issue is a must buy for me every year. Either magazine pairs well with a glass of 1792. Living in a border state, you need all the help you can get.

  15. philosopher says:

    Reading Smirnoff’s piece now (& really enjoying it), & I had to snicker at the deft malice of this line: “When it comes to their conception of the writing game, though, G&G can seem more “Yankee” than anything else—“Yankee” in the baseball/George Steinbrenner sense.” You can say, “oh, I mean it in this _other_ sense,” but son, you know damn well that if you throw _that_ term around in _this_ context, there’s going to be resonances that you can’t take back — and that you know full well you’re not _really_ trying to take back.

  16. Darwin's S*list says:

    We subscribed to G&G using frequent flyer miles and have loved it.

    The striking thing about it is the generational differences it reflects between our generation (we’re in our early 40s) and our parents, who were the bullseye of the Southern Living target demographic.

    SL gave a high priority to living with an aspirational elegance – ways to live well that also conveyed a certain level of comfort and status. G&G is much more comfortable with down-market environs so long as they’re “authentic.” Dive-bars, bbq joints, folk music festivals, etc. The kinds of places where, if my parents ever hung out at them, it wasn’t with any irony – it was because they hadn’t made any money yet.

  17. Liam says:

    Trying to figure out what the New England cognates of this might be…

    Well, I would imagine Yankee Magazine (which is bit of a shadow of its former self) would be the cognate of Southern Living (and the Old Farmer’s Almanac would be an ancestor, I reckon).

    New England Magazine? Does anyone actually read it? It has zero public identity. I actually had to search to see if such existed.

    The New England Historical and Genealogical Register and American Ancestors (published by the New England Historical Genealogical Society) would be uber-Mayflower/Brahmin-esque with no cognates anywhere.

    I don’t know: Yankees don’t seem to fetishize their guns with cultural or a liquor associations. But if there were a magazine called Mud and Stove*, that might sell well in the North Country. Especially as Mud Season looks to start early this year for lack of a right proper winter.

    * Fueled by wood (for the hardy old-fashioned types who either chop all year or shell out for cords, or both), gas (for the cost and practical types) or pellets (for the frugal but not interested in chopping wood all year or buy it by the cord; but they better not have fussy neighbors downwind….).

  18. Liam says:

    Oh, by the way, for folks in warmer climes who don’t understand the wonders of Mud (season), here’s a classic visual from Vermont:

    http://vtmapleproducts.com/maplesyrup/mud.jpg

    And let’s not discuss Black Fly Season up in the North Country….

  19. Dave D says:

    Liam, we tend to have regional lifestyle magazines: Connecticut, Boston, Maine, etc.There really isn’t any unified New England, just as I would bet there really isn’t any unified South.

    Even with our regional magazines, grime and grit and hipster aestheticism doesn’t sell. In Connecticut people want Darien, Haddam, and Quiet Corner wine country. They aren’t big on the fading mill towns of the south east save for the casino life. Even the hipsters obsess more over Hartford than anything.

  20. Sam M says:

    “G&G is the kind of magazine that will run features about Bourbon, and craft distilling, and good bars in the South.”

    Perhaps he’s looking less for articles about Selma, and more for an expansive definition of what counts as a good bar.

  21. Will Hinton says:

    Rod,

    You might like checking out Bearings, A Southern Lifestyle Guide for Men: http://www.bearingsguide.com/

  22. Langston Hughes’s beloved Jesse B. Semple character opined in 1965 that there were “fifty eleven different kinds of Negroes in the U.S.A.” What all of this here seems to amount to is that there are fifty-eleven different kinds of southerners, which doesn’t surprise me.

  23. Sam M says:

    “Even with our regional magazines, grime and grit and hipster aestheticism doesn’t sell.”

    Maybe, but it might actually be interesting for someone to write seriously about places that people don’t consider places. I don’t know… a barfly at TGI Fridays.

    I lived in Richmond for a while, and was stuck going to bars in shopping centers for a year or so. They were pretty much regular bars, with regulars and all the requisite drama. I always thought it would be interesting to go to a Chi Chis and get hammered. Ever been to a Chi Chis? There’s usually someone hammered at the bar. Weird. But it seems to me that this life deserves some kind of literary exploration.

    There’s plenty of market for hipster aesthetics. It’s suburban aesthetics that nobody explores. They just live ti instead.

  24. Rod Dreher says:

    There’s plenty of market for hipster aesthetics. It’s suburban aesthetics that nobody explores. They just live ti instead.

    Interesting point, Sam. When I was working at the Dallas Morning News, there was a big push to do a better job covering the north Dallas suburbs. That’s where most of the subscribers lived. But no staffers really wanted to do it. It was perceived as a dead beat. All the action was, they thought, downtown. I was on the editorial page, so this didn’t affect me, but if I were a reporter, I wouldn’t have wanted to cover the suburbs either.

    But I think this reflects a lack of imagination on the part of us journalists, and I think you would agree. What is it like to be a regular at an Applebee’s in Frisco? Sure, I’d much rather be at a cooler bar, but, well, life happens at those places too. The ever-great Hank Stuever wrote an amazing book about Christmas in North Texas — basically, in the North Dallas suburbs. It was not always a pretty picture (surprise!), but it was compelling, and it was not only true to life, it was full of life. Anybody can write a decent story about downtown life; it takes a great journalist to do what Hank Stuever pulled off.

    I’m reading a great book now by the historian Graham Robb. It’s a social history of France — the France that the usual historians never write about. La France profonde — deep France, where the overwhelming majority of Frenchmen in every age except for most of the 20th century have lived, unnoticed by anyone except each other. It’s amazing stuff, the kind of thing that makes you realize how little of our own country we ever get to see if we rely on people who live in the cities, and especially in the big coastal cities, to tell us about our nation. I’m not faulting these journalists, mind you, only saying that, well, it’s a big, big country out there.

  25. Salamander says:

    I loved the old, quirky “Yankee.”. My mom had about a zillion back issues of it. Nowadays it is too faux-quaint. But I’d certainly subscribe to “Mud and Stove” if someone wants to start publishing it!

  26. Liam says:

    David D

    Boston Mag and its kin are read much more by auslanders than longtime residents, so that’s why I didn’t include them.

  27. Cannoneo says:

    Southerners are no more obliged than anyone else to worry about their region’s historical problems while enjoying their whiskey and horses.

    What’s weird is having to be so self-consciously southern about your whiskey and horses and such. Professional Southerners are like any other identity entrepreneurs that make a business out of defining their People or Place, even when doing things that most everyone else does anyway.

    These same Garden & Gun types tend to have strong opinions about identity politics, often contemptuously demanding that ethnic “vibrancy” encompass all the bad and good in minority life. Is it so different to ask that Southern “tradition” take into account more than high-end consumption?

  28. TWylite says:

    I know this is a cliche of mine, but it never fails. The Onion nailed the Applebee’s beat over a decade ago:
    http://www.theonion.com/articles/area-applebees-a-hotbed-of-machiavellian-political,331/

  29. crc says:

    I just finished a book called Red Sky at Morning about a boy in his late teens who is transplanted to Sagrado, NM with his mother as his father joins the Navy in WWII. They are exiles from Mobile sent to live among the Spanish and the Natives on a mountain in the beautiful but hardscrabble West.

    The mother character can’t take the lack of gentility and finds solace in her sherry. The boy, Josh, fares better.

    It really is a beaitiful tale of stereotypes and our Southern attachment to places and lifestyles and long-worn traditions.

    I find Garden and Gun pretentious, but beautiful. A little more southeastern, while the OA is self-congratulatory in its Mississippi hipster-ism (it’s cool to be so last in everything). I love to read both. From Texas.

  30. Will Barrett says:

    I love both magazines, and would agree that G&G has an upper-crust, pretentious quality to it. That said, I’ve always found OA to be the “South as freakshow” magazine full of writers who loathe their GOP, SBC background and now relish being a vegan gay redneck as a reaction against their parents from Marietta.

  31. philosopher says:

    Will Barrett just completely nailed the OA vibe. Kudos, sir.

  32. Rod Dreher says:

    That being the case, I want to thank Will Barrett for saving me the cost of a subscription. I would a thousand times rather read aspirational lifestyle porn of the nouveau Southern gentry than the kind of magazine Will describes.

    To be fair, next time I’m in a bookstore, I’ll take a look at the current issue of OA. But something tells me that Philosopher is right, and Will indeed nailed it. There’s something so precise about that description…

  33. philosopher says:

    Oh, I still think OA is a terrific magazine, though. Think of it this way: both OA and G&G have their own specific forms of egregious self-indulgence that one has to suffer past to get to the good stuff. But they offer rather different forms of good stuff underneath it, and it would be a shame to miss out on either.

    E.g., you’re just not going to get music issues like this from G&G, I suspect:
    http://oxfordamerican.org/articles/2011/nov/21/oxford-american-southern-music-cd-13/

    They are like two different kinds of flamboyant, boisterous friends, each full of vibrancy & also full of their own BS, throwing off brilliant commentary & also more than a little self-satisfied… who, while they can really grate on your nerves if you ever, Heaven forbid, had to live with them, are nonetheless just the sort of folks you just love to run into and have a few drinks with about, oh, once every few weeks or so.

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