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