Southern Writers of Fact and Fiction
ABOVE: The spread of "Southern Writers of Fact and Fiction" from the Fall 1996 issue of Coastal Magazine
Southern Writers of Fact and Fiction
It’s a safe bet that Horry County has never hosted so many award-winning authors at one time. Twenty-three writers accepted Coastal professor Charles Joyner’s invitation to gather in the Wall School of Business Auditorium in January to meet each other, read from their works, and talk about their craft in a public forum. Although the event was titled Southern Writers of Fact and Fiction, most of the authors who participated are well-known outside the region and a few are recognized as towering figures on the landscape of 20th-century American fiction and historical literature.
The novelists and poets who took part in the event included William Styron, Elizabeth Spencer, Ellen Douglas, Josephine Humphries, William Baldwin, Thomas L. Johnson, Dori Sanders, Nikki Finney, and Paul Rice. Historians and essayists included C. Vann Woodard, Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Theodore Rosengarten, Walter B. Edger, Orville Vernon Burton, Melton A. McLaurin, John G. Sproat, Anne Wyatt-Brown, Drew Gilpin Faust, David Hackett Fischer, Winthrop D. Jordan, William S. McFeely, Franklin Burroughs and John Shelton Reed.
It was Joyner’s unique idea to bring together writers from what are usually considered two separate academic realms – history and fiction. “One of the criteria I established at the outset was that if the concept didn’t excite them, they shouldn’t feel obligated to participate,” said Joyner. “As it turned out, none of the writers had ever heard of the idea, and they liked it. Many of the novelists and poets who were invited revered the participating historians as living fiction writers.”
The conference, held January 26 and 27, opened with a conversation between Styron, the Pulitzer prize-winning author of such novels as Lie Down in Darkness and Sophie’s Choice, and C. Vann Woodward, who is the Sterling Professor of History Emeritus at Yale University and one of America’s most distinguished living historians. In a discussion devoted primarily to Styron’s controversial 1967 novel The Confessions of Nat Turner, Styron and Woodward explored the artistic risks and rewards of writing historically-based fiction.
In addition to reading by the authors, the symposium offered panel discussions and presentations on such topics as “Southern Writing in the Nineties,” “Writing the Truth in History, Poetry and Fiction,” “Expatriation in Southern Writing,” and “Depression and Creativity in Southern Writing.”
Public interest in the event surpassed all expectations, according to Joyner, who is Burroughs Distinguished Professor of Southern History and Culture, and director of the Waccamaw Center for Cultural and Historical Studies. The auditorium was filled to near capacity during most of the conference. “Equally gratifying was the response from the writers following the event,” said Joyner. National Book Award-winner Winthrop D. Jordan, author of White Over Black, wrote in a personal note to Joyner: “By general agreement among its participants, it was a unique and magical conference… I, too, felt the atmosphere of collegiality and receptiveness among people who view the world in several quite disparate ways.” Novelist Josephine Humphries called the event “an auspicious preamble to the 21st [century], with a valuable look at past work and an exciting glimpse of what’s to come.”
Joyner is constantly asked if he is planning to organize another conference like it in the future. “It was really a once in a lifetime thing,” he said. “It probably would be impossible to recapture the chemistry that made this event so memorable for everyone involved.” He will continue bringing scholars and authors to Coastal, of course. Just now he is trying to find a suitable date for a conference of BrANCH, or British and American Nineteenth Century Historians.
The cover of the Fall 2000 Coastal Magazine