Mississippi Churning

William Faulkner and John Grisham battle it out for the soul of the South's most bookish city.

Topics: Books,

OXFORD, Miss. –

While he was alive, William Faulkner never won any
popularity contests here in his adopted hometown. The locals dubbed him
“Count No Count” because of his dandified aloofness and lack of a steady
job. He quit his position as postmaster because, he said, he “didn’t want
to be at the beck and call of every son-of-a-bitch with the price of a
two-cent stamp.” You can still walk into J.E. Neilson’s department store,
on Oxford’s shady town square, and find a framed copy of Faulkner’s testy
response to a dunning note on a long overdue bill: “If this [$10
payment] dont [sic] suit you, the only alternative I can think of is, in
the old Miltonic phrase, sue and be damned.” Adding insult to injury, no
doubt, was the fact that many here rarely understood a word their resident Nobel Prize-winner put to paper.

On the other hand, Oxford’s latest literary legend, the nice-guy thriller writer John Grisham, is nearly as famous here for having been a Little League
coach and a Sunday school teacher as he is for being a novelist. A
little amiability goes a long way in Oxford (pop. 10,300), and Grisham’s
cheerful disposition might help explain why, at midnight on a memorably
nasty and wind-ripped night last week, while tornadoes were chewing up
mobile-home parks in nearby Arkansas, Mary R. Minor and three of her
friends were huddling against the driving rain outside of Square Books,
Oxford’s venerable independent bookstore. “We’re always the first in line
for Grisham’s book signings,” Minor says. “We don’t mind getting a little
wet.”

Minor and her friends are the founding members of a Grisham-worshipping
club they like to call “The Horror of the Chamber” — the name is a jokey
reference to the fifth of their idol’s eight novels — a group that has
been known to sprinkle something they call “Grisham holy water” on new
recruits. (“Grisham got mad at us about that, so we stopped,” Minor says.
“He’s very religious.”) In any place other than Oxford, these middle-aged
women’s devotion to Grisham’s legal potboilers might seem more than a
little kooky. But by the next morning they will be joined by nearly 250 other keyed-up fans outside Square Books on Oxford’s town square — a public space that, with its elegant old brick buildings, could be plucked directly out of the last century. Each will be hoping to snag a ticket that will get them into that afternoon’s signing of Grisham’s new bestseller, “The Partner.” It’s not quite the second coming of Elvis — who was born a short drive away in Tupelo — but by 9 a.m., there’s a giddy buzz in the air.



This signing is a homecoming of sorts for Grisham, a longtime resident
who was forced to flee Oxford in 1994 when, almost overnight, he became
The Most Famous Writer in America. (The last straw, many residents say,
was when he and his wife, Renee, awoke one morning to find a young couple
taking their wedding vows on his front lawn.) Tired of being a walking
tourist attraction, Grisham packed up his family and relocated to
Charlottesville, Va. — perversely enough, the same city Faulkner moved
to when he finally abandoned Oxford. No one here holds this desertion
against Grisham, who still maintains a palatial house just outside of
town. When he strides into Square Books, a polite kind of pandemonium
breaks out. Women blush deeply; men take a step back and gawk; video
cameras blink on and whir. For not only are John Grisham’s formulaic
novels insanely successful — his seven previous books have sold more
than 60 million copies in 31 languages, and the five movies made from
them have grossed some $750 million — but he is, well, kind of sexy too.
Nice-guy sexy. With his Don Johnson-esque stubble, his Dockers-brand
chinos, and the dorky way his tie peeks out from under the rear collar of
his denim shirt, he looks like what you might get if you put Cal Ripken,
Garth Brooks, Dan Quayle and Harrison Ford into a blender and pressed the
“puree” button. He happily signs books for nearly four hours.

The good cheer at Square Books can’t hide the pesky fact, however, that
Grisham remains a controversial figure, even in absentia, among
Oxford’s entrenched old-guard literary community. It’s not that the
town’s disproportionately large population of novelists, poets and
editors don’t like the man. Despite some grousing about his prose
skills — the local novelist Barry Hannah has called him a writer for
“lip-readers” — they do. “There’s no getting around the fact that John
is just a plain old nice guy,” says novelist Cynthia Shearer, author of
last year’s acclaimed “The Wonder Book of the Air” and curator of
Faulkner’s home, Rowan Oak. Shearer also notes that many writers in town
have benefited from Grisham’s philanthropy, which has included the
funding of a visiting writer series at the University of Mississippi,
the purchase of a financially troubled literary magazine called the
Oxford American and a large donation toward the restoration of Rowan
Oak.

the problem, Shearer and others say, is that without ever really
intending to, Grisham’s fame has dragged Oxford, kicking and screaming,
into the 20th century. It’s as if a klieg light has been switched on,
trapping the town’s writers in its blinding glare. Literary tourism is
suddenly big business here. Grisham’s private jet may no longer roar
overhead, but a double-decker bus has taken to prowling Oxford’s streets,
its guides often pointing out the homes of well-known writers. (When
novelist Mark Richard was a visiting writer at Ole Miss a few years ago,
the bus idled outside his house until he finally stood up in his
underwear and waved hello.) Pick up the town’s yellow pages these days
and you’ll notice that Oxford bills itself on the cover as “The Land of
Faulkner’s ‘As I Lay Dying.’” And there are controversial plans to
attract more tourism by erecting a Faulkner statue on the town square
this fall. “Why stop with one statue?” asked a very
funny recent editorial in the Oxford Eagle, a local newspaper. Why not
just go ahead and open a theme park called “FaulknerLand,” the writer
continued, with rides that might include “Quentin Compson’s Descent into
Madness” and a “‘The Sound and the Fury’ elevated monorail?”

Even worse than the tourism, many here say, is the recent influx of
literary wannabes. “This town is suddenly overrun with poseurs,” says
Linda White, an Oxford native who is a former managing editor of the
Oxford American. “Everyone you meet these days has a manuscript to show
you. The place is turning into a kind of cute theme park for writers.”

In most American towns, a surfeit of literary activity wouldn’t
necessarily set off any fire alarms. But Oxford is a town that
justifiably (and perhaps a bit neurotically) prides itself on being the South’s
literary mecca; books and writers have long been serious business here.
As Square Books owner Richard Howarth puts it, “Literature is one of the
few things Mississippi can really be proud of,” and no one seems to know
what to make of this new breed of tourists and hopefuls. One glance
around Howarth’s expertly stocked shop and you begin to suss out what he
means about Mississippi’s compelling literary heritage. Among the
talented writers the state claims as its own, and whose works Howarth
features prominently, are Eudora Welty, Tennessee Williams, Shelby Foote,
Walker Percy, Willie Morris and Richard Ford, as well as newcomer Donna
Tartt. And this list doesn’t even include Oxford’s two most prominent
contemporary writers, Barry Hannah (“Bats Out of Hell,” “High Lonesome”)
and Larry Brown (“Fathers and Sons,” “Joe”).

To his credit, Grisham doesn’t compare his work to these writers’. In
fact, he has admitted that he wrote his second book, “The Firm,” by
following the guidelines in a Writer’s Digest article about how to write
a suspense novel. But his success has warped some people’s ideas here
about what a novelist should aspire to be. “My students used to have the
very romantic idea that they could actually make a living as a writer,”
says David Galef, an associate professor of English at the University of
Mississippi and, natch, a published novelist. “Now they
think they can make a killing at it.” The funny thing is, his students
may be onto something. Galef notes that at least one Oxford resident, a
former candy company employee named David Compton, became inspired to
start writing after spying Grisham in church one day. Last year Compton
sold his first novel, “The Acolyte,” to Simon & Schuster for an advance
of close to $1 million.

What Galef calls the battle between “dueling ghosts” — Faulkner’s and
Grisham’s — is likely to rage for decades here. Or at least until that
tour bus goes away for good. But Oxford likes nothing more than a good
literary dust-up (“This may be the last town in America where people
still get into fistfights over books,” one writer here told me), and as
it happens, Grisham’s visit happened to fall right in the middle of
several doozies.

Call the first battle — it’s also the most tempestuous — the Case of
the Missing Magnolia Tree. When John Leslie, Oxford’s laid-back mayor of
24 years, was casting about for a way to honor Faulkner this
coming September on what would have been the writer’s 100th birthday, he
came up with what he thought was a perfect plan: He commissioned a
$50,000 statue of Faulkner from the respected Mississippi artist Bill
Beckwith.

Mayor Leslie made two big mistakes, though. The first was chopping down
one of the two lovely 40-foot magnolia trees in front of City Hall to make room for the sculpture. Tree-loving residents were infuriated —
particularly since Leslie inexplicably cut down the healthier of the two
trees while leaving the sick one alone. “I planted that tree out there
myself,” Leslie tells me, pointing to the stump outside his window.
“There were originally no trees in front of this building. So I figured I
had a right to cut one of them down.”

Leslie’s second mistake was even more egregious. He assumed that
Faulkner’s family — and Oxford’s literary community — would embrace the
idea of a statue of the reclusive writer on the town’s central square.
He couldn’t have been more wrong. Faulkner’s family has complained
bitterly in the weeks since the plan was announced. “Will was an
intensely private man, and he simply wouldn’t have wanted to be used as
what the mayor calls a ‘tourist attraction,’” says Jimmy Faulkner, the
writer’s nephew. “He would have hated this.” The family is so troubled by
the idea of the statue, Jimmy Faulkner adds, that the writer’s only
living child, Jill Faulkner Summers, is considering breaking all ties
with Oxford if the plan goes through. This would mean, among other
things, that the family would yank all of Faulkner’s papers from Rowan
Oak and from the university’s archives.

It’s too early to tell how the great statue debate of 1997 will play out.
One possible solution to the stalemate, says Cynthia Shearer, would be to
have the statue placed at Rowan Oak instead of the town square. Either
way, she takes a slightly more wry view of the situation. “I wish
Faulkner had been here to see this,” she says, chuckling. “He would have
sided with the tree.”

Over at Square Books, owner Richard Howarth is upset about the proposed
statue, too. “They’re really trying to exploit Faulkner,” he says. “It’s
obscene, when all is said and done.” But as it happens, Howarth is at
the center of another of the town’s current literary imbroglios — the
recent cancellation of the popular Oxford Conference for the Book, an
annual series of lectures, discussions, parties and signings that Howarth
helped found in 1992, and which has attracted such luminaries as Richard Ford
and William Styron.

Howarth, who seems to be close friends with nearly every Southern writer
alive, including Grisham, has run the conference along with the
University of Mississippi. This year he pulled out for a simple reason:
The university has given the Barnes & Noble bookstore chain permission to build a large store on its campus. Howarth claims he isn’t worried about the
competition, although he admits that “I’ve seen a lot of my friends go
out of business.” He’s simply concerned that the chain store will be yet
another sign that the real world — Grisham’s world, in effect — is
crashing in on this small-town paradise. “It’s the Wal-Marting of
America,” he says. “People just don’t recognize uniqueness anymore.”

Perhaps nothing embodies Oxford’s current identity crisis more vividly
than the Oxford American, a rambunctious and often brilliant literary
magazine founded here in 1991 by a young, self-educated California
transplant named Marc Smirnoff. Smirnoff’s magazine has been ambitious
from its first issue, which attracted work by such writers as
Ford and John Updike. In the years since, the Oxford American has
published work by nearly every major living Southern writer of any repute
– as well as a few dead ones. In a coup two years ago, Smirnoff sought
out and printed a previously unpublished short story by Faulkner.

The Oxford American didn’t really become controversial until 1994, when Grisham rescued it from the brink of bankruptcy and stepped in as
the magazine’s publisher. Almost immediately, many here say, you could
sense a change in the magazine. It was printed on slicker paper. It
adopted Grisham’s famous distaste for sexual content and “offensive” language.
(Barry Hannah was asked to tone down the language in a short story that
the magazine had already accepted. “He later told me the story was better
without it,” Smirnoff says.) At the same time, the magazine printed a
cheesecake cover that featured a fair amount of gratuitous cleavage. The
magazine also provided a platform for Grisham’s social conservatism, publishing a special crime issue that featured a now-infamous editorial in which Grisham threatened to sue director Oliver Stone. Grisham maintained that the violence in Stone’s film “Natural Born Killers” had “caused” the murder of a friend whose killer had seen Stone’s movie shortly before the crime.

Smirnoff, a lanky loner who slightly resembles a young Sam Shepard,
denies that Grisham has had much influence on the magazine’s more
commercial drift. “We’ve put our heart and soul into this thing, and we
simply want people to read it,” he says. Referring to the magazine’s ban
on salty language, he cites former New Yorker editor William Shawn’s
strictures against profanity in his magazine, and calls it “a moral issue
– not a First Amendment issue.”

Smirnoff, who now edits Grisham’s novels, wins high marks from Oxford’s
literary community for his magazine. “He’s really very talented, and
unlike most editors, he really reads work by new writers,” Cynthia
Shearer says. But while people here praise his magazine and compete to be
published in it, Smirnoff is seen as a distant and aloof figure in Oxford
– he’s someone who’s alienated many of the writers he’s worked with.
“Marc’s a brilliant guy who just doesn’t have much in the way of tact or
social skills,” says one local writer. “He tells it like he sees it, and
he pisses people off.”

Smirnoff’s somewhat Faulknerian brusqueness has, perversely enough,
endeared him to literary Oxford. In a town that’s busily debating the
merits of tour buses and statues and encroaching Barnes & Nobleses,
Smirnoff and his magazine give this town’s gossipy and contentious
writers one more thing to argue about. They wouldn’t want it any
other way.

Dwight Garner is Salon's book review editor.

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