RALEIGH, N.C. — Charles Frazier is a middle-aged house husband living on a farm near Raleigh, N.C. For years, he labored over a novel he expected no one but friends and family to read.
But last winter, a publisher happened upon it. By summer, it had leapt to the No.1 slot on The New York Times bestsellers list. Last month, "Cold Mountain" edged out a veteran New York author to win a prestigious National Book Award.
Yet Mr. Frazier's success, Southern literature experts say, is part of something even bigger. The book is only the most visible thread in a tangle of cultural and literary changes that are bringing about a new Southern Renaissance. It's producing many new Southern writers and reviving a broad reader interest that rivals the 1930s, when William Faulkner and Robert Penn Warren stood in America's literary spotlight.
"American fiction is turning away from intellectual Post Modern writing or Minimalist writing," says Morgan Entrekin, publisher at Atlantic Monthly Press, the New York firm that produced Frazier's book. The public is demanding "a rich tapestry of language and character, a storytelling tradition that is so representative of the very best of Southern writing."
Others speak less historically. But book editors and buyers, publishers, professors, and members of the literary press say a new ferment of creativity is under way in the South. And because of greater access to publishing outlets and a book-buying public enamored with regionalism, these writers are better known today than in the past.
"Good writing has always come out of the South, but it hasn't been as popular as it is right now," says Lee Smith, author of 13 books and a creative writing professor at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. (See story below.) "I think the popularity of Southern literature now is sort of like the popularity of Lake Wobegon. People love something that is unique."
* "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," though written by a New Yorker, is the story of outlandish Southerners and has spent three years on the bestseller list.
* North Carolina writer Kaye Gibbons's 1987 novel, "Ellen Foster," recently aired as a TV movie.
* Oprah Winfrey has chosen three Southern writers - Ernest Gaines, Kaye Gibbons, and Sherri Reynolds - for her TV book club.
There are less-mainstream indicators, as well. In 1997, for the first time, three Southern literature anthologies were published. And "Southern Writers," a book of photos of the region's authors was printed this year. A new literary magazine called "Brightleaf" began publication in Raleigh. And an older literary magazine, "The Oxford American," from Oxford, Miss., just doubled its circulation to 10,000.
From Elvis to Patsy
Driving all this activity are the same forces that have propelled all things Southern - from birthday bashes for Elvis to Patsy Cline on Broadway - to a new cultural height. The South's distinct flavor is increasingly valued as the US becomes more homogenized, cultural specialists say.
"People are interested in the South because it seems to have an identity," says Diane Roberts, an English professor at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. "People have a sense that they live in this bland place and the South is a break from that."
But there are other reasons for the increase that are peculiar to the publishing industry. One is access. New York publishers have long had a tenuous relationship with Southern writers. Recent pressure to publish more blockbusters has made that worse.
In something of a backlash, small, independent publishers have filled the void. It's a national trend, but some of the most successful independents have grown up in the South.
Take Algonquin Books in Chapel Hill, N.C. It has been discovering new Southern authors for a decade - nationally known writers such as Clyde Edgerton and Larry Brown - many of whom have moved on to New York publishers. Algonquin is now a sort of farm team for publishing and has boosted the number of Southern writers in print.
Another new outlet for Southern writers is university presses. Facing bottom-line pressures in the late '80s, these presses realized they couldn't compete in the scholarly manuscripts niche with Harvard and others. So they drew on a commodity they had in abundance - literary writers.
In addition, a jump in the number of Southern readers has helped regional writers along. With more such readers, "it makes it more possible to publish lesser writers exclusively for that market," says Ann Close, an editor at Alfred A. Knopf in New York. "You need a depth of writing to get the best people. That's true of all regional and ethnic writing."
The momentum builds
If new publishers are putting more Southern writers into print, new creative writing programs, writers' support networks, and informal relationships with published authors are encouraging more Southerners to take up the craft to begin with.
"There's just been a gradual increase of more people reading, more people writing, more people writing about writers," says William Starr, book editor of The State in Columbia, S.C. "And there are a phenomenal number of gifted writers under age 35, which reassures me another generation of writers will continue to carry this torch."
But the torch they carry may be profoundly different from the torch of the past. With each new writer, literature watchers say, the definition of Southern fiction changes. What was once a body of work dominated by white males writing coming-of-age or gothic stories is now a less cohesive category. It includes writers from all economic and racial backgrounds who are tackling a variety of literary styles and topics.
"New styles of narration and new influences - magic, realism, post-modernism - are now being filtered through a Southern prism," says Atlantic Monthly's Mr. Entrekin.
Writers such as Dorothy Allison, who writes from a poor, white, lesbian point of view, and Randall Kenan, a black writer who works with the theme of religion in his novels, are gaining recognition only now, says Minrose Gwin, English professor at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque and an editor of the first Norton anthology of Southern literature. " We're in a period that is comparable to the Southern Renaissance but is slightly different. Many writers are doing many different types of writing."
Despite the diversity, some tried-and-true themes of Southern literature still surface. The Civil War acted as a distant background in Frazier's "Cold Mountain" and continues to be ripe material for a host of new work.
In fact, Donald McCaig may be the next Charles Frazier. A sheep farmer in Williamstown, Va., Mr. McCaig wrote a Civil War novel due out next year called "Jacob's Ladder." George Garrett, a longtime writer and University of Virginia creative-writing professor, calls it "extraordinary; the best historical novel I ever read."
Literary authorities say it's the kind of thing the South will continue to offer. "Southern writing has always been successful," says Knopf's Ms. Close, "because Southerners have a great sense of story and family and plot, which I guess, if you think about it, is kind of the whole schmear."