As part of the Scene’s 10-year backward glance this week, it’s worth taking a look at the changes in Nashville’s literary community. I won’t make any pretense of journalistic objectivity: My first job when I came to Nashville in 1986 was as a clerk in the late, lamented Mills’ Bookstores. These days, I write and edit for the national review monthly BookPage, which originates here in Nashville. Since my first book was published in 1997, I’ve been involved with the Southern Festival of Books as author, panelist, and moderator; this year I’m on the program committee. Obviously, the state of literature in our fair city is not an abstract issue to me.
If a single day in the last decade could be cited as a turning point in Nashville’s literary community, it would have to be the last day of September in 1990the day that the last independent, family-owned book retailer in Nashville closed its doors. I was one of the clerks with the dubious honor of waiting on the last customer in Mills’ Bookstores’ 98-and-a-half years of business.
To this day, former Mills’ customers regularly say to me, “How I miss that bookstore.” Mills’ was loved because it was a committed part of the community. It was a small local bookstore, a notion that already seems antiquated.
In the cutthroat world of retail bookselling, however, it’s survival not of the most literary or the best loved, but of the financially fittest. As we witness every day, the mega-merger decade of the ’90s has not been kind to small businesses. Already, most independent bookstores have gone the way of independent department stores and independent movie theatersin other words, the way of the dodo.
Not that the closing of Mills’ left Nashville bookless, of course. The store’s chief rival, Davis-Kidd Booksellers, opened in 1978, and the ’90s saw this Green Hills retailer growing constantly, until it was finally bought by Cincinnati-based Joseph Beth Bookstores two years ago. All other full-service bookstores in Nashville are also chains.
The history of the Southern Festival of Books, held every October on Legislative (now War Memorial) Plaza, also nicely spans the past decade. In 1986, the Tennessee Humanities Council hosted a “Homecoming ’86 Literary Festival,” which was intended to serve as an introduction to the literary tradition of Tennessee and the region. The next year the Council began working toward what would become the annual Southern Festival of Books, the first of which was held 10 years ago, in the fall of 1989.
The festival is always subtitled “A Celebration of the Written Word.” In its first 10 years, the readings, talks, and panels have featured authors from across the spectrumNikki Giovanni and Roy Blount, Joyce Carol Oates and Reynolds Price, Charlayne Hunter-Gault and Charles Frazier. Last year an estimated 35,000 book-lovers attended, as did reps from almost every publisher in New York.
The Festival brings together authors from all over, but during the last decade Nashville has grown a nice crop of its own. Surely first on the list would be Ann Patchett, author of three critically acclaimed novelsTaft, The Patron Saint of Liars, and recently The Magician’s Assistant. Jay McInerney, author most famously of Bright Lights, Big City, moved here after marrying Belle Meade’s Helen Bransford, whose own literary efforts include a field guide to facelifts.
If Patchett is our best claim to literary status in fiction, we can match her up with John Egerton on the nonfiction side of the ledger. A thoughtful and elegant writer, best known for his already classic cultural history Southern Food, Egerton is a long-established journalist and independent historian whose recent books include an award-winning history of the civil rights movement, Speak Now Against the Day.
Nashville has a resident mystery novelist, Steven Womack, who’s also a screenwriter and teacher, though most people here know him as the author of the Harry James Denton mysteries. It’s odd to think that fans in Japan and Germany are following Harry’s adventures in Music City. Womack’s most recent release, Murder Manual, wraps a murder mystery around a gleeful parody of H. Jackson Brown’s Life’s Little Instruction Book.
Whatever one may think of the literary value of H. Jackson Brown, no one can deny that he is a publishing phenomenon. He and Nashville-based Rutledge Hill Press put each other on the map and made millions in the process.
Nor is Brown the only Nashville author who knows how to attract money. During the last decade, Dewey Lambdin has carved out a lucrative niche with his bawdy series about 19th-century maritime adventurer Allen Lewrie. In 1996, Martha Hickman, author of children’s books, memoirs, and collections of essays, published her first novel, Such Good People, which Warner Books bought for six figures.
Under the pen name K.C. McKinnon, Cathie Pelletier, author of respected (and hilarious) literary novels such as The Funeral Makers, wrote Dancing at the Harvest Moon. Bought for an impressive sum, the book’s success gave Pelletier the leverage to demand (and get) an exorbitant price for her next McKinnon venture, Candles on Bay Street. With her royalties, Pelletier has launched her own small publishing house, Nashville Books.
Over the last few years, Nashville has witnessed the arrival of several other publishers besides Thomas Nelson, the religious powerhouse. Maryglenn McCombs’ Dowling Press specializes in music books and mysteries. The latter genre is represented so far with two titles by Vanderbilt English professor Cecelia Tichi (under the not-quite-pseudonym of Cecelia Tishy).
A few years ago, J.S. Sanders in Brentwood began modestly reprinting public-domain Southern classics such as Allen Tate’s The Fathers. Recently Sanders has published several handsome original volumes, including a beautiful book-and-CD set of the soulful tunes of Irish tenor Thomas Moore.
After years of apparent disinterest, Vanderbilt has finally agreed to stand behind Vanderbilt University Press. The scholarly publisher’s most interesting recent venture is a partnership with the Country Music Foundation to publish books of enduring worth about country music, the most recent being Charles K. Wolfe’s history of the Grand Ole Opry, A Good-Natured Riot.
One constant encouragement to literary endeavors here is the influential Women’s National Book Association, of which Nashville has one of the largest and most active chapters nationwide. For the third time, the WNBA’s national president will be a Nashvillian. President-elect Nancy Stewart is another Mills’ Bookstore alum, now with Ingram Book Company.
Despite the doom-crying of Silicon Valley gurus, the printed word has not become extinct. At times it seems endangered, its habitat shrinking, but it clings tenaciously to life. The last decade proves that the publishing industry is most definitely alive and well in Nashville, where there’s no sign that it will die out anytime soon.
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