NASHVILLE -- To hear Clyde Edgerton tell it, conversation in his North Carolina hometown was almost a sex-linked trait. He'd sit down with the menfolk on the front steps, and the entire discussion would consist of, "Nice weather, huh." Then silence would resettle until another newcomer arrived.

Meanwhile, back in the kitchen, his mother and aunts would be talking up a storm, working over the events of the day in such detail and with such satisfaction it almost seemed as though they lived in some other neighborhood. This articulation gap, Edgerton told an overflow, sitting-in-the-aisles crowd at the second annual Southern Festival of Books, is probably the reason his female characters are so much more dominant and expressive and lively than their male counterparts.

Edgerton was speaking only for himself, but his anecdote seemed to sum up a syndrome that was evident throughout the three-day celebration -- sex-specific style. Judging from the readings and comments of the 120 or so authors gathered here, there seem to be two broad types of Southern fiction these days: One "masculine," sometimes verging on the macho and often harkening back either mystically or matter-of-factly to the legacy of the War Between the States; and a folksier, more informal "feminine" style that is frequently humorous and closer to the tale-telling tradition than structured fiction.

In the masculine camp are the modern Gothics (Harry Crews, sparring partner to the world, and Barry Hannah), the Bible-belt realists (Vietnam vet Larry Brown), the battered idealists (William Styron, for example), the sons of Faulkner (Madison Smartt Bell, Charlie Smith) and the aging and elegant classicists (Andrew Lytle and Peter Taylor). They tend to charge the big moral barricades, raising the issues of self, sanity, race, violence and honor. Their stage is the psyche, if not the soul: As Flannery O'Connor said (it was Crews who quoted her), "No matter what the story, what the writer is interested in is the mystery of the subject, which he cannot expect to explain, but only deepen."

In contrast, the "feminine" writers look to the heart. In this camp are most of the "new Southern writers" of both sexes: National Book Award winner Ellen Gilchrist, Jill McCorkle, Elizabeth Dewberry Vaughn, Michael Malone and Michael Lee West -- the former a man, the latter a woman. Their looser style, which is deliberately ingratiating and often self-deprecating, depends heavily on dialogue and vernacular and the almost sole conjunctive function of the word "and." The use of "and" is so extensive, in fact, and simple declarative sentence structure so insistent that it suggests not a new generation of Faulkners -- although Willie Morris, who has just released a book (Faulkner's Mississippi) with master photographer William Eggleston, testified to a Faulkner revival -- but rather some Southern-fried version of the annual Hemingway parody competition.

These "feminine" authors raise more intimate issues, particularly the rebellions and reconciliations among families and the homey comforts of faith and tradition; and it is this tendency to stay close to home in terms of theme that draws them to the easygoing, first-person style of storytelling. It's the oral tradition transferred to paper -- just as gossip is merely social commentary with proper names attached -- and with a very strong regional flavor.

These categories are extremely loose, of course, and derive, as both Edgerton and Vicki Covington pointed out, from the fact that in the South it is usually the women who keep track of family goings-on -- theirs and everybody else's. The folksy style is "feminine" in the same way "feminine rhyme" is, relaxed rather than hard on the beat; and similarly is not restricted to women writers. Edgerton's own Walking Across Egypt, featuring the irrepressible septuagenarian Mattie Rigsbee, is just one example; others include Truman Capote ("Music for Chameleons"), T.R. Pearson (A Short History of a Small Place) and Allan Gurganus (The Last Confederate Widow Tells All), none of whom was around to defend himself. And one of the most popular readings was by the extremely folksy songwriter-cum-storyteller Tom T. Hall. On the other hand, since "Miss Flannery" and Katherine Anne Porter are dead, and Eudora Welty has ceased publishing, it's getting a lot harder to find a woman who writes in the masculine style.

What both groups have in common, along with all the historians and social commentators and homegrown columnists and civil rights journalists who also showed up for the free-for-all, is an itch to define the character of the South -- or rather, the character of the Southerner. In some form or another, solemn or offhand, the issue of the Southern identity appeared in nearly every one of the 80 panel discussions and readings.

And the conclusion? For one thing, we're apparently all crazy. Southerners write about the eccentrics among us with the affection elsewhere reserved for cranky grandparents. As Michael Malone put it, "The South does not mind insanity so long as it's local." Trouble is, we don't understand why Northerners think it's hereditary.

One young woman in the audience, who had been laughing heartily at the readings of Covington and McCorkle, raised her hand to ask why all Northerners thought Southerners were ignorant, incestuous, alcoholic backwoods fundamentalist rednecks who live on junk food and spend their lives in either small towns or shopping malls. (I paraphrase her question too succinctly.) The panelists looked at each other and shrugged. Charlie Smith said, "Why don't you just enjoy it?" and Covington said, "Yeah -- incest, junk food, beer, sounds good to me!" Unrequited Love

FOR THE MOST part, the search for the Southern soul, and its precarious sanity, was a more serious one. Several panels theorized on the unregenenate South, the one that had been invaded, impoverished, conquered and ultimately occupied by what it saw as a foreign nation -- and which in many ways, as Civil War historians Shelby Foote and James M. McPherson and critic Edmund Wilson (quoted by Madison Bell) all pointed out, still nurses the resentment of an impressed province. (Intriguingly, the outpouring of Southern literature was compared to the flowering of Irish writing after Ireland's submission to the English crown.)

Even more shatteringly, Foote suggested, Southerners retain the stigma of dishonor and defeat. As the weekend went on, the presence of Crews and Vanderbilt English professor Walter Sullivan (In Praise of Blood Sports and Other Essays) and Fugitive novelist Andrew Lytle (The Long Night) seemed to suggest that this unresolved search for vengeance is closely related to the mystical popularity that hunting and other such violent recreation still retain in the Deep South.

Some authors pointed to a conservative heartland, hidebound to even outmoded tradition. Michael Malone described his flamboyant sixth-grade art teacher as "a Yankee, and a divorcee, not unrelated facts to the folks in my small Piedmont town." Jill McCorkle read a passage about a Daughters of the Confederacy meeting in which a circle of young matrons competed to establish their honorable lineage.

Others described the penalty Southerners (of both races) are still paying for the segregated past. Willie Morris voiced the common strain of perplexed allegiance when he spoke first of the "dire complexities and duties" of life in the South and then said, "We all of us love {the South,} but she does not always love us back." William Styron said, "Most of my writing shows a sort of compassion for the moral indignities even the worst of us bring on themselves."

A few referred to the Southerner's close ties to the earth. Sam Pickering defined home as "the place where you know what the wildflowers are called." Madison Bell warned that serious Southern literature is endangered because the Southerner is "losing touch with the land."

But perhaps it was Shelby Foote, lately made populist hero and star of PBS television's "Civil War" series, who most charmingly summed up the paradox of Southern behavior when he said, "It's what we call in Mississippi the 'ups and downs.' I don't have a personal friend who didn't have one distinguished personage somewhere in his background . . . and I don't know a one who didn't have some white trash in there, too." The Civil War Is Our Iliad ALTHOUGH TWO OF the South's most eminent writers were unable to attend -- the frail Eudora Welty, who sent 35 of her WPA-era photographs of Mississippi, and Summons to Memphis author Peter Taylor, who canceled his reading because of illness -- several others were acknowledged in the course of the weekend. And what they evoked, for all the promotion of the "new" Southerners, was the past.

Like Faulkner, the Fugitive authors have been in and out of fashion. Andrew Lytle, honored at a banquet luncheon during the weekend, merely bowed his thanks to the standing ovation, saying, "I think I've talked enough over the years." But a few moments later, handed a copy of the old Agrarian manifesto, I'll Take My Stand, he paused and said wistfully, "I'm the last one, you know."

Alex Haley, speaking in the high, narrow House of Representatives in the fine old State Capitol, told his newest story of roots, a forthcoming "Hallmark Hall of Fame" television show about three generations of Appalachian men, held together by the "friendship quilt" given the first man when he fled Kentucky after killing a man in a coal strike.

And Foote, a 35-year resident of Memphis who is also a novelist and short-story writer, grasped the shoulder of a woman who said that she had found particular solace in the "Civil War" television series. "It wasn't just the voices of people I know," she said, "but it's the most basic stories of the place I'm from."

"You've come very close," Foote said, "to experiencing what the ancient Greeks felt about the Iliad. Everything in their lives was connected to the Iliad; everything in ours is connected to the war. The Civil War is our Iliad." About Elvis ONE OF THE leftover prejudices of the antebellum South is a sense of "high culture." Classical orchestras are worthy expenditures, so are ballet companies, book publishing (Nashville is second only to New York as a publishing center), drama and art, although having had no robber-baronies, thanks to the war, the South is still playing catch-up on the great museums.

Popular music, on the other hand, is low-brow and extremely questionable. It has taken more than 50 years for the Grand Ole Opry to achieve even secondary status in the Old South (a cultural description, while Deep South is geographic). And at that it's a grudging respect having to do with the boom recording and tourism have become to the regional economy.

And Elvis -- well, there was a major panel convened on the continuing power of the Presley myth. Eminent rock critics Peter Guralnick and Greil Marcus were there, and novelist Mark Childress read from his fictionalized Presley bio, Tender. They spoke of the continuing flood of Top 10 songs about Elvis and T-shirts and promotions and sightings . . . and not once was the word "Southerner" invoked. Presley, arguably the man who most effectively fused black and white music, said his prayers and shook his pelvis, matched white-trash aspirations to Las Vegas extravagance and mother love and public fantasy, Presley, the quintessential New Southerner -- and it never once claimed him.

Eve Zibart, a reporter for the Weekend section of The Washington Post, is a native of Nashville.