For those people who think that this is a reasonable headline to the original article, “interrogatory” means “a question.”
I mean, look at this tag line.
“For a writer to deny that fiction is political is not only an act of bad faith, but an artistic failure.”
Hell, there are actors, like Mira Furlan, who insisted that art, acting, fiction, should all rise above political concerns and factional fighting….
Of course, she lived in Yugoslavia and needed to leave town before she was horribly murdered for even expressing the idea — from both sides of the conflict, because cultural identity was more important than friendships.
So, congratulations, The New Republic has just decided that the Balkans were right. Everyone in Bosnia that tried to kill each other? They were right. And Mira Furlan should have been horribly, horribly murdered, because she denied that fiction was political, and thus was an artistic failure.
The next step in the article is to just say Heil Hitler, and we can just trigger Godwin’s Law and go home.
BY JESS ROW
Jess Row’s most recent book is the novel Your Face in Mine. He’s working on a new novel and a collection of essays about race and American fiction, White Flights.
One sleepy week last July, months before Lionel Shriver strode onstage in Brisbane with her sombrero and her fury about cultural appropriation,
Yeah, for the record, I link to Larry Correia, and how he discussed how Shriver was right, and everyone else was an idiot.
So, guess who just volunteered to be called an idiot by Larry Correia?
This idiot, that’s who.
What is “cultural appropriation”?
It’s the stupidest thing ever.
It’s what happens if you’re white and you eat Chinese food or wear a kimono, you’re culturally appropriating their culture. You are stealing from the culture.
If I say oy!, I’m stealing from the Jewish people and their culture — I’m a New Yorker, and even Lenny Bruce considers a Catholic New Yorker more Jewish than a Jew in Kansas, but what did he know? He only was Jewish. Sigh.
If I go eat out at any restaurant that isn’t based in European food, I’m stealing from someone. I don’t know how, especially if I’m paying money for it, but whatever.
As Larry put it.
If you know anything about the history of the world, you would know that it has been one long session of borrowing and stealing ideas from other people, going back to the dawn of civilization. Man, that cuneiform thing is pretty sweet. I’m going to steal writing. NOT OKAY! CULTURAL APPROPRIATION!
Everything was invented by somebody, and if it was awesome, it got used by somebody else. At some point in time thousands of years ago some sharp dude got sick of girding up his loins and invented pants. We’re all stealing from that guy. Damn you racists and your slacks.
Yeah. And if you live in America, multiply that by a thousand. Ever hear the phrase “American food”? Rarely. And some people count steak as “American.” Cute trick that.
Anyway, back to the stupid at The New Republic.
Slate published a striking interview with Jonathan Franzen, who spoke with surprising candor—as far as I know, for the first time—about why he doesn’t write about African American characters. “I have thought about it,” Franzen said,
“But… I don’t have very many black friends. I have never been in love with a black woman. I write about characters, and I have to love the character to write about the character. If you have not had direct firsthand experience of loving a category of person—a person of a different race, a profoundly religious person—I think it is very hard to dare, or necessarily even want, to write fully from the inside of a person.”
After a quick search for Franzen’s speech, the news closest to the original release date of this stupid article ON THIS TOPIC, and it’s from the start of October.
Franzen is from Chicago. You know how hard it is to be culturally isolated in Chicago? There are four major cultural groups in Chicago: Black, Irish, Polish or Jewish. How does one live in Chicago without knowing at least one person from each groups? How much of a bubble must he live in?
Isn’t that a major argument of the PC police? That white people shouldn’t write about any character that isn’t exactly like them? In fact, I’VE ALREADY HAD THIS DISCUSSION.
So Jess, are you saying you have problems with a white male writing mostly about white people? Is that your problem now?
When I read about Shriver’s speech—so incendiary and yet so reflexive, it could have been titled “I’m Insulted That You’re Insulted”—I immediately thought of Franzen’s words. These arguments, if we can call them arguments, seem to proceed from diametrically opposed positions—Shriver claims her imaginative freedom to use any kind of cultural material, while Franzen limits the range of his imagination to the small circle of people he has personally loved—yet both provoked strong disagreement, even outrage, from at least some of the same people. Including me.
Jess is pissed off about both of these positions. Huh.
So, the next line should be “heads I win, tails you lose.”
It would be easy for a white writer—say, a young white writer, in an MFA program,
MFA program, so … a loser?
And, pardon, but why is this a young white person? Shouldn’t this argument be applicable to every other race on the Earth? Are we going to talk about that at all?
working on his or her first novel—to look at these responses and feel caught in an imaginative bind,
Only if they’re too unimaginative to write a book in the first place.
something that white writers have been articulating in one way or another for decades, going back at least as far as Norman Mailer’s essay “The White Negro” and William Styron’s impassioned defense of his widely critiqued novel The Confessions of Nat Turner.
Of all of the crap Norman Mailer wrote, that’s going to be the hill upon which you make your stand? Really?
If I limit myself to white characters, I hear this young writer saying—in fact, I have heard writers say these very words—I get criticized for creating an all-white fictional universe; but if I try to write characters of color, characters different from myself, I get accused of “appropriation” and “theft.” The subtext of these arguments, this young writer goes on to say, is that white writers should just stop writing.
I often find myself on the receiving end of these comments because I’m white, and because two years ago I published a novel, Your Face in Mine, about the most radical kind of cultural appropriation: Plastic surgery which changes racial appearance, what characters in the book call “racial reassignment surgery.”
First, that’s more like conversion; the culture appropriated him. Also, are you sure that’s cultural, and not racial? Once again, one of these PC morons can’t understand the difference between culture and race.
If I were to turn the tables on this twit, I would say, “How DARE you use race as synonymous with culture, painting every black person with the same brush. Do all black people look alike to you, too? Racist schmuck.”
After all, this one is saying that all black people and their cultures are alike, isn’t he?
For the record … was cultural appropriation a thing two years ago? Because to be honest, I barely heard about the term in November of 2015. And yet this author claims he was going to write about cultural appropriation before the term was even coined? Cute trick. Was there a time machine involved?
One of the main characters, Martin, is a young, white, Jewish man who undergoes surgery to “become” African American; when we meet him at the beginning of the book, he’s been living as a black man in Baltimore, undiscovered, for a decade.
What possessed me to write such a book?
Since high school, I’d known people, some of them intimate friends, who wanted to desperately escape their own whiteness.
I felt that the longing to escape our own racial bodies was everywhere, from silly acts of what Shriver calls “trying on other people’s hats,” to identity-switching and disguise, and finally to radical plastic surgery.
But this desire was found almost nowhere in contemporary fiction.
I knew it would be risky—“don’t write that book,” my agent at the time told me, “you don’t want that kind of trouble”—but I thought there was a way I could do it.
I’d build the novel out of a series of charged, ongoing arguments, in which no one voice “wins,” focusing on where our racial desires and fascinations come from: sadness, incompleteness, the inarticulate places where our most unacceptable urges begin.
But I also wanted Your Face in Mine to be at least a little bit funny, to acknowledge the inherent awkwardness of a white writer arriving late (as we always seem to) to a conversation about race.
As I wrote in an essay published at the time, I wanted to make use of “the tension, the friction, the rich possibilities of embarrassing oneself for a good cause.”
Your Face in Mine got a fair amount of critical attention when it came out, and provoked some angry responses, but overall, it was well-received by critics of all backgrounds.
I was incredibly moved by the range of feelings readers wanted to express about it.
But I noticed, in particular, some white readers (and writers, and editors) whose primary response went like this:
“You’re so brave.”“Better you than me.”“How did you pull that off?”“What made you feel you had the right to write that book?”
That last question, of course, cuts to the heart of what Shriver was talking about: The feeling some white writers and artists have that they’re not “allowed” to write about people of color, or anyone different from themselves.
This begs a significant question: Who is doing the allowing? White writers, statistically, are by far the most widely published, reviewed, and publicized. The publishing industry is overwhelmingly white—according to the latest survey, out this week from Publisher’s Weekly, 88 percent white.
No one stopped Shriver from publishing her latest novel, The Mandibles,
which uses racially inflammatory images of all kinds, including a Mexican president of the U.S. who speaks with a lisp,
and a black woman led around the streets of New York on a leash.
(In fact, several of the novel’s most prominent reviews never even mentioned these images.)
We still live in a culture in which white people are very seldom stopped from doing anything they want to do,
and when they are stopped or challenged, get extraordinarily upset about it. I’m one of them.
I inherited this attitude and have inhabited it all my life.
So, you’re saying you’re an a-hole. Thanks. I had noticed.
My term for it is “white dreamtime.”
Yeah. And the colloquial term for your article is virtue signaling, where you take it upon yourself as a white author to talk down to other white people about minorities who, apparently, haven’t even been asked their opinion.
No, really, who exactly are you speaking for? Shouldn’t Toni Morrison be involved in this? Okay, fine, Maya Angelou isn’t breathing anymore. But heck, I’ll even take “Zane,” who is a black female erotica author. Reginald McKnight’s still kicking. Why aren’t they writing this article? Why isn’t Larry Correia? Or Sarah Hoyt? Or an actual “person of color”?
You know how I know that this schmuck is so full of crap that his eyes are brown? No where in this article is the name James Patterson. I searched for it deliberately. Patterson has created one of the predominant and popular black characters in all of pop literature, Alex Cross, and Patterson is white — I do not count “skin like leather” as a race. He’s apparently guiltless of the sin of cultural appropriation.
Either that, or The New Republic doesn’t want to take on an author who puts out more books in a year than entire book clubs.
In fact, aside from Shriver and Franzen, are there any authors this twit actually want to discuss? Aside from himself?
And waking up in the middle of a dream, as we all know, is an unpleasant experience.
So far, this feels like a nightmare. Where I’m being bored out of my mind.
Shriver seems to believe that white writers—and white people generally—are entitled to a kind of public dreamtime, in which nothing they imagine or fantasize should be challenged, critiqued, or even interpreted;
Actually, according to Larry Correia, the Portuguese novelist currently living in Utah, it’s perfectly fine.
By the way, “interpreted” doesn’t mean PUTTING WORDS INTO SOMEONE’S MOUTH.
Apparently, “Cultural Appropriation” only goes one way. I’ll lay good money that little Jessie here never touched a gun, but I’m certain he’d have no problem writing about a murderous redneck shooting up innocent kids on a school ground. Like the NY Times authors who tried to claim that all of the vets coming back from the Middle East were ticking PTSD time bombs, a la Rambo. After all, in this version of reality, every Christian is a redneck imbecile, every vet is John Rambo.
Franzen, on the other hand, describes how fastidiously he limits his powers of imagination and empathy. The white writer, in this Shriver/Franzen formulation, is entitled to a zone of absolute privacy and limitless artistic autonomy; if a critic makes an observation about their work on the order of, “this person is depicted stereotypically,” or “this wide-ranging, ambitious urban American social novel lacks a single nonwhite character,” that critic is attacking their private imaginative process, their dream-life, rather than simply reading the work itself.
So you don’t write about any other cultures other than the one you come from because you are scared you’ll be committing Cultural Appropriation? Okay. But then they can attack you for your lack of “diversity”. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
See? It’s a con game. The only way to win is to not play at all. Write what you want. Write what you think is awesome. Don’t let bullies scare you.
It would be lovely to think that fiction works this way—an unedited unconscious stream, produced in a trance, that somehow materializes in print on bookstore shelves with a bar code and price and blurbs attached—but it doesn’t. The novel, as Mikhail Bakhtin once wrote, is an art form that has “the maximum zone of contact with the present.” Even the most private and eccentric novelists—Thomas Bernhard, Samuel Beckett, or Theresa Hak-kyung Cha, to name a few—have always written work that bears down mercilessly on the present.
Shriver and Franzen, in contrast, have always been relentless, ambitious public chroniclers and satirists of what Trollope called “the way we live now”;
Since when? Franzen I’ve heard of … in that I’ve seen his books on the shelves occasionally. Shriver, again, I’ve never heard of.
the way we live now includes regular live filming of police murders of black men,
…Which are almost always only half of the story, but the riots don’t take that into account.
I particularly like the incident where the body camera showed that the shooting was 100% justified, but looting happened anyway.
plus a presidential candidate who is an unrepentant and explicit white supremacist.
Wait, Robert Byrd (D-VA) is running for President?
You can’t mean Trump, right? The guy who met with Hispanic leaders in September? That white supremacist?
“Race is big now,” Franzen says, somewhat ruefully, in the same interview. And because race is indeed big, many of the most visible new books, the books everyone is Supposed to Read, are saturated with the complex politics of our moment—Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, or Paul Beatty’s The Sellout—while major new novels by DeLillo and Franzen get respectful attention, but don’t exactly seem to ignite the zeitgeist the way they once did. As Kaitlyn Greenidge put it succinctly in her New York Times response to Shriver: “It must feel like a reversal of fate to those who have not been paying attention.”
But the trouble here is not just that white writers, like other white artists, have never been taught, or asked, to think about their work in racial terms.
1) Good, because they shouldn’t be thinking of art as a racial thing. Again, that leads to Balkanization, and if you think that’s a good thing, I’ll drop you in the Balkans and see how fast you run screaming for mama.
2) What do you mean they’ve never been taught to think about it in racial terms? Are you telling me that I’m the only human being who was nearly choked on a diet of To Kill a Mockingbird, Maya Angelou, and every “racially sensitive” book that was allowed in high school? Are you telling me, Jess, that you’ve never seen To Sir, With Love, or In the Heat of the Night, or The Defiant Ones, or about a quarter of Hollywood movies made over the last 70 years? Are you a liar, living under a rock, or are you merely deaf, dumb and blind?
The real question in this debate couldn’t be more fundamental: What are novels for, and what are novelists for?
To have fun. To enjoy good stories. To invoke catharsis. You know, every rule of thumb about storytelling since Aristotle’s Poetics.
The default position in the Anglo-American literary world for more than a century has been that fiction—even if it chronicles the present in minute detail—is apolitical.
I will point you again to the part where political art is merely propaganda to serve causes … see above for “Mira Furlan.”
“The spirit of good fiction,” Shriver says, “is one of exploration, generosity, curiosity, audacity, and compassion”
Yeah, those are parts of it.
—but not argument, and not critique.
Yes, please, put words in her mouth. Because there hasn’t been enough of that yet.
Believe it or not, there was an argument against the US Bill of Rights that believed that, if you enumerate all of the various and sundry rights that one can think of at the time, then some idiot is going to come along at a later date and say, “Hey! X isn’t a right on this list! Therefore, it doesn’t exist!” I’ve actually heard this argument in reference to the right to privacy.
Apparently, listing qualities of good fiction means that if you leave off a quality, you mean you don’t believe in them. Shriver left off good editing and proofing as well, does that mean she doesn’t mind having errors in her text, you feckless f***?
Political fiction, according to this standard, is inherently compromised, a form of “special pleading.”
This standard, however, has always been selectively applied. I saw this vividly in 2007 when I appeared on a panel in New York with a group of writers, all roughly the same age, who had been named “Best Young American Novelists” by Granta. Those of us who were white, native-born Americans were asked anodyne questions about our artistic process and where our ideas came from. The other half of the group—born in Nigeria, India, Peru, Russia—fielded questions about whether they wrote in their “native languages” too, and if not, why not? What does it mean to you, they were asked individually, to be called an American writer?
First … ugh. “Where do you get your ideas?” I think the foreign-born authors got the better question.
Second, given that they were named “American Novelists,” that implies that they also published in English. That they came to a foreign country (America) to make their novel. Are this idiot honestly trying to tell us that people who went out of their way to write a novel in a second language isn’t impressive? Isn’t worth remarking on? There are days that I’m happy I can write in English; he doesn’t think someone would be curious about the challenges of not only writing a novel, but writing a novel in a language not one’s own? Does he seriously not see how this is at least interesting? A challenge piled on top of another challenge already? Is he just that clueless about why that would be at least worth a question or two?
Third … if someone declared that Honor at Stake was one of the best Italian novels, I’d be as confused as hell, and I’d say so. It wouldn’t matter if I moved there.
Then again, Jess, you realize that if I moved to any other country, they wouldn’t accept me as a local until I jumped through more cultural and bureaucratic hoops than a three ring circus … while in America, people can show up, fill out endless paperwork, and they’re done.
It was around this time that I first realized something nonwhite writers learn almost by default: for a fiction writer to deny that fiction is in some way political—in the sense of existing in an inherently politicized world—is not only an act of bad faith but a kind of artistic failure.
So, someone asks about how their experience in shifting from one culture to another affected their writing, and you decided to declare everything is politics?
Congratulations, you’re a Soviet stooge. A standard useful idiot. If everything is political, then everything is propaganda, and not worth the paper it’s printed on, because art is mere political opinion.
Hell, you’re bitching about Shriver excluding interpretation, and you’re now deciding that there is only one interpretation: politics. There is nothing else. If you’re not political, you’ve failed. If you’re not shilling for politics — leftist, I’m sure — then you’re not creating art.
How can we not, as writers, grasp that our own political existence, our own subjectivity, our citizenship, our racial and cultural identities, and the arguments of our time, are not material for our art, that these things are in some sense not all part of one ongoing conversation?
My instincts tell me that Shriver—like many other writers—doesn’t want to take this leap because conversations demand a certain level of accountability.
Good God! “Instincts.” You’ve already shown me you have all the instincts of a dead sparrow, Jess. What’s next? Reading chicken entrails? We have now gone into the realm of mind reading. It wasn’t enough to put words into Shriver’s mouth, but now, we get to READ HER MIND.
Give me a break.
To say that The Mandibles ought to be read in conversation with The Sellout, as it surely should, implies that we need to look at these two dystopian fantasies, each nightmarish in its own way, each racially charged, and ask: where are the commonalities, and what might these fantasies say about one another? To juxtapose The Corrections, say, with Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House—extended Midwestern families struggling over houses in decline, secrets passed through generations, old infirm men haunted by past failures—is to say that The Corrections is, and always has been, about the decline of the postwar white middle class just as The Turner House is, as every critic has already said, about the collapse of the Detroit’s black middle class in the decades after the Great Migration.
In a speech he gave in 1987 upon winning the Jerusalem Prize, J.M. Coetzee spoke about what he perceived to be the fatal flaw in white South African culture, and its literature in particular: “At the heart of their unfreedom,” he said, “is a failure of love.”
This passage haunted me after I finished reading Franzen’s interview: Where, I wanted to know, was the self-reckoning, the doubts about spiritual and artistic failure, the feeling of wishing he could know, and love, his own country and culture more deeply and completely?
In the same breath, one might also ask: Where is Shriver’s curiosity, and where is her compassion, when it comes to the perspectives of people who associate symbolic acts, like wearing sombreros, with deeper historical traumas?
Uh huh. So, let me try to understand this particular insanity. Because she wore a sombrero, she manages to traumatize … who, really? When Pope John Paul II visited Mexico, he wore a sombrero and played the guitar, and the populace ate it up. And you don’t get much farther from Mexico than Poland.
Is that not, too, part of fiction’s purpose? Part of what she accurately describes as “the astonishing reality of other people”?
We’re not having that conversation now.
Then what the hell did you think you were doing for the last 2000 words, then?
We’re talking about what Greenidge calls “paranoia about nonexistent censorship.”
Let me get this straight…
The constant group think of the internet has been trying to shame Shriver into being embarrassed about her thoughts, her words and her book, but this isn’t considered censorship.
…You’re one of those people who saw 1984 as an instruction manual, aren’t you?
White people—writers, critics, editors, teachers—still have the vast majority of the jobs, the column inches, the review coverage, the selective power, and, of course, the money.
Could that possibly — just a possibility, mind you– be because your blanket “white people” are a majority of the population? I know that Jess — I’m sorry, Professor Row, of the College of New Jersey — lives in a little bubble of New York-New Jersey, and there are no cultural differences among all the white people you know (who are all nice, well-mannered, perfectly PC academics and Manhattan dwellers, I’m certain), rest assured that there are even cultural differences among neighborhoods of New York City. In fact, I recommend you don’t ever visit Breezy Point, Howard Beach, Staten Island, Queens or Brooklyn and try selling the locals on your BS….
In fact, never leave your little bubble.
Shriver’s “crisis,” in any demonstrable, concrete sense, is a fantasy—a powerful, successful artist’s bad dream,
Yes, she’s so successful, I didn’t hear about her until now.
She’s so powerful, she’s been getting constant BS thrown her way without any way to stem the flow.
in which some faceless censor, or critic, or angry brown-skinned person, is going to come and take everything she has away.
When Gilbert and Sullivan did The Mikado, there were actually Englishmen who were shocked about how racist it was. How dare they make fun of the Japanese this way!
GK Chesterton had to point out, quite simply, that Gilbert and Sullivan WERE MAKING FUN OF THE ENGLISH.
I will suggest for the tone deaf like Jess Row that Shriver’s public display was less about offending and traumatizing “angry brown-skinned persons,” and more about traumatizing easily offended special snowflakes who need to dive into their safe zones and pull the ground in over their heads.
That by itself would be an excellent subject for a novel!
That was actually real life events — much of 20th century Mexico would nationalize (read: confiscate) all foreign assets in Mexico approximately every decade or so. It was so clockwork, companies would plan that into their investments and planning.
But only if the novel makes clear that at some point the artist wakes up, looks around her, and realizes that nothing—except maybe her perspective—has changed.
And please notice, at the end of the day, the title set up a question, and it was never answered. What good are white writers? To go by this, I can’t see any reason. Because Row’s only purpose was to tell me that novels aren’t art unless they’re political and about the now.
Except that “real novels” aren’t supposed to be about now, they’re supposed to be about us, about people. If you’re talking to me about Black Lives Matter in your novel, then congratulations, your novel will not stand the test of time. Your novel is about current events, and not about people, or the human spirit. If a novel is only about politics, then it will be as dated as gogo boots and Mary Quant. Politics are passing things. In a hundred years, people can pick up Iron Chamber of Memory and grasp it instinctively and automatically. Because it’s about love, and virtue, what any great romance is about.
While I dissed political fiction before, 1984 and Animal Farm stay with us because they’re about ideas instead of just politics. Tyranny versus freedom is a tale as old as the stars in the sky.
In fact, I will even go further, and say that Jess Row just went out of his way to denigrate every great work of the last hundred years.
While I hate Lord of the Flies, he’s already tossed that under the bus, because that’s “only” about whether or not people can withstand living apart from civilization for any length of time without turning into savages.
Row has completely dismissed Lord of the Rings. Unless Row wants to look at freedom versus tyranny as “political.”
Row wants to accuse people of being too insensate by not utilizing the passing and the ephermeral for our “art.” Because politics change. Culture changes. Arguments are forgotten and brought low by other arguments.
Row wants to state that these are all part of one ongoing “conversation.” He has shown no interest in having a conversation, but just dismissing opposing views idiotic. Franzer and Shriver are wrong. Period. End sentence. Row doesn’t need to talk with them. He knows better.
And yet, what good are white writers? What are they for?
It’s a question that Row leaves not only unanswered, but also unaddressed.
This isn’t a conversation. This isn’t answering any questions. This is a glorified screed written by an academic who was offended by Shriver’s remarks, clutched his pearls, and promptly went out of his way to signal how virtuous he was. I’m certain that there are some people among his faculty who will actually care that Row has written this, I suspect that more people will read my fisk than read his New Republic article.
Well, this was several hours of my life I will never get back.