White Men Can’t Fight (About Books)


Over at The Atlantic, an enterprising young white guy points out that those “death of literature” pieces are almost always authored by “white dudes.” The specific spark for his flame is a recent-ish essay in Harper’s that pronounced Time of Death for American poetry. I rather agree with Joel Breuklander’s argument, but it’s rather funny that he doesn’t at any point in the piece acknowledge that he himself is a “white guy,” picking a fight with other white guys, about what a white-guy fight all of this is. My amusement only deepened when I clicked over to Breuklander’s Twitter feed… and found him fighting with white guys about his piece.

In fact, Breuklander is not the first to observe this phenomenon, not even so about a Harper’s essay that approximately 1% of the American population has read and even fewer care about. My favourite example happened in 2005, when the experimental novelist Ben Marcus took offense to some essay Jonathan Franzen wrote about William Gaddis. There’s no point in really summarizing the deeply… specialist nature of the argument, but suffice it to say it involved a lot of tossing around of the word “elitist.” The most satisfying reaction to that arrived a couple months later in the letters section, from the writer Sherman Alexie. I’m hoping Harper’s won’t mind my reproducing that in full:

Does Ben Marcus, educated at NYU and Brown, employed by Columbia, and published by Anchor, Vintage, and Harper’s, truly believe that he is an excluded experimentalist? Does he honestly believe that Jonathan Franzen, educated at Swarthmore, once employed by Harvard, and published by FSG and Harper’s, is somehow more elitist? Or is Franzen the populist? Or is a populist elitist? Is there really much difference between Marcus and Franzen? This East Coast-East Coast Literary Rap War reminds me of the Far Side cartoon in which a lone penguin, suffering in a crowd of millions of exactly similar penguins, rises and shouts, “I just have to be me!”

The penguin metaphor is apt because it conveys the bemusement, rather than anger, with which most non-white-guys I know greet grand arguments of this kind. At this point I just wait, and watch the arguments play out with the kind of affection I hold for my cat when, careening after a favored toy, she crashes into the wall.

Even the queerest penguin of color out there has concerns about the status of literature in a society where “avid readers” mostly stick to YA sensations and bestselling dog memoirs, of course. What makes the writing of white men so fascinating and funny is how even reasonable points come to be fueled by a sort of subconscious anxiety about the status of white men themselves. And to be clear, I don’t even mean that white men want to remain at the top of the status heap, or kick, say, Anne Carson to the curb. I mean sure, sometimes you get a “piece” so churlish and unreasoned that it cannot be explained any other way, like Isaac Chotiner’s recent declaration that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is the “most insufferable author” on the thin grounds that he didn’t like some of her mild remarks about American readers. But it’s not usually that way.

Where I’ve most noticed the anxiety in operation lately is actually in the white male critic’s review that seeks to correct certain gender imbalances in literature as a whole, and then… fails utterly in the attempt. Last summer, I wrote a piece for Slate about one of these, a review of James Wood’s review (oh boy) of Sheila Heti’s novel How Should a Person Be? The review, I thought, was very weird: noncommittal, puzzled, and as I put it at the time, “written with the air of one holding the offending item out at arm’s length, sniffing warily.” I kind of felt I’d proven my point when Wood told another publication that he thought his review was not negative, apparently already forgetting that he’d questioned Heti’s emotional age therein.

More recently, the anxiety monster reared its head in Adam Kirsch, at Tablet, reviewing Rachel Kushner’s novel The Flamethrowers with a long and ultimately unintelligible prelude about a panel on women and criticism. Then he added a ham-fisted point about what kinds of qualities are viewed as “male” and what as “female” in books: The Flamethrowers was “a macho novel by and about women, which may explain why it has been received so enthusiastically by the critics.” Disclosure: I chaired the panel, and appreciated the mention, though I thought Kirsch… rather missed the point. To my knowledge, no one at the panel seriously suggested that there was anything inherently “macho” about any kind of writing, but then we can’t be responsible for the way someone heard us, I guess.

Come to think of it, Kirsch’s mishearing might be a great metaphor for the problem. It’s not that these “white men” can’t comment intelligently on gender issues in the abstract; it’s that in practice, too, they seem to be in such a rush that they either misconstrue good points, or paper over them with their own, sometimes half-baked thoughts. It takes Brueklander, after all, three-quarters of his piece to get to the “much-discussed” VIDA statistics, which he dispenses with again in the space of a link. One wonders about the degree to which he thought he was telling us something we didn’t already know about the state of American literature. There’s a lesson somewhere in that, one about listening and processing and taking the time to carefully consider the input of others to write a more precise piece. But then, that’s not the way even well-meaning white male critics seem to do things, these days.