Yesterday morning, Stephin Merritt, literary celebrittante and lead pleonast of The Magnetic Fields, published a snide little report on Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State and Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See for The Morning News’ Tournament of Books. I’ll not take issue (overmuch) with the post’s critical content, mostly because I don’t believe it to be a piece of literary criticism. It’s more just a tedious procession of half-formed and not-argued judgments masquerading as likeable cantankerousness, or a bunch of casuistic setups for one-liners unworthy of a Comedy Central Roast.
Here’s an example:
It is not clear to me who Gay’s intended readership is. So ugly and revolting is the Haiti she describes, that her book could have been financed by the tourism council of a rival destination.
Not only does the first sentence fail to apply to literary writing in any meaningful sense, the second sentence — the punchline — reads like it was filtered through an episode of The Big Bang Theory. Also: what does the singer of “The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side” know about Haiti?
But if you couldn’t already tell, the piece exhibits signs of racism and misogyny. Here’s an example of the latter:
Her complete absence of introspection only increases throughout the novel as she is kidnapped, raped, and tortured for 12 days, leaving her mangled and insane. Then, because she is insane, she runs away some more. The point of all this eludes me, unless it is to emphasize—yes, to really emphasize, because it is undoubtedly worth emphasizing—that no matter how much of a jerk someone is, they don’t deserve to be kidnapped, raped, and tortured. But I think we knew that.
It’s almost as if, while writing, Merritt begins to stretch and bend his own case in an effort to test its flimsiness. Even if this was a fair paraphrase of An Untamed State (and it isn’t), it’s obvious to any caring person that a victim of sexual violence might experience foreshortened introspection. But I think he knew that.
I want to move to something else. There is some longstanding indication that Merritt is racist, or, at the very least, that he alights — mischievously, stupidly — at “thinking” and “speaking” from bizarre, prejudicial angles. In 2004, Merritt told Salon:
I think it’s shocking that we’re not allowed to play coon songs anymore, but people, both white and black, behave in more vicious caricatures of African-Americans than they had in the 19th century. It’s grotesque. Presumably it’s just a character, and that person doesn’t actually talk that way, but that accent, that vocal presentation, would not have been out of place in the Christy Minstrels.
Here Merritt establishes a rhetorical pattern, one to which he’ll default often, where he swaddles a racist quip in a bit of counterintuitive historical trivia. “It’s shocking we’re not allowed to play coon songs anymore,” Merritt reasons, because hip-hop is apparently a bevy of backwardly “vicious” caricatures. (Thanks, Bill Cosby.) After all, Merritt knows a thing or two about the Christy Minstrels.
“This is the sort of Grand Ol’ Party reasoning worthy of a Southern congressman,” you say? Well, we’re just getting started. In 2006, former Slate writer John Cook attempted to rescue Merritt’s reputation after he was accused of racism by music writers Sasha Frere-Jones and Jessica Hopper. In a vintage case of a defense that exonerates the plaintiff, Cook implicates Merritt ruinously:
Merritt was the keynote speaker, and in a panel conversation he described “Zip-A-Dee Doo-Dah,” from Disney’s legendarily racist 1946 musical Song of the South, as a “great song.” He made clear, according to a partial transcript of the panel provided by his band mate Claudia Gonson, that he did not actually like Song of the South, calling it unwatchable and saying that it has just “one great song. The rest of it is terrible, actually.”
Again, Merritt tantalizes us with a racist preference — his appreciation for “Zip-A-Dee Doo-Dah” — before exonerating himself with a factoid: Song of the South is, in fact, also racist. In the world of Stephin Merritt, two racist remarks make a non-racist remark. And knowledge is the whitest shade of power.
Most of this has been reported and forgotten. But after reading Merritt’s aggressively unfair judgment this morning, I remembered, too, that he wrote some weird entries for the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus in 2004. Namely, Merritt contributed this ridiculous note on the word “tan”:
In Edward Albee’s play The American Dream, there is a running gag about whether a hat is beige, wheat, or cream. Fine distinctions used to be made about gradations of racial makeup (quadroon, octoroon, etc.) and correlating skin tone (chocolate, coffee, yellow, mocha, olive), but in contemporary usage we seem to consider brown colors beneath precise description.
Yes, Merritt is defending the usage of words like quadroon and octoroon — words invented by colonialists for the purpose of quantifying the lives of subjects and slaves and gentrifying their often traumatic sexual histories — on the basis that they lead to more accurate descriptions of brown skin.
I have serious reservations about whether Merritt’s “judgment” should have seen the light of day, even though The Morning News commentators did an admirable job of taking him to task. Let’s please, though, not confuse racial prejudice with criticism. And if we have to have celebrity judges in literature, let’s vet them first. Another thing, for editors: even if what you’re doing is promotional, you can still edit a prejudiced or plainly bad piece of writing. And if it’s by a famous person, one whose greatest contribution to letters is a Scrabble poem about two-letter words: you can also throw it out.