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What Are White Writers For?

For a writer to deny that fiction is political is not only an act of bad faith, but an artistic failure.

Daniel Garcia / Getty

One sleepy week last July, months before Lionel Shriver strode onstage in Brisbane with her sombrero and her fury about cultural appropriation, 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.

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.

It would be easy for a white writer—say, a young white writer, in an MFA program, working on his or her first novel—to look at these responses and feel caught in an imaginative bind, 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. 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.” 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. My term for it is “white dreamtime.” And waking up in the middle of a dream, as we all know, is an unpleasant experience. 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; 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. 

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”; the way we live now includes regular live filming of police murders of black men, plus a presidential candidate who is an unrepentant and explicit 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. The real question in this debate couldn’t be more fundamental: What are novels for, and what are novelists for? 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. “The spirit of good fiction,” Shriver says, “is one of exploration, generosity, curiosity, audacity, and compassion”—but not argument, and not critique. 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? 

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. 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. 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? 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. We’re talking about what Greenidge calls “paranoia about nonexistent censorship.” 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. Shriver’s “crisis,” in any demonstrable, concrete sense, is a fantasy—a powerful, successful artist’s bad dream, in which some faceless censor, or critic, or angry brown-skinned person, is going to come and take everything she has away. That by itself would be an excellent subject for a novel! 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.