Saturday, May 26, 2018

The white novelist

In the sixties, the heavy hitter white novelists often included black and ethnic characters of all kinds in their novels. An interesting change in the field occurred with the advent of neo-liberalism and the spread of what I call euphemism culture (a culture in which racial injustices are corrected by finding soothing words to correct them). White novelists, the heavy hitters, seemed, often, to retreat to a segregated world of whiteness. While you could and should criticize a novelist like Tom Wolfe for stereotyping blacks in his novels, you couldn’t do the same for, say, the Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner because there are no blacks in the novel. Astonishingly, in this novel of the 1970s in NYC, the black portion of the population seems to have been whited out.

I think Rachel Kushner is a great novelist, and I’m re-reading the Flamethrowers and loving it, again, but I do think about this. I also think about the fact that few reviewers ever review novels featuring all white casts and bring up race.

I’m writing my second novel. It concerns, in no particular order, Paris, Atlanta, the beginning of the Obama era, pest control, financial skullduggery, genes, termites, poetry and performance art. And as I am developing the first two chapters, in which I am trying to establish the friendship between my two main characters, Leandra Cathcart and Karen Chamisso, I have been struck by how WASPishly I am laying things out. This “oversight” says something about my own bigotries. But I am going to fuck with that WASPy world. Not because I am a “better” person, but because the very Waspyness of this world is part of the story, is aesthetically interesting. 

If a certain kind of novel tries to speak about the “spirit of the age” – which is a very American line of novel – then the whiteout society of the upper middle and upper class has to be a big part of the story, especially for the manufacturers of cultural products. Euphemism culture has taken one very relieving lesson from the story of cultural appropriation, which is that white people can happily pretend black people, or Asian, or Hispanic, don’t exist. Cause if you imagine a Hispanic Texan, say, you imagine from your white root, and can get (oh horrors!) accused of racism. The solution to which is to embrace apartheid.

Forgive me if I find that an utterly bankrupt moral position. And one very telling for a decade in which appropriation – of black income and wealth – has proceeded like a machine, creating disparities in household wealth between races that are comparable to South Africa in 1980.
All of which means: stir it up, little darlings.

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