February 09, 2006


Kit Stolz

Thanks for bringing back this feature. The Times book reviews have changed for the better, I think, but the change so far is more evident during the week than on Sundays, as big hitters like Ronald Brownstein and Ulin (an acquaintance) have cleaned the clocks of big books by the likes of Fred Barnes and Stephen King. Overall, the reviews seem tougher, less adjectival, not as mealy, and that has to be a good thing.

But Ulin's "emotional truth" defense of creative nonfiction didn't work for me either. It did seem a little condescending to people outside the literary establishment, for one, and the problem is, a lot of ordinary readers feel flat-out duped by the "emotional truth" argument.

It's not just ordinary readers who feel duped. Fans of Annie Dillard such as myself felt duped when it came out that she never mentioned incongruous facts (that she was a smoker, for example) and that she borrowed without attribution a melodramatic anecdote about a cat scratching her during the night. How can I trust her stories about natural history--not all of which ring true to me-- after that deception?

And another of the examples Ulin cited, Hunter Thompson, is a different kettle of fish entirely, because Thompson is a "character" famous around the world for telling wildly funny tales tales while hopelessly intoxicated. Of course he's not reliable! Are all creative non-fiction writers comparable to the rantings of a hallucinating peyote eater?

I distrust memoirs for all the reasons that have emerged in the wake of the Frey debacle, but think there is such a thing as creative non-fiction, and think we would be better off defending non-fiction writers who can be trusted (such as John McPhee, to take an obvious example) and not lumping together all memoirs with all creative non-fiction.

If that means that memoirs are less trusted; well, maybe that's the way it should be.


re review of Striver's Row review
since i'm probably one of the few people of color who reads your lit blog, I'll take the "hard cheese" you proffered and respond to your reaction to Barra's comment "Does a white writer have a right to go there?"

The issue isn't about a writer's ability to cast his imagination into the bodies of characters who may be outside his immediate realm of experience. Of course, she or he can. That is the empathetic nature of art.

Nor is the issue about political correctness or essentialism. Just because a storyteller has the ability and power to distribute your vision, in this case, a black man's story, doesn't mean he should without some sensitivity to the politics of appropriation and exoticism.

Barra was right to acknowledge this issue. Baker incorporated Malcolm Little's story into his larger narrative because the leader Malcolm became is still notorious and provocative. A historical narrative about Malcolm X will attract more attention, and readers, than the simple tale of a bi-racial resident of Strivers Row.

Barra is questioning whether Baker is just using Malcolm's story to spark controversy or add spice, rather than using the character to illustrate one of the many hard journeys of American citizens. As the author of bestsellers, Baker has access to promotional and distribution systems that a writer of color may not and, therefore, can't get his own side of the story into the record. The same discussion can apply to Doctorow's The March and Ragtime.

I think both Doctorow and Baker have written works incorporating the stories of Black Americans with verve, accuracy and sensitivity.


Thanks for the usual thoughtful commentary, Adrienne. I appreciate your taking the time to weigh in.

I do understand the points that you're making but I'm not sure I agree on a few points. First and foremost, I've been accused of being reductive, and I know I can go that way, but I do strip a question like "Does a white writer have a right to go there?" to its core, and to me there can only be one answer. I thought the whole notion of women writing as men, men writing as women, whites writing as Asians, etc., had all been laid to rest long ago. To even address a notion of "right" seems unnecessary and loaded. Not to mention a bit tired.

I do agree that sensitivity is the key, and Doctorow's a great example, I agree. But I think it's also dicey to impute motive to Baker; that's another slippery slope for me, assuming one can really suss out the motives of another writer. Barra might question it but it's wholly academic since only Baker can say one way or another (and depending on motives, a writer can't be counted on for honesty, as other recent events demonstrate), unless the writing is demonstrably exploitive. I prefer to take a perhaps more obvious and less nuanced tack - We accept he has the right to do so, did he do so with any distinction? That brings the talk down to talent, execution, sensitivity (and perhaps intentions) but leaves out the question of "right".

I agree with you wholeheartedly that the publication and distribution systems are weighted against writers of color but I do wonder if you're not overestimating the impact of a novel like Strivers Row. Mightn't it be argued that the considerable historical record presents the other side of the story - and has considerably wider reach? Not sure, just thinking out loud ...

But as I freely admit, I can take a reductive view of these kind of things. I appreciate your posting this perspective here and think it's valuable for myself and others to consider.

When are we going drinking again?

Steven Augustine

I say we establish an art-diminishing precedent when the use of a black character or theme in a work of fiction by a non-black writer answers by default to black sensitivities (as though these are uniform!)...and this goes as well if you exchange 'black' for any and all other identifiers. A novelised Malcolm X should be no more hallowed a figure (or trope) than George Washington, the Virgin Mary, Humbert Humbert or Allah him(it)self...these characters are just tools in the writer's tool box, not public property.

I think the distinction that is not being drawn in this case goes right to the heart of the general Oprah's-book-club misunderstanding of what fiction (at the high end, at least) is good for. When the best fiction uplifts us, it does so almost heartlessly, mercilessly, by verging on the miraculous...simply because it's the work of artists who are so good at what they do that we surrender ourselves to their Authority. Which is in stark contrast to our response to the sort of mediocre books (often best sellers) that comfort us by very carefully presenting no opposing, elitist, offensive, dangerously new or vaguely challenging ideas. It's this sort of middling book that IS answerable to the full-spectrum of sensitivities of American Identity Politics, the result being 'literature' that is filtered through so much PC cheesecloth that it ends up about as daring and concept-stretching as a gubernatorial candidate's platform or Super Bowl advertizing.

When Art answers to the sensitivities of anything other than the artist's own aesthetic, it becomes less than Art and little more than harmless entertainment. Which is precisely what's happening out there...lots of technically 'okay' and blandly tasteful or cute little books these days (Chabon, Foers, Vida, Franzen, Proulx, et al, take a bow) and very very little of diamond-hard, uplifting brilliance. Lots of Starbucks-cookie-cutter-MFA-workshop-prose from good looking young spokesmodels bending over backwards to do 'nobody no harm' and, gee, MOVE people. Snore.

A brilliant book answers only to the judgments of its own hard-won mechanism; it is not a well-mannered thing. Let straight black novelists write about Hmong transvestites; let Chinese-American yuppies write about deaf Scotsman; let blind Navajo Republicans write about dirt poor German pederasts; and let them write however they chose! Just let the writing(please) be GREAT.

DESPITE all the PC cheesecloth.

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  • The Elegant Variation is "Fowler’s (1926, 1965) term for the inept writer’s overstrained efforts at freshness or vividness of expression. Prose guilty of elegant variation calls attention to itself and doesn’t permit its ideas to seem naturally clear. It typically seeks fancy new words for familiar things, and it scrambles for synonyms in order to avoid at all costs repeating a word, even though repetition might be the natural, normal thing to do: The audience had a certain bovine placidity, instead of The audience was as placid as cows. Elegant variation is often the rock, and a stereotype, a cliché, or a tired metaphor the hard place between which inexperienced or foolish writers come to grief. The familiar middle ground in treating these homely topics is almost always the safest. In untrained or unrestrained hands, a thesaurus can be dangerous."


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