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America Doesn’t Know How to Read the Work of Black Writers

28 minute read

High school English didn’t ask much of us. We were assigned two books a year, one of them a Shakespeare play and the other short, cynical, and 20th century. Never anything later than the ’50s, as if literature had expired along with Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman. We peered into stories like windows, not mirrors: Look at these people and their odd, brutal lives that are nothing like yours. But they were. We were public-school kids and not prep-school ones, but The Catcher in the Rye must have hit home for some of my peers, white and upper middle class and angry their lives had denied them some essential realness. Like Holden Caulfield, they got kicked out of school, albeit not for flunking math—their parents hired private tutors for that—but for smoking weed. Coming back from lunch period, I’d sometimes climb the front steps past flashing blue and red lights. This was years before weed was legal in Canada, but calling the cops was just a flex. The borders of our neighborhood, a suburb north of Toronto, were so well pruned—high net worth, low crime, always voted Conservative—that policing was often closer to theater. Kids mimicked this impulse to regulate and practiced it on the small visible minority. Lord of the Flies intuitively made sense to me. I had no doubt, if we all got dropped on an abandoned island, whom the group would turn on first.

The course books were kept in a locked back room that I rarely saw teachers visit. Texts didn’t seem chosen so much as ordained, random acts of literature I trusted were part of a grander plan. The books often had creased covers and edges rubbed soft, but their insides were barely touched. Other books hadn’t been handled at all. A teacher once gave me a copy of The Joy Luck Club for fun, and it had obviously never been opened. Amy Tan was my only evidence that some writers of color were kept inside the locked room—they just weren’t let out to frolic with the depressive white people on the syllabus.

Not that I made this connection at the time—I loved depressive white people. I loved how bitchy J. Alfred Prufrock got about not wanting to go to a party, which is exactly how bitchy I get about not wanting to go to parties. The way Gregor Samsa kicked his sorry bug legs in the air. Hamlet’s highly quotable jackassery. Tennyson’s weepy little mustache poems. At 17, I was indiscriminate. I wanted to be a highly quotable jackass. I was also attracted to discipline and was easily trusting, and I’m lucky book list was the soft place where those things converged. (Though even then, if you’re a girl asking older male authority figures for book suggestions, you won’t get away unscathed—you’ll get Lolita and a hand on your leg.) If you told me to read it, I would; if you said it was great literature, I’d probably believe you; if you assigned me a five-paragraph essay on it, I’d write you ten for extra credit. But I was also starting to pick out the contours of what made books objectively good. This seemed a skill worth sticking with.

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A yellow legal pad records my summer reading between 2008, when I finished eleventh grade, and 2013, when I graduated college. These syllabi show an obsessive but incoherent course of self-study, cobbled together from best-of-all-time lists, teacher recommendations, whatever caught my eye at the bookstore, and a bottomless hunger to know. The idea of a canon was almost erotic to me; a complete system of knowledge that existed for me to consume and be consumed by. This aligned with how I absorbed pop culture more generally—which is to say, like a pompous tool. I believed that albums should be listened to end to end; people on TV should walk-and-talk; and books should be read in unbroken sweeps of time during which your cell phone isn’t visible in your periphery (the only item on the list I still endorse). I valued a stylized laboriousness in my art, a showy self-seriousness that implied in its making what it demanded in its consumption: a pure focus that means art is your life’s only demand.

It’s easy to look back, from an era drenched in the language of representation, and heckle myself like a horror-movie victim for not asking what seems like the obvious question: literally, what is behind the locked door? I’m fine with never having been a reader in whom the need to feel seen bloomed spontaneously, if it ever bloomed at all—if anything, it made me a better reader. But it also made me, at least at first, into a very specific type of writer. I didn’t just turn literary whiteness into a fun summer reading project. I tried to turn it into an entire artistic practice.

Writers have long had a language for how whiteness warps the imagination. James Baldwin used a vivid metaphor to describe the sensation: the “little white man” who hovers nearby and passes judgment on everything you write. I prefer this to the more polite contemporary euphemism, the “white gaze,” which sounds like it has an off-switch and ignores the way it can get inside you. The “little white man,” by contrast, sounds like he climbs up your back and breathes down your neck and farts in your ear. He demands that you explain yourself and your people according to specific scripts; cries foul when you describe what it’s like to live in your body; when you turn a nice phrase, probably hisses something like “but you’re so articulate.”

Toni Morrison has cited the figure as something she and Baldwin used to talk about. In the 2019 documentary Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, she mentions “the little white man that sits on your shoulder and checks out everything you do or say.” Elsewhere, he’s burrowed deeper: in a 2015 conversation in the Guardian, Morrison describes the man as having tunneled “deep inside of all of us,” like a universal case of tapeworm. Or, a nearly universal case: when asked if she’d managed to dislodge her own tiny freeloader, Morrison replied—unsurprisingly, if you’ve read her books—that she never really had one to begin with.

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But little white people aren’t just a hang-up or a parasite—they’re an aesthetic, a master key, a pedagogy. One way to tell the story of literature might be to chart this figure’s trek across the body, like a game of Pin the Tiny White Man on the Big White Man. For some writers, he’d live in their mouths (like Raymond Carver, or Gordon Lish and his acolytes); for others (Hemingway, Updike, parts of the Roth oeuvre), the little dude was in their pants. For Franzen, maybe somewhere nontraditionally erogenous, like his nostril. In a 2015 essay in Tin House, “On Pandering,” Claire Vaye Watkins cites Baldwin’s tiny white man and admits to a version of her own, except hers is not little—he’s tall. He’s white-haired, a chainsmoker, and hails from New Mexico. Watkins realizes she’s spent an astonishing amount of time and energy “watching boys do stuff”—be it sports, video games, or lauded acts of literary craftsmanship—and that this girlhood pastime became the DNA of her creative life. For years, she writes, she’s been trying to emulate the bad boys of literature so that they’ll finally notice her, claim her as one of their own, and acknowledge how well she, too, can do the stuff. The stakes of the issue are, admittedly, different for white women like Watkins: She spent her life watching boys do stuff so she could impress boys. Baldwin spent his “watching white people and outwitting them so that [he] might survive.”

This basically sums up the MO of my childhood: impress the boys and get out alive. From school and my fanatical supplements to it, I intuited something similar to what Watkins describes: the books agreed upon as “great” shared a certain grammar. The way we generally talked about books—as things that sparkled with objective, dissectible beauty—thrilled me. It seemed to confirm something I’d always suspected but never had words for: that in literature there should never be a good for you, only good.

Illustration by Aaron Marin for TIME (Source Photos: Baldwin: Sophie Bassouls—Sygma/Getty Images; Woman: Ketut Subiyanto—Pexels; Poe: MPI/Getty Images)

As a result, what thrilled me as a reader jinxed me as a writer. I rejected the dogma of “write what you know” because what I knew didn’t seem beautiful enough. Currents of racism, administered at random voltages, tucked inside a cozy suburban life where little else happened? Sure, that was a diary entry, maybe a mediocre treatment plan for radicalization, but not the stuff of serious fiction. My friends were art and drama nerds who spent most evenings and weekends migrating between local parks and somebody’s basement. When I wasn’t a part of their stoned, slow-moving mass, people would grab fistfuls of my hair and demand to know where I was really from. It was a morality tale without a moral. According to the rubric I’d developed from my summers of obsessive reading, my life was dead on the page before I even put it there. When I dared try, the scenes were so patently, odiously good for you, that I hot-flashed with shame. Part of this agony was because my taste far outran my talent. Nor had I lived very much, or thought critically about the keyhole through which life passes into art. But I also realized that when I cast off lived experience and instead drew on the tropes of what I read—white people and the particular ways in which they lived—the words came to life, or something like it.

It felt like plugging figures into a formula. I gave my protagonists money-scented names like Arthur and Quentin and Vida and Adelaide and felt that I knew them intimately. Their conflicts and motives came mostly ready to use: Toxic marital unhappiness. Alcohol problems. Status anxiety. The markers of money but never a mention of it. Ditto their day jobs. Writing scenes of drawing-room banter and pillow talk and drunken ennui felt like a passkey to worldliness. It also felt like leveling up as an artist without having to do the dull work of moving through the world. This, I understood, was what all those summer syllabi had been preparing me for. This, I knew, was beauty.

Not all books could avoid being called good for you. When mainstream culture addressed books by Black writers, people stopped talking about what it meant to be alive, or about beauty and pleasure. They talked about the books like they were high in fiber. Or they barely talked about the books beyond how important it was for us to talk about them and how good we were for doing it. This isn’t specific to one period in my education, because large chunks of it didn’t contain any books by Black or racialized writers at all. But it was there in extracurricular tips from teachers who “thought I might like them”; or tucked into a cursory, rah-rah-Canada history lesson about the Underground Railroad; hell, it was in the copy on the backs of the books my mother nudged across the table as I rhapsodized about Don DeLillo or whomever I’d anointed my literary deity du jour: Visceral. Raw. Multicultural.

The practice of reading Black writers badly is an established North American tradition. In the 19th century, there was a major publishing boom in slave narratives. Books by writers like Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass were big sellers. The accounts offered personal stories explicitly framed as “representative” of all Black people, adding fuel to the case for abolition. But even with such high stakes, writers had to hold a lot back. Mainstream readers had no stomach for suffering, or for being called out as part of the problem. Narratives by Jacobs and others are instructive in tone, cut out most of the writers’ interior lives, and remain silent on the most graphic horrors of enslavement. But what really gets me is how much they had to, well, pander.

These writers had to suck all the way up to their white reader. They showered him with praise, Toni Morrison writes in “The Site of Memory,” “by assuming his nobility of heart and his high-mindedness. They tried to summon up his finer nature in order to encourage him to employ it.” They knew how swiftly they’d lose sympathy and throw the fight if they dared to tell the whole truth or even a big part of it. In order to get white people to listen, let alone help further the abolitionist cause, the author had to spill ample ink saying how great the reader was doing for even picking up the book. Despite all that care and the high sales numbers, some white critics still called these books “biased,” “inflammatory,” and even “improbable.”

Even now, as the white reading public reappraises canonized works for their depreciation (“Lolita is bad, actually”) and Morrison has a Nobel Prize to her name, people still look to The Bluest Eye as a guide for unlearning racism rather than an aesthetic achievement. The surge of antiracist reading lists was yet another reminder that the work of Black artists gets read, as Morrison put it back in 2003, “as sociology, as tolerance, but not as a serious and rigorous art form.” Books explicitly framed as guides to antiracism were corralled onto “syllabi” alongside texts whose only educational aspect was that they happened to be written by somebody Black. Not only does this imply racism can be read away, but it also suggests a sameness between a literal guide and a literary novel; that both can and should be read under the sign of white self-improvement. Two hundred years later, readers still needed coddling.

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In high school, I was convinced that I wasn’t going to let politics get anywhere near me or my work. I had a specific model in this pursuit: Vladimir Nabokov. Nabokov famously sneered at collectivity, morals, or group affiliation of any kind. “The larger the issue the less it interests me,” he told the New York Times Book Review in 1971. I was obsessed with him and even ran a blog in his honor. The Nabokov Project (dot blogspot dot com, baby!) still lives online, its posts many thousands of words long and archived against a backdrop of ugly mint green. The entries swerve between ecstatic regurgitations of literary theory, the swagger of someone who’s never been edited, and an octogenarian’s first time logging on (“At long last, I have mastered the art of the HTML ‘underline’ tags!”). They also, more generally, try to puzzle through Nabokov’s theory of writing to see how much of his coattails I could stuff in my fists. Reading it now, I’m struck by how much permission I needed—from a dead guy, nonetheless.

It was foolish to think I could cut out politics at all, but I saw so many people, on the page and on the street, seem to live their lives free of it that I thought I could give it a shot. But trying to sidestep racial dynamics in my work meant closing off too much of the world and how I experienced it, which in turn choked what happened on the page. This felt unfair, but also true, which meant I had to listen to it. Agreeing to talk about race in my fiction felt like volunteering for that other category—good for you, high in fiber, rah-rah-Canada-Underground-Railroad. But there had to be a way to do it that avoided the trap. After all, white people don’t just write about white people. I initially broached the subject in a story that reads like a bunch of cutting-room-floor scenes from Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. It’s titled, should you miss the reference, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”

The story opens on a white couple, Laura and Greg, drifting down the freeway. They are on their way to meet some long-lost cousins they’ve only just learned about. When Laura’s father died, she met one of them—a mild, blazer-wearing academic called David—at the funeral. Later, David reached out to set up a dinner. The only hitch? Laura and Greg get there and find out David’s wife and kids are Black, which can be very traumatic for tiny white people if they aren’t ready for it. Rereading the story, I’m riveted by how awful Greg is. He’s every cliche of toxic maleness: a bit of a lech who has no respect for his wife, thinks road lane markings don’t apply to him, blasts sexualized Zeppelin songs in a car that contains his sleeping 5-year-old. Worst of all, he’s an actor. His literary forebears are clear; they’re listed on the legal pad that tracks my summer reading. But Greg’s also not the real villain here. He’s just a foil for his wife, who spends the story convinced she’s the victim of various small offenses before she starts downing vodka—at a pace that belies the fact I had no idea how to drink—and spewing some extremely racist sh-t.

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In the story, Laura manages to utter every cliche about mixed-race family-making—mistaking the wife for the help; going gaga over how beautiful the kids are; comparing their skin to various caffeinated beverages. What I’m interested in, though, aren’t the story’s politics but its sympathies. It’s weirdly gentle toward Greg, who exorcises most of his horribleness in the car on the way over. But the character who truly deserved better is Delilah (yes, she’s really called that), David’s wife and the plot’s catalyst. In the story’s circus of casual racism, Delilah is denied an inner life. Sure, she gets some of the most fist-pumping lines in response to Laura’s indiscretions. But otherwise, she’s a bit of window dressing for the white characters to eyeball, tokenize, attack, and defend.

My solution, it turns out, was to pay lip service to politics. Delilah was a lightning rod for everything I thought a white reader expected to see in my work—racism, Blackness, a sly knowingness about it all. Airing these things on the page, I figured, was a way to get the business over with so we could get down to pleasure. I could collect and control my readers’ responses to racial dynamics, freeing up their minds to appreciate my fancy turns of phrase.

This puppet-mastery was a way to protect myself, but it was also a form of imitation. In the works that I studied and the conversations I had about them, race was a bit player, a walk-on, a punch line. A reality glimpsed by accident; a surprise guest at the dinner party. My literary models didn’t have the vocabulary for meaningful encounters with difference. Difference, in the world of tiny whiteness, didn’t exist.

In 1992’s Playing in the Dark, Toni Morrison diagnoses what the U.S. literary canon has been avoiding: an honest discourse about race. Her beef isn’t so much with the whiteness of the canon as much as it is with how scholars have talked about it—whitely, as if American literature were totally raceless. (She says, in a line that always thrills me, that her project stems “from delight, not disappointment,” as if she isn’t about to alter the field’s topography.) Morrison is focused on a few major players of the 19th and 20th centuries; ones, like Poe and Melville and Cather and Hemingway, who loom large as national literary daddies. What gets drooled over as “American” in their work, she argues, is actually a defensive pose, a reaction to living alongside Black people in the United States. The hobbyhorses of its writers—freedom, masculinity, innocence, individualism—are responses to an “Africanist presence” onto which whiteness projects its fears. American literature, Morrison argues, defines itself against this “dark and abiding presence” by calling innate the very things African and African American people were systematically denied. Put differently, Black people are a major reason the canon is shaped the way it is. They’re obsessed with us—though, as much as I’d love to read it, no white writer has had enough gumption, or perhaps self-awareness, to pen “Tiny Black People.”

The project of much U.S. fiction is to do what the Constitution, Eurocentric education, and pop culture attempted before it: find ways to talk about race without really talking about it. What Morrison calls Africanism—all the flat, pernicious stereotypes Black people embody in the white imagination—offers white writers a coded language in which to both “say and not say,” a way to simultaneously be “talking about” and “policing.” In liberal circles, she admits, being elliptical about race is just good manners, and literary criticism has been a casualty. Good white liberals, like the books on the best-of-all-time lists, invite Africanism to dinner but would rather consign it to the sunken place than offer it a seat at the table. This avoidance didn’t end with the 20th century—it evolved new tactics for the next era. Instead of simply being good manners, being squirrely about race became good craft.

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For years, I kept a Gordon Lish quote taped above my desk. Lish is a writer, editor, and teacher perhaps best known for his heavy-handed edits of Raymond Carver’s work, which codified the latter’s terse style. The sentence, which I’d underlined heavily and transcribed onto a piece of card stock, was “Seduce the whole f-cking world for all time.” In a workshop I took after completing my BA, I was assigned “The Sentence Is a Lonely Place,” Gary Lutz’s gloss on Lish’s unpublished lectures. Hell yeah it is, I thought as I read it, and absolutely nobody—my family, my background, my heritage— is allowed to live on that vast, lonely plain along with me.

In White Flights, novelist and critic Jess Row explores the U.S. writing of the later 20th century, starting with the big boys of the ’70s and ’80s. The lauded authors of those decades, like Dillard and DeLillo and Carver, probably aren’t top of mind if you’re making a list of U.S. writers who talk about race. But in Row’s readings, their studied disinterest in the subject speaks volumes. One of his chapters is on Lish and his perceived role in perpetuating this silence. Lish aimed for “the deliberate exclusion of a certain kind of reference, observation, or sign,” which often meant the details that signaled any particularity in the writer or their life, be it personal or familial or cultural or racial.

The violence of this erasure was both literal and figurative—you can look up images of Carver’s stories after Lish was through with them; there’s something forlorn about the few naked sentences peeking through the markup. Lish didn’t have an especially light touch in class, either. According to students who took his workshop, he’d have writers read their work aloud. When Lish heard a phrase that didn’t measure up, he’d interrupt them (and destroy them). The problems with this approach are fairly obvious. For one, it’s terrifying. If you can stomach the means, it’ll get you results, but those results will also skew very similar—if you brandish a machete and yell at everyone to sound a certain way, they’ll do it just to stay alive. If you take that machete to their prose, they don’t even have a say in the matter. The method also involves a more symbolic violence. Compressing every phrase into Carver-esque minimalism translates every sentence into the same panicked Morse code of American life. Lish’s pedagogy peels away the traces of perspective, style, history, identity, or ideas in the work, reducing anyone’s prose to a thing that looks raceless. Whiteness gets reproduced through formal technique. By contrast, any writer who dares deviate from such a tradition—by, say, including material that’s ethnically or culturally distinctive—is at risk of being dismissed from it.

Though Lish’s style strains to express universality, it’s not universal at all. As Matthew Salesses writes in Craft in the Real World, prizing writing that can’t be traced back to a body doesn’t mean the work has no politics, but that its politics are to seem apolitical. In a classroom built on this model, the minoritized writer is under considerable pressure. Short, tense, Carver-esque prose might not be her style, or the kind of work she wants to produce at all. But if she wants to be taken seriously, her best option might be mimicking the agreed-upon set of aesthetics to please the gatekeepers and barter entry. Of course, at one time, this was exactly what I was trying to do. I wanted to extract beauty from the mouths of history and politics like teeth. The idea of writing about myself, or my body, was horrifying.

In Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning, Cathy Park Hong describes trying to outmaneuver the expectation that her body would inform her writing. Arriving at Iowa for her MFA in poetry, she has already decided that “writing about [her] Asian identity was juvenile” and commits to formal mastery instead. She was right to be suspicious: in workshop, if one of her fellow students dares reveal a trace of autobiography, especially about race or gender, other students read it as a sign of weakness. This is the impossible bind of the minoritized writer: you’re expected to write about yourself, but if and when you fulfill the prophecy, you’ll be read as artless. Hong’s search for “an honest way to write about race” follows her into her writing and teaching career. In a season busy with public readings, she feels disaffected, “performing for a roomful of bored white people” for their approval. Later, when she’s watching the stand-up routines of Richard Pryor—who got his break writing jokes meant to appeal to a white audience—Hong wonders, along with Pryor: “What the f-ck am I doing here? Who am I writing for?”

Who was I writing for? Even at the time, I would never have said I was writing for white people. If anything, I wrote against them and against the sort of work I imagined they expected from me. I didn’t go about it in the most original or sustainable way, but I was grappling with a weight that descended as soon as I opened up a blank document. Even as we reassess the canon, it’s difficult to undo its more ingrained patterns—like the link between systemic disadvantage and the expectation that a writer represent it. The smaller your share of power, the more people your art may be mistaken as the mouthpiece for: Your gender, your culture, your country. Some writers accept this burden as their political duty. Others find power in being a mouthpiece and it’s not a mistake to read them that way. My favorite contemporary authors often trouble, or even reject, the calculus altogether. Even now, I’m still figuring out my relationship with it.

But maybe for and against are the wrong prepositions. Maybe it’s more like I was writing at white people, or through them. I tried to harness power where I could. The white boys I sat with at parties, whose interest in me never made it past intense conversation as other makeshift couples around us peeled away for privacy, got transfigured on the page into the men who stared balefully out of windows and channeled their desire into vulgar fascinations with racialized women who wanted nothing to do with them. The too-interested teachers became lurching man-children with big hands and terrifying appetites and weekly appointments with their analysts. The women in my life were almost always Lauras, well-meaning and overeducated and doomed to torpedo dinner parties with their liberal racism. They were my ways to imagine a world in which the stuff people got away with saying and doing and touching and taking had real consequences.

Of course, this is still a response to whiteness. If you’re going to build a creative practice out of denying somebody’s expectations, you still have to spend a lot of time anticipating their desires. But if you’d asked me then, I’d have said that I wrote for myself, and I would have believed that to be an honest answer. I wrote for myself, furiously and ecstatically, and then shoved those pieces in front of various people and demanded that they find them funny and universal, the illegitimate heirs of the work of white American men. If a certain type of reader is only going to read my work like it’s meant to teach them something, then I’m proud of my teenage self for feeling entitled to take the same liberty, reading the canon as if it were a guide to how a person on the page should be.

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I haven’t eradicated the little white man, not entirely. But I’m no longer tempted by his silky grammar, his weak tummy for politics. It wasn’t a breakup so much as a gradual drifting apart. I finally started picking up the books my mother pushed across the table—turns out Zadie Smith is pretty good. I grew up, moved away, learned what my face looked like outside of the cubist refraction you get growing up around white kids. I read more beyond the books I was prescribed and cultivated a different goal: to capture what felt true. I’m grateful for my education in literature, the obsessive and self-imposed parts most of all. Literary whiteness has dug so many invisible tunnels through the collective psyche. But, my god, do I still love to slip into a book that’s lousy with it.

I still have to flick away the tiny white man when he wanders too close, tries to climb into my ear. He watches more than he chatters these days, but he still speaks when spoken to. I avail myself of his knowledge when I need certain questions answered, like would you call this color eggshell or ecru? or does what I’ve put on the page unsettle your dominance the way it should?

Copyright © 2022 by Tajja Isen. From the book SOME OF MY BEST FRIENDS by Tajja Isen to be published by One Signal Publishers, an Imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed by permission.

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