September 18, 2011
John Freeman, the current editor of Granta, published an essay in last Saturday’s Age that attempted both to commemorate the tenth anniversary of “9/11″ and to assess the impact of 9/11 on American literature. It’s a stunning piece of critical oversimplification, beginning with the most reductive possible reading of some unfathomably complex novels:
Europe may be the birthplace of the all-encompassing philosophers… who attempted to stuff the whole world into a theoretical system, but the US is where this urge found root in storytelling. Or at least it was.
In every decade from the 1950s to the year 2000, the US produced a novel that took a great deep breath and attempted to capture all the systems of modern life at work: William Gaddis’s The Recognitions (1955), Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 and Gravity’s Rainbow (1966 and 1973), Don DeLillo’s White Noise (1985) and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996).
All these novels bulge and hum with a theory of how the world is run: the market economy and the economy of language — the twin broadcast networks of global power. You see in each of these books how the systems interlock, creating what Fredric Jameson described as “the spectacle of a world from which nature as such has been eliminated, a world saturated with messages and information, whose intricate commodity network may be seen as the very prototype of a system of signs”.
In other words, this generation of postwar novelists foresaw how alienated we would all feel. They imagined our pain and dislocation. They understood how this malaise would be a gateway to the domestication of imperial violence and the circular logic of compulsive capitalism: I exist to spend, I spend to exist.
That’s all debatable enough on its own — and I’ll come back to it in a moment — but then, for reasons only he can understand, Freeman takes a flying leap from his discussion of the above novels to a discussion of their authors’ biographies, essentially construing the lives of the authors as “systems novels” experienced by flesh-and-blood human beings:
[I]n many ways, these novelists were perfectly placed to tell this story. They had all spent time in the industries that slowly helped the US encircle the globe: Gaddis, whose father worked on Wall Street and in politics; Pynchon, the one-time Boeing employee; DeLillo, the former copywriter for Ogilvy & Mather; and Wallace, the former addict, dependent of anti-depressants.
In their collective biographies one glimpses a world where language was a system for control, for abstraction and for destruction. They were perfectly placed to interpret the new world order.
If only Freeman spent less time considering the role of language in the lives of these authors and more time considering how they use it in their novels, he might gain a better sense of their achievement. Instead, he passes over the language of the novels — their very literariness — and treats them simply as their author’s attempts at representing and commenting on the real world. Then he suggests that they fail at their ostensible task of representing and commenting on the totality of the world because their authors were not relegated to America’s socio-political margins, and, as such, he celebrates the post-9/11 demise of the systems novel:
Even the best of those novels from postwar America, such as Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, with its Shakespearean language and awful knowledge of war’s lethal algorithms, was not a complete world. It was constructed to feel like one but it abstracted at the edges, as did DeLillo’s White Noise and especially Gaddis’s The Recognitions.
After all, they all presume a world in which the US is the centre; all of them narrate a tale in which whiteness is the neutral value; their leaps to the other side, the US within a US that does not see itself as part of a dominant narrative, are not nearly as broad as books that were being published around the same time, such as the early novels of Toni Morrison or the stories of Raymond Carver. There is not much of a glimpse into how the rest of the world lived. In other words, as much as these novels reveal the systems that would enable the US to become an imperial power, they have imperial blind spots.
Why Freeman believes that these conspicuously overwritten and absurd novels should stand as works of social realism — or should try to do so — is beyond me. His ultimate aim, of course, is to depreciate the value of these novels, and to downgrade the reputations of the novelists who wrote them, in order to champion the work of novelists on the political margins of the contemporary world. Such marginal novelists, he declares when he names names, are “important young storytellers,” “artists who can channel the anxieties of their time into powerful narratives” — and there’s the rub. You can hardly fault Gaddis, Pynchon, DeLillo, and Wallace for being inattentive to storytelling. Indeed, one of the most famous and most persistent criticisms of such systems novelists is that their work overflows with stories, and stories within stories. What really irks Freeman is that these novelists don’t write narratives with his degree of interest in what he thinks of as verisimilitude, and — perhaps worse — they don’t use the form of the novel as exclusively, or even primarily, a means to a narrative end. He’s offering a warmed-over version of the shtick we heard last year from David Shields, Ted Genoways, Lee Siegel, et al: that fiction broadly conceived, and American fiction in particular, once was and should still be — but is no longer — journalistic reportage with a light imaginative veneer.
When you take this view of fiction, however, you’re ultimately less interested in reading and evaluating literary work on literary terms and more interested in doing so on terms that are essentially cinematic. For the cinematic imagination, the value of a novel lies in its capacity to show, to illustrate, to depict; and the task of a novelist is to observe and understand the workings of the contemporary world and then to manipulate characters, storylines, settings, and so on, in order to show, to illustrate, to depict what has been understood. Don’t think about the ways in which the novelist might instead manipulate the very concept of depiction, or the supposition that he or she carries some responsibility towards depiction, in order to generate a particular experience for a reader. If the world depicted in a novel becomes “abstracted at the edges,” this is a flaw in the novel rather than a product of deliberate and purposeful decisions made by its author. If the post-9/11 world seems increasingly small, increasingly connected, increasingly transnational, then a pre-9/11 novel that seems, on the surface, to ”fore[see] how alienated we would all feel” is clearly a failure. The purpose of using words to create a work of fiction is to offer a reader a clear vision of the workings of the world, and any other use of words — to overwhelm or mystify, to provoke or to irritate, to offer ambiguity instead of clarity, even to use words for their own sake — is self-indulgent frivolity.
Ah, how easy it is to dismiss something when you assign it a purpose that it does not assume on its own and then disregard all the complexities associated with what it does try to do.
June 1, 2011
Now, back to book reviewing. In the latest Australian Literary Review, of all places, Melinda Harvey shows us how it’s done. Here she is writing a review for a relatively broad audience without falling back on the populist assumption that what makes a novel worth reading is the strength (believability, plausibility, vitality) of its characters and plot. To begin with, of course, she concedes that such an assumption should play into our evaluation of a work of fiction:
For all the high jinks [of postmodern pastiche and playfulness], A Visit from the Goon Squad… cares deeply about story and character and aims to meet the reader with some modicum of approachability and sincerity. … [N]obody’s boring and everybody’s got their reasons. We are thrown into closeness with Sasha, Bennie, Rhea, Lou, Jocelyn, Scotty, Stephanie, Dolly, Jules, Rob, Ted, Alison and Alex for short but intense intervals, one at a time.
None of these characters regains the centrality they enjoy in their chapter of the novel, but most of them don’t really go away either. They hover on the periphery of their familiars’ stories, as real people do, sometimes giving off an impression that is incongruous with the one we’ve formed through near acquaintance. This treatment of character makes them more, not less, authentic and is the literary equivalent of faceting gems.
But then, she looks elsewhere to identify the real source of the pleasure of reading this novel:
Structurally speaking, A Visit from the Goon Squad is an audaciously centrifugal multi-perspective narrative, its protagonists surfacing from a loose kinfolk involved, as musicians, groupies, publicists or fans, with the music industry. I drew all kind of charts, trying to detect an overarching pattern, but there’s no predicting who will be handed the narratorial mike from chapter to chapter. Once you get over the disappointment of knowing that the character you’ve grown so close to so quickly won’t be sticking around, the excitement comes from the leaping back and forth in time and space.
So the virtue of A Visit From the Goon Squad lies not solely in its choice of subject but largely in its approach to that subject, and in the experience it generates for its readers when it takes that approach. Credit to Melinda Harvey for putting it so eloquently — and, just as importantly, for managing to write a review that manages to incorporate discussions of feminism, the literary prize culture, Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, and American metafiction into an evaluation of A Visit From the Goon Squad, without losing sight of Egan’s novel and without even breaking the 2,000-word mark. Credit to the ALR, too, for publishing such an intelligent treatment of a work of fiction — although, with this being the only review of a work of fiction in all of the ALR‘s twenty-three broadsheet pages, a greater appreciation of fiction is still needed over there.
March 8, 2011
In the 1960s and 1970s one figure commanded the [Australian] literary landscape, and ruled the artistic life of Sydney like an (intermittently) benign despot. Nobel Prize winner, patrician activist, host of legendary proportions, he was famed for his savagery as well as his generosity, his intolerance of fools and charlatans, his immense warmth and his uncompromising intelligence.
James Bradley, ‘Me and Patrick White’
A couple of weeks ago, I listened to a panel discussion at the Wheeler Centre entitled “The Late Great Patrick White.” It was the first in the Centre’s series of discussions about the lives and works of Australian writers who are no longer with us. I can only hope that the others turn out to be as fulfilling as this one because it was a fantastic event: impassioned, intelligent, often very funny. Happily, there’s no need to recount the discussion in detail now that the Centre has uploaded video, but I do want to add a few general remarks on White and the event participants and to point towards what I think were some of the night’s most valuable moments.
Chaired by the critic and polymath Stephen Armstrong, the panel of three speakers consisted of the poet and novelist David Musgrave, whose outstanding Glissando owes an enormous debt to White’s Voss; the actress Kerry Walker, a friend of White who first met him when she won the lead role in Jim Sharman’s film adaptation of White’s The Night the Prowler; and David Marr, another friend of White who also served as White’s official biographer and as editor of White’s posthumously published Letters. On the whole, the panellists were well-chosen. Musgrave offered a respectful first-hand account of White’s literary influence, while Walker shared a few amusing personal anecdotes to flesh out the man behind the prickly public persona. And Marr? As is his wont, of course, he dominated the proceedings, seizing as much speaking time as Musgrave and Walker combined. That’s no bad thing, however, since he is a fiercely engaging speaker who communicates not only a great passion for White’s work but also an encyclopedic knowledge of his life and legacy. If only Randolph Stow had an admirer of Marr’s ilk.
Among Marr’s best contributions to the discussion were his remarks on White’s legacy in American literature and on the Wraith Picket hoax of 2006. In the first set of remarks, Marr noted that “you can hear the voice of Patrick White in The Shipping News” because Annie Proulx is a fan of White’s work, while Cormac McCarthy, too, could be “up before Media Watch on charges of plagiarism by spirit.” In the second set of remarks, Marr revealed that he thought the hoax was unfair because the work sent to publishers — the third chapter of The Eye of the Storm — was far from White’s best work. “I’m not somebody who says that every word Patrick White wrote is a work of genius,” he admitted to my satisfaction. White may well be the best writer Australia has ever produced, but in my view, after hitting his stride with The Tree of Man, Voss, and Riders in the Chariot, he went slack until he rebounded with A Fringe of Leaves and The Twyborn Affair — the latter being identified by Marr as White’s singular masterpiece.
My favourite moment, though, was when Marr tried to articulate White’s worldview — a worldview that manifests in a tension, throughout all of White’s work, between grotesque carnality and humanistic charity — in the context of White’s persecution by literary censors. Just before he offered a lengthy but engaging summary of the Menzies Lecture on White that he delivered last year, now available in essay form in Best Australian Essays 2010, he made these comments at about the 38:30 mark in the video I linked to above:
Because White was a huge figure in Australian literature, there [were] a lot of effort[s] to try to corral him… [on the part of] the moral forces who wanted to keep literature polite in this country. Literature was… a battleground for respectability and for decency and for that kind of thing. Now, what these idiots… didn’t realise about White is that he was the most powerful spruiker for morality that anybody was gonna read in an Australian work.
[But] this is the thing about White. What makes him extraordinary — and makes him, for many people, uncongenial — is that his work is not about finding happiness in the usual ways that are celebrated in literature. You don’t find happiness, in Patrick White’s works, through sexual fulfillment. You do not fall in love. The conclusion — well, you can fall in love, but the conclusion of one of White’s novels is never that the lovers get together. That fundamental pattern of a novel is not White’s. His [work] is warning people against easy pleasure. It’s warning them against the pleasures of drink and food and sex and laziness and relaxation. It’s warning them against the dangers of living in this country, and it is telling people that the point of living is to work, and to work with what God has given you as your talents.
And the greatest failures in his work and… the people he fucked off in his life, viciously at times, were all the people that he believed had failed their own talent and not lived up to the promise that was in them at birth. And [yet] here were these petty little would-be moral tyrants whingeing about this man whose greatest message about this country, in the end, was that we are an unprincipled people. And that’s, for me, why White remains a strong force in this country… and a voice that still speaks here.
As luck would have it, the Wheeler Centre event coincided with the welcome news that White will continue to speak here well into 2011. Later this year, an as-yet-undisclosed publisher will bring out The Hanging Garden, one of the three unpublished novels found in the White archives acquired by the National Library of Australia in 2006. Funnily enough, even though I read about the announcement an hour or so before I set off for the Wheeler Centre, I’m not sure that the news had reached the panellists on stage, since David Marr in particular made no mention of it despite having written about the novel a few years ago in The Monthly:
The survival of 32 boxes of White’s papers was revealed [in 2006] with immense hoopla. ‘Patrick White’s return from the pit,’ read the banner headline in the Sydney Morning Herald. For the first time in many years, White was back on the front pages of the papers. But here was something curious: while the press, fans and scholars dived on the biographical material — the notebooks and letters — we shied away from the manuscripts. It says a great deal about the sinking reputation of the most prodigious literary imagination in the history of this nation that we were all more curious about the life than the writing. After being displayed for a few triumphal weeks, the three manuscripts were returned to the library’s strongroom all but unexamined.
I’ve now read them from beginning to end, the first person to do so, it seems, since White put them away in his desk. I already knew a good deal about two of them. ‘Dolly Formosa and the Happy Few’ is a fragment of a novella about an ageing actress. ‘The Binoculars and Helen Nell’ is a great fat novel of about 160,000 words about the many remarkable lives of a cocky farmer’s daughter. Both projects were begun and abandoned in the late ’60s. Letters White wrote at the time discuss their plots, their progress and his reasons for putting them aside. Having them to read is a wonderful experience, but they don’t give any radical, fresh insight into White and his work.
The third is a different kettle of fish. When I was writing White’s biography, I came across brief references to a novel begun and put aside in 1981. I gave the project the code name “Novel Y” in my research notes and its fate rates a bare mention in my book. But here is the manuscript, and having read it I realise ‘The Hanging Garden’ was a masterpiece in the making and its abandonment after 50,000 words was a watershed in White’s life and a loss, a damn shame, for Australian writing.
Not anymore; and with discussions like the one at the Wheeler Centre working to remember White, his legacy seems to be in much better shape than it was just five years ago. Next at the Centre: “The Late Great Thea Astley” on April 19, a great second choice for a promising series of events. Like White’s work, hers could also use a little remembrance — and deserves it, too.
February 22, 2011
Pick up a book you have never read. Whether it is more than a century old or one of this week’s new releases, any unread book will do. Now hold it in your hands and flick through the pages but do not look at the words. Look instead for the question that descends on the book and settles over it like a mist: “Is it or is it not worth reading?” Now look for the corollary questions: “If so, why so? If not, why not?” Short of actually reading the book in order to answer these questions yourself, you might turn to a book review in search of the answers offered by others. To offer answers to these questions is the single most urgent task faced by book reviewers. Different reviewers will of course have differing views on what the activity of reading involves and how a book can best go about making that activity worthwhile for the reader. Such differences amongst reviewers are the beating heart of contemporary literary discourse. Beneath their differences, though, book reviewers face a common and fundamental obligation to answer the same questions that settle alike over each and every unread book.
I think these claims are self-evident. If someone either declines or fails to explain why or why not it is worth my while to read a particular book, that person has done something other than reviewing the book in question. He or she might simply declare a book to be worth reading, as tends to happen in capsule reviews and in venues like Twitter, but the absence of justification and persuasion offers no reason to accept the validity of the verdict. Alternatively, he or she might invoke the content of the book for purposes of cultural analysis or political commentary, as tends to happen in academic criticism, but then the writer forgoes an explanation of how the experience of reading the book is worthwhile and instead assumes that the book is simply worth having read in order to discuss subjects broader than the book itself. At these two extremes of literary discourse, a book is either proclaimed or presupposed to be worth reading or not. In between these two extremes, the inherent purpose of the book review is to elucidate the vagaries underlying populist proclamations and the value judgments implicit in scholarly presuppositions. It is an attempt to communicate literary experience with the book under consideration being the common referent between the reviewer and the reader of the review.
If these claims are really self-evident, why bother making them explicit? I make them explicit now because, over the last few months, the nature of the book review has been called into question in a number of high-profile venues and the responses to that questioning seem to me confused. Towards the end of last year, The New York Times Book Review asked six literary critics to explain the purpose and defend the value of their chosen profession. Last month, The Observer allowed Neal Gabler to question the purpose and attack the value of professional criticism and then solicited several responses from critics at work in various areas of the arts. Originally I had planned to write a more in-depth response to the inadequacies of the critics at both of these broadsheets, but the shortcomings of the Times critics have already been well documented by Dan Green and Rohan Maitzen and the shortcomings of the Observer critics are more or less the same. Here, then, I’ll stick to general impressions of the broadsheet critics’ approaches to literary fiction. Together, the Times and Observer reveal what strikes me as an endemic reluctance amongst literary critics to respect the literariness of literary fiction, to treat a work of such fiction as a work of art, and to face up to the notion that — first and foremost and prior to all other possible considerations — it is either worth reading or not. Amongst critics, in short, there is a widespread antipathy towards the non-utilitarian value of fiction and the possibility that the experience of reading fiction yields no outcomes prior to, and possibly none more productive than, a transitory engagement in the reading experience itself. The prevailing assumption is that the value of a work of literary fiction consists in its capacity to escape and supersede its own literariness rather than reveling in it. The most valuable such fiction is seen as valuable to the extent that it can first be seen as something other than what it is.
This approach to fiction always disappoints me. That, too, must be self-evident, given the title of this blog. To rise to the occasion of fiction and to meet it on its own terms is by no means simple or easy: it requires sustained close attention and dedication; it requires infinite patience. But mine is a minority view, of course, and all the more so as the alternative outlined above has been institutionalised in the most popular contemporary literary reviews in the USA and the UK.
Is the case the same here in Australia? Yes, unfortunately, and blithely so, as I was reminded last week when James Bradley’s review of Martin Amis’ The Pregnant Widow somehow popped up in my Twitter feed despite having been published in 2010. I remembered reading it when it first appeared in the pages of the Australian Literary Review, Australia’s answer to NYTBR and the Guardian Review with pretensions of being Australia’s NYRB, LRB, or TLS. Republishing the review on his blog, though, Bradley had taken the opportunity to comment on his own work: he wished he had been given another thousand words with which to extend the review. I wished the same, and I said so. As he devoted only one quarter of the entire review to an evaluation of the novel under discussion, I felt he had not met his obligations as a reviewer; I felt he focused disproportionately on Martin Amis as a cultural figure rather than the fiction Amis produced. But with James Bradley having long ago proven himself one of Australia’s most attentive and generous book reviewers, the shortcomings of his review seemed to me to owe less to his own critical weaknesses than to the limitations of the broadsheet review that published his work. Echoing Dan Green, I suggested that Bradley use his blog to give himself the extra words needed to engage with the novel in a way that he could not do in print. To my surprise, my comments elicited a brusque response from Geordie Williamson, the chief literary critic at The Australian and — judging from his comments — a de facto co-editor at the ALR:
Daniel, you are quite the scold. I predict for a you a stellar career in academe.
As for the review: James, I’m only sorry we cut so much of the material directly relating to the text. It was decent of you to refrain from blaming the editors but still: that was our bad.
Wow. First up, given that value judgments are anathema to literary critics in the academy, the critical vision I’m trying to articulate here could hardly be further outside the limits of what the academy currently deems acceptable. More importantly, though: what an abrogation of responsibility on the part of those at the helm of the ALR. The last two letters of ALR supposedly stand for “literary review,” but, if I understand Williamson correctly, the editors of the ALR read James Bradley’s review of The Pregnant Widow and decided to strike out the part where he actually reviewed the literature. Why? Why flinch when faced with the prospect of concentrated literary discussion unencumbered by the creaky architecture of rote and trivial authorial biography? Why fear that such discussion cannot capture the interest of readers and sustain their attention throughout? Notwithstanding the occasional triumph — Estelle Tang, for instance, reviewing Lydia Davis’ Collected Stories — why does the ALR experience such difficulty dedicating itself, as advertised, to the review of literature? Why does it not seem to feel comfortable in being what it says it is? Is that asking too much?
Here’s how it’s done: Adam Gopnik on Mark Twain’s Autobiography and Andrew Delbanco on the very same book. Two first-rate reviews, equally persuasive, although the verdict of each one is diametrically opposed to the verdict of the other. There must have been an extraordinary temptation for both authors to veer away from the Autobiography as text, as literature, and to instead discuss the life depicted in its pages, but to the credit of both authors neither one takes the bait. They focus relentlessly on the questions that settle over the unread book and dedicate themselves to the task of communicating the experience of reading it. When it comes to book reviewing, Gopnik and Delbanco offer the real thing. The New York Times Book Review and The Observer and the ALR could do worse than learn from them.
January 23, 2011
Jane Sullivan is a professional novelist whose weekly column, ‘Turning Pages,’ is a fixture of the weekend literary supplements in Australia’s Fairfax broadsheets, most notably The Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne’s The Age. What usually makes ‘Turning Pages’ stand out from the more news-oriented literary coverage that surrounds it is the spirit of contemplation in which it is written. Sullivan rarely takes as her subject the new releases of the week just gone and rarely exhorts her readers to immediately make a beeline for whichever book has recently won her over. Instead, she uses ‘Turning Pages’ as a space in which to think out loud about literary issues of a less transient nature, to meditate on the difficulties and the triumphs of literary creativity in a voice of exacting calm and serenity.
This week, however, Sullivan’s column is one of the more incredible things I have ever encountered in a literary supplement — incredible in the sense that I find it literally beyond credibility. Equal parts infantile and insidious, it is impossible for me to believe that anyone who even aspires to being a novelist could have ever written it in the hope or the expectation that it would be taken seriously. Earlier this month, Alan Gribben, “a well-meaning professor of English at an Alabama university,” announced his intention to publish a version of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in which the word “nigger” is replaced throughout with the word “slave.” Since then, Sullivan writes in this week’s ‘Turning Pages,’ “[t]he media and blogosphere have erupted with comments, almost all negative. How dare anyone, even an eminent Twain scholar such as Professor Alan Gribben, monkey about with Huck Finn?”
Lest we infer that Sullivan herself supports Gribben’s misguided project, she insists that she “can’t help but agree with [his] critics: I hate the very idea of tampering with a classic, and I believe that Twain chose his language with enormous care… to show the way, in all its stark truth, that ordinary uneducated [Southerners] spoke and thought about the slave population.” Even so, she concludes, “having read Gribben’s introduction to his new edition, I find I have a sneaking sympathy for his views. … I never thought I’d write this. But maybe, just maybe, in certain classrooms, for a limited period, a censored Huck is better than no Huck at all.”
Put in plain language: ‘I’m not saying we should censor Huckleberry Finn; I’m just saying that maybe it deserves to be censored.’ Worse than Sullivan’s doublespeak, though, is the sheer naivety of her proposals and the arrogance of the assumptions on which they are founded. Exactly who would decide which classrooms study the original text and which ones study the “censored” edition, and exactly what sort of limits would be placed on the “limited period” of their studies in censorship? And, more importantly, how in the world has it come to be understood that literature, of all things, is somehow invested with a moral obligation to avoid upsetting the pseudo-humanist sensibilities of contemporary liberal society or even to deliberately flatter them? How has it been decided that a work of literature which shirks this obligation should remain unread if it remains uncensored?
In what reads to me like an attempt to forestall the objection that she does not give due consideration to the criticisms made of Gribben over the last couple of weeks, Sullivan offers a little airtime to some of them. “We [have] heard,” she writes, “that trying to erase the N-word from American culture [i]s ‘profoundly, profoundly wrong.’ We were told that the book was ‘about a boy growing up a racist in a racist society who learns to reject that racism, and it makes no sense if the book isn’t racist.’” The first of those two criticisms is, I think, the most potent and so the most deserving of a level of deep thought that Sullivan does not offer it, largely because of the political circumstances with which news of Gribben’s project coincided. On the first sitting day of the 112th Congress, members of the United States House of Representatives took turns reading aloud the U.S. Constitution. But while the reading included the Amendment 13 which constitutionally enshrined the nationwide abolition of slavery, it did not include the full text of Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution which formally recognised the practice of slaveholding and thus constitutionally enshrined slavery in the first place.
In effect, then, the Congress airbrushed the legislative institutionalisation of slavery out of the broader picture of American history, construing it as some sort of vestigial practice inherited from the colonial era rather than as a practice knowingly and purposefully written into the Republic’s “Supreme Law of the Land.” That sort of brazen and officially sanctified historical revisionism would be distressing at the best of times, but it is even more so for having emerged hand-in-hand with Alan Gribben’s revisions of Huckleberry Finn — and vice-versa for Huckleberry Finn itself. Slavery was the formal and legislative manifestation of the dehumanisation of African-Americans. The “niggering” of African-Americans is the social and cultural manifestation of that same dehumanisation. The designation of a person as “slave” and the designation of a person as “nigger” are, respectively, the political and the personal outgrowths of the same practice of dehumanisation. It would be “profoundly, profoundly wrong” to erase “nigger” from a literary cornerstone of American culture even if for no other reason than that the present U.S. Congress has shown no hesitation in whitewashing the political equivalent of “niggering” from the document that legitimates the entire American Government. But of course, there is one other important reason why the replacement of “nigger” with “slave” is terrifically misguided, as Francine Prose has indicated:
[W]hat puzzles me most about the debate [over Gribben's revisions] is why the word “nigger” should be more freighted, more troubling, the cause of more (to paraphrase [Gribben's] introduction) “resentment” than the word “slave.” Racial epithets are inarguably disgusting, but not nearly so disgusting as an institution that treats human beings as property to be beaten, bought and sold. “Nigger” and “slave” are not synonyms by any stretch of the imagination.
Absolutely not. Although both are vile and both originate from the same practice of dehumanisation, the designation of a person as “slave” carried political and even militaristic implications and consequences that the designation of a person as “nigger” never has. Yet the preponderance of the view that “nigger” is the more troubling word indicates to me that the unconscionable significance of the word “slave” has been diluted to an extent that the word is now widely seen as innocuous in a way that slavery itself is not; and the replacement of “nigger” with “slave” seems to me to threaten a further dilution of the significance of the word that should be the more severe of the two. What is particularly troubling is that Jane Sullivan clearly has some sense of this. “[W]e were reminded,” she writes as she recounts the criticisms of Gribben, “[that] Twain was particular about his language: a champion of the vernacular in all its forms, he hated being edited, let alone censored.” Part of his being “particular about his language” involved occasionally using the word “slave” as distinct from “nigger,” so that to replace “nigger” with “slave” is to muddy the meaning of both words at the same time.
There is more at stake in the debate sparked by Gribben’s project than what Sullivan admits when she looks upon it — myopically — as a disagreement over whether anyone should be “tampering with [the] classic[s]” and “monkey[ing] about with Huck Finn.” What is at stake is the meaning of words that bear the weight of cultural memory. The narrower the definition of those words, the clearer their meaning and the stronger the memories they bear; and, inversely, those memories dissolve as the words that bear them are exchanged for others whose meaning is similar although not exactly the same. The racism against African-Americans that is conveyed via the word “nigger” is undeniably horrible; but much more horrible — indeed, horrific — is the full-scale political dehumanisation of African-Americans that can be best conveyed only through the word “slave.” Conflating the two might make certain passages of Huckleberry Finn more palatable for some contemporary readers put off by Mark Twain’s use of mid-nineteenth century Southern dialect, but it belittles and thus trivialises the quotidian oppression of the millions of Africans and African-Americans who woke each day and collapsed into sleep each night and lived every hour of their lives under the torment of total, inescapable enslavement. More than his “hat[red of] being edited” and of “proofreaders and typesetters chang[ing] his punctuation,” the trivialisation of slavery occasioned by Gribben’s revisions of Huckleberry Finn would have the novel’s “raging author spinning in his grave” — to say nothing of the slaves who suffered through a situation of unfathomable physical and psychological agony that Gribben and his supporters apparently believe is equatable to copping an earful of racist slang.