First Things First

Daniel Green has written what you might call a takedown of Jess Row’s White Flights: Race, Fiction and the American Imagination, especially Row’s reading of the pedagogy of Gordon Lish. “[I]n Row’s analysis,” he writes,

Lish… embodies assumptions about style and form that have enabled white writers to avoid reckoning with the cultural legacies of whiteness in American fiction, further allowing them to presume an “innocence” in regard to these legacies that perpetuates an evasion of the responsibility to interrogate whiteness as the default perspective in American literature. 

Reading this, I wonder whether Row has ever read, say, Cane, or The Bluest Eye, or any number of other novels by African-American writers whose aesthetics share a greater affinity with Lish than with social realism. And I wonder what still-living writers of this type of literature would make of Row’s argument, with John Edgar Wideman foremost among the likely objectors.

In any case, what resonated with me in Green’s review was the rhetorical question that. opens his final paragraph:

Is a concern for the aesthetic qualities of literature — the belief that literary art is first of all art — inherently an insular, protected outlook that allows indifference to “the world” and its injustices — and therefore available only to white writers?

I won’t venture an answer to that, but I will suggest that the words “first of all” hold the key to the difference between readers like Jess Row and readers like Daniel Green. Green believes — as do I — that if literary art is first of all art, then any response to this art, and any subsequent reckoning with it, must first of all address its artistic qualities. Only thereafter is any consideration of its other qualities reasonably possible. Row, however, believes that literature is first of all functional, an instrument of reparation with which to amend an unjust culture. In consequence, the artistic qualities of a work of literature are of secondary or even tertiary importance to its impact on the status quo beyond its pages.

I figure that we’re on opposite sides of an unbridgeable divide here, though in fairness I do think that there’s an onus on anyone who holds Row’s position to demonstrate that literature today — and literary fiction, no less — can and does have the capacity to measurably change the status quo. It seems to me like it’s been a long time since a book did anything to reshape the culture that received it — it’s been a century since The Jungle, ninety years since Lady Chatterley’s Lover, eighty years since Native Son, fifty years since Portnoy’s Complaint — so that, although there are plenty of well-received and much-cherished novels out there, we do fundamentally live in a post-literary culture that has drained fiction of all its power but for the affective and the aesthetic. Better to lean in to either of those, I think, than to pretend that a novel today is any more emancipatory than a pebble dropped with barely a plop in the middle of the sea.

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