No novelist thinks herself racist. Yet sometimes I find myself enjoying a novel one moment and then spending the rest of the book reading to see whether the novel’s depiction of some character is racist or trying to say something incisive about racism. I have finished entire novels to determine the answer, like Doris Lessing’s iconic and mostly very good The Golden Notebook, in one part of which a group of Europeans ruins the lives of an African couple and moves on from the incident unscathed. I read the rest of the novel waiting to see whether this ruination—a lesson for the progressive narrator—would be reconciled with the stereotypical way the narrator actually depicts the couple, the man as an ignorant and loyal servant and the woman as a sexual object used by a European.

This kind of reading leads me to three questions: First, when and why does the reader blame the author for racist fiction? Second, how do we end up with racist fiction without racist intentions? And third, how does the writer addressing race avoid racist writing? All three questions have to do with prejudice, the gap between what one thinks and what one wants to think. Writing bridges a gap between thought and language (sometimes misread as the gap between the author and her work).

How do we end up with racist fiction without racist intentions?

Prejudiced writing is a moral concern and a craft concern, so I’m going to treat it as both. I should also admit that my concern comes from noticing a (mostly good) trend of white authors wanting to reflect the diversity of the real world by writing more characters of color.

 

In 1978, literary scholar Seymour Chatman discussed the existence of a “real author” and an “implied author” in his book Story and Discourse. “It makes no sense to hold the real Conrad responsible for the reactionary attitudes of [his] implied author,” Chatman states as an example, because the real Conrad wasn’t racist. The racism belongs only to his work, or more commonly argued, to his characters.

The late Chinua Achebe argued otherwise in 1977 in his famous critique of Conrad, “An Image of Africa.” But before I go there, I should try to explain what Chatman means by “implied.” Try this: The author writes her book to a certain audience—that’s the implied reader. From the book, the reader imagines the writer—that’s the implied author. Where it gets tricky is in the gaps between.

To show that Heart of Darkness’s implied racism is Conrad’s real racism, Achebe cites the scarcity of page-time, characterization, and dialogue given to Africans in the novel. He also addresses the exceptions, which are “an African woman who has obviously been some kind of mistress to Mr. Kurtz” and two instances of English speech amid the Africans’ usual “violent babble of uncouth sounds.” The exceptions are plot points—used by Conrad to cause an attack, contribute to the famous “horror,” and affect Marlow’s character arc.

Achebe heads off the objection that the racism is only Marlow’s and that Conrad is being ironic and critical:

Conrad appears to go to considerable pains to set up layers of insulation between himself and the moral universe of his history. He has, for example, a narrator behind a narrator. The primary narrator is Marlow but his account is given to us through the filter of a second, shadowy person. But if Conrad’s intention is to draw a cordon sanitaire between himself and the moral and psychological malaise of his narrator his care seems to me totally wasted because he neglects to hint however subtly or tentatively at an alternative frame of reference by which we may judge the actions and opinions of his characters. It would not have been beyond Conrad’s power to make that provision if he had thought it necessary.

That is, nothing in the book suggests a gap in racial perspective between any of the various levels of narration. Those levels are meant more to complicate the veracity of what happens in Marlow’s story than to complicate any racial view, which goes unquestioned. Even the exceptions when African characters get to speak only reinforce and affirm the prejudices of the narration.

If the real Conrad did not intend to be racist—as many critics argue while framing the novel as anti-colonialist, as if anti-colonialism precludes racism—he has not realized the effect of his prose. The discerning reader identifies a gap between the author’s thoughts and words: prejudice.

The discerning reader identifies a gap between the author’s thoughts and words: prejudice.

 

Achebe offers criticism but not solutions. So let us ask what an author with good intentions is to do? Perhaps the key is in what Achebe calls “hints” and what I am calling “gaps.”

The unreliable narrator is a good starting point. Here is a summary of a short story I got in a beginner workshop: An Irish fiddler in an Irish bar narrates his thoughts about the good old days. The musician for the night is announced, and it’s an Asian violinist. The narrator makes racial complaints about the Asian, but—phew—the Asian character is undeserving of such vitriol. The reader understands a fallible narrator. But at the end of the story, the narrator gets onstage and shows up the Asian kid by playing the fiddle so well that the crowd is moved for the first time.

The author of this story didn’t intend to write racist fiction. In his workshop, we approached the piece on a craft level, addressing the lack of a gap between what happens and what the narrator says. The plot, rather than defying the narrator’s racism, supports it.

Real prejudice has seeped onto the page. The “implied” author hasn’t contradicted it because the real author hasn’t realized that the story’s view is the same as the narrator’s.

 

I actually read workshop stories like the one about the Irish fiddler fairly often. Sometimes I think I have Flannery O’Connor to blame. Early in the schedule, I like to teach her famous story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” in which a prejudiced white grandmother ends up indirectly causing her family’s deaths, but at the end experiences a pre-death “moment of grace,” her glimpse of real empathy and/or real Christianity. In that moment, the story both lifts the grandmother out of her ignorance and shows us that the story thinks she is ignorant, too. My students who try to write like O’Connor sometimes forget to defy the opinions of their grandmother-types.

Hilton Als, in his essay on O’Connor, “This Lonesome Place,” writes that “[O’Connor’s] black characters are not symbols defined in opposition to whiteness . . . She didn’t use them as vessels of sympathy or scorn; she simply—and complexly—drew from life.” How did she do so while allowing her white characters to be realistically racist and placing them in the center of her stories? “Vessels” is an important word. Conrad’s Africans are vessels for European plot and arc and theme. The (real) author, if she is to create without prejudice, has to exercise moral craft. The writing of fiction cannot treat marginalized characters as vessels, cannot let the plot play out the racism of under-enlightened protagonists. Perhaps the ultimate conclusion is that one cannot write without prejudice unless one understands that one has prejudice. O’Connor, whose prejudice does appear sometimes, nonetheless understood the prejudice of the South as well as any white Southern writer of her time. “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” is, in part at least, about that prejudice, and only by addressing it as prejudice is the author able to critique prejudice and avoid writing a prejudiced text.

27 Responses

  1. Ellen

    Well said. A couple things: What if (re the workshop story) the narrator were, in the plot, somehow able to confirm his stated prejudice, yet reveal in the writing–in a way readers could see, but he couldn’t–his myopia or wrongness? I’m thinking of a story like “Why I Live at the PO” (which has its own issues with race), whose narrator thinks she is telling a story quite different from the one we’re reading, though all the action she describes “confirms” her interpretation.

    And what about works in which minorities rise so little to the level of consciousness that the writer’s attitude seems to be one of utter obliviousness to his insular or privileged position? Here I’m thinking of Franzen’s latest, about which Christopher Sorrentino says in an aside in an otherwise praising review in “BookForum”: “(Franzen also needs to stop writing about minorities if he’s going to employ them only as local color or the help. Black people appeared in ‘Freedom’ as ‘cornrowed ghetto kids in ominous jumbo parkas’; I despaired that the one black walk-on in ‘Purity’ is ‘a cornrowed girl . . . an addict and/or prostitute.’ There are, however, several Latinos serving menial roles.” (For what it’s worth, Lalitha, the first-generation Indian woman in ‘”Freedom” is a fully formed character, however much she might fit a familiar “type.”)

    Reply
    • Ed Bast

      Lalitha is a cartoon – buxom, beautiful, exotic, yawn. She’s like an exotic blow-up doll, so unreal that a middling writer like Franzen can’t figure out how to resolve her & Walt’s relationship in a human, real-world way – so he simply kills her off. Pops the doll, so to speak.

      Reply
      • Leslie

        In “The Twenty-Seventh City,” one of Franzen’s main characters is an Indian-American.

      • Ellen

        I don’t know–I thought she was actually played against type, for all the familiar characteristics. And as irritating as Franzen is in his non-fiction pronouncements, I do think he’s a better than middling writer.

  2. Claudio

    Maybe the Asian violinist thinks the old Irish fiddler is a stinky drunkard like most Irish people.
    What I see in this plot is double racism, if you wish. The first one is the obvious racism of the Irish fiddler towards the Asian newcomer. But there’s also the stereotype of the Irish fiddler missing the “old times” (seriously?).
    In a sense, the story can’t be racist just because the Irish fiddler is a better player (it can happen, can’t it?), but rather because there was no moment of recognition after that. It would have been easy to “resolve” the issue by having the Asian violinist ask the Irish fiddler for advice, and the Irish fiddler, with a single closing line, say that he feels ashamed.
    But then we come to the real point here, for me. That is, that you MUST resolve the story in a certain way lest you get accused of being racist. You MUST put distance between your point of view and the narrator.
    But quite frankly I’m allergic to must-dos and can’t-dos in literature. What if I want to write a story in which racist things happen, and/or are told by a racist narrator. Why are you assuming that I AGREE with this narrator? In fact, such a story would probably be a more accurate depiction of real life, and unless I want to tell the story of a racist that understands his fatal bad judgement, there is no reason why I should distance myself from my own story.
    I like to see members of minorities being agents of the story and narrators, but they too can be unreliable, they too can be flawed. I might write a story with a Chinese narrator who speaks ill of African Americans, wouldn’t that be a depiction of an established social trend? Or I might write a story about colonialism in which an African narrator speaks and thinks like Franz Fanon, and maybe ends up committing the same atrocities that stereotypes of the time might have pinned on “negros”. Perhaps I can’t, as male and white, use minorities as my narrators, unless I portray them in a positive light? And my independence as an author and a thinker? Is it less important than satisfying some kind of social expectation? In other words: do I really need to perform an auto-da-fé every time I approach a certain story or, even better, refrain altogether from writing it, because I’m white (whatever that means for the descendant of a very long mixed line of Vikings, Arabs, Greeks, Latins, Spaniards, Germans)?
    I understand that this is a big debate in the US, perhaps also because of the structure of American society. But when I think about the minorities that I know, that I meet in my everyday life here in Europe, I want to hear their stories, but I also want to tell a part of their stories. My only qualification for this is that I’m a human being, and I was perhaps under the wrong impression that that could be enough. Do I really have to show everyone my copies of Edward Said’s books to establish my credentials (assuming that’d be enough?).
    Literature cannot suggest solutions or repair the wrongs that humans or the circumstances create. It can only point to the fault line, put the tangle under the spotlight, inviting the reader, in his capacity of human being and member of the society, to start untangling it.
    At least, this is my point of view. And I’m not ironic when I say that quite honestly I’ve always felt part of a minority, in my life, and it’s a mix of funny and creepy to read learned folks put me in a certain category because of the color of my skin.

    Reply
    • David Biddle

      I think you make some great points here, Claudio. I too despise the idea that there is a right way and a wrong way to tell a story. And, no doubt, attempting to label an author’s perspective based on how they try to tell their story would seem a rather quixotic game.

      For what it’s worth, I would resolve the Irish Fiddler Story by having the Irish dude listen to the Asian guy and realize that he’s really good, maybe better than he is (maybe just has different talent, but still worthy or respect). Thus, when he plays and the crowd goes wild, he feels a disconnect and a certain sadness that people don’t get artistic talent for what it is.

      Reply
  3. Ferdinand

    What I get from this is that the author concludes that no matter how un-racist the author is (or thinks he is, since internalized racism is apparently invisible and beyond one’s control), anything written addressing racism from oblivious non-racists is drawn from internalized racism and is thus inseparable, no matter what the person does. If their stories have racists, they are themselves racists (what?? Richard Wright has racists in books like Black Boy who are both black and white, but that does not make him a racist). Especially if it’s a first person narrative, which Mr. Salesses thinks is no different from a writers personal views, a view that is as unappreciative of writers’ abilities as it is naive. Most naive of all, he compares a beginners workshop story to polished works by literary greats, thinking that a school exercise by some random dude is somehow comparable to those superior works that were written under highly different circumstances. (Yes they are superior. As Minae Mizumura writes: “Literature is not democratic. Literature is sublime.”)

    Not only do these things make it harder for (white) authors to join in on the dialogue of racism (and frankly it doesn’t take much effort to realize why they don’t join in), but it discounts the truth that guys like Joseph Conrad and Mark Twain were products of their time, which is not the same as being a conniving racist and is a reality accepted by all who have studied history to some feasible degree with the necessary objectivity. People these days have less patience with that truth, which is understandable, but it does not justify labelling everybody from the good old days, especially those who did not sympathise with racist views, as conniving racists just because people today are mad about it and want blood.

    I like Chinua Achebe’s fiction but disagree with that essay he’d written since Heart of Darkness is so ambiguous and can lead to so many differing interpretations, which is what makes it eternal. Were it longer than a novella, I believe that it would be as endlessly interpretable as the Bible (maybe it already is). The reason Conrad is so venerated in the West is not because he was white, but 1) because he wrote an exceptional book called Heart of Darkness, among other good works, that can be taken in so many different directions that it’s unbelievable that an actual human being even wrote it, and 2) being a Pole who at the time had no country, he wrote it in his second language, an incredible feat for anybody regardless of race.

    The essayist does not consider that Conrad also wrote a novel named The N****r of the Narcissus which, despite its non-PC title, was progressive for its time as it had a black protagonist which irked racist American publishers at the time who were against stories with black protagonists. I haven’t read it to be sure, but I know the history behind it and the overall plot line, which is generally sympathetic to the protagonists cause. Does that exonerate Conrad? Specialists could give a more concise conclusion and some idiots would call him an appropriator, but I say yes.

    This is a fascinating issue that I hope to read more of, but using Conrad was a mistake both for Chinua Achebe and Matthew Salesses. There are so many good examples that would work a lot better for what you’re trying to say (Flannery O’Connor was clearly a better one, kudos to the writer for that: Doris Lessing less so. Maybe those people became stereotypical because certain historical conditions were responsible for generating them? Doris Lessing was there during that time. Mr. Salesses wasn’t.). Even flogging the dead horse of Huckleberry Finn would have been more to the writers advantage.

    I want Mr. Salesses to succeed with this argument and I wish him luck in the future. But he doesn’t succeed here.

    Reply
    • Lincoln Michel

      I’m confused at how you reached those conclusions, especially as the author holds up Flannery O’Connor–a white woman writing racist characters–as a successful example of using racism in a story.

      Reply
  4. Leslie

    Sounds like what you are looking for are moral fables, not literary fiction. Although I’m not entirely sure I understand everything you say.

    Reply
  5. Lila

    I agree with the other dissenters here. This anaylsis is misguided. Literature isn’t racist if it doesn’t make it’s anti-racism known in either plot or perspective. Literature can depict racist characters and social realities that arise from racism, and bearing witness to that racism does not make the book or the author racist. To demand racial justice in stories is to demand authors stay away from depicting a very real part of the human condition – which is to say people and institutions that are racist and remain so. It is OK to depict those people, too (just like it is OK to depict dictators and murderers and pedophiles – it doesn’t mean the author or book is endorsing their viewpoints. It’s very odd that you would imply that an author writing a book about a serial killer, for example, has to make clear s/he denounces the killer’s ethics and sees people differently than the serial killers.)
    What *is* racist in literature is to depict certain races as not humans, or less than human (and not from the perspective of a racist character, but from the perspective of the story.) The story told about the racist Irish fiddler, as described, reveals nothing of the sort – why in the world would the Irish fiddler HAVE to come to a realization about his racism? In real life, people often don’t come to such realizations. Maybe the story is simply a depiction of a person who is racist to some degree, and remains so for reasons the author may have been presented in the story. Maybe this story is about a crusty old racist. OK, that could be a good story or a bad one, but it isn’t itself racist.

    Reply
  6. Debra

    This is a very timely discussion with the current push for increased diversity in publishing.

    Inclusive writing is on its face a truer representation of the world and a good thing. However, every author would benefit from a careful examination of how diverse characters are used within the framework of the story.

    In the story of the Irish Fiddler, I’m not sure that I understand the author’s intent. If the story was meant to represent a struggle of classism, it may have achieved that goal. The fiddle is not superior to the violin. A musician’s skill and artistic talent will triumph.

    However, I question the wisdom and intent of adding the extra layer of race, in the manner described, to this story. Did the author consider the subtext that he or she added with that choice?

    Intended or not, one could read this as a struggle between races that ends with a confirmation of white superiority.

    Further, I find it unsettling that the author, probably not Asian, handed this story to an Asian instructor. Was this an unconscious microaggression?

    Thank you for a thought provoking article.

    Reply
  7. What?

    Matthew Salesses says that if in a novel “a group of Europeans ruins the lives of an African couple and moves on from the incident unscathed.”
    that novel is racist.

    I literally laughed aloud when I read this article, several times. Imagine being so politically wrapped up in ensuring social justice that *all events in novels are taken at face value.*

    Does the author think that American Psycho is advocating for the vicious murder of dozens of prostitutes?

    Good luck with making literature into a bunch of moral parables that demonstrate wholesome progressive values! Racists are always punished! Africans are always good! Women are the victims!

    God no wonder no one wants to read.

    Reply
    • csb

      The other side of the rainbow is this guy who plans to demand that everyone worry about his racial delusions! Pass!

      Reply
  8. Leslie

    I adore “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” but I don’t remember the convict in it being a person of color? Wasn’t he white? Yeah, I’m sure the grandmother was racist — she was many things. But the story isn’t a lesson about racism, is it?

    Reply
    • Ellen

      Leslie, I think, in talking about “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” Mr. Salesses is talking about ignorance, of which racism might be considered one variety. And I don’t know if the grandmother is necessarily redeemed, but O’Connor clearly distances herself from the old woman’s ignorance. I’m afraid the author is being treated a bit harshly for what seems to be a sincere and valid concern about that distance–imperfectly stated, perhaps, but not altogether wrong.

      Reply
  9. Able

    Wow. Read more carefully, people, and try to see through your own defensiveness, especially if you’re going to shoot your mouths off in the comments. Prejudice is the broader umbrella under which racism falls. The topic of the essay is the gap between a prejudiced character and the author that MUST exist IF we are to see a work of fiction as a critical comment on prejudice rather than an expression of prejudice. That idea is quite clear and well supported by the examples Salesses uses. Many of the comments are drawing conclusions based on something other than what the essay says.

    Reply
  10. Leila

    I think Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert is a good example of the “gap” Salesses is trying to describe in this article—an example that maybe won’t set so many people immediately on defense.

    Humbert is never given redemption or even a change in perspective, and yet readers are still able to recognize Nabokov’s scorn for the character. Even though the story is told through Humbert, it is still made abundantly obvious that he is a selfish, perverted master of manipulation. He never stops making excuses for himself and continues to blame young girls, specifically “lolitas,” for his own behavior.

    The same could be said for the narrator of Alissa Nutting’s Tampa. *Spoiler* She is never shown as remorseful in any way, is given a mild punishment for her actions, and is even released at the end to prey on more young boys. *End Spoiler*

    The point is, it’s possible to incorporate realism into a story while still casting a negative light on contemptible behavior. A character doesn’t have to repent for their actions/behavior/beliefs for an author to make it clear in the writing that they don’t condone those actions/behaviors/beliefs.

    Saying that it isn’t necessary to cast racism in fiction in a negative light is the same as saying it wasn’t necessary for Nabokov to cast Humbert’s pedophilia in a negative light. Imagine if Humbert’s beliefs were represented without condemnation, if there were no clues in the story that his Lolita was depressed and abused, but instead it only showed her as a willing and happy accomplice. How damaging would that statement be for victims of sexual abuse?

    And if we agree that pedophilia and racism are both reprehensible behaviors then why would we represent them differently in fiction?

    Reply
    • R

      Actually, many many readers have complained that Nutting doesn’t sufficiently “make it clear in the writing” that she doesn’t “condone those actions/behaviors/beliefs” of her character. Hence all the hubbub when it came out. These readers — of which I’m not one — make precisely the same argument that Salesses does in this article, only their complaint concerns ephebophilia rather than racism. If I wanted to be a jerk, I might ask you: Does the fact that you don’t see the parallel mean you believe racism is worse than child abuse? I’m confident, however, that you don’t believe this, and that framing your position in such a way would be as unfair as it would be to cast such an aspersion on Nutting. But then I wouldn’t call a writer who writes a racist character a racist. So, you know.

      Reply
      • Leila

        I’ll paraphrase what I said to Leslie here:

        If someone isn’t capable of building an argument beyond, “Eww, why did she write about that?” then I don’t consider that opinion relevant to a thorough discussion of the book. The same as I wouldn’t consider an argument of, “Eww, racism,” relevant to a discussion about a book with a racist character.

        If someone provided a well thought out argument (the way that Salesses did for his opinions) for why they believed Nutting was condoning her narrator’s actions (and I have read a couple), then I’d consider their opinions and decide whether I agreed with them. Or, if I disagreed, I could construct my own argument for why. Or maybe there would be a middle ground where I agreed with some of their points and disagreed with others and maybe we’d both take something from the other. This back and forth is important for a deeper understanding of the material, oui?

        As for making “precisely the same argument that Salesses makes” here, I’d disagree. I haven’t found an argument yet that held compelling evidence for their case against Nutting and also held up to scrutiny.

        You’re also obviously free to disagree with Salesses’ opinions or decide that his arguments don’t hold up to your scrutiny, but I do think his opinions have value, whether you agree with them or not. If nothing else, they have led to an interesting discussion of an important and divisive topic.

        As for me not seeing the parallel between judging Nutting and judging the authors discussed in the article, what would even be the point of bringing it up if I didn’t?

        Also your conclusion (I appreciate your insistence that you do not in fact believe this to be true) based on that erroneous assumption dismisses the rest of what I said in my reply entirely in the same manner as anyone who judges a text based solely on subject matter without any thought to context. Perhaps that was your point, but neither I nor the author of the article appear to have cast judgments without due consideration of the material, so I’m not sure I follow your logic there.

        Thank you for taking the time to respond and for making me think!

    • Leslie

      Doesn’t the reader have some responsibility and play a role in interpretation? Many readers concluded that Nabokov was a pedophile after reading “Lolita.” Were those readers idiots?
      After all this discussion, it seems that the argument is whether the author is responsible for teaching the reader that racism/pedophilia/ignorance is bad. That is obviously ridiculous. The author can write what he/she wants and the reader can pull from it many things. I don’t think it’s particularly pertinent to keep dredging up whether 100-year-old or 50-year-old texts were perfect in their examination of racism.
      They are worthy enough for their prose, their stories, their reflection of the culture at the time the action takes place.
      The reader is responsible for analyzing the story. If the reader decides a particular novel is racist, he or she can give his argument and sure, others can consider it and decide whether they agree. Perhaps, then, society will reject the fiction as unworthy.
      But some people are poor readers. Our literature would be much poorer if a writer is expected to prove to a reader that he or she is not a racist.

      Reply
      • Leila

        “If the reader decides a particular novel is racist, he or she can give his argument and sure, others can consider it and decide whether they agree.”

        Well, this. Of course different readers are going to interpret things differently, and the author has little control over that. But I’m not interested in anyone’s knee jerk reactions to a work.

        If someone provided a well thought out argument for why they believed Nabokov was condoning Humbert’s actions, then I’d consider their opinions and decide whether I agreed with them. Or, if I didn’t, I could construct my own argument for why I disagree. That’s the point of discussing literature at all, I think? If someone isn’t capable of building an argument beyond, “Eww, pedophilia. Why did he write about that?” then no, I don’t consider that opinion relevant to a thorough discussion of the book. The same as I wouldn’t consider an argument of “Eww, racism” relevant.

        I don’t think Salesses’ arguments about racism/prejudice in the selections he discussed are tantamount to “Eww, racism. Why did he/she write about that?” He gives examples to back up each of his arguments and therefore they beg to be considered, even if you draw a different conclusion from him.

        Personally, I happen to agree with Chinua Achebe’s argument on Conrad. Not everybody will. And I do believe it’s as pertinent as anything else we can take from the reading. You make this point yourself:

        “They are worthy enough for their prose, their stories, their reflection of the culture at the time the action takes place.”

        If their importance lies partly in “their reflection of the culture at the time” isn’t it doubly pertinent to examine the racism inherent in that culture if it bleeds into the writing? Dismissing it is like erasing that part of the culture, and I find that a dangerous slope toward history repeating. I don’t think anyone is suggesting that we should reject a 100-year-old or 50-year-old literary work for its imperfect examination of racism, either. I believe it’s possible to examine and learn from a text’s flaws while still appreciating and learning from its merits.

        I also don’t think it’s appropriate to demonize anyone for unconscious prejudices that show up in their writing, though that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be pointed out so that we can hope to improve.

        Thank you for your thought provoking reply!

  11. David Biddle

    Such a fabulous and provocative essay. So are the comments! This is one of those times where the comments are as supremely valuable as the original work. Honestly, all of you, I’m printing out this whole dang set of opinions for my file folder on “Trying to Understand Racism”

    Can’t help putting my two-cents worth in here. I want to point out that each of us in our daily lives constantly categorizes people and locks them into symbolic interpretation. That categorization and interpretation is dynamic of course and morphs and shifts depending on all sorts of things. This is standard practice for all human beings…right? … all the time! (Sometimes it seems that our stereotyping of people only ends once we consider them a friend…)

    Standard too is the instinct to judge others based on this process of categorization and interpretation. He’s a dumb jock; She’s a daddy’s-girl-rich-bitch; He’s a man, for God’s sake!; She’s from California, what do you expect?!! Those are, perhaps, more subtle than unmitigated racism, but the point is, hopefully, obvious.

    One fundamental change I see in 21st century Western Culture, which is more diverse and confused than ever, is the search for the category of “racist” in others and the game of interpreting what those others say and do as racist — and judging them as such. That’s very interesting to me as a storyteller. There’s a lot of implications to this new game. I won’t get into them except to say, the mind you inhabit tends to want — and need — to feel superior to everyone else around you. The question is whether that has any value at all in real life except to make you feel comfortable in social settings — or books you are reading.

    To me, part of being a writer is the danger of all sorts of stereotyping — on any level — and the serious error of turning characters into “vessels” of symbolism for “social issues.” It’s a danger, but it’s absolutely inevitable if you aren’t aware of it. Part of the game of puzzling through creating a story, to me, is overcoming any kind of pre-judgment or stereotypical thinking, turning the dreadlocked, nose-pierced dark-skinned woman seen, suspiciously, from afar into a mixed-race adoptee of Russian diplomats who grew up in Leningrad and speaks five different languages. (That’s trading one stereotype for another, though, to a certain extent, right?). Or turning the handsome high school baseball stud into a romantic comedy junky who yearns to be a nursery school teacher.

    Still, pondering whether a writer is racist based on characters they create and the story they tell is a bit dangerous, isn’t it? Especially authors who wrote in other eras. Every religious tome known to humanity would have to be the most racist documents on the face of the earth. It’s possible, isn’t it, to make the argument that one of the main reasons they were written is to attempt to legitimize prejudice and stereotyping of others in every way possible.

    I appreciate Mr. Salesses’s insight about the “gap” between narrator and story. It’s something to keep in mind with my own work. Somehow, we need to get beyond this game of oversimplifying others and the motives for their actions. That narrative gap is probably the solution — and a writer’s responsibility if he or she feels the urge. It may, in fact, be the solution for real people in their real lives, which is where this issue matters the most.

    Reply
  12. Andrew

    I would only be inclined to label a book as racist if I felt that fundamental impulse behind a work, that is, my reconstruction, through interpretation, of the author’s intention (and I do believe in some version of intention) was the promulgation of racist attitudes, that that was the main aesthetic project of the book, it’s raison d’etre. On that score, Heart of Darkness is not a racist book. Achebe imposes an obligation on it to signal the existence of a better perspective than the view of Marlow, and he makes the absence of this better perspective cause for calling the book racist. I do not accept this.

    We can imagine some writer being inspired by Heart of Darkness and writing a fiction about someone sent to Syria to infiltrate ISIS, and then defecting and becoming a jihadist. Then a new Marlow is sent to dispatch him. The journey of this Marlow into this bizarro world of scripted executions and armed pickup trucks, where he eventually encounters the new book’s Kurtz, could be built out of episodes that refigure the main episodes of Heart of Darkness. You could imagine such a book being written without any racism at all, since the savagery in question is the demonstrated savagery of the Islamic State, and need not be tied to any ethnic group or religion, and you could still get a powerful story of a descent into savagery, with disturbing questions about the status of the so-called civilized world that supposedly stands opposed to it. Would we then celebrate this new Heart of Darkness, since it has been purged of racism, and condemn the old one, even though the new one is a re-production of the old? That would be patently absurd.

    A work like Heart of Darkness is too rich in implication to be dismissed as a racist work.

    I don’t like the idea of writers fretting over whether they have signaled enough of the existence of an acceptable perspective in their work. Writing has to derive from pleasure and instinct, and the attempt to make it conform to some political program or vision will very quickly start to interfere with that.

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