We Need Diverse Books, But We Also Need Diverse Reviewers
How to approach criticism in the era of Trump
A sofa, a circle of light, a novel, maybe a beverage near at hand. It could be 1981 (when I was four and had just learned to read), or 2017 (when I am 40, and a beverage is a pre-req). Either way, the setting is about the same. Then and now, you can find me lying in the crook of a sofa, reading under a small glow. My childhood traumas were small in the world, but in my head and heart, overwhelming. When I was nine and my father left to work in another state, which meant that I would see him only once or twice a year, I would have raging fevers days before his every departure. I’d lie listlessly, sometimes crying for hours, days even, until, tired of my misery, I’d open a book and read. My refuge has been, is, will be, a book.
Every day since January 20, 2017 feels like a throwback to a (not-so-distant) anarchic era or a time jump to a moment close to the apocalypse or both at the same time. I feel as if I have a constant fever: cold and achy, and hot and bothered, all at once. Now, as before, I turn to reading, but these days I go for books that do more than give me asylum; I seek out the books that I have loved, or admired, or that provoke me, that force me to think about them.
I had been thinking about Giovanni’s Room for some time. In October 2016, a writer friend was reading it, as I was re-reading Notes of a Native Son and we exchanged emails about both books. Now, in the era of Trump, where every day different rights are set ablaze and turned to cinder, our pure pleasure at Baldwin’s prose feels like a luxury. Nevertheless, recently, I found myself on the sofa, luxuriating in Giovanni’s Room for the first time. The book was assigned for a class I’m taking, and inevitably, when we talked about it, we talked about its reception on initial publication, which was, in a nutshell: not good. Baldwin’s U.S. publisher, who had published Go Tell It on the Mountain, refused to even print the book. A reason for the lack of enthusiasm was, in part, because of the subject — homosexuality — and in part because of the characters: all white, and written by a black author. Which, of course, led us in class, to discuss the ever relevant, and to me, always vexing, topic of “Who Gets to Write What?” — an argument that, in my opinion, Kaitlyn Greenidge has settled admirably.
But, as we talked about the politics of a black author writing white characters, and vice versa, and many good points were made, I found myself considering the role of the critic, the reviewer, the judge, whose word can make or break a book’s sales, and sometimes, even a writer.
In 1956, in a review published in The New Leader, a liberal, and one can assume, sympathetic to Baldwin, magazine, critic Leslie Fiedler wrote:
“There is not only no Negro problem in Baldwin’s new book: there are not even any Negroes — and this, I must confess, makes me a little uneasy. His protagonist, David, is a shade too pale-face, almost ladies-magazine-Saxon, gleaming blond, and “rather like an arrow”: but this is not what troubles me. It is rather the fact that he encounters no black faces in his movements through Paris and in the south of France, that not even the supernumeraries are colored; so that one begins to suspect at last that there must really be Negroes present, censored, camouflaged or encoded.”
On November 2016, Garth Greenwell, in The Guardian, writes:
“Homosexuality is portrayed in racial terms repeatedly in Giovanni’s Room. Joey, the childhood friend with whom David spent one passionate night, is described repeatedly as “brown” and “dark”. Giovanni himself is “dark and leonine”; more pointedly, he’s imagined in this first scene as standing “on an auction block”. Race is an imaginary category, under constant negotiation; it’s worth remembering that in America, not long before Giovanni’s Room, Italians and other southern Europeans were viewed as non-white.”
I don’t present these two readings of Giovanni’s Room as counterpoints to each other; Greenwell’s was written fifty years after Fiedler’s, after Baldwin has been revered for decades, and in a climate arguably less hostile, or perhaps, differently hostile, to conversations about race and queerness. And Greenwell, unlike Fiedler, is gay (openly so). But both of them are white. And both of them are critically thinking and writing about Baldwin. Both of them have power, as critics, though Greenwell is a writer, writing less as a critic and more as an admirer (which of course, does not preclude him from thinking or writing critically). Both of them have power as white men in America, and both of them have different entry points in to the text.
And both of them seem to miss that Baldwin, in writing about race in Giovanni’s Room, is writing specifically about whiteness, without making it the obvious focus of the book, veiling it beneath the cloak of invisibility that whiteness often wears.
These observations lead us then to the question of “who gets to critique whom.” This is an important consideration. No one less established than George Packer writes about it, in “Race, Art, and Essentialism,” published in the New Yorker in April 2016. Packer was responding to the view that African-American writers have a special insight into African-American musicians, which Rick Moody expressed in a review of James Bride’s biography of James Brown. Packer’s point is that if we view the authority of critics as based in their identity, we limit the possibilities of critical inquiry to identity. He warns, “Watch out: a few more steps and you’ll find yourself saying they sure do have rhythm.”
It’s a valid point. I believe that a writer can and should be able to write about anything she wants, with a responsibility to writing well, especially when writing outside one’s comfort zone, and that a critic should be able to take on a subject with which she has expertise, experience, interest, curiosity, irrespective of her identity — but again, from a place of self-awareness and accountability to one’s position and its limitations. I also can’t help but note that, here too, we have two white men — Packer and Moody — arguing about James McBride, a bi-racial author, who has written a book on James Brown, a black musician. But beyond this, Packer and Moody are arguing and setting the terms of debate about who gets to critique whom and what.
This simple observation necessitates a somewhat meta question: who is writing about who gets to critique writing? Who gets to decide who shapes and participates in the public discourse on questions about who has authority? I am eternally grateful for VIDA, for the stats they compile and for explaining them, an undertaking I could never attempt. From their “2015 Count,” looking only at two “mainstream” magazines that publish book reviews, the New York Review of Books published only fifty-two reviews by women, as opposed to 216 by men. The New York Times Book Review fared much better, with 475 female reviewers and 469 male reviewers. But a closer look reveals that of the 871 women published or reviewed at the New York Times Book Review, 294 female writers responded to VIDA’s survey, and among them, 216 self-identified as white. Similarly, of the 44 women who self-reported at the New York Review of Books, 34 were white. The numbers are evidence: even just taking into account the categories of race and gender, women of color reviewers and critics are published at far lower rates than white males.
But VIDA compiles statistics from the pages and posts of what’s already been published. No one has, to my knowledge, aggregated the editorial and publishing staff and analyzed these compilations for race, gender, and sexuality disparity. We do not know who is in the room, much less what discussions are had, as decisions are being made about who reviews and critiques what and whom.
In our class discussion of Giovanni’s Room, we argued about the racial ambiguity of Joey, whom Greenwell mentions. Joey is the first boy that protagonist, David, sleeps with, and then, deeply ashamed, throughout the book, suppresses, conceals the intimacy, and the person. If, as Fiedler suggests, Joey is black, and his identity is concealed deliberately, what does that suggest about David — that he cannot accept his intimacy with a black boy? That he can make the black boy, the black body, other, and disassociate from it? Or, if Joey is not black, but is presented as racially ambiguous — “very quick and dark;” “Joey’s body was brown…” — then is David camouflaging Joey as black because to be sexually intimate with a white boy would require him to face his sexuality, whereas being sexually intimate with a black boy can be dismissed? In other words, by making Joey racially ambiguous, and possibly black, David can dupe himself that his deliberate disassociation is more because of race than sexuality? But, because Baldwin has written this, and not a white writer, we’re then forced to think about what it means for Joey to exist at the intersection of race and sexuality (and class).
Such a reading isn’t easy to come by. I don’t know if it’s a “correct” reading, and who can ask Baldwin now? I do know that it is a more nuanced, a more critical, and a more careful reading than one might initially have. I know it is not the reading with which I arrived to the classroom. It emerged through the discussion among seven people, of which four are women of color, and one is a white woman. We are of different races, ages, abilities, and sexualities. We do not always have productive conversations; we certainly do not always agree; and we have multiple, competing, and sometimes changing and incomplete authorities on a wide variety of subjects and identity positions. Our conversations, like our selves, are never static, but they are always critical.
A classroom has its place, and an independent, even solitary line of inquiry done on one’s own has its merits. As a writer, I would never want to indulge in “group think” for my creative work, or my critical work. But, as someone who has been in — and sometimes benefitted from — workshops, and who actively and joyously participates in literary conversations, I see value in critical conversation with people on a range of experiences, identities, and positions, who also have the ability to be self-critical, or at least, capable of self-reflection and open to receiving critique. This last condition is imperative. Where is the critic who is self-critical? (I don’t mean the inner critic.) We need critical voices in order to be better at critiquing, and at writing. And it matters too, who is participating in and leading such critical conversation, because the voice of the critic shapes and changes public perception and discourse.
In my class, our teacher is a woman, Asian Latina American, queer, whose scholarship is on African American literature; this matters. Her authority — of experience, education, research, and of identity — makes a difference to the quality, breadth, depth, and freedom of the conversation. Is it perfect? Not by any means, but the conversations are thoughtful, considered, nuanced, provocative, and respectful.
Which is to say, the opposite of Donald Trump’s tweets, opinions, eruptions, rants, and accusations. Nobody who genuinely wants to engage in intellectual and critical work wants to follow that lead. This I have to believe.
In 1984, Audre Lorde wrote “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” and as we find ourselves now inhabiting Orwell’s 1984, we must find it in ourselves to push beyond the immediate questions of “who gets to write or critique what,” to actively dismantling how we approach the enterprise of critical thinking and writing in the public sphere. We must create/build/expand a model of “doing” public discourse that is the antithesis of a dangerous blowhard and trumpeter. One way to “…burn this motherfucking system to the ground and build something better,” as Claire Vaye Watkins demanded, is to re-design how we approach and conduct public discourse: so that it centers the voices and perspectives of those who have historically been at the margins, and so it that enables conversations from multiple viewpoints about writing and books, so that the discourse is more nuanced, considered, and critical.
Imagine a set of reviews, a critical exchange of sorts, on Giovanni’s Room between Roxane Gay, Alexander Chee, Saeed Jones, Rebecca Solnit, and a new, brilliant writer or critic we’ve yet to discover. Imagine a discussion between this same set on The Argonauts, or Swing Time, or literally anything else. Imagine a back and forth on The Underground Railroad or The Round House by Kiese Laymon, Claudia Rankine, Chang-Rae Lee, Porochista Khakpour, Teju Cole, Junot Diaz, Garth Greenwell, Noviolet Bulawayo… the list is long, and these are just some of the best-known names. Imagine deliberately centering this type of critical exchange in the public sphere among thinkers who bring their identities and their acumen to the conversation. And imagine this taking place, consistently, for the next five, ten, fifteen, twenty, years, so that for a whole generation of people, this is the norm. Now imagine the rhetorical shift that could take place. Would that shift prevent or stall an injudicious, over-simplified, unreasoned, loud and relentless tweet-tide? Possibly not. But it might disrupt that torrent. And from where I sit, that makes the circle of light bigger, brighter.