[Graywolf Press; 2019]
In the 1953 essay “Stranger in the Village,” James Baldwin wrote:
[T]he white man prefers to keep the black man at a certain human remove because it is easier for him thus to preserve his simplicity and avoid being called to account for crimes committed by his forefathers, or his neighbors . . . the most usual effect of which is that the white man finds himself enmeshed, so to speak, in his own language.
Jess Row, in his new book White Flights: Race, Fiction, and the American Imagination, takes up the gauntlet Baldwin laid down in this passage, placing equal emphasis on the spatial and the linguistic in the analysis of race and racism in America. Devastatingly, he demonstrates that this pairing of space and language, plenty apt in the ’50s, has only grown more so over the ensuing decades. “White flight” usually refers to the process whereby white people flee (along paths paved by hegemonic social engineering) to the hermetic fantasyland of the suburbs. Row links this process to another: the evolution of literary fiction by white Americans over the last half-century. White novelists, Row argues, have looked ever farther outward (to the “open” spaces of nature) and inward (to the domestic, and the troubled but curiously self-confined soul). They have looked anywhere, in short, except squarely at the heterogeneous and profoundly unjust middle of American society. They have refused to reckon with the messy America where, despite all the misdirection and segregation in life and in art, they and their characters still live.
Row’s project, he explains early on, is one of “reparative writing.” By this he means both “writing that invokes the spirit of actual reparations,” the return of resources to those historically denied them, and also the kind of repair discussed by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in an influential 1997 essay: “what happens when a sad person begins to take realistic steps to address the sadness at its source.” We have not thought enough, he suggests, about the psychic distress white people experience because of white racism: anger, shame, depression, alienation. He means not at all to cast white people as victims, but rather to say, following Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and others, that white racism is fundamentally a white problem, and white people of all sorts need to look within to address it.
White writers have spent plenty of time looking within, of course — just not to address issues of race and racism. In the title essay, Row points out their “near-obsessive interest in claustrophobic families,” as well as their countervailing “fascination with empty landscapes.” He pays attention, too, to language and form, the blank spaces and artificial barriers set up inside works of fiction. Literary “minimalism,” he notes, is somehow understood as a form of realism, even though its practitioners often seem “determined to reveal so little of the actual world around them.” Many white writers, he argues, by a logical fallacy, believe they should constrain their “realism” not only aesthetically but, indeed, deliberately to avoid questions of race. After all, there is so much else to write about. Other things fill these paradoxically confined voids, these yawning lawns of fiction: anxiety for Jonathan Franzen, “pastoral complacency” for Richard Ford, “spiritual austerity” for Marilynne Robinson.
Many artists, no doubt, would come to the defense of a certain kind of “innocence,” insisting upon their right to freedom from intellectual overdetermination or political correctness. This quality goes by other names, such as “integrity” or “purity.” Some might argue that artists have to have it, or else they aren’t artists at all. But there is also a different, characteristically white kind of “innocence” — what Baldwin called white “simplicity” — which Row quotes Franzen, Ford, and David Foster Wallace defending, each in slightly different terms. For the late Wallace, Row writes, it was “a kind of cosmic innocence, wonder, naïveté, that subsumed politics.” Franzen, in an interview, says he shies from depicting black characters because he lacks “direct firsthand experience of loving” a black person. And yet, Row observes, his novel The Corrections dares to present itself as a comprehensive portrait of contemporary society: it “create[s] the illusion of a panorama that doesn’t include people of color.”
The central question of Row’s book is whether “innocence” of the first kind, the supposedly “pure,” artistic kind, can ever be separate from “innocence” of the second, delinquent kind for white writers — or, to put it slightly differently, whether they will ever leave the whole notion of “innocence” behind. Is it not, after all, just another illusory, all-too-convenient remove? Can they not admit that they are just as informed by, just as implicated in our complex and unjust society as anyone else? That “Write what you know,” rather than urging you to burnish the surface of the “personal,” demands that you admit how much knowledge of this society’s complexity and injustice — how much personal knowledge — you really do have? How far could your “love” reach, if you ever realized how protean it is, how public it could become?
White Flights assembles a sequence of essays, most of them previously published. Nonetheless, it reads as a unified and substantial whole, revealing the depth and the continuity of Row’s critical inquiry over the last few years. In some respects, it recalls The Program Era, Mark McGurl’s sprawling 2009 study of postwar American fiction, which highlights the rise of the creative writing workshop. Of course, Row comes at McGurl’s area of study from a decidedly different angle. Emblematic of the difference is the fact that McGurl, across 400 pages, somehow never mentions James Baldwin, whereas Baldwin is a lodestar for Row, providing his moment of epiphanic insight. “In order to learn your name,” Baldwin said in a 1961 interview that reached Row’s ears in 1999, “you are going to have to learn mine.” (Row’s only novel, a satirical rumination in which a white man from Baltimore gets “racial reassignment surgery,” is called Your Face in Mine.)
Row also differs from McGurl in tone. Plaintive and searching, his essayistic voice carries the weight of catastrophic trends — not only white flight but also gentrification, deindustrialization, the prison industrial complex, climate change — that McGurl, blithely celebrating “the mission of mass higher education,” generally downplays or ignores. Row might ask McGurl, What does “mass” higher education have to do with MFA programs? Who, and what, has flown most freely into those lofty spaces? “White writing,” he argues, meaning so-called “realism,” is “often taught as a doctrine in writing seminars.”
White Flights is published by the acclaimed indie press Graywolf, which in recent years has done more than any other press to promote genre-defying, theory-informed writing that can still reach a broad audience. (Graywolf author Maggie Nelson has described a subset of this writing as “autotheory.”) In publishing Eula Biss, Tracy K. Smith, Kevin Young, and especially Claudia Rankine, Graywolf has also promoted the study of whiteness: a metastatic cultural construct that, far from recognizing itself as a cancer, can barely recognize itself at all — as anything but a default norm, “not other.”
Row cites almost all of these Graywolf writers. He participates, implicitly, in the growing field of “critical whiteness studies.” But, for all the differences I’ve just mentioned, his book resembles McGurl’s, and Young’s Bunk, more than the limpid volumes of Nelson, Biss, Smith, or Rankine. (Teju Cole’s wry definition of “magisterial” comes to mind: “Large book, written by a man.”) White Flights marshals obscure terms, such as “proxemics,” and name-checks “Adorno” and “Derrida” without further explanation. Beyond literary scholars and writers of fiction, its audience will surely be rather limited, subject to a kind of enclosure Row could perhaps do more to question.
Within the enclosure, the book’s impact seems likely to be great, spreading and deepening over time. I got the sense, however, that some readers will not feel acknowledged or addressed, and that some will not be able to distinguish Row’s valid message from the unsavory aura of “virtue signaling.” Some may suspect that, in full view of a separate audience whose approval he seeks, he is essentially just urging other white writers to think more like him, write more like him, work harder to be as conscientious as he. This impression could be exacerbated by the general lack of examples of works of fiction by white writers that he actually admires, apart from snippets of Grace Paley and Ben Lerner, which leaves his own oeuvre as the most obvious place to turn.
He does argue against these notions. He writes of “trying to take all perspectives into account, while knowing that the problem of perception . . . may be the most unanswerable question fiction poses.” In the same breath, he asserts that he wrote the book “in a state of scrupulous uncertainty,” a condition he performs in the final essay, “White Out,” by putting ostentatious spaces between the paragraphs. His scruples are welcome, but ultimately they weigh his book down. You might be able to play, joke, or dance scrupulously, but it’s much harder to do so while insisting upon your own scrupulosity. Playful or pithy self-criticism, surely, even with the stakes so high, would ring truer than exhaustive, deadly-earnest self-criticism. He can’t quite shake the posture — characteristically white and male — of a self-seriousness that also feels like a desperate stab at maintaining control.
Even as he scrupulously checks his white privilege, Row takes pains to situate himself within another group, “those of us who live racially multivalent lives.” Not only a white novelist, he is also a descendant of an Azorean great-grandmother, father of a multiracial son, husband of a person of color (Sonya Posmentier, a scholar of Black Diasporic literature). If he manages to avoid sounding like Bill de Blasio, who recently stood alongside Cory Booker and Kamala Harris and trumpeted the fact that he is the only presidential candidate with a black son, the difference lies mainly in the fact that, unlike de Blasio, Row addresses his critiques only to white peers. And even to them, the message is not “I am holier than thou,” or, for that matter, “I have read more Baldwin and Adorno and Sedgwick than thou,” so much as, “Please, join me in recognizing that none of us is holy.”
Row is better at diagnosing than at writing prescriptions, and others may have covered his most vital messages more succinctly, wittily, and cogently. Zadie Smith, for one, writes in a recent New York Review of Books essay: “what insults my soul is the idea that we can and should write only about people who are fundamentally ‘like’ us,” an idea that “depends on the sense that we can be certain of who is and isn’t ‘like us’ simply by looking at them.” Smith also has more to say about what fiction, in particular, can do — what the “new vocabularies for inclusion” and the “necessary impoliteness” Row describes might actually look and sound like.
Still, Row’s dogged interrogation of whiteness from a position of whiteness, and his insistence that this work is uncomfortable but necessary, merit a broad and thoughtful readership. It is an inherent irony of his project, and part of his point, that the sheer amount of work he has taken on may be just as likely to turn white reader/writers off as to win them over — even though it pales in comparison to the work people of color have no choice but to do, the pains and humiliations they have no choice but to endure.
Baldwin ends “Stranger in the Village” not in Switzerland, where the village is, but back in the US: he may be a stranger to the Swiss, but he can’t possibly be a stranger to any white American. This is the essence of Row’s plaint. The point of White Flights is not that there must be some analogue of James Baldwin in every novel by a white person, some charged and weighty character or plot, but that the white people in those novels, or the white consciousness they reflect, should be just as enmeshed in what Baldwin called “the interracial drama acted out on the American continent” as all white Americans inevitably are in life, overtly and covertly, banally and brutally, little as we might like to admit it. Can any white writer evoke that consciousness, and the burden that should rightfully come with it, without all the clunky extra weight that has more to do with a lingering self-seriousness, a self-centering self-regard? Even Row does not know what fictions could do that work, could possibly live in that elusive, uncomfortable space.
Alec Joyner is a PhD student in English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.