Saturday, November 11, 2017

at the New York Review of Books Francine Prose writes about "the problem with `problematic'"

Up front, language alert.  People are prone to short Anglo-Saxon derived words when venting frustration about white savior narratives on the internet.
 
There are certainly problems with books targeting mass and youth audiences in terms of white savior narratives.  It may be that these things just leap out for people whose heritage isn't 100% white, because, for instance, I couldn't not observe a white savior narrative as the core of James Cameron's Avatar whereas friends who had an entirely white background didn't see it and even when they did see it didn't necessarily see it as a problem.
 
If anything one of the problems is that in an era where minorities seek representation in the Hollywood industry itself, particularly in the strange era in which journalists invoke the Frankfurt school on the one hand while fastidiously ignoring Adorno's condemnation of the culture industry on the other, the paradox is that writers and artists who want to be more involved in the culture industry object to white authors writing what look like white savior narratives in the process of trying to pursue what could be colloquially known as a social justice cause.
 
 
 
Posted September 7, the first reader review of American Heart on Goodreads, a “social-cataloguing website” owned by Amazon, was something of a rant:
fuck your white savior narratives
fuck using marginalized characters as a plot device to teach the white mc how to be a decent person
fuck you for perpetuating the idea that marginalized people need to suffer in order to be worthy of “humanity”
fuck this book and everyone who thought it would be a good fucking idea…
to my Muslim friends, i’m sorry this book and this mindset exists
After receiving more online criticism from readers, not all of whom seemed to have actually read the book, Kirkus removed the star from its American Heart review—a major demotion given that we have been trained from kindergarten to want stars, a reflex reinforced each time we’re invited to rate (with stars) everything from a Lyft ride to a haircut. The Kirkus review was reposted, in a revised and less enthusiastic form: “Sarah Mary’s ignorance is an effective world-building device, but it is problematic that Sadaf is seen only through the white protagonist’s filter.”
 
The accusation that “society tends to favor privileged voices” is, according to some, not only a political analysis but an economic one. “The fear,” one literary agent told me, “is that if a publisher takes on a book written by a successful white male writer about a disabled Native American lesbian, a real disabled Native American lesbian might have trouble placing a book about the same subject at the same house; the publisher already has one.” What this suggests is that books are being categorized—and judged—less on their literary merits than on the identity of their authors. This is particularly true with young adult fiction, whose readers are presumed to be more readily influenced by what they read. [italics original, emphasis added]
 
It’s undeniable that the literary voices of marginalized communities have been underrepresented in the publishing world, but the lessons of history warn us about the dangers of censorship. Unless they are written about by members of a marginalized group, the harsh realities experienced by members of that group are dismissed as stereotypical, discouraging writers from every group from describing the world as it is, rather than the world we would like.
 
The culture of young adult fiction is partly dedicated to helping young people avoid and resist bullying, yet it is being shaped by online posts whose aggressive, even ferocious, tone could itself be described as online bullying. One is reminded of how, under authoritarian regimes, writers have been censored (and persecuted) for referring, in their work, to the sufferings that their rulers would rather not acknowledge.
 
Almost every kids’ classic worth reading has been censored by some school district. Recently, a Mississippi school board voted to remove Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird from an eighth-grade reading list because, according to the board vice president, “There is some language in the book that makes people uncomfortable.” One could argue that a vital function of literature is to make people uncomfortable—a position unlikely to change the board’s mind. Yet cutting a book from a reading list seems less drastic that removing it from stores.
 
What’s distressing is the frequency—and the unexamined authority—with which the words “experience” and “lived experience” define who is qualified to write or even to weigh in on a book. If it’s not your “lived experience,” you’re not writing in “your own voice.” It doesn’t suggest much faith in the power of the imagination—our ability to envision what it might be like to belong to another group, another gender, to live in another historical era. To take the argument to its illogical extreme, how can one write a historical novel if one has no “lived experience” of that period? Meanwhile, the fact that the Kirkus reviewer of American Heart was chosen partly because she came from the same community as the novel’s “problematic” character seems not to have mattered when Kirkus caved to the pressure from online community critics.

What may be most notable by its absence (whether journalistic oversight or the nature of the public discourse) is that nobody steps back and says that maybe the whole enterprise of the commercial publishing of fictional narratives itself is a waste of time, money and resources natural and cultivated.  The reader did not go so far as to say "$#^T the publishing industry and everyone who thinks that by publishing a book the world is improved."  No, we don't tend to see that, we tend to see calls for representation, as if the current publishing and media industries would become better if they gave marginalized people voices.  Not that marginalized people shouldn't have a chance to speak about what they've been through ....

but since I'm slogging through Adorno this year the question that keeps coming up for me is why people who would otherwise commit to a progressive cause seem to think that any variant of the publishing industry will have a role other than being the proverbial bad guy.  Writers and artists venting about the injustice of the industry never seem to doubt the legitimacy of the publishing industry so much as complain about the restrictions of capital on it.  Or, to put it in a more harsh light, aspiring writers and artists are more concerned that the empire of the arts isn't giving them more of the spotlight rather than asking whether the empire of the arts itself is the problem.  The problem is preferably that the empire doesn't serve all the aspiring artists rather than that artists who get served by the empire are still serving the empire. 

The culture industry isn't just mass or popular culture, after all, it can also be the entire educational system of the West, too.  College students lamenting that they can't get a break may feel like they're on the receiving end of systemic injustice and predatory lending practices on people who are doing graduate work in the humanities are stuck ... but I still have enough friends who are high school drop outs or never went beyond high school education in formal terms that I can never quite shake the sense that college students and graduates who can wield the word "privilege" in internet debates don't seem to fully grasp the privilege from which they can do so.   I take the left more seriously than I take liberalism for a variety of reasons but that's some other post for some other time if I even feel like writing about that. 
 
Of the writing of books there is no end and the only question you potentially can't ask of the business of writing books is why people think people should make a living writing books in an era like ours.  This isn't about the writing part, it's about the business part.  Given the range of plagiarism scandals of the last decade; given how consolidated ownership of the means of production (since Marxists are pretty good at hammering that point); is it even a good thing to seek for "representation" in such a centralized industry?  Or, to put it another way, if the traditional art religion is still in place in the arts world is giving a publishing opportunity to a real disabled lesbian Native American, per the example, really better simply on account of intersectional concerns? 
 
The lament of reverse-racism can be a bromide embraced too quickly by the sorts of conservatives who already want a fight on the internet, but in a way it seems the real problem is that what is expected of novels and poetry these days is not even fiction.  What some people want is for fiction to be imbued with all of the truth-telling capacity expected of journalism and historiography. 

What never seems to be up for discussion is questioning the legitimacy of the publishing industry itself, at least when the context is a question about demographic representation.  The assumption in discussions about whether a white author writing about a disabled lesbian Native American getting published prevents a real disabled lesbian Native American writer from being published may be too pat an example of some of the concerns of intersectionality but since on the internet pat may just be where it's at we'll just run with that. 

Intersectionality may be a new iteration of what in an earlier generation was known as political correctness but with another element to it--and in a way intersectionality raises a necessary point about identity politics.  The necessary point is that merely saying one is black or a woman or Jewish is insufficient as a label because in flesh and blood life we can never be reducible to a single category.  Or, to put it in more practical terms, a Kevin Spacey coming out as gay is no excuse for a person doing what Spacey has been accused of doing. 

The danger of intersectionality in terms of public discourse is that if you have enough ranked categories of oppressed marginal groups under your belt you can use the most abusive rhetorical and intellectual methods in public discourse with a kind of cyber-space shield.  This lets people perpetuate and perpetrate verbal violence with a kind of holiness code or exemption clause.  A more colloquial way of putting things is to say that a double standard gets deployed on the subject of threats and verbal aggression if a person has a high enough core on intersectionality. 

There's also a tendency for liberalism of some vaguely defined sort to be the guiding paradigm.  Sherman Alexie's complaint about fellow American Indians over the last decade or so has been that the average American Indian is more socially conservative than even the most socially conservative white guy. 

It's not that there aren't problems with people in power deciding they get to speak on behalf of the oppressed as if knowing what the oppressed feel or deal with it, those problems always exist.  The problem may be more that people with the  level of literacy to be readers and to engage in symbolic combat on the internet about the politics of intersectionality invoke a status of marginalization that their very literacy and access to internet tools may, at some level, belie.  It's entirely possible to be regarded as part of a marginalized class by one metric while being a power-broker by another.  Spacey is just one recent example.

But another would be the conundrum of Nate Parker, whose film Birth of a Nation was beloved on the festival circuit but which had a deflated premier n part because of allegations of assault had been made against the director and while defendants were exonerated accusations can persist in the public record.  Charles Mudede touched on the matter at The Stranger for those who didn't already follow that situation.  If there's a danger in intersectionality as a new variation of an old civil religion it's that the purity codes offer exemptions from power at a rhetorical level that recent allegations of misconduct and harassment suggest we should not grant.  A person can too easily invoke the righteousness of intersectionality as a cover for abusive behavior.  The abusive behavior may not always or even very often be physical or sexual. To go by the above-cited example from the reader, a lot of the abuse and bigotry is expressed in emphatic and explicit verbal terms. 

Proverbially Pharisaical denunciation has never had to be the domain of explicitly religious people, after all.

Given how many complaints I sometimes see about the decline of journalism why should people who aspire to write aspire to write fiction?  Why not just go for journalism?  Actually there's a pretty simple answer for that, because libel and defamation laws are real, legally enforceable things.  Fiction can be a way to write about the things we see in the world without having to worry that we'll get sued by the subjects we write about, or so one approach to the matter can go.  Even fantasy and anti-realistic art and literature is always reacting to the world as it is and insistently saying something about it.  But then I am slogging through Adorno's Aesthetic Theory this year ...   

and I'd say that for whatever his flaws in history and reasoning Francis Schaeffer wasn't as racist or elitist about black popular music as Adorno comes off as having been.  I have more than a few issues with Francis Schaeffer but the reliability with which pop coverage of the Frankfurt school skates past Adorno's denunciation of black American music is disappointing.  But then the reason Ne Left writers would skate past Adorno wouldn't coincidentally be because Adorno regarded them as being as ultimately totalitarian in their impulses as fascists.

If conservatives were actually more conversant in the Frankfurt School than they usually want to be they might discover that the old right and old left could agree on the problems of the new left at a few small points of intersection. 
 

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