“We each come to literature in our own way. For some, the gift is bestowed by a helpful governess who guides our fingers over the letters in a primer. For others, a private tutor first enlightens us to the majesty of the written word. How you arrive is immaterial. What is important now is that you forget all that and learn to read anew. In my literary criticism, I have become known as a champion of the eternal verities and a scold of the trendy and the fashionable. I have essayed to instruct your writers in how to write correctly. Now I will teach you to read correctly.”
From Colson Whitehead’s parody of James Wood, “Wow, fiction works!”, in the February issue of Harper’s. Apparently it is excerpted from a longer piece, “James Root on How to Read,” part of a talk which Whitehead delivered at the Tin House Writer’s Conference last summer.
This is payback for Wood’s 2001 review of John Henry Days, an incredibly patronizing performance in which Wood calls Whitehead’s novel “an African American version of Don DeLillo’s [Underworld]” and spends a number of paragraphs teaching Whitehead how to write proper English. Wood’s reviews of Colson Whitehead and Toni Morrison are scaly specimens indeed, although it’s the Morrison review that represents Wood’s real Sistah Souljah Moment.
I'm not trying to imply, however, that Wood has a problem with writers of color. Of the 93 books discussed in How Fiction Works (see the list in HFW's endpages), a whole three of them are by non-"white" authors (four if you count Pushkin - a stretch but I'm trying to be helpful), and one of them is actually an African American! As Wood says in a preferatory note, "I have used only the books I actually own - the books at hand in my study - to produce this little volume."
[I had planned on posting about Wood’s Whitehead and Morrison reviews at a later date, but given the topical interest I’ve gone back into my notes and drafts in order to present the Whitehead section now.]
James Wood’s review of Colson Whitehead’s John Henry Days devotes a number of its paragraphs to the novelist’s style, or more specifically to correcting the novelist’s style, because this African-American writer, Wood suggests, doesn’t know how to write in Standard English. “Whitehead writes what might best be called interesting prose,” he snidely asserts, the scare-quotes around “interesting” so loud that typing them would have been overkill, “extraordinarily uneven, and sometimes even barely comprehensible, not to mention smutted with inexplicable solecisms.” A solecism is a nonstandard or ungrammatical usage – get the drift?
Combining in his person the roles of bull-necked cop, prosecuting attorney, judge, and all-white jury, Wood piles the charges on Whitehead’s prose and finds it guilty on all counts: “imprecise, swaggering when it should be controlled, fruitlessly dense, grossly abundant.” Notice how Wood’s adjectives are subtly tailored to echo certain unsavory stereotypes, where Black males speak “barely comprehensible” Ebonics full of “solecisms,” and they “swagger” instead of exhibiting self control. And from what depths of suppressed yuppie hysteria did that “dense, grossly abundant” come from?