"BAD PAPER: The Bursting of the Fiction Bubble"

read it here.

January 16, 2009

Colson Whitehead's Payback

“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?

But the really telling sentence occurs a couple of paragraphs into this part of the review, where Wood pronounces: “Error is sewn deep into the prose here, and is not easily unpicked.”  Note how the ostensible flaws in Whitehead’s writing go beyond separate slips to become a general condition.  It’s almost like some kind of eugenic birthright, bred in the bone.  Yessir, it’s even easier to straighten hair than prose like this!  But Wood, with missionary zeal, will undertake for several substantial paragraphs, if not to “unpick" the Error, to at least make sure a representative sample of Error’s individual transgressions are pointed out and properly chastised.  Of course we’ve seen this reviewer go on before about the positive or negative qualities of an author’s style, but this particular review has an entirely different quality to it, because on this occasion the author’s style is not simply infelicitous, hackneyed, trendy, wooden, or cartoonish, but wrong.  It amounts to an astonishingly patronizing lecture on ‘correct’ usage in Standard English by a critic rhetorically arrogating to himself the position of – no better word for it – mastery.  Indeed James Wood persists digging in this vein for so long and in so cringe-worthy a manner that we almost suspect him of being comic, of having concealed from us – admittedly for many years and many, many pages of reviews – an actual sense of humor.  But by the time we reach the punch-line – “T.S. Eliot once praised Lancelot Andrewes for having a style that exhibited a mastery of ‘relevant intensities’” – we realize that, alas, it’s just Wood being Wood and helping to keep literature’s bloodlines pure for the Common Reader. 

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