Saturday, January 3, 2009

New Year's Resolution

I've had this in mind for a few weeks, but I think I now have a better reason or set of reasons for its implementation: I would like to resolve to read no novels or poetry by white American men for the next year. Wow! Isn't that crazy!

Of course, it wouldn't be crazy—it would probably just be considered accidental—if I went a year without reading someone who wasn't white, American and male, but this--this is something really extreme, almost ascetic in its commitment to political correctness, right? This is like one of those super-size-me type stunts, right? Yeah, no.

Here's what I'm thinking. I ran across a list titled "Best American Fiction 1968-1998" (downloadable here) compiled conjointly by two very smart, sensitive but frequently self-righteous readers, D.G. Myers (A Commonplace Blog) and Patrick Kurp (Anecdotal Evidence). And there are more Philip Roth books (3) on there than books by men of color (2, unless I missed one). And if you're a woman and not Southern, you have about as good a shot getting on the list. And that doesn't even cover the absence of women of color on the list. And I can't say for sure (since I haven't read all the books on the list), but it seems to me unlikely that any has a significant gay theme.

I don't think of it as being all affirmative-action-y to say that, if you've really been reading widely in the thirty-year period in question, there'd be quite a few more books by gays, by women and by men who are not white. In fact, I don't even think such an assertion is all that "politically correct"—it's just a statement of reality. Between 1968 and 1998, there was more fantastic literature produced by minorities than is represented in this list, though Kurp argues to the contrary ("Despite the growing attention paid to female writers during Myers’ 30-year period, he rightly excludes books written by women except O’Connor’s (and she died in 1964) and Welty’s (her best stories were written long before 1968)." He also says he hates Morrison and J.C. Oates. And maybe just women who don't write purposely to and for male audiences.) I'm not going to impute more bias to either man than what Kurp outright declares—I'm just saying it's a very narrow list, and I don't ever want to look back at thirty years of writing and be only able to come up with a list this limited.

Frankly, I'm terrified of becoming one of these narrow readers—one of the men who call themselves "common readers" and pride themselves on the "capacity for ignoring the tribalism and exclusivity endemic to the world of books," all of which washes out to mean that they never bother themselves with questions about what kinds of books they're not reading. Instead, they obsess over the "quality" or "worth" of the books they've already read, as if the notches on their bookcase represent the whole universe of books and what that universe really requires is a good ranking system. I don't ever want to be like that. I might as well go back to collecting baseball cards.

If you've noticed, I've not suggested any specific authors who have been left off, and that's because I don't feel like I have the authority to provide a full or very complete list of the omissions. I've got a few books I think should have been considered, but to be honest, I haven't read a tremendous amount of literature by writers who aren't white, straight and/or male from this period, and I feel like I need to do so before I can adequately form a counter-canon of sorts. I'm confident that there are enough books out there from this period to overwhelm the list Myers and Kurp created, and I'll hopefully be reading many of them this year.

So this is where my New Year's Resolution comes in. I'm not going to see it as a failure if I do end up reading something by a white guy—this isn't about purging my mind of white-guy-literature or something, and it's not really even about proving a point (that's what this post is for). I just feel I need some kind of motivating force behind the choices I make for my reading this year, and this can be it.

It does take a certain amount of conscious force to change the way you choose what you read. The blog Three Percent and The Complete Review and some others are doing an amazing job encouraging people to read more literature in translation, and they acknowledge that it has to be a conscious act to do so. I don't really see my resolution as being very different from them—as with international literature, I see a fairly large gap in my reading, and I want to make reading choices that address it.

We'll see how I do.


Giovanni said...

What a lovely idea. I cannot help but think that somebody like Georges Perec would treat it like one of his lipograms and - dissatisfied with the looseness of the constraint (there are far too many great non white American writers out there) - resolve to only read novels or poetry written by gay women of colour for a year. In translation.

I'd say keep us posted but surely that's the whole point of the blog.

D. G. Myers said...

Reply is here.

Richard said...

I have various problems with some of the pronouncements made by Kurp & Myers, but I think you set yourself up for an obvious reply (which Myers dutifully delivers). It's obvious to me that they have both read widely, and have over time made their assessments.

I go through phases when I worry about not reading more books written by women or non-white writers, though I'm not so bothered by it now. But, I think there is an interesting piece to be written about why those writers don't write the kind of writing favored by Kurp & Myers, and a related piece about what might be praiseworthy (in a literary sense only) about the best of this writing, that is different than their favored writing, and perhaps thus not available to them.

(Incidentally, for no reason I offer my capsule assessments of the Roths on their list: Portnoy's Complaint is very good, but overrated; American Pastoral is bloated, though with great stretches; Sabbath's Theater is Roth's masterpiece.)

Anonymous said...

The reason Myers no doubt licked his chops when he read your post is that your New Year's resolution was rolled out as a full-time goal of virtually every English department in the U.S. in the 90s. It was a necessary corrective to the canonization process of the time, and the need to remain conscious of the politics behind canonization persists, but the idea itself has already been through so many cycles of debate that you risk sounding like a cliche. Of course, one could simply refer to the rest of your posts to determine that your thinking is broader than the cliche...

Andrew Seal said...

I responded on Myers's post with a rather lengthy but I hope not too intemperate comment.

I wasn't trying to avoid the obvious reply, and I wasn't really concerned with whether or not I was inviting it or walking into it or whatever; I'm not exactly afraid of being accused of not appreciating white men enough.

And I think I'm fairly aware of how run into the ground this debate is--I wasn't trying to add something new. This was just a personal expression of what kind of reader I want to be, and what kind of reader I never want to be.

But clichéd as it is, this debate still matters.

And if there's any irony left in the canon wars, it's that, despite the fulminations of conservatives about the neglect of Milton for Morrison, a liberal-minded kid like me could go through a contemporary English Department and come out feeling like what he really missed out on was contemporary literature from marginalized groups. I guess a liberal might say that I wasn't all that brainwashed after all, and a conservative would say (as Myers does) that all I got out of it was white guilt. Given that I did get my Milton and some other great literature besides, I think the conservative view might be just a touch inaccurate.

Richard said...

Oh, it's more than a touch inaccurate.

bianca steele said...

I worry more that I’m not reading American writers at all. By far most of the books I’d put on a list of the best of those I’ve read in the past few years are by British or Anglo-African authors. I worry that the overvaluation of (unquestionably excellent) writers like Roth and Bellow, but also Auster, Updike, and Pynchon, is in part to blame. (Dave Myers’ overvaluation of Dick seems too idiosyncratic to have resulted in any widespread cultural changes.) By now, the place where they start is so far from realities on the ground that they might just as well think in European terms as American. So among the next generation we might have openings for interesting new English novelists, but fewer for Americans who can’t become that “European.”

D. G. Myers said...

What does it mean to “appreciate white men”?—whether enough, not enough, or not at all.


You are probably right about my overvaluation of Philip Dick. Not mine alone, of course. The Library of America has also “canonized” him. One would like to talk about Dick’s fiction, though, and not merely resolve not to read it because, presumably, it was written by a “white American man.”

Andrew Seal said...


I will certainly try to address both questions you raise in my future posts, but I think Myers & Kurp's tacit assumption that minority writers didn't write the "ordinary people doing ordinary things" fiction which Myers says he prefers is very overstated.

I think Myers and Kurp like to group Morrison and Oates and likely Ishmael Reed or Louise Erdrich in with the "metafictionists" because dismissing "postmodernist" fiction is more politically acceptable. I don't, actually, see all that much of an affinity between Morrison and Pynchon, or between someone as titanically diverse as Oates with Don DeLillo.

This conflation is easy to accept, however, because they're often clustered in the same academic courses, so we're comfortable with treating them like they have a great deal in common, just as we feel comfortable treating Blake and Wordsworth like they have a great deal in common since they're taught together as Romantics. It's the fallacy of periodization--if they can be taught together in a class, their similarities matter more than their differences.

Sorry, that's a long way round of saying I think your questions--"why those writers don't write the kind of writing favored by Kurp & Myers, and a related piece about what might be praiseworthy (in a literary sense only) about the best of this writing, that is different than their favored writing, and perhaps thus not available to them"--are really valuable guides for how to think about what I read. Thanks.

Andrew Seal said...

Mr. Myers,

I simply meant that I wasn't concerned with you intimating that I'm overcompensating for my "white guilt" and am thereby neglecting good white male authors. I think you knew that, though.

Also, regarding Dick, readers of this blog might find this hilarious in light of the current discussion (I do), but here's a post I wrote about A Scanner Darkly.

Anonymous said...

Of course, the real possibility is that all those that didn't make the list -- regardless of race, creed, color, etc. -- are simply crap. Most contemporary fiction is, you know.

The argument from entitlement is crap too. And even more tedious.

Giovanni said...

Did anybody make an argument from entitlement? Did I miss something?

And the "most contemporary fiction is crap" argument doesn't really explain how come the least worst all happen to be white guys.

D. G. Myers said...


More over at the Commonplace Blog, where I reply to your latest. Over here let me acknowledge that you have scored a winning goal against Kurp and me. He and I have been very sloppy in defining the kind of writing, metafictional or “experimental,” that we reject. To be fair, though, Patrick has done a better job than I. It is erroneous to speculate, however, that I “like to group Morrison and Oates and likely Ishmael Reed or Louise Erdrich in with the ‘metafictionists’ because dismissing ‘postmodernist’ fiction is more politically acceptable.” I am old enough, and my critical reputation is bad enough, that I no longer care what is politically acceptable. Morrison and Oates are crap. Reed is some sort of “postmodernist,” I suppose, but he too is crap. Erdrich isn’t horrible, but she needs to be understood for what she is—a good old-fashioned sentimental novelist.

bianca steele said...

Don’t push yourself too hard to stick to your previous resolve, though -- if the spirit moves you to read a book by an American white male, why not do so. I don’t see myself doing it but whatever works for you.

I’ve really been enjoying your blog, though I don’t totally “get” your approach from time to time.

Andrew Seal said...

Thanks, but I don't really think it's all that much of a sacrifice. I mean, no one's going to get hurt if I put off reading Richard Powers for another year, or don't read the new Pynchon coming out later this year. I am planning on reading Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones when it comes out, and technically that counts (he's an American citizen), so like I said, I'm not doing this as a stunt or to prove a point; I'm doing it because there are a lot of books by women and men of color and books in translation that I really want to read but which I sometimes pass over in favor of the newest Pynchon or the newest Roth or whatever.

Andrew Seal said...


Okay, you don't care about the political ramifications of your tastes. But it's still a hell of a lot easier to lump Morrison and Oates and Reed and Erdrich in with Gaddis and Coover and Barth and eject the lot of them than it is to come up with separate and specific critiques recognizing their individual projects and maybe even their individual strengths.

D. G. Myers said...

Yeah, but think of all the others that I’ve lumped with Morrison, Oates, Reed, Erdrich, Gaddis, Coover, and Barth in “eject[ing] the lot of them”:

Scott Spencer, Richard Ford, Joseph Heller, T. Coraghessan Boyle, John Updike, Alan Lightman, Russell Banks, Norman Mailer, Dean Koontz, Richard Powers, James Ellroy, Jay McInerney, Chaim Potok, John Casey, William Styron, Frederick Exley, David Sherman, Bob Shacochis, Pat Conroy, Hugh Nissensen, Leonard Michaels, Larry McMurtry, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., John Sayles, Tom Clancy, Peter DeVries, James Dickey, Walter Tevis, Evan S. Connell Jr., Wallace Stegner, John Williams, Brock Brower, Oakley Hall, David Guy, Barry Hannah, Gore Vidal, Alan Friedman, Paul Theroux, Larry Woiwode, Jay Cantor, Chuck Palahniuk, Mark Harris, Wright Morris, John Gardner, Tom Wolfe, Donn Pearce, Jack Fuller, Danny Santiago, Thomas Williams, Charles McCarry, Calder Willingham, George Steiner, John Irving, Ward Just, Alexander Theroux, Madison Jones, Walker Percy, Reynolds Price, David Guterson, Stanley G. Crawford, Alan Gurganus, Michael Chabon, Harold Brodkey, Stephen Dixon, Tobias Wolff, William Wharton, Howard Norman, Louis Begley, Robert Cohen, Jonathan Lethem, Chuck Kinder, James Wilcox, Alan Lelchuk, Philip F. O'Connor, R. V. Cassill, Herbert Gold, James B. Hall, Robert Grudin. I could keep going. Stop me before I keep going. Each of these writers deserves a “separate and specific critique,” each has his own “individual project” and “individual strength,” and each has been ejected—not only by me, but by you. They are American white men.


Richard said...

I find the conclusion that Andrew has "ejected" those writers, as well as Patrick Kurp's implicit assumption that Andrew's stated goal means he plans to avoid pleasure, as bizarre. And, though you keep pretending otherwise, nowhere does he or anyone in this thread say that "identity" (race, gender, sexuality) are factors that should be used to determine the quality of a work, merely that it seems statistically unlikely that, reading widely, one would assemble a list as skewed as your list seems. It is, of course possible that accidentally things would fall out that way, though it's also possible that the list says more about you (your literary taste, not your politics) than it does about literature. Who knows, he may come back after this experiment and conclude that all the best American fiction of the last 40 years was indeed written by white men. But no doubt he does not define literary "pleasure" in the exact way you do. (As you do not define it the same way Kurp does, given your praise of Dick, who he finds unreadable. You call Reed and Morrison "crap", but plenty of good readers have gotten actual pleasure reading them, which doesn't prevent them from being able to also appreciate Philip Roth.)

It is in this light that he plans to seek literary pleasure elsewhere.

Art Durkee said...

This debate is very interesting. I do find myself irritated by the "self-righteousness" aspect, as you put it.

But the main reason it's interesting to me is that the debate feels old. I stopped reading American mainstream fiction (with some exceptions) about 15 or 20 years ago, because I was turned off by its inward-turning reciprocity, its narcissist repetition of theme and approach, its boring sameness, its refusal to really confront the Other in any meaningful way (exoticism and orientalism are not real confrontations, they're too safe). I haven't changed my opinion. I read more novels in translation than I do from the best seller lists. At this point I read more poetry and essay than anything else; one tires of novels of personal angst, after awhile. The reason why Kurp & Myers' list(s) provoke debate—and they should provoke debate, debate is a good thing on this issue—is because they are essentially lists based on taste rather than some more objective assessment. Most such lists are based on taste—even collective taste is still taste. People are constantly telling me that I should like Norman Mailer and John Ashbery; but they're really bad writers. It's the "should" behind such lists that is an indicator of coercive taste-making. It's where the self-righteousness shows up most overtly.

The literary politics of even the expanded lists of reading, which include more than (dead) white American males, is too narrow. Why? Because it's all still mainstream American fiction. These lists provide nothing outside mainstream literary fiction. (Granted, Myers' championing Philip K. Dick is an exception, but it might also be the exception that proves the rule, since even his fellow list-maker can't agree with him.) The truth is, most of the fiction writing of literary quality that I have encountered, myself, over the past thirty years, has not been in mainstream American fiction. It's been in science fiction and mystery; frankly, most of it's been in those categories that were excluded here as "magic realism" and/or "metafiction." (It's clear to me that Kurp & Myers don't really understand what those categories mean, and why they're worthy of literary study. They exclude them, it seems to me, rather too quickly.) But here we're at the heart of the problem: if you exclude a great deal of great writing, purely on genre, what's left is revealed for it is: pallid, repetitive (Roth has written one novel several times), and probably the worst epithet I can be accused of making in this context: safe.

Richard said...

Well, here again we get into what one thinks of as "literary". Saying "Roth has written one novel several times" is simply false, though numerous people appear to believe it's true.

Art Durkee said...

Well, if my assessment of Roth is purely subjective, then so are the others. That was one of my points, after all. Everyone has the right to present their opinion in all of this. But when you start with a profoundly taste-based list, don't bitch when you get the taste-based comments you get in response.

As for Roth, as you say, that's not just my opinion. Having read some of Roth, although not every novel, the repetition became very obvious to me after three novels. Don't confuse details of plot and character that are different with overall themes and concerns, which are notably similar.

Richard said...

I wasn't confusing them. Roth's work does indeed generally deal with a small-ish body of similar themes. This doesn't make the books interchangeable. Real writers tend to have a small number of themes and concerns which they return to on a regular basis.

Sarah said...

Excellent resolution, and I look forward to following further debates and discussion. You may not need them but I'd be happy to make a few recommendations if need be.

Art Durkee said...

"Real writers," hmn?

That's a specious argument. It's like saying real men don't eat quiche. Then what of those real writers who are eclectic and not repetitive? I can think of a few mature and developed writers who tend to explore new directions rather than repeat themselves. And there is a difference between exploring a theme from many different angles, and repeating oneself obsessively.

If you were to talk about strange attractors, I might be more convinced: in an apparently random system, in chaos theory, an attractor is a zone that is often approached even though exact repetition never happens. It's certainly true that many writers do have themes that they return to on a regular basis. But that's not what makes them "real writers." What's a "real" writer? Say, better, that dedicated and experienced writers explore themes that are important to them, and they might also return to those themes from time to time. But some of them also branch out, and do NOT repeat themselves, either stylistically or thematically. Some might even call it originality. It's just a theory, mind you.

Richard said...

It wasn't an argument, it was a bald assertion. And a sort of mini-defense. (Note also that I said "tend to".)

That you can say that Roth merely repeats himself, "obsessively" no less, tells me that you can't have read him very well, or with much sympathy. We tend to dislike the so-called repetitiveness in writers we don't like, not notice it in writers we do.

"Some might even call it originality."

Sure; good luck with that.

Patrick Murtha said...

I posted this at A Commonplace Blog:

I am a latecomer to the debate, so will probably repeat points made by others. They seem to me to be deeply obvious:

1. If on given definitions of "greatness" and "masterpiece" you seem to wind up excluding utterances by large numbers of people with certain significant (I won't say "definitional") characteristics, including gender, race, religion, and philosophy, there is undoubtedly something wrong with your definitions.

2. There is something profoundly suspect about invoking some sort of objective standards to judge greatness and masterpieces, and then to come up with canons most of whose members share a significant characteristic (in this case, white maleness) with oneself.

3. "White male" is not a neutral default setting for humanity, and not even for the American population. So if one judges most greatness and masterpieces to be coming from what is, after all, a minority group itself, that raises a question, again, of loaded standards.

4. Despite the fact that multiculturalism ought at the least to have educated us all about our own blind spots, much Internet writing and blog writing does not take personal blind spots into consideration at all -- is not written in the spirit of "I may be blind to the merits of this, but educate me better so that I might see better." Professor Myers and others would do well to take a leaf from the great Henry Adams and admit that not only are their own educations not complete, they may not in some crucial respects have even begun yet. Intellectual humility is way lacking on the Web.

Art Durkee said...

Now who's the real cynic here?

I did say that I had read Roth, which you dismiss as not reading Roth. I also said I hadn't read ALL of Roth, which leads you to claim that I didn't read him well or with much sympathy. What you're really saying is that I didn't read him exactly like YOU did. Fortunately, neither of us are required to read books the way the other does. What your argument really reduces to, therefore, is that I don't share your tastes in reading, which leads you to dismiss my tastes.

And this just underlines my original point, re-stated here since it seems to have been lost in the fray: The list that started this discussion was a taste-based, subjective list. one of the compilers proudly used reading pleasure as a criterion; which is a perfectly valid criterion, of course; but it becomes deeply problematic when it is applied to a list with the word "Best" in its title. Thus, the list opens itself to the criticism of disagreement, purely on the grounds of taste, as well as on the grounds of broader literary criticism. It cannot claim in any way to be a list of the "Best," but should have been labeled, and validly labeled, as a list of "Favorites." Then there would have been no objection.

In terms of your defense of Roth, which at this point is an overreaction to what was a one-line aside, one thinks that you are coming to the defense of someone you like rather a lot. fair enough! One appreciates the partisanship of favorites, albeit it could have easily been misplaced. You state, "We tend to dislike the so-called repetitiveness in writers we don't like, not notice it in writers we do." That is absolutely true. It tells me that you like Roth, which is of course wonderful. I don't like Roth as much as you do—which is the sole basis of your objection to my comment. My comment was, however, a legitimate comment in this context, since the door to taste-base comments was opened by the very formulation of the list that prompted all this discussion. We can cheerfully agree to disagree about Roth, and also agree or disagree about the overt subjectivity of Kurp & Myers' list, but it begs the question: Is it really a list of "best" fiction, or only of "favorites"? Do we agree with the selections on the list only because we liked those books, too?

If the answer to that second question is "Yes," then it opens the door to pointing out that this not particularly good literary criticism, because it lacks even the pretense of objective and historical evaluation. Compiling lists of favorite books is perfectly fine—everyone does it, me too—but don't pretend that such lists are more than that. Don't use the word "best" and expect everyone to agree.

Finally, I don't dislike Roth so much as I am indifferent to the worlds he creates, and the tortures and pleasures therein, as they are not my worlds, and don't touch the worlds I live in except peripherally. Sometimes it takes an indifferent observer with no stake in the outcome to point out the flaws in a world's conception. All you have to do is look at the patterns.

Richard said...

"I don't like Roth as much as you do—which is the sole basis of your objection to my comment."

No, it isn't. All I said was, to say that Roth repeats himself "obsessively" is to not have read him sympathetically. Which is not the same thing as liking him. And the only reason I kept replying re: Roth is because he was the example you referred to, and you were simply wrong, on a factual level. His books are not interchangeable, whether you like them or not.

Further, it is my opinion (yes!), that real writers (by which I mean artists, not entertainers, and of course I have my applicable definitions--most so-called "literary" writers are writing glorified entertainment, as far as I'm concerned), return to themes again and again. You disagree, which is fine by me.

Are you aware that I entered this thread defending Andrew's perspective?

Anyway, I'm out. It's growing tiresome. Sorry, Andrew, for muddying up your comments page.

Art Durkee said...

Coulda fooled me.

Nonetheless, apologies also to Andrew, if indeed the sidebar was waters muddied. It seems to me it just highlighted the problems with the original list, but I could be wrong.

Kim said...

Hey Andrew! I hope all is well with you. I am loving your new year's resolution. I'm curious about what you'd think of Nam Le's The Boat. He's an interesting guy- born in Vietnam, raised in Australia where he trained and worked as a lawyer for two years, quit and went to the US to study/teach writing, and now is moving to Great Britain for a fellowship. Anyways, I really enjoy reading your blog and am going to keep tabs on it from now on. Best,


Rebecca V. O'Neal said...

I read Myers' and Kurp's blogs almost daily (I learn a lot from them) - and am a young, African-American, not-quite-heterosexual woman who lives above the Mason-Dixon Line (whhaaaaa?) BUT...

I've been blog-lurking here for a few weeks now and and love your New Year's Resolution (I should have exploded from the cognitive dissonance alone, huh?).

Some reading suggestions:
The Scapegoat by Paul Laurence Dunbar
Old Blues Singers Never Die by Clifford Vincent Johnson
An Interesting Social Study by Kristin Hunter

All 3 are short stories by Black writers - among my favorites.

Andrew Seal said...

Thanks for the suggestions! I will try to track these down.

Cognitive dissonance--haha. Myers and I are very different, to be sure, but I'd like to think that both he and I agree on some important things (like that blogs are very good for literary discussions).