In the context of increasing scrutiny on the literary production of white writers, Ben Williams offers up some ideas on the cultural assumptions that underpin how white writing operates.
‘Sometimes you write a whole essay and realize it was just for you to get off your chest.’
Criminal masterminds fascinate me (as they do many writers). I adore symphony orchestras (ditto). Drawing a line between the two—criminal masterminds, symphony orchestras—requires little imagination: synchrony ties them together, as the key to each’s success. Without great timing, great crimes fall foiled and great music plunges into discordance. Great timing—orchestration—also serves as a useful concept for understanding discrete socio-historical episodes: those small, individual acts freighted with generations’ worth of endeavour and practice, like a criminal picking a lock or a cellist plucking out notes pizzicato under a conductor’s baton. What works of culture and time delivered each picker and plucker to their respective episodes? (Don’t try to tally them up; your mind will boggle.)
Language, too, benefits from this kind of orchestration: the geological pressure of culture, as crackingly energetic as any symphony’s fourth movement, hones our phrases and sentences—and in particular, their metaphors and tropes—into the proverbial smooth pebbles in the stream, retrieved from the gin-clear water and used as skipping stones of thought, bypassing processes that normally slow our grey matter down, as we confront and attempt to disentangle snarls of meaning. The words no longer arrest us like they should. She was cast adrift in a sea of sadness. His anger was bottled up inside him. The henpecked husband escaped the coop of his marriage. America is the greatest country in the world. All the cogs work just so to deliver the desired result: thoughtless consent in the spectacle of meaning’s reproduction. You are the lock and language has unpicked you; language is the note and you are the instrument being plucked.
In March 1990, a criminal mastermind orchestrated the theft, in Boston, of some of the world’s most valuable paintings, including Vermeer’s The Concert—one of just thirty-odd known works by the painter. The robbery at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, known as The Gardner Heist, is unsolved to this day; the Vermeer remains unrecovered. Writing up The Gardner Heist’s 30th anniversary last year for Boston Public Radio station WBUR, a journalist described the crime as ‘the largest art heist—and property theft—in history’.
Now, as everyone should be aware, any time a United States publication describes something as being the most exceptional example of its kind, it’s guilty of trading in the ‘America is the greatest’ trope I mention above. In this case, however, I would like to extend extra scrutiny to the parenthetical phrase in the description—the one that singles out The Gardner Heist as history’s ‘largest property theft’. This for two reasons. First, because the phrase bears the hallmark of a regional oddity. Having never heard of anything being described as history’s largest property theft before, I imagine this is an idea that’s well established in and around Boston, trotted out almost as a kind of local badge of pride, but which never graduated on to the national or global scene. Parochialisms are always interesting, and here we may have fished one out from a particular place’s stream of collective thought.
Second—and now I’m finally approaching, albeit obliquely, the point of this essay—because calling an art heist ‘the largest property theft in history’ strikes me as a very white thing to say. Try uttering the phrase aloud: ‘The Gardner Heist is the largest property theft in history’. The words stick in the craw, don’t they? The absurdity that stealing a few paintings could compare to, for example, the plundering of Jews’ households during the Holocaust, or the pillaging of African societies at the hands of chattel slavers for hundreds of years—or to any number of other atrocities involving theft witnessed down the millennia—marks a fascinating end point to the process I describe above: the orchestration, over time, of concepts and ideas to the point where they’re ready to be presented, ever so musically, as facts.
Another way of thinking about tropes like these is as fictions that the culture of those who speak them has prearranged consent for. Staying with ‘the largest property theft in history’ trope for a moment, it’s clear that the culture that sets the preconditions for this statement, which is presented by WBUR as non-fiction, operates selectively. This culture never imbibed, for example, another Boston event from the nineteen-nineties: namely, the publication in the Harvard Law Review of Cheryl I Harris’s lengthy and detailed exposition ‘Whiteness as Property’, which makes an overwhelmingly convincing case that a significant property interest adheres in being white—one that includes, like its immovable counterpart, rights of disposition, use and enjoyment, plus an absolute right to exclude.
Following Harris’s argument, one might say that, by dint of the excessive bounty that comes attached to the asset, the invention of whiteness and its ongoing status as settled non-fiction among those who ‘have’ whiteness constitutes the largest property theft in history, far outstripping the pilfering of a mere Vermeer. Further, it follows that those who ‘have’ whiteness also have the attendant easements and servitudes, such as language that casually produces ahistorical spectacle—‘The Gardner Heist is the largest property theft in history’, etc.,—as a commonplace. In other words, writers pick the lock of their own whiteness with such a phrase; whiteness plucks the words out and they tumble, unchallenged, into place.
Like all of us, WBUR’s journalists vibrate to the tune of the delicate verbal mechanisms that construct our worlds. We are all orchestrated by language; always, language unpicks our locks. To be clear, I don’t know the journalist who wrote the WBUR story, or even whether she wrote the words published under her byline, given the editorial processes that articles are subject to before they appear in print or online. (Her pronouns are she/her and she is as quite clearly as white as I am.) Yet her story’s presentation of an idea like ‘The Gardner Heist is the largest property theft in history’ constitutes, I would argue, through its unconscious wrongness, an epigrammatic abstraction of the culture of white writing that many American writers inhabit. Further, such phrases, cropping up so naturally as they do, with neither fanfare nor qualification, indicate that this writing runs according to a set of internal rules that may be studied and, if one so desired, expatiated upon.
How do you write like a white person? And why would you seek an answer to this question? I can think of many scenarios that would benefit from a more thorough understanding of the art and artifice of letters in my native literary heritage—the recent outcry against Kate Clanchy’s 2019 book, Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me, providing one example. Collectively, said letters exist in a space that might be called, pace Paul Gilroy, the ‘white Atlantic’, spanning both English and American traditions. (For reference, in Gilroy’s 1993 masterwork, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, the author call forth a new geography—a world spanning both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, overlaid by the Black experience—and locates within it the birthplace of modernity. My use of ‘white Atlantic’ is meant as a convenient, tongue-in-cheek shorthand for the white, English-speaking cultures established in the same physical and/or culturally overlaid space.) In this essay, then, I attempt to lay out a partial framework on how to read white Atlantic fiction, using the analytical tools of critics and thinkers who, like Harris, have studied white Atlantic culture and made trenchant, lock-picking observations on the way this culture operates. By the end, I hope to have offered a few ideas that will serve as, if far from a definitive guide, then at least a gesture steering future critics in the right (white) direction, when putting white writing under scrutiny.
As a topic of literary criticism, white writing receives desultory attention at best. For my money, no one tackles it as incisively as JM Coetzee, in his 1988 volume of criticism, White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa. While the case studies he presents are often not directly transferrable to the American or English context, many provide useful counterpoints, and overall the book serves as a handy guide for how to ‘read whiteness’, as it were, even in contexts different from the one his book is concerned with. Where Coetzee identifies a marked tenuousness of grip, for example, in white writers’ grasp of Africa—for them, ‘it remains trackless, refuses to emerge into meaningfulness as a landscape of signs’ (9)—this is in explicit contrast to the writers of Metropolitan England he is comparing them to, who enjoy full verbal mastery over the land they inhabit.
In this context, I would include America as a second, related Metropolitan to stand next to England’s example (and voilà! we’ve created the white Atlantic). This because verbal mastery obtains in American white writing, too: there’s no fragility or hesitation on display when the writer brings the landscape into view. The gaze is fully proprietary—that of a rancher preparing to gentle a formerly wild colt. White American literary English assumes its place, without ado, as, in Coetzee’s phrase, that ‘natural or Adamic language’ that white South African literary English is not—‘one in which [America] will naturally express itself, that is to say, a language in which there is no split between signifier and signified, and things are their names’ (ibid, 9). In the preceding quotation, I have, of course, swapped out Coetzee’s original ‘Africa’, where the split is so evident to the critic, for ‘America’, where any such split is a kind of long-accounted-for sunk cost. In America, the orchestration of white English into a position of mastery over the land is complete; in America, unlike in South Africa, the lock—a device of the language’s own invention—is picked.
To support my contention about this birthright claim of American English prose to America itself, let fall open practically any novel written by a white American novelist to practically any scene on practically any page. Play this roulette with a Pulitzer Prize winner, for example—for example, Richard Powers’s The Overstory (2018). Let the book fall open to page 325, say, which happens to depict the climax of a battle between loggers aiming to fell a gigantic, ancient redwood and activists aiming to save it:
The chopper is big, with a bay like a bungalow. Big enough to hoist a tree older than America straight into the sky and haul it upright across the landscape. Its blades froth the air around the dangling girl. Two humans sit inside the fiberglass pod, cloaked in visors and chin-cupping helmets, chatting on tiny boom mics with some distant mission control. Adam … sees its million parts—shafts, cams, blades, things for which he doesn’t even have a name—beyond the power of any human to assemble, let alone design. Yet there must be thousands of such craft … Burnt fossil streams from the beast, stinking like a burning oil rig … Mimas [the redwood] shudders. Against all judgment, Adam looks down. Bulldozers the color of bile are ramming the tree’s base … No path is left but sanity … the occupation is over. The flying thing rears in the air and spins away … leaving nothing but peace and defeat. (325–6)
Powers’s self-conscious play with names in this passage lends itself to the wildness of the action: the ‘chopper’ becomes a ‘beast’, then finally a ‘flying thing’. Adam’s incoherence of thought underscores the drama of the moment and the magnitude of the loss. But through the ordeal, Adam is still able to summon the name of the tree, Mimas—the key element in the landscape of the scene. Further, the scene itself indicates that Powers occupies a position, vis-à-vis America, that is diametrically opposed to the one Coetzee describes for South African white writers. The South Africans, in their inability to formulate the land adequately in words, contend with a ‘literature of failure, of the failure of the historical imagination’ (9). The passage above, by contrast, with its patent technology-versus-nature trope, and characters who refer to trees using proper nouns, is firmly the product of a historical imagination that is righteously established. The activists’ mission may have been a failure, but this is an indulgence, almost a luxury, of the fiction, in that the author’s depiction of the failure points only in one direction: toward a literature of success. In other words, the affectation of chaos and disorientation does not prevent Coetzee’s ‘landscape of signs’ from emerging into meaning; on the contrary, the affirmation of the tree’s name calls upon proprietorial history with the force of divine right.
Coetzee casts South African white writing as not in opposition to an implied body of South African Black writing, but rather as writing cast adrift from the traditions of a distant home: ‘White writing is white insofar as it is generated by the concerns of people no longer European, not yet African’ (11). Again, his thoughts provide a useful framework, in that they point the way to showing how white Atlantic writing is unlike its embattled cousin. Coetzee makes clear that white English writers are the ‘anti’ to his ‘thesis’, revolving around the home literary territory that South African white writers are estranged from. In America, meanwhile, white writing may be defined against Coetzee’s formulation as writing generated by the concerns of people who are fully American, but mythologically European, and thus not yet mentally unshackled from the colonial space established where Europe first met America. For the purposes of this essay, then, Coetzee does us a service in helping us conceptualise white Atlantic writing by describing the characteristics of the kind of white writing that it is not. White Atlantic writing is, on its own terms, the literature of success.
The surest recipe for sending a shudder of horror through a white Atlantic writer is leveling the accusation that they’re suburban. Belonging to such a category counts as a moral failing above all, pointing to certain mainstream tendencies and creative shortsightedness that writers, especially those who consider themselves ‘literary’, strive to avoid—sometimes to the point of overcompensating for them. (The kids today use a delightful term to describe the moral quality of being suburban, which is quite separate from its economic dimension: ‘basic’. You don’t want to be caught out as ‘basic’. Heaven forbid!) Yet, looking at the white Atlantic literary industry beyond the individual act of creation—that is, looking at the editors, publishers and marketers who transform manuscripts into packaged objects for distribution and consumption at mass scale—the culture that prevails at many nodes of this chain is quite clearly middle class. Bourgeois editors work for bourgeois publishers who hire bourgeois marketers for the chief aim of opening, by hook or by crook, the wallets of the bourgeois public. Further, as 2020–21 in particular has shown us, via moments like #publishingpaidme and other collective outpourings on social media, this industry is thoroughly white, on both sides of the Atlantic. If the medium is the message, then it behoves us to linger for a moment on the business that white Atlantic writers find themselves embedded in.
Fortunately, as with Harris on whiteness and property, a document exists that helps break down the intersection of whiteness and corporate culture. This document is called White Supremacy Culture: Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups by Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun. Drawing on decades of immersion, observation and collaboration, Jones, Okun and their colleagues collate the standout traits of the business culture that obtains, to a greater or lesser degree, in white-dominated corporations (and by extension white Atlantic publishing). Here is the complete list of said traits:
- Sense of Urgency
- Quantity over Quality
- Worship of the Written Word
- Only One Right Way
- Either/Or Thinking
- Power Hoarding
- Fear of Open Conflict
- I’m the Only One
- Progress is Bigger, More
- Right to Comfort
When I first became acquainted with the work of Jones and Okun, I naturally felt defensive (point three!), and attempted to rationalise away their conclusions about my native culture. But, upon reflection, I saw that the characteristics above have featured in my workplace at all stages of my career—including those spent in South Africa, where white businesses still dominate, two and a half decades into Black-majority democracy. I now take White Supremacy Culture as read, and read the theory into evidence here. (Incidentally, the work of Jones and Okun carries on at https://www.dismantlingracism.org/, a website replete with free resources for combatting, in the contemporary coinage of Michael Eric Dyson, #COVID1619.)
If white middle-class dominant culture pervades Atlantic economies, it follows that this includes the markets within them that support the books writers write. These markets are often totalising: that is, they nurture the products they thrive on. This is not to say that white-dominated publishing houses dictate the creative production of the writers they represent—they don’t stipulate what goes on writers’ imaginations (though there’s a case to be made that publishing culture restrains said imaginations in certain ways)—but rather to come to a common-sense conclusion: that we should not be surprised to discover affinities between the anthropology of the books value chain and the ontology of the manuscripts that this value chain commercialises.
My idea, then, is to use the traits delineated in White Supremacy Culture as a model to follow when attempting to pick the lock of white Atlantic writing, and thus describe certain essential characteristics of the literature of success. While most of the traits of the original document are not directly applicable to fiction, a bit of creative translation may allow us to single out several elements to consider. In short, I propose the following transpositions from the Jones/Okun framework into a new theoretical set of properties that describe certain craft elements as markers of white Atlantic fiction:
- For Perfectionism, read Positivism. That is, while all fiction acknowledges that human beings are imperfect, I propose that white Atlantic writing assumes a trajectory of self-betterment, or progress, against the odds. This crystalises in the characters found in such writing, whose souls are often graced by some form of inclusion in a global institution, or medical or scientific advancement, helping them overcome adversity.
- For Only One Right Way, read Only One Method of Transaction, by which I mean that white Atlantic writing has a distinct investment in money power. The objects that appear in white Atlantic scenes tend to come freighted with the assumption that they were obtained transactionally, for the exchange of money, like houses, cars, items of clothing and technology, and so on. The idea that a character’s relationship with objects might be non-capitalist, or non-transactional (except when they’re explicitly stolen) less often occurs.
- For Paternalism, read Historical Imagination of the Hunter, following Chinua Achebe’s immortal line, ‘Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter’. I’ve tackled this item to a certain extent above, with my example of Richard Powers as the opposite of a writer who does not have appreciative control of the landscape and putative memory, as it were, of his scenes. How this makes Powers ‘the hunter’ should be clear: he’s member of the ‘literature of success’ club, with many Americana pelts of his own devising hanging in his den. That his subject matter is gloomy and fraught is irrelevant: what counts is his full, self-apotheosised mastery of the conditions and spaces that gave rise to it.
- For Right to Comfort, read Right to Echt-ness. Here, I mean to draw attention to the supposed purity of intention that pervades much white Atlantic writing: the implicit claim that the craft, honestly undertaken, serves its own good purpose, and that faults are therefore failings of craft (excusable), rather than failings of sensibility or imagination (much less so). The assumption of echt-ness often becomes apparent when a character who is not like the writer appears on the page; and also when violence is depicted. (Incidentally, such assumptions of the Right to Echt-ness are the kind that that can lead to an appeal, on the author’s part, for recognition of their Right to Comfort.)
I could go on, creating further cognates to the original Jones/Okun list of attributes, but for the sake of anyone who has read this far, I will constrain myself to just these four points, examples for which I will now provide from a few works of recent white Atlantic writing. I hope it goes without saying, but I suppose one can never be too explicit about one’s disclaimers, so: nothing of what I’ve written is meant to be definitive about or exclusive to white Atlantic writers. My aim is to provide some useful tools to those who, like me, are interested in how white writing operates in the world. Writers who are not of the white Atlantic variety can also write like this; and white Atlantic writers can also write in other, non-typical ways (with a possible exception for Historical Imagination of the Hunter: rare is the work of white Atlantic writing that does not make a meal out of proprietorship over time, space and events).
To begin, then, let us turn to Positivism, by which I mean the belief that the human spirit’s striving for improvement expresses itself at the intersection where individuals meet commonly-accepted markers of material progress. In white Atlantic writing, I’ve observed, Positivism often makes for a useful shortcut when the writer is seeking to flesh out the details around a character’s life. Positivism in fiction is akin to the presentation of a character’s CV.
As an example, consider the following moment in British author Damian Barr’s debut novel, You Will Be Safe Here, which toggles between the Anglo-Boer War (1901) and twenty-first century Johannesburg. Barr’s writing, I should mention, is not the variety that Coetzee puts on the hook: Barr is not South African, and so does not grapple with finding certain kinds of imaginative purchase like the writers in Coetzee’s criticism do. That is to say, Barr is firmly a writer of the white Atlantic.
Towards the close of his novel, we follow Judge Violet Khwezi around on the day she is due to give an important verdict. At one point, the judge muses:
One good thing: this case has brought her closer to her children who are far away which is exactly where she wants them to stay. Zee, on a Rhodes Scholarship in Oxford, and Violet, interning at the UN in New York, phone her more often now, and not just when they’re walking between appointments or about to eat. She hopes the calls won’t stop when all this does. (296)
Barr drops a couple of organisational proper nouns into his narrative to provide a better feeling of the breadth and substance of the judge’s life: her successful children, the passage implies, have advanced her family’s narrative by starting their young careers at two of the world’s institutional pinnacles. The future is bright, even if the contentious moment that the judge is caught up in is clouded by the dark shadows of the past. This is Positivism in its least subtle form, but its very crudeness helps us appreciate a swift, ephemeral pivot toward the idea of progress as a craft element in white Atlantic writing.
Staying with Barr and the judge, let’s turn to Only One Method of Transaction. When the same chapter opens, we learn select details about the judge’s material life:
Judge Violet Khwezi does not approve of theatrics. But this doesn’t stop her engaging in them when they suit her. This morning she has huge sunglasses clamped to her face—she excused the luxury of them to Charles by tapping the black frames lightly and saying ‘Prescription’ … Sometimes she still can’t quite believe that this is her life, that she’s familiar with the view from the back of a car, that she has people to do all the work done by her mother and all the mothers before … (293)
Barr triangulates between luxury sunglasses, chauffeured cars and domestic workers in an attempt to deliver Judge Khwezi, if not in the round, then at least bas-relief. To my sensibility, however, what he delivers instead is a reductive worldview that hinges on a bank balance, rather than a set of human relations. The chauffeur and domestic workers are nameless; the judge ‘has’ them—she ‘has people’ as productive units in her life. Such an uncompromisingly transactional relationship with other human beings is almost unthinkable in Black southern African culture, of course. She also owns fancy sunglasses, an item, we assume, far beyond the reach of the people she ‘has’, and so given equal, if not greater, weight in her daily mental calculus. This calculus crops up frequently in white Atlantic writing: the moment of ecstatic material possession trumps more human approaches; people become objects; characters navigate their way by means of past, current and future transactions.
Moving to Historical Imagination of the Hunter, having seen how it operates as in the fiction of Richard Powers, let’s turn to another example, this time in a novel that debuted to rather a lot of critical antipathy, Jeanine Cummins’s American Dirt. On the whole, I sympathise with the critics of this work, which, it might be said, violates the rule that Zadie Smith, in her 2019 essay defending the imagination, ‘Fascinated to Presume: In Defense of Fiction’, laid down for writers who write in the voices of characters with backgrounds unlike theirs. To test whether this kind of polyphony succeeds or not, she asks, ‘Is this novel before me an attempt at compassion or an act of containment?’ If the answer is ‘containment’, then the author has failed the test. As Smith puts it, ‘The risk of containment is the risk of false knowledge being presented as truth—it is the risk of caricature.’
To caricature a culture via one’s characters is indeed a sin—unless you’re writing in a high-ironic satirical mode and have particularly good form (cf. Paul Beatty’s The Sellout and the white ‘cultural activists’ who appear in it)—but ferreting out the caricatures in American Dirt is not my purpose here. Rather, I want to show how Cummins’s fiction shares with Powers’s a certain historical centring that derives explicitly from the literature of success. Just as Powers is able to centre his American version of witness across the American landscape in his tree-felling scene, Cummins centres her American version of witness across international borders. Take this scene from chapter two, which unfolds in the wake of the slaughter of the main character Lydia’s family by a drug cartel assassin:
The detective does not move to contradict her. Unlike many of his colleagues—he’s not sure which ones, but it doesn’t matter—he happens not to be on the cartel payroll. He trusts no one. In fact, of the more than two dozen law enforcement and medical personnel moving around Abuela’s home and patio this very moment, marking the locations of shell casings, examining footprints, analyzing blood splatter, taking pictures, checking for pulses, making the sign of the cross over the corpses of Lydia’s family, seven receive regular money from the local cartel. The illicit payment is three times more than what they earn from the government. In fact, one has already texted el jefe to report Lydia’s and Luca’s [Lydia’s son’s] survival. The others do nothing, because that’s precisely what the cartel pays them to do, to populate uniforms and perform the appearance of governance. Some of the personnel feel morally conflicted about this; others do not. None of them have a choice anyway, so their feelings are largely immaterial. The unsolved-crime rate in Mexico is well north of 90 percent. The costumed existence of la policía provides the necessary counterillusion to the fact of the cartel’s actual impunity. Lydia knows this. Everyone knows this. She decides presently that she must get out of here. She stands up from her position on the curb and is surprised by the strength of her legs beneath her. The detective steps back to give her space. (9)
Follow the thread of consciousness in the paragraph: we start off firmly in the point of view of a detective who’s aware of his own impotence; we teeter mid-sentence toward to the point of view of Lydia with the mention of Luca’s Abuela; we move into the collective point of view of corrupt cops generally; we encounter a statistic about unsolved-crime rates presented as fact, and thus of uncertain sensibility; we move back into the collective point of view, which shades into Lydia’s sensibility; we close the scene firmly in Lydia’s point of view.
The hinge upon which Historical Imagination of the Hunter turns in this paragraph, of course, is the sensibility-free fact about crime rates. I’ve no idea if this fact is true; it doesn’t matter. What matters is that the author saw fit to impose a transnational moment free of inflection on a scene of great turmoil and intimacy. This is the literature of success at its most dismissive: the invocation of the country’s name (‘Mexico’) removes the scene from itself, suddenly pitting the state against other, unnamed states and their own crime statistics, and ensuring the scene operates at a remove that the author likely didn’t intend. Who thinks of unsolved-crime statistics in the wake of the massacre of a family? Only one person: the person whose tradition of letters allows for an abstract but iron sense of possession over historical context. Cummins bequeaths her fictional scene a supposedly neutral fact, putatively drawn from a non-fictional source, and thus ensures a tone of stainless moral governance that undoes any claim of sympathy at the ‘in their shoes’ level of her characters. We witness the unwitting triumph of the hunter.
Now, looking at Right to Echt-ness, two examples. This is perhaps the slipperiest of the categories I’ve devised; my hope is that the following passage, from Louisa Treger’s 2019 novel The Dragon Lady, will help illustrate what I mean. The Dragon Lady, like Barr’s You Will Be Safe Here, moves between periods of time and space, nineteen-twenties Europe and nineteen-fifties Rhodesia. Treger, like Barr, is a white Atlantic writer who has found, in Africa, a kind of tableau vivant for a work of fiction. In this set-piece scene, taking place in Rhodesia, two characters wrestle with their affection for each other in the context of the wider issues of the day:
Mufaro and I lay in the long grass under the spreading branches of a mopane tree …
‘We should always meet under this tree,’ I said dreamily. ‘Even when we’re grown up.’
‘That’s if you still want to know me when you’re a white madam.’ Mufaro’s voice was teasing, but tight.
‘What a horrible thing to say,’ I snapped. ‘Didn’t I just tell you we’d always be friends?’ Rage flashed through me like lightning, but it was mingled with shame. Mufaro’s face was a mirror of my feelings.
‘Yes, but you’re going away to college and I will still be here …’[…]
‘It’s unfair.’ I said. ‘It’s so unfair.’
‘You’ve only just realised that?’
‘Is it my fault?’ I glared at him through tears.
‘I can’t study enough to get to university, and it’s so expensive.’ There was a pause, then he burst out, ‘I wish I could drive the whole lot of you out, every single one! I don’t want to see a white face left in Africa.’
I found myself trembling, shocked by the violence of his feelings … I wanted to get up and run away … we were quiet for a very long time.[…]
‘Sorry,’ he said at last. ‘I’m sorry. Sometimes, I don’t want to see another white person ever again. Not even you. And it makes me feel bad inside.’
I gazed at him, unsure how to respond. ‘I think I understand,’ I managed. (105–6)
One element of this scene that’s remarkable from a craft point of view is that the morally authoritative voice is not Mufaro’s, but his friend Catherine’s—this despite her having a dubious moral position overall, being the direct beneficiary of the colonialism that oppresses Mufaro and his family. Such a light appreciation of Catherine’s for the facts on the ground, as it were, might be easily explained away if the scene was written in dialogue-free prose: then we would be assured that the voice of Catherine was fully in control—Catherine narrating qua Catherine—and write her off as a character intentionally written off, in turn, as self-centered by her creator.
Instead, the scene plays out in reported speech. Consequences follow: when Mufaro speaks we move out of the range of Catherine’s sensibility and into the hard facts of what has actually been spoken in the fiction, and for which there are no explanatory accommodations. Here is Treger writing qua Treger: these are the plain words she has invented in her characters’ mouths. Mufaro is the one Treger chooses to utter words that annihilate his conversant’s humanity, even while this conversant is embedded in a system busy with the utter dehumanisation of all of Mufaro’s people. Further, because what Mufaro says is morally repugnant, it is he who is forced into an apology, he who has been outmaneuvered (in part by his own impassioned sense of deprivation), he who backs down.
The mechanism by which the scene is returned to equilibrium, Mufaro’s apology, encapsulates the Right to Echt-ness. Treger conjures a microcosm of the power relations that obtain in wider Rhodesian society, which endows whites with a totalising agency, but constructs the dramatic tension of the scene without any kind of acknowledgment that Catherine’s sense of moral outrage and Mufaro’s subsequent chastening derive from these same set of power relations—the ones that have dictated their inequality in the first place. Treger’s dialogue implies a moral equivalence to the ‘two sides’ in the Rhodesian equation that doesn’t, in reality, exist, but she spares herself any blushes and proceeds to have Mufaro confess that the situation makes him feel ‘bad inside’. The unabashed creation of moral equivalence at the individual level—here, established through dialogue—is a hallmark of the Right to Echt-ness—‘this is a realistic story involving real human emotions that I have a right to tell’—and thus of white Atlantic writing.
For my second example, we look into the pages of the international bestseller Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens. This is a book that displays a healthier sense of awareness around US race relations and the dread legacy of slavery than many of its bestseller peers. True, Owens includes caricatures that, following Smith’s observation, ‘contain’ rather than elicit cultural compassion—including an ambulance driver, ‘an old black man’, who provides a one-dimensional performance of subservient ‘Southern blackness’ complete with cringe-worthy dialect:
The driver, an old black man who’d taken the wounded, ill, dying and dead under his charge for decades, bowed his head in respect and whispered suggestions: “A’right den, his’n arms ain’t gwine tuck in much, so cain’t roll ’im onta the gunny; hafta lift ’im and he’s gwine be heavy; Sheriff, sir, ya cradle Mr. Chase’s head. Dat’s good. My, my.” By late morning, they’d loaded him, complete with clinging sludge, into the back. (36–7)
Owens’ phrase ‘an old black man’ serves as an introductory departure point that hermetically seals the character into a kind of sentimental timelessness and activates a readily identifiable sunk-cost trope in American letters, which is confirmed in the character’s subsequent monologue. To be fair to Owens, however, the same applies to her white caricatures, such as the two boys returning from a day’s fishing who stumble upon Jumpin’, another ‘old black man’ (63) who develops into one of the book’s main characters. Here is the extended passage featuring these white caricatures, whose scene also happens to demonstrate another moment in white writing’s literature of success:
Then, nearing a bend in the road, Kya heard voices coming toward her. She stopped, listened carefully. Quickly she stepped off the path into the woods and hid behind a myrtle thicket. A minute later, two white boys, dressed in raggedy bib overalls, came around the bend, toting fishing tackle and a string of catfish long as her arm. She froze behind the thicket and waited.
One of the boys pointed down the lane. “Lookee up thar.”
“Ain’t we lucky. Here comes a n—— walkin’ to N—— Town.” Kya looked down the path, and there, walking home for the evening, was Jumpin’. Quite close, he had surely heard the boys, but he simply dropped his head, stepped into the woods to give them a berth, and moved on.
What’s the matter with ’im, why don’t he do sumpin’? Kya raged to herself. She knew n—— was a real bad word—she knew by the way Pa had used it like a cussword. Jumpin’ could have knocked the boys’ heads together, taught them a lesson. But he walked on fast.
“Jest an ol’ n—— walkin’ to town. Watch out n—— -boy, don’t fall down,” they taunted Jumpin’, who kept his eyes on his toes. One of the boys reached down, picked up a stone, and slung it at Jumpin’s back. It hit just under his shoulder blade with a thud. He lurched over a bit, kept walking. The boys laughed as he disappeared around the bend, then they picked up more rocks and followed him.
Kya stalked through brush until she was ahead of them, her eyes glued on their caps bobbing above the branches. She crouched at a spot where thick bushes grew next to the lane, where in seconds they would pass within a foot of her. Jumpin’ was up ahead, out of sight. She twisted the cloth bag with the jam so that it was wring tight and knotted against the jars. As the boys drew even with the thicket, she swung the heavy bag and whacked the closest one hard across the back of his head. He pitched forward and fell on his face. Hollering and screeching, she rushed the other boy, ready to bash his head in too, but he took off. She slipped about fifty yards into the trees and watched until the first boy stood, holding his head and cussing. (101–2, emphasis in the original, my redactions)
As with the ambulance driver, a racial descriptive, ‘two white boys’, introduces the caricatures, who proceed to act out their racially stereotyped roles. Points, then, to Owens for tying race to cultural ‘containment’ consistently in her fiction. Meanwhile, it’s also clear that, in her book, Kya and Jumpin’ are to some extent devised as agents of correction against the Southern racial stereotypes that Owens’s caricatures embody: Jumpin’, who comes to be Kya’s true friend, is hardly one-dimensional, unlike the ambulance driver; further, unlike many Black characters in white fiction, he is a person both of property—he owns the dock that Kya frequents—and of instrumentality, in that he helps Kya economically during tough times. Kya, meanwhile, is the opposite of a conventional Southern white woman: she’s literally a ‘Marsh Girl’ who lives alone, keeps gulls as friends and composes odd treatises about seashells.
Kya’s status as an eccentric is, however, the instrument that unlocks the literature of success in the novel—rather than the novel’s racial stereotypes—and puts Owens’ Right to Echt-ness on full display. Let’s revisit the scene above. Kya instinctively hides from the male voices she hears coming her way—fair enough. The boys then find a Black man as their target, whom Kya saves from probable grievous bodily harm through her valiant actions. Here, Owens is clearly aiming to upend another Southern stereotype—that of the Black man who comes to a white woman’s aid and pays a price for his heroism—by reversing the roles and scripting in a morally righteous outcome. In fact, this outcome—Jumpin’ essentially gets away scot free—gives the lie to what amounts to an indulgent Right to Echt-ness pretension.
Consider that the scene acknowledges, through Jumpin’s meekness, the racial power dynamic in place: he can’t fight back against the two boys because the consequences will be worse for him than the assault that’s about to happen. But when the white woman adopts the mantle of humanity that, in the archetypal original, with roles reversed, would have forced the tragic Black person to act, by dint of his having a soul, the passage utterly ignores said power dynamic and allows Kya’s moment of risk and triumph to pay off. In real life, however, the ending of this story would have been similar to that of the original: the boys, reeling from humiliation and with wounds intact as proof, would have cried bloody assault—and possibly rape, co-opting Kya into their story—all the way into town, raising a mob. As a result of Kya’s actions, Jumpin’ would have been in immediate danger of not surviving the night. Thus the upending of stereotype and role-reversal on one level in fact reinforces Owens’ assertion of Right to Echt-ness—the claim of good authorial intentions trumping any moral-imaginative poverty underlying the process that conceived the scene—on another, more consequential level.
If this essay has a moral, the moral is: white writers, eschew the literature of success.
This for many reasons, but perhaps three above all. First, you’ll have a better chance of avoiding moments of Smith’s ‘containment’ in your work. As alert readers will have noticed, several of the scenes I’ve mentioned above feature Black characters. White writing is particularly discernible when writers script ‘the other’ into their work, often because these characters are treated as conveniences of plot or atmosphere, and thus not accorded as much effort of the imagination as characters that are more aligned with the writer’s own identity. The characters become the vehicles for tropes that have been orchestrated by white Atlantic culture into general white literary circulation, surfacing ‘as read’ to the fiction’s spec. Best to avoid these tropes howsoever one can. Challenge your Right to Echt-ness.
Second, you’ll stand a better chance of not being contained yourself—by the geography of the colonial imagination that imposes itself across the landscapes of the white Atlantic. White Atlantic fiction, no matter the heights of grace it is written under, tends to add up, on one level, to an instrument of reinforcement, buttressing the erasures inherent in colonially overwritten landscapes by dint of its acquiescence to the white gaze that has (re)constructed these landscapes across generations. Right—that’s quite a mouthful. What I’m getting at is that white Atlantic writing tends not to challenge the self-conceptions of the places whose markets it operates in: it accepts America as ‘America’, England as ‘England’, and so on, rather than as socially constructed spaces created by dominant cultures whose foundation myths deserve interrogation, at the very least, if not active deconstruction. Ditch the Historical Imagination of the Hunter.
Third, you’ll be a more interesting writer. What’s a more appealing prospect for a reader at the moment, another Great White Atlantic Novel, or a text that cannily modulates against the very concept?
For white writers who wish to explore creative expression by means other than those that fit the mold of white Atlantic writing, the thing to do is resist the forces that conspire to play you as their instrument of cultural reproduction. Learn to recognise cultural complacency in yourself and to avoid it. (This indeed is every writer’s business.) Then, open your ears and listen: there are many symphonies of language playing across many traditions of prose. Reprioritise what—and who—you read. Search out new grace notes to jar the fictions inherent in your language and imagination out of place. Be doubtful; recognise that the ground you tread on is uncertain, and tread uncertainly upon it; cultivate your guilty conscience to keep yourself honest. Seek paths that draw you away from the literature of success. Success quite patently fails to point the way.
- Barr, Damian. You Will Be Safe Here (2019): London, Bloomsbury.
- Coetzee, JM. White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa (1988): New Haven, Yale University Press.
- Cummins, Jeanine. American Dirt (2020): New York, Macmillan.
- Jones, Kenneth and Okun, Tema. White Supremacy Culture: Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups (2001): ChangeWork.
- Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (1993): London, Verso.
- Harris, Cheryl I “Whiteness as Property” (1993): Cambridge: Harvard Law Review, Vol. 106, no. 8.
- Owens, Delia. Where the Crawdads Sing (2018): New York, GP Putnam’s Sons.
- Powers, Richard. The Overstory (2018): New York, WW Norton.
- Shea, Andrea. ’30 Years Later, The Gardner Heist’s Emotional Toll Endures’ (18 March 2020): wbur.org.
- Smith, Zadie. ‘Fascinated to Presume: In Defense of Fiction’ (24 October 2019): nybooks.com.
- Treger, Louise. The Dragon Lady (2019): London, Bloomsbury Caravel.
- Ben Williams is the Publisher.