Check Your (Literary) Privilege

photo by Chester Higgins Jr.  / The New York Times
photo by Chester Higgins Jr. / The New York Times

Jess Row is stealthily becoming our most subversive and progressive literary critic.

You probably know Jess Row for his fiction—The Train to Lo Wu and Your Face in Mine—or maybe for the beautiful little piece he wrote for Fiction Advocate not long ago. But over at The Boston Review, Row has been publishing a series of critical essays about privilege and point of view in literature. These essays are so calm, so deliberate, and so authoritative, that unless you read them all at once, you might miss how comprehensive and devastating Row’s critique really is.

In “The Novel Is Not Dead,” Row takes issue with other critics–mostly James Wood, David Shields, and Benjamin Kunkel–who assert that the best writing is engaged in depicting “reality” or “realism.” Observing that when they call for greater “reality” in fiction, they are often reinforcing their own idea of what reality is—white and privileged—Row accuses these critics of being “dogmatically bigoted.” He writes, “We need critics who set impatient standards, ask uncomfortable questions, and maintain an omnivorous appetite for the unfamiliar, the awkward, the angry, the untoward. Instead, we have a gated community, a velvet-roped garden party, a Brooklyn vs. Cambridge fantasy baseball league.”

Next, in “White Flights,” Row challenges the myth of the literary hero’s retreat into solitude, arguing that any time a successful white novelist asserts the heroism of a white protagonist who becomes fed up with society and runs away to the countryside, he or she is reinforcing that white character’s unique social privilege. Not everyone has the luxury of getting fed up and running off to the beautiful outdoors. Richard Ford bears the brunt of this attack, but Row also incriminates the writing of Annie Proulx, Raymond Carver, Marilynne Robinson, and many others.

Most recently, in “American Cynicism,” Row accuses cynicism itself of being dogmatically bigoted—at least when it’s practiced by white artists. Here, Row focuses on the work of Lorrie Moore, but he also brings in Dave Chappelle, Harold & Maude, and Diogenes of Sinope. Row seems to be saying that any time white artists indulge in cynicism, they are blithely asserting their own social privilege. White artists can afford to be cynical, instead of radical, because they don’t need to agitate for any real changes in society.

Across these 3 essays, Row is basically telling white artists and critics to check their privilege. It’s an incredibly valuable argument, and Row is making it slowly (these essay came out over a period of 4 years), with careful thought and research. He’s naming names and smashing pedestals. Let’s hope he keeps going.

Brian Hurley is Books Editor at The Rumpus and Editor of Fiction Advocate.

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