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.”