Opening Our Literary Eyes
I fancy myself embedded in a new strata of American history. That strata is white people gaining awareness of how whiteness shapes society. It’s a stupid conceit. White Americans have always known institutions were shaped for them. We only momentarily “forgot” for the years from, oh, 1972 to 2008. In our forgetting years, we told ourselves we didn’t see skin color. Then we entered the period of eye-opening. Oh. I see. White need shaped the police force. And where we lived. Where the banks put their money. How our beloved churches operate. In “White Flights: Race, Fiction and the American Imagination,” Jess Row wants to open our literary eyes as well.
White Flights examines American literature during what I’m calling the forgetting years: from the Civil Rights Movement to his present-day telling, 2019. Row argues that in order to implement our forgetting, white writers had to corral their imagination. They had to restrict their focus. Narrow it to their families, their neighborhoods, their baseball pastimes. They could not look out out into the community. For there lay our bigger problems. Poverty. Inequality. Racism. Everything that roiled society. So they shut their eyes into a subscribing circle. Their white circle.
I had no idea about this retreat. But I do know that much of that writing bored me. Not all of it. Those who I loved—Marilyn Robinson, for example—have been tainted by Row basically calling them cowards. But as to the rest, perhaps it explains why I fled to non-American writers. Folks like Carlos Fuentes and Eduardo Galeano and Nadine Gordimer, and—oh, my lord—Milan Kundera. I perceived them to be more like Faulkner than, say, Richard Ford, who gets the opening-our-literary-eyes treatment from Row.
Our Literary Eyes Shut by Minimalism
One of Row’s most interesting ideas is the impact of white restriction: it created the minimalism white critics adored. Minimalism sat at the top of the literary pyramid. The lonely white (usually male) figure stood in the foreground. Convenient, that. After all, you don’t have to examine race if you focus on the loner white. Minimalism came with a side of obscurity. One of Row’s tips: “When a work of art seems deliberately self-obscuring and opaque, it’s always worth asking: what is being hidden, and why?” As a follow-up, he asks the white writer to investigate what she is choosing to—and not to—see.
Opened Literary Eyes: Now What?
Row isn’t engaging in navel-gazing. He has a call to action. He wants white American writers to consider racism as a cause of their psyche’s disorder or distress. This is in direct contrast to the writers he examines—Ford, Robinson, Annie Dillard, Raymond Carver, etc.—who, he says, spend a lot of energy NOT addressing race. (I bet if they deign to acknowledge it, these writers HATE this book.) Row’s not asking us to do it for political reasons. His theory: such an examination is necessary for us to continue developing as writers.
Was it Worth it?
White Flights isn’t an easy read. Not because it’s beating its breast over racism to make the white reader feel guilty. It’s dense writing. Heavy on philosophical concepts (and a lot of words I didn’t know.) But then Row gives me a jewel like this when discussing Wes Anderson: “Using Bill Murray’s decaying face, he’s created an index of white melancholy, both bland and inert…” (No, I don’t like Bill Murray, either.)
As you contemplate Row’s opening our literary eyes, let me leave you with this: “What would it mean to accept that America’s great and possibly catastrophic failure is its failure to imagine what it meant to live together?”