“Like a blind man at the ballgame, I need a radio.” – Annie Dillard, “Seeing” (1974)
What are the blind spots in white American literature, and how do they persist in the culture? For a white person to identify this process — and to own it — is to prepare oneself for a dramatic experience of rereading the books you came up with, and to consider a new literature of reparations. It is also to face the possibility that nothing you do or say will make much difference, and to accept that it’s time to share the power you inherited.
As a starting point in “White Flights,” his new collection of essays, Jess Row (“Your Face in Mine”) identifies whiteness as “a category that is both laughable and lethal,” two reasons why a white writer might think twice before taking himself too seriously while setting out on a project he calls “reparative writing.”
Row’s humbleness makes the book possible, as he writes about a place of reconciliation we have yet to reach. Over the seven essays, he sustains an ache for it, partly through examples of white writers whose work dares to be honest about race, including Lorrie Moore, Allan Gurganus, Dorothy Allison and Jonathan Lethem, and partly through the resonance of a quote cited in the introduction, pulled from the liner notes to punk band Operation Ivy’s 1991 compilation CD: “At certain points during some shows, the reconciled world is already here, at least in that second, at that place.”
The strongest pieces in the book identify the mechanics behind the work of white writers who seem to ignore race or subjugate black and brown characters. In the title essay, Row interrogates work by Richard Ford and Marilynne Robinson to show how it reflects a landscape of open space sought by so many white people, the author included.
“I had conflated Gary Snyder’s poetry with the inside of a Patagonia catalog and Jim Harrison’s ‘Legends of the Fall’ with Outside’s ‘Best Towns to Live In,’ ” Row writes, reflecting on a future he once imagined for himself. While Row’s reading of these writers is both generous and unforgiving, he is tougher on the minimalists who defined writing programs in the late 20th century. In “Beautiful Shame, or What We Talk About When We Talk About White Writing,” Row deconstructs the impact of Gordon Lish, perhaps most famous for his role in editing and rewriting Raymond Carver.
“What concerns me — because I was taught it — is how his aesthetic so easily translates into a radical practice of shame, rooted in the white body, that makes it so difficult for white writers to recognize race at all.”
When white writers don’t see their own race, they perpetuate a perceived difference between their work and that of writers of color, in which the former is believed to have the freedom to create and imagine with no bounds, while the latter is constrained by identity. Row’s work is a step toward undermining this binary classification, and an opportunity to decode all that has come before.
David Varno is a writer in Brooklyn and serves on the board of the National Book Critics Circle.
By: Jess Row.
Publisher: Graywolf Press, 310 pages, $16.