SEPTEMBER 11, 2019
AS AN UNDERGRADUATE STUDENT in a summer workshop, Jess Row sat in a dark and drafty room in Linsly-Chittenden, Yale University’s ivy-covered English building. It was 30 years ago, but he remembers the scene well, just as he remembers the demeanor of his professor well — a scrubby, white, working writer. But he only kind of remembers his classmates. There was a short guy who was maybe Israeli; definitely a blond MFA student from the Midwest; a Chinese-American girl who was maybe named Katherine. He remembers what they read, specifically the preamble to Joseph Conrad’s “The Nigger of the Narcissus,” and that the discussion focused on the passage which ended: “My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel — it is, before all, to make you see.” It was that tenet of coercible seeing that would come to summarize Row’s education as a white, middle-class student, and later his career as a white, middle-class professor of creative writing. But it was what wasn’t seen nor discussed, the title of Conrad’s essay — as present as it was absent — that has defined his education, and his whiteness, most of all.
Twenty years Row’s junior, I recognize this scene. An educated, white, and middle-class woman, I’ve sat in dozens of classrooms that could have been that classroom. I’ve been in countless classes talking (or, as it were, not talking) about texts and seeing (or, sometimes, not seeing) what was being ignored. Row’s classroom is the archetypal scene of whiteness, the occasion in which white is transformed into an institution, normativity and supremacy extracted out of a color of skin. In his collection of essays White Flights, Row writes:
In a country shaped by colonization, enslavement, and racialized capitalism — practices of exclusion and exploitation are very much alive in the early twenty-first century — few places remain empty by accident. Someone was removed; someone was prevented from entering; someone is here but out of sight. There are implicit and explicit barriers that govern the visible world, and those lines are themselves a design, or authorship, that deserves to be read. It’s possible to lay a particular story atop a particular map and see the lines intersect: how the storyteller’s imagination mirrors the visible world and — more often than not — mimics it.
Writing at the nexus of cultural and literary criticism, Row is as concerned with the space that whiteness occupies as he is with the work that such occupation requires. His book’s title, White Flights, is a container for both. A reference to the phenomenon of white people moving out of and away from urban areas with significant minority populations, the term has an airy quality that plays to a passive fiction of incidental or unconscious movement. But white flight is active flight, on the personal level and, as Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, as “a triumph of social engineering, orchestrated by the shared racist presumptions of America’s public and private sectors.” Suspicious of accidental segregation, Row considers a good house in the white suburbs as analogous to the real estate of the literary standard, almost as if the red-line that’s been drawn around black neighborhoods by mortgage lenders is the same that comes from the editor’s pen, culling early drafts into white spaces, inhabited by white characters, and supported by sentences that are sparse and echoing.
Literature’s conditions and standards are not merely indicative of quality, but of privilege and preference. Searching for the modern source of American literature’s status quo whiteness, Row invokes editor Gordon Lish and extrapolates, by way of Lish’s national MFA lecture circuit, to institutionalized writing at large. Famous for his ritual carving of a draft down to its bare bones, Lish edited work into passages that are, as Row describes them, “tight,” “haunting,” and “telegraphic,” with a “gnomic declarative bravado,” and a “faint malice toward the audience.”
As these editorial preferences came to characterize the writing of a generation, including Lish’s crew — Don DeLillo, Raymond Carver, and Gary Lutz — they solidified into a standard of consecution, described by Lutz as “a recursive procedure by which one word pursues itself into its successor by discharging something from deep within itself into what follows.” This philosophy relies on the personification of words so that language can be said to contain its own self-evident truths. The writer, then, must act so as to strip their craft of cumbersome details — personal, cultural, and racial. Just as in Row’s undergraduate classroom wherein the study of literature was stripped of racial implications, so too is Lish’s philosophy designed to support a radical solipsism rooted in white privilege. Row writes:
The faith Lish professes — and it’s clearly a faith — has to do with an immanent quality of words and sentences, a kind of radical non-instrumentalism which insists on treating words not as dependent on what they refer to, but as entirely self-sufficient and beautiful in themselves. A good sentence, for Lish, is one that actually carries with it “the being of the other.” Its meaning, literal or figurative, is beside the point.
This is not meant to indict every sparse sentence as one that has colonized “the other.” Nor is it meant to imply the opposite: that raw or loose writing is the direction we ought to intend. In fact, Row’s is not a moral imperative at all, but an observation of an alternative point of view to Lish’s that sees the autonomy of the other and so precludes it from being “carried.” Rejecting Lish, Row makes recognition of “the other” an aesthetic and editorial project. “What the hell is wrong with solipsism?” Lish asks. Reading between the lines one can hear Row whisper, everything.
In a January 2019 interview on the podcast On Being, host Krista Tippett asked Claudia Rankine, editor of The Racial Imaginary (to which Row is a contributing writer), to comment on the criticism of the white nonfiction author Eula Biss. “Eula Biss wrote that she read this essay of yours,” Tippett says, “and then started to ask — she said, ‘Sitting with this essay in front of me, I asked myself what the condition of white life might be.’ And I wondered, is that a useful question, in your mind?”
Rankine paused before saying, with an upward tilt, “I think so.” She paused again. “I’m really appreciative of Eula’s work,” she said, and then, tentatively,
I find her very careful sometimes. […] I’m really interested in what’s going on in white people’s heads when — because I know a lot of things are going on in my head. And I know that you are no different from me. I know that you’re having lots of thoughts and saying only three sentences.
Where Row was concerned with the editing that occured in the name of consecution, Rankine is concerned with the revisions that occur after the other is seen, when one’s own subjectivity is directly considered.
Writing about race has been and continues to be notoriously difficult for white writers. But with Biss’s work already so focused on whiteness, specifically on the debt and guilt it carries, her carefulness is likely a response to shame. In an attempt to talk about the wrong things in the right way, her prose carries an enduring want for acceptability. Biss has hinted at this problem in interviews, including one with Tippett, saying, “[what] surprised me in terms of response to my own work was that, for the most part, my writing about race did not seem to make a lot of people very upset. And that worried me a little bit, actually, to tell you the truth.” This is not a condemnation of Biss’s work: hers is at the heart of so many white writers on race, including Row’s, and was perhaps a necessary first step in admitting the problems of whiteness. Perhaps it was in observing her caution that Row found the permission to let himself stumble.
Throughout his book, there is an awkwardness uncharacteristic of the canon that, he acknowledges, formed him. In structure, syntax, and tone, Row’s writing appears atypically disjointed, jarring, and at times, broken — his sentences pivoting amid lists of adjectives, and trains of thought apparently abandoned in between paragraphs. As when Virginia Woolf forecasted that women writers would have to break everything to create their own literature, white writers too will have to struggle to unlearn the prejudices, and privileges, they’ve inherited from the canon. To do so will not just be difficult but awkward, like a teenager in a body she doesn’t yet know, in a world she doesn’t yet understand. If Row, or any white writer, is to overcome the walls of prejudice — to tear them down and so exist beyond them — he too must strip of his defenses and so stand in an unfamiliar space. How to act in this new terrain should be a fundamental confusion.
“The worst thing a book like this could be is polite,” Row writes in the opening paragraphs of White Flights, an announcement, I think, made to ready the reader for the dissection of canonical heroes, but also as a primer for the impolitic tone Row deploys like an ethic. The term, impolitic, comes to Row by way of critical theorist Emily Apter as a way to reclaim the Trumpian “disregard for the politesse of the moment,” in favor of a potentially revolutionary application: to see and to name power relationships so as to expose them for what they actually are. The writer’s impolitic duty, then, is to step beyond the confines of solipsism to see the other — to recognize the self as a part of the world and not to confuse it with the world itself.
I’ve noticed the tone rumbling in literary communities as writers progress under new precepts like “culpability” or “willingness to contradict oneself,” and, most of all, “risk.” While at a recent residency for my MFA program, I heard the word “risk” so often it turned into a sort of school-wide mantra. By the end of the week, the email signatures of students were changing from “All the best,” to “Write dangerously.” But I’m not so sure the word “risk,” or the imperative to “write dangerously,” is what we mean to say, or at least not what I mean to say, because I’m not convinced that, despite our best intentions to right wrongs and speak truth to power, white writers are really willing to risk exclusion from the canon, even as it is being taken apart and reformed.
At the crux of White Flights, Row stretches this question to its limit: “[T]he question of whether to write at all is one white writers should take seriously. To produce art — even explicitly antiracist art — under conditions that reward white subjectivity, center it, and render it harmless and neutral, is, arguably, a way of collaborating with and sustaining these conditions.” As important as the question is to ask, it is also a bit odd to read it more than two-thirds through a book written by a white writer (and again here, near the end of an essay by another white writer). To read about that ultimate risk, of vanishing as a form of death, works against the question’s intent, serving only to reiterate the self. This is the odd backing into a corner where liberalism and social justice so often find themselves: wanting to recognize the literal violence of whiteness — the eradication of the other — but unwillingness to step aside. I am nothing, we want to say, and then to be applauded for our admission. The effect is to make us larger, to make everything about us all over again. What then, can be done?
The last essay in the book, “White Out,” is a threadbare, alinear, nonstructural piece of writing best left unexplained. A description will suffice: absent of prevailing logic, the section exists as a sort of meditation of what Row is seeing now that he’s done the “unlearning” work of writing White Flights. But “White Out” isn’t prescriptive: Row does not offer conclusions or tell the reader what to do. Instead he offers, simply, a different kind of writing, the product of a different kind of seeing, the process of a different kind of being. His writing appears almost naked, searching, and oddly hopeful. “I want to say something ridiculous, like, courage,” he writes and then a paragraph later he asks, almost naïvely, about freedom. A few pages after that, he wonders about tenderness. In his last words, he offers his language like an extension of the hand, a gesture, I presume, of friendship: “Hello there. Good to see you. I’m walking on this bitter earth, and I’m not the only one.”