Have warring factions in the literary-bubble-tempest missed the context?
By ARTURO DESIMONE.
The American literary internet issued a collective scream of horror very recently, in a somewhat delayed reaction to an interview published months before in Hobart Journal, in which Miami-Cuban fiction writer and culture-war polemicist Alex Perez spoke to Hobart’s editor-in-chief, Elizabeth Ellen.
Most of Hobart’s editors resigned in protest to the publication of the interview in which Perez–a nostalgic graduate of the prestigious Iowa writers’ workshop–seems to echo, then outdo, the Jamaican novelist Marlon James’ polemical comments about how the literary world is ruled by suburbanite, upper-middle class “white women”. A white New Yorker-tote-bag-wearing Brooklynite feminine cabal, according to the disgruntled Perez, is the reason “why nearly every book is about some rich fuck from Brooklyn confronting his white guilt…
Eighty percent of agents/editors/publishers are white women from a certain background and sensibility; these woke ladies run the industry….I respect how these passive aggressive prude ladies took over an industry. Tip of the hat, Brooklyn ladies.…These women, perhaps the least diverse collection of people on the planet, decide who is worthy or unworthy of literary representation. Their worldview trickles down to the small journals, too…”
Predictably, the literary establishment reacted in ways at least as unhinged: “This insecure, hypermasculine ‘outsider’ pose is nothing fucking new,” wrote Johnny Diamond, editor-in-chief of Lithub–which is our decade’s equivalent of a mix between yesteryear’s New Yorker and Pravda. In his counter-screed, Diamond went on to strike the strangely generous comparison of Perez to Kerouac, though their prose has almost nothing in common. This was intended as a smear, for Diamond avowedly hates the stream-of-conscious Beat Kerouac, who he depicted in earlier editorials as a foreshadower of the Trump era. Despite being LitHub’s bogeyman—“Saint of the white working class”, snarls Diamond—Kerouac might have more in common with today’s non-whites, especially Latinos, who stand out as the most visible and neglected part of the brown working-class in the US. A bilingual immigrant who spoke a romance-language to his maman and famously extolled the virtues of moving around, Kerouac was also a devoutly heretical Catholic, more influenced by the writings of Spanish medieval saints than by the proto-texts of the Iowa model of writing.
But what did the prestigious editor-in-chief really intend to say in his school headmaster’s homily cautioning young men against being tempted by the aura of the literary outsider? Diamond’s amen serves to remind all would-be young writers who face the same perils as Perez, that a new consensus governs the twenty-first century, a new common-sense about what kind of literary icons we may or may not respect, and that we are long past the era of non-academicist or non-program-hatched writers. Particularly verboten are writers striving to be in the vein of a Hemingway or a Mailer, or men who write about traipsing around seedy locales, or who congregate with all social classes, or who perch and prey like watchful lemurs on the margins of society so as better to augur its sick heart.
What makes the would-be establishment’s invocation of Kerouac as a form of literary Satan or an Immanuel Goldstein even more ear-catching, is that Perez made little mention of such subversive literary icons. Though he mentions Beatniks in passing as an adolescent distraction, before becoming “serious” about writing, the authors Perez cites as heroes mostly happen to be the standard-bearers of the Masters of Fine Arts literary-industrial-complex. MFAs, once the target of avid dissident thinkers’ criticism, are practically nowhere in the interview given the blame they deserve for the degree’s role in having made political correctness and the middle-class moral agenda of language-policing so central to the writing industry.
Rather, Perez glorifies the “roots” of the writing program, Iowa’s late godfathers, such as Ray Carver and Philip Roth–who Perez, in articles for Tablet and elsewhere, has invoked as guides to “American manhood”, thanking them for having eased his integration into Anglo-Saxon society, and who saved the Cuban-born former athlete from the dark forces of potential political “radicalisation.” This threat would perhaps be a more interesting subject in and of itself: one imagines the perils of ideological extremism in Miami surely look rather different than what “conversion” means in the environs of a young man from the Muslim minority being lured by fundamentalists in Paris. But how did urbane, arch-middle-class ultra-insiders like Roth or Updike possibly become the burning bush saving a young outcast from a ghettoised minority from continuing on his dark hell-road of “radicalisation”? Pérez cites an economic motivation for abandoning creative writing in favour of his awkward forays into intellectual “cultural analyses” for outlets like Unherd and Spectator: the platforms of the anti-woke industry pay writers–unlike literary journals, which expect writing for free. Most literary journals skip payment while presuming that most creative writers are university employees, for whom getting paid x cents per-word is vulgar or beside the point–an otherworldly concern for academics who routinely publish in journals gratuit, because in their field rewards come later: publishing is how academics consolidate job-security, by proving their competence and relevance to the university employer–who is usually their sole source of income. Many independent writers lose out in this game.
IT IS THIS formula that causes the demise of the “masculine” writer Perez longs for: somebody who does not hail from the middle-class environs which breed professors of creative writing who may be better versed in bloodless social codes than in literature.
For this, we cannot excuse Carver, the scribe whose dirty realism, who incarnated the American embittered lower-middle-class of the Reagan-era– and whom Perez mistakes for a “hero of the working class.”1 Carver, virtuoso as he was, pales as a domesticised version of Hemingway: he executed a style of minimalist restraint comparable to, if not completely learned from Hemingway and Gertrude Stein–and yet always keeping his explorations to the confines of suburban Americana, with characters driven by middle class dreams of domesticity and upward mobility.
Through the denunciation of heroism and of adventure—whose absence in contemporary literature discourages young male readers as much as the avoidance of any exploration of sex in literature—Carver unwittingly became the American literary-industrial-complex’s figurehead, a promising antidote to the treasonous and subversive examples set by defectors like Hemingway. By joining the Spanish Civil War, Hemingway was only taking up an American literary tradition set by Melville and Twain (who mocked American exceptionalism in his fictionalized travelogue The Innocents Abroad). Pound, along with Richard Wright–who also went to Spain to report from the bullfight arena–James Baldwin, Claude McCay, and the recently deceased Robert Bly all followed suit. These masculine types did not ask their audiences to praise American exceptionalism. Neither did they do as Carver and Roth, lingering in suburbia and on campuses, attempting to decipher the supposed mysteries of such lands of the dead. Rather, they decried Anglo-America’s puritanism and provincialism, while going beyond familiar shores in search of more inspiring causes, peoples, and ideas. An ethos of domesticity which characterises American letters would probably condemn such travellers as escapists, (or, in today’s woke language structure, as “neo-colonialist agents of white supremacy”).
And yet, as Tobias Wolff observed, a certain inward escapism and acceptance of one’s own mediocrity “goes to the heart” of Carver’s “sense of life”, his “rejection of the heroic and lofty”. Hemingway’s Robert Jordan does not only risk the embarrassingly solemn sex-scene with María (excoriated by feminist literary criticism ever since). He also risks death so that his comrades and his beloved can escape the Fascists. Carver, in his essay “Friendship”, says flatly: “Would I give up my place on the lifeboat, that is to say, die, for any one of my friends? I hesitate…the answer is an unheroic no.”
Where are the young literary male war-correspondents reporting from Ukraine, from Libya or Yemen today? They cannot exist when newspaper writers are white-collar, college-bred corporate employees and while correspondents are shafted or ranked unnecessary by the spin produced by “experts from the intelligence community.”
Carver not only avoided transoceanic voyages, thus breaking completely with that “problematic” revolutionary American literary tradition set by Melville, Twain, Whitman and John Dos Passos. He also developed a convention which he did not always use, for writing around sex, of sex-scenes by omission–a technique deployed in his story “The Neighbors” which is riddled with omitted sex scenes between a fetish-loving couple. This device of eroticism-by-omission has come to typify prize-winning heterosexual writing in the academic programs of the twenty-first century in which the challenges of describing sex are avoided altogether by Ben Lerner and by Sally Rooney, much as they were avoided by David Foster Wallace and other stars and emblems carved out by this fashion.
Pulitzer-winner Elizabeth Strout became a target for Twitter’s wrathful mob after a British interviewer for The Times asked about women’s current domination of literary fiction and the editing profession:
“I don’t know why this has happened. Those women work hard to get where they are and they are good at their jobs, but do I think it’s a good thing? Well, I think that it makes it too narrow…if it was all male-dominated that would be a bad thing. And if it’s all female-dominated, then that might be just as bad. We need to mix it up. I also wish there were more male readers of fiction; we need to mix that up.”
It is very hard to imagine that all the women who currently pick up the prizes—such as Argentines Samanta Schweblin or Ariana Harwicz—desire an exclusive readership of upper middle-class women, former classmates of their American commissioning editors and those whose idea of diversity is Sally Rooney. If prizes and awards yield any meaningful purpose for serious writers, it is the promise of reaching new, unexpected audiences. Yet the objective of fomenting men’s interest in reading books, including fiction written by women, becomes impossible without publishing writers who take risks and who resoundingly reject the suburbia that Updike and Gluck glorify. This requires upending the ruling ideology upheld by the MFAs and the academic colonisation of literature. It does not suffice to simply flip the middle finger at “the sad white literary ladies” because they too are victims of this superstructure. Many of their male former classmates who attended their elite schools, might be fond of their bookshelves at home, but these men make money in a hedge-fund rather than lose any cashflow opportunities to investments in publishing risk-taking art. Ruling elites’ values, and the current understanding of what constitutes cultural capital, have drastically changed in the neoliberal era, as the cost-benefit analysis reigns supreme over elites’ passé pretensions of cultural sophistication.
To genuinely dissent, heterodox writers cannot stop at sounding like the feminists they criticise, by lifting up a laughing-mirror while pointing out the new “gender imbalance” governing the literary world. Perez and our contemporaries would do well to skip the ad hominem (or “ad feminem”) attacks and instead simply lay bare the economic and bureaucratic roots of these problems.
ARTURO DESIMONE was born in 1984 and raised on Aruba. At 22 he moved to the Netherlands and started exhibiting visual art after dropping out of a religious studies program. He later relocated to Argentina to research his Argentinean family background. His articles, poetry and fiction previously appeared in Drunken Boat, Berfrois, Compact, Horror Sleaze Trash, Island, Mercurius, South Florida Poetry Journal, and New Orleans Review. He has performed at international poetry festivals in Nicaragua, Cuba and in Buenos Aires. Mare Nostrum / Costa Nostra (Hesterglock Press, 2019) a collection combining poetry and visual art, appeared in the UK. The bilingual edition La Amada de Túnez/About a Lover from Tunisia (Collective), a travel diary about the Tunisian revolution told in poems appeared in Argentina and in South Africa.
- For more on this argument see the comments of Texan literary critic Anis Shivani in Against the Workshop.