A Year in Reading: Kevin Nguyen

December 19, 2016 | 3 books mentioned 39 4 min read

I read a lot of books this year (around 100), but if I’m completely honest, I spent more time reading Book Twitter than anything else.

The makeup of Book Twitter resembles the makeup of publishing itself: critics, authors, booksellers, and a mix of people who work in publishing proper. Which is to say that Book Twitter is extremely white. And in a year where even people who love books had an opinion about racism, Book Twitter was patronizingly white.

covercoverWith the election impending, this became the year of performative wokeness. When you see tweets of people praising The Sellout (“it’s funny!”) but not really saying anything about it of substance (“it’s about… race”), you start to wonder if people like the book or just want to be seen as the kind of person who would like Paul Beatty. Maybe it came from a place of white guilt or insecurity, but Book Twitter mostly looked like people saying, “There are bad white people, but I am a good white person because I have read Ta-Nehisi Coates.” When white people vocally identify themselves as Book People, they are assuring everyone around them that they are better than other whites who don’t read. How this declaration of allyship benefits people of color I have no idea, but I’m sure it makes a lot of Book Twitter feel better about itself.

Still, it was easy to overlook the superficial conversation taking place about these books. Hell, I think a lot of us were just glad people were talking about The Underground Railroad at all. But Book Twitter found an even flimsier look after the election. The immediate reaction turned into abundance of tweets reinforcing how important books were in country that was soon to be led by a racist demagogue. I’ll pick on Gary Shteyngart, since he has a good sense of humor:

Shteyngart was far from the only person projecting this shallow sentiment. The logic of Book Twitter is: Books are inherently good. Therefore, if we’d all just read more books, Donald Trump wouldn’t have been elected. If you believe that books have the power to do good, you also have to believe that they can do just as much harm. After the election, there was no soul searching on Book Twitter. No one questioned the power structures of publishing. Can we talk about how one of the Big Five publishers is owned by News Corp? Often the publishing of things like Bill O’Reilly’s twisted histories is justified as a means to support literary fiction. But does anyone ask if that trade-off is worth it?

Instead, there was just a lot of self-congratulatory tweets like Shteyngart’s that read like a call to action but really only urged Book Twitter to keep doing what it was already doing. Book Twitter doubled down on its unending positivity and back patting, which amounted to a lot of white people tweeting the equivalent of “All Books Matter.”

At this point, you’re thinking, Does Book Twitter reflect the greater publishing culture? To which I would say: It’s worse IRL.

coverIf I sound mad, it’s because I’m exhausted. A few months ago, I mostly stopped going to book events. There is a bland sameness that has started to pervade them. You hang out with a familiar group of people — many of whom I like a lot, some I am supposed to like. And if you think Book Twitter is white, try going to a book event. These are almost exclusively white spaces, and being a person of color in them has become increasingly anxiety inducing. You drink with familiar people and strangers and just wait for someone to say something kinda fucked up to ruin your night. Just because my last name is Nguyen doesn’t mean I want to talk about Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer. I am not interested in hearing you talk about how attractive an Asian-American debut novelist is. And for the last time, as much as I love Ed Park, we really, really do not look alike.

2016 had one bright spot: the National Book Awards. I’ve been to the ceremony five years in a row, and this was the first time I would say it was really good. In fact, it was great, and I’ll credit that to Lisa Lucas, the National Book Foundation’s new executive director. Publishing take note. This is what happens when you put a person of color in charge of something important: it becomes more vital, more relevant.

This year’s host was Larry Wilmore, which is pretty remarkable upgrade over 2015’s dad joke machine Andy Borowitz, and an even bigger improvement over 2014’s Daniel Handler who couldn’t resist making an unbelievably racist joke on stage. Each acceptance speech thoughtfully contextualized what Trump’s America meant for them. “We have seen a black president,” poet Terrance Hayes said, “and we have seen what kind of president comes after a black president.”

Though there were more people of color than I’ve ever seen at the National Book Awards, the room was still mostly white. After Ibram Kendi gave his acceptance speech, Wilmore took the stage again to joke that “the National Book Foundation is woke.” There was laughing and clapping, lots of white people nodding along to show that they got it.

And I wonder if they did get it. That in a room — and industry and community — that is overwhelmingly white, just proving that you aren’t racist isn’t going to be enough.

More from A Year in Reading 2016

Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

is the digital deputy editor for GQ.

39 comments:

  1. So much to unpack here.

    1. Book Twitter. Who gives a fuck about Book Twitter. Twitter is a marketing tool. Quit attaching importance to it. Would your life be better without the rage it imparts in you? Yes. Yes it would.
    2. “When white people vocally identify themselves as Book People, they are assuring everyone around them that they are better than other whites who don’t read.” Switch out white for brown and tell me how this is a legitimate statement.
    3. Agree on the stupidity of the “Trump’s here so go out and read” sentiment. This also applies to the statement “now more than ever, ___ is important” which is required in every left-leaning essay in the Trump era.
    4. “But does anyone ask if that trade-off is worth it?” What trade-off? You mean free speech? Is free speech worth it? Yes. I’m so sorry that people publish things you don’t agree with. Them’s the breaks, kid.
    5. We get it. White people are the fucking worst.

    Mr. Nguyen, it’s clear you have a lot of anger toward white people and the publishing industry. Perhaps you have a book that you can’t sell. I don’t know your story. But I recommend getting out of NYC, logging off of Twitter, and starting fresh. If you’re a writer, write a great fucking book. Travel if you can afford it. Get on a citizen’s commission in your local unit of government. Volunteer at a school. This country has a lot of problems, sure, but there are also a lot of good things going on all around us. You just have to want to find them.

    Best of luck to you.

  2. With all due respect, Kevin Nguyen is a nasty, superficially-minded troll who, when he isn’t making flip and not especially perspicacious X=Y corollaries in long form (“Hideo Kojima is the Jonathan Franzen of Video Games”), sustains Twitter feeds that are useless concatenations of cheap sentiments (“Star Wars is perfectly fine,” “At least racism is getting weird!”) that one would expect from a limp-wristed third-grader passing hastily written notes in class. HE is the problem, arguably one of the worst offenders of so-called “Book Twitter” than any of the examples he cites. Given that Twitter is a 140 character medium, often a reflection of sentiments that we whip up in seconds, it seems especially churlish and vulgar and imperious to attack bona-fide class act and literary comedy treasure Gary Shteyngart for seeking some kind of positivism two days after a national nightmare. If reading more books ISN’T a solution, why then did so many African-American prisoners (including Eldridge Cleaver) publish books when San Quentin warden Herman Spector introduced “bibliotherapy”? I think it’s fairly inarguable that books would not be where they are today without SOUL ON ICE, even with Cleaver’s regrettable comments about James Baldwin (which would, like Daniel Handler, besmirch his otherwise remarkable literary achievement). And of course, Baldwin inspired Ta-Nehisi Coates. And if you want to talk sameness, Lisa Lucas is likewise someone who only includes people who reflect her worldview in her soirees — and both she and Nguyen are just as obnoxious as any MAGA hashtag-spouting troll on the Internet. You can’t get away from groupthink and self-congratulatory nonsense (which, again, you’ll find in Nguyen’s vulgar feeds in droves), no matter what your point of view or your skin color. The whole point of books is to have access to points of view, even ones that are uncomfortable or that you disagree with, so that you can be a broader thinker. What I see here with Nguyen’s entry is a very angry young man without a lot of depth, one who doesn’t have a lot of grace or thought or inclusion, who wants the world to adhere to his point of view rather than learning from the differences of others. I see a man who isn’t grateful for what he has and who pisses on much-needed positivism when we need it in a dark age. I’m familiar with this type because, for a long time, I was very angry myself. But at least I had a corresponding set of virtues that I’ve now found ways of transforming into art, one that has been collaborative with damn near every race and viewpoint, in a completely different medium. Nguyen himself has called me an “asshole” and referred to me as “it” and has gone out of his way to badmouth me for reasons unknown. If this childish approach is his answer to getting along with people, then I’d say he has more in common with a fascist than a humanist.

  3. While I do agree about the inherent racism of the publishing industry, I will never understand this mentality about calling out your allies. The white people who support diverse books are on your side. Yes, they are not always perfect – but you don’t always know who is an activist and who is not from twitter. Instead of fighting those committed to help you, fight those who don’t even think you should get rights. Liberals fighting liberals is what elected trump.

  4. Justina/Nicole/Melissa

    I’m genuinely interested in what part of my comment offended you so much. Can you elaborate? Basically I said 1) Twitter sucks, 2) making broad generalizations about a race of people is ill-advised, 3) getting all sentimental about books post-election is precious, 4) free speech is good, 5) making broad generalizations about a race of people is ill-advised. I’m flabbergasted as to how any of these could be controversial – while admitting my tone can come off as confrontational (apologies for that).

    Then I offered the writer some advice on dealing with his rage in a positive, productive manner – which, of course, take it or leave it, but I used to be full of rage myself, and learned that the world doesn’t need another voice screaming into the void – it needs action, change. And while I can’t change America in a day – I’m a few billion dollars short of being able to run for president, for example – what I can do is make an impact in my own tiny corner of the universe. And it has helped me, and perhaps Mr. Nguyen could benefit as well.

    If what I said reflexively draws out this sort of dismissive attitude among what I assume to be intelligent people (you’re on a literary website for god’s sake) then this country is in far more trouble than I imagined.

    Honestly I hope we can have a dialogue around this.

  5. Toad –

    Let me suggest two things that you’ve said that have likely aggravated people, and why:

    1. “Making broad generalizations about a race of people is ill-advised”

    This is basically a low-key version of the “But you’re being racist to white people” argument that some white people make when POCs speak up about discrimination they’ve experienced.

    The problem with this is that it’s derailing. That is, it is (consciously or unconsciously) seeking to deflect discussion away from the topic of racism that the author has brought up, in order to claim that the author is just as biased himself.

    This is disrespectful and antagonistic. It is also false – specifically a wilful denial of the fact that racial bias is not just an individual-level phenomenon. Racial generalisations operate at a societal level, in a country with a 250+ year history of slavery. The US imprisoned Japanese-Americans in internment camps just two generations ago; you bombed Vietnam one generation ago. In this context, an Asian man’s generalisations about white people are not imbued with the same power, potency or hostility as white people’s generalisations about minorities.

    2. “Advice on dealing with his rage in a positive, productive manner.”

    This says, implicitly, that Kevin’s reactions are wrong and that you know better than him how he should feel. Which is patronising, and obviously nonsense.

    It should go without saying that a minority’s rage at a society that variously excludes and belittles them is not the same thing as a white guy’s rage (which, these days, seems to be mostly a rage at not always being more privileged than everybody else.)

    But apparently it did need saying. Consider it said.

    *

    If you do genuinely want to understand more about why people find the types of arguments you’ve tried to make problematic, a useful word to search might be “whitesplaining.” (I can imagine you’ll dislike it).

    “Like with other forms of privileged explaining, including mansplaining, people who whitesplain have been conditioned to believe that they’re somehow more qualified to speak about a marginalized group than a person who belongs to that group.”

    This article goes into more depth about why certain rhetorical strategies aren’t productive. If you really are “genuinely interested” in why your remarks here were interpreted as offensive, it should help provide an explanation.

    http://everydayfeminism.com/2016/02/how-people-whitesplain-racism/

  6. “I’m flabbergasted as to how any of these could be controversial – while admitting my tone can come off as confrontational (apologies for that).”

    Welcome to the books world, Toad. If you use the “wrong” words, even if the tone was meant to connote the pistol that Nguyen believed he was firing here, you are declared a racist, a sexist, and a homophobe when the true offenders who are actively squelching viewpoints or practicing hate (such as the swastikas that have cropped up in New York or the more than 200 hate crimes that have followed after Trump’s victory) are conveniently ignored, with any lengthy and thoughtful attempt to wrestle with the place of culture amidst this nightmare is dismissed as “whitesplaining.”

    “This says, implicitly, that Kevin’s reactions are wrong and that you know better than him how he should feel. Which is patronising, and obviously nonsense.”

    One can easily apply this rule to the reactions to the reactions, which are also patronizing and far more nonsensical, especially in the way that they dehumanize and demonize the opiners with false accusations of -isms. In the end, we have a lot to learn from each other, but we’re too busy being outraged to have a dialogue.

  7. Jay

    Thank you for the reply. There is a lot to discuss here and I am grateful to hear how my comments were/could be interpreted. I did not mean to troll/offend.

    By assuming I am white because I have objected to some things Mr. Nguyen said is problematic (I think) as it automatically divides people into opposing factions: you must agree with the POC writer or you’re a racist. Personally I don’t think generalizing is productive, but neither is deflecting, as you point out. I did not make the comment to deflect or accuse the author – rather to suggest that fighting racism by making generalizations may not be terribly effective.

    Re: my “advice” – I did not intend to come off as condescending in the least. I saw some similarities in Mr. Nguyen’s rant with some of my writing/views in my 20s and wanted to share my experience. As a writer, not as a member of a certain race. Again I think some dangerous leaps are being made here.

    But, thank you for your post. I sincerely did not mean to offend or provoke. I’m glad to understand how I could have done that and need to work to ensure I don’t do that in the future. Or just stop posting Internet comments altogether.

  8. Okay, I’ll admit it, every time a white person reads a book by a POC, the White Persons Council sends them a refrigerator magnet proclaiming the fact. Five POC books, a patch. 20, a bumper sticker. But 100? You get kicked out of White Club.

  9. Toad:
    I could not agree more. My only criticism for you is your faith in logic with this audience. When trying to open a door without a handle, it’s best to use an axe.

  10. “If what I said reflexively draws out this sort of dismissive attitude among what I assume to be intelligent people (you’re on a literary website for god’s sake)”

    is the exact corollary of

    “they are assuring everyone around them that they are better than other whites who don’t read.”

  11. So true about white people. I’d love to see book twitter have diversity. About friggin time. Great article and looking forward to hearing more from you Kevin Nguyen.

  12. “And if you think Book Twitter is white, try going to a book event. These are almost exclusively white spaces, and being a person of color in them has become increasingly anxiety inducing.”

    Hey Kevin! As a Writer of Color, I always think, when I read lines like that (above): “But this isn’t the Jim Crow South. No one is barring the entrance of Attendees of Color.” Can you really blame “White People” if, for example, you go to a hockey game and… (etc)…?

    Old White Guys may or may not rule the world (99% chance they do), but, down at our level, we’re all just Serfs. Blaming some Dudes with unfortunate facial hair/ weird eyewear for *everything* is absurd and getting tired. Doesn’t that sort of undermine our own sense of Agency…?

    It’s up to Writers of Color to invade/ integrate these events (if they feel like it) or give them a pass (if they feel like it) and own either decision.

    @Toad

    “4) free speech is good”

    Ah, you have a dual identity, I see. By day, you ran after my comments, in a witch-hunting tag-team with your slightly unhinged chum, shouting “troll!” and flashing crucifixes, because I expressed unpopular opinions. By night, however, when backed up against a wall for expressing your own unpopular opinions, you morph (no pun intended) into the FREEDOM OF SPEECH avatar, fighting against “dismissive attitudes” and hoping to have a “dialogue around this!” With a big yellow “H” emblazoned on your chest!

    Snort.

  13. Well, white fragility is out in force in these comments! Fellow white readers, we need to stop making everything all about us. That was the point of this post which you illustrated admirably.

    Thank you Kevin for taking the time to attempt to educate us on the ways that the literary world congratulates itself on “having a black friend” but does not actively strive to create a less racist world. I teach literature, and I believe in its power, but I see the ways in which my world focuses on single stories by a narrow range of writers and claims they are universal. The fact that we can still think this way is the problem. We cannot expect the radical transformation of our world into a more just society if we keep listening to the same voices, mostly our own white ones, repeating ourselves in an echo chamber. I am working to transform my corner of my world, to expand the diversity of the works and authors I teach, but I am under no delusion that I haven’t been part of the problem or that I haven’t much to learn about doing better.

    Again, thank you Kevin for continuing to speak in the face of so many people shouting with their fingers in their ears.

  14. “Fellow white readers, we need to stop making everything all about us.”

    But isn’t blaming “Whites” for everything an extension of making it “all about” Whites?

    Being Black, I appreciate the corrective urge, among many Cool White People (this is not typed sarcastically) to compensate for injustices of the Past and current Inequalities in the wider world, but I think you’re overstating your Power/Privilege/Guilt a little. You’re just not really that much better off or more influential than “Black People/ People of Color”; most of you are Normal People in precarious situations of your own. Commiseration/ Collaboration are activities between Equals… Concern / Aid/ Charity/ Intervention are all from the Higher to the Lower. The nuances of the distinction are being lost in the sound and fury of all this Race Talk. Also, remember the old saying: the path to self-perpetuating Racial Misunderstanding is paved with Good Intentions.

    Addressing Racial Imbalances in Publishing is not just a caretaking duty for good Whites to fret over: we have legs, hands, mouths, blogs and minds, too. And my own feeling is that it’s not quite as pressing an issue as the fact that LCD publishing strategies are filling the world with shitty, hyped, under-cooked books from a rainbow coalition of not-ready writers.

  15. THE ESSAY AND COMMENTS SECTION I’VE BEEN WAITING FOR!

    @steveagustine -> Good points in general but:
    “And my own feeling is that it’s not quite as pressing an issue as the fact that LCD publishing strategies are filling the world with shitty, hyped, under-cooked books from a rainbow coalition of not-ready writers.”
    was pure fire.

    I do wonder how people like Nguyen can square the reaction they get to these kinds of pieces. Because the moment they step outside whatever ideological bubble they’ve built, a significant portion of seemingly reasonable people disagree. What is it like to be in the heads of people like this, reading the comments section of anything they post, of any tweet they tweet, and seeing all the blowback?
    The best I can imagine is: “I know that when I expose my radical views to a wider swath of the world I get blowback… maybe it’s me! maybe I’m totally out of touch… no… no… Im good, it’s definitely just all the racism…”

  16. There’s so much just batshit insanity to choose from but let’s just start with the myth that Asian men are currently victims of the evil white society…

    Such as @ Jay Owens saying:
    ” In this context, an Asian man’s generalisations about white people are not imbued with the same power, potency or hostility as white people’s generalisations about minorities.”
    “It should go without saying that a minority’s rage at a society that variously excludes and belittles them is not the same thing as a white guy’s rage ”

    Some uncomfortable facts: Asian men make way more money than white men in America…. and get way more higher education… They get out of poverty easier… they are in poverty at lower rates… their rates of going to jail are way lower than whites… their rates of being victims of a crime are lower rates…
    If America was an RPG, essentially everyone would roll Asian male.

    To say that Asian men (who *literally* make more than double the amount of money that black men make on average) are somehow “oppressed” in our society in a similar way is so statistically insane I am willing to label it offensive. .. but then where would the writer’s cloak of victimization come from?!?! And what would he have to write about?!?!?!

  17. “What is it like to be in the heads of people like this, reading the comments section of anything they post, of any tweet they tweet, and seeing all the blowback?”

    Um, most smart people know the internet is filled with racist, sexist trolls who will do “blowback” on anything that challenges their narrow minds.

    They aren’t the majority of people, and they certainly aren’t “a significant portion of seemingly reasonable people.”

  18. Wjat!

    I first read “There’s so much just batshit insanity to choose from….”

    as

    “There’s so much just batshit INANITY to choose from…”

    I propose we share the copyright on “BATSHIT INANITY”. It just *sounds* so good.

  19. Ah yes, the good old: “Why are all these Trolls throwing all these facts and logical arguments at me! Racist and sexist Trolls everywhere!”

  20. Wjat!

    You mean like this spine-tingling example of Benign Othering?

    “Publishing take note. This is what happens when you put a person of color in charge of something important: it becomes more vital, more relevant.”

    Not a person of color with particular attributes, mind you (other than color): any POC is better than no POC. So just go grab one and chuck one in the director’s chair… et voila! Vitality! Relevance!

    Wait. Maybe this is satire?

  21. Reading this confirms to me why Trump won. This guy has a problem with white people, and now i have a problem with him.

  22. “Which is to say that Book Twitter is extremely white. And in a year where even people who love books had an opinion about racism, Book Twitter was patronizingly white.”

    i want to make sure that i understand this argument correctly. are you saying that there is no need to differentiate these people at all based on any other criteria: gender, religion, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, education, age, location… they’re just white, and therefore privileged, insecure, and guilty? there’s no need to talk to them, to find out their stories, to learn anything at all about these people… because they’re white, and therefore privileged, insecure, and guilty?

  23. Affirmative Action in any sphere is an epic fail. If the Asian writer is good, she gets published, if the Black student is smart, he gets in to the good college, if the White person is successful, she gets called a racist. It’s really very simple.

  24. >>>>Just because my last name is Nguyen doesn’t mean I want to talk about Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer. I am not interested in hearing you talk about how attractive an Asian-American debut novelist is. And for the last time, as much as I love Ed Park, we really, really do not look alike.>>>>>

    >>> That in a room — and industry and community — that is overwhelmingly white, just proving that you aren’t racist isn’t going to be enough.>>>>>>

    So Nguyen shouldn’t be lumped in with other Asians but all whites are the same.

    His Stalinist thinking is toxic.

  25. Shteyngart’s Tweet embarrasses me. Are there no works of literature with reactionary and bigoted elements? Not every book has the same ideological content. I can think of many famous, gifted writers who felt hatred for marginalized groups. I can think of many who wrote caricatures.

    On the other hand, maybe there’s something to be said for the impact of education on voting preferences, other ways to view his comment. The election of Trump was a multifaceted affair.

    I just find it weird and unhelpful because books will tell you a hell of a lot of things. You gotta be critical.

  26. Can someone please explain to a ‘not in the know’ person what book twitter refers to? Does it mean Twitter with respect to books?

  27. -Kevin Nguyen

    “…[J]ust proving that you aren’t racist isn’t going to be enough.”

    What is enough? I don’t say this to needle; I really want to know. So many words are spent talking about the things that divide us, but so little is spent trying to unite us. At the end of articles like this, I always feel that the act of talking to a person of color is to inadvertently ruin their night. I want there to be a way to connect with people who aren’t like me. I don’t believe that the bar for “enough” is so high that we all have to stick to our own people groups.

    What are some ways that white people have meaningfully connected with you? I know that sounds a bit insular, but as a white person myself, I’m trying to find ways to reach out to people that are different that I am.

Add Your Comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *