The 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction Goes to Colson Whitehead

April 10, 2017 | 15 books mentioned 45

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The Pulitzer jury named Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad this year’s winner in the fiction category.

Here are this year’s Pulitzer winners and finalists with bonus links:

Fiction:

 
 

General Nonfiction:

 

History:

 

Biography or Autobiography:

 

Poetry:

 

Winners and finalists in other categories are available at the Pulitzer Web site.

This is the byline used for site announcements and for articles by more than one Millions contributor.

45 comments:

  1. Such worthy winners. Blood on the Water by Heather Ann Thompson blew me away with her account of 1971 Attica and the utter lawlessness with which the uprising was handled, including the killing 10 guards in a takeover ordered by then Governor Rockefeller, and the 40 year quest for justice for the 40 murdered men and innumerable prisoners tortured. Her research is exhaustive despite thousands of documents “mysteriously” disappearing.

  2. After reading the Cheever piece, I found myself heartened by its insistence on Cheever’s value lying in posterity, his sustaining relevance even after 50 years. So I found myself wondering about The Underground Railroad and its continual amassing of awards. Without diss/harshing on Whitehead’s chops too much (and while reserving the right to roll my eyes at any guy with a ponytail, man-bun or dreadlocks in 2017), it seems pretty likely that a lot of the love this book is receiving is an anti-Trump response from the liberal establishment who, without their beloved and highly overrated POC president, feels beholden to remind Americans of the horrors of the slavery and their own historicity-drenched POV (the US is, always has been, and always will be evil, racist, and sexist, and don’t you ever forget it ever, whitey). But aesthetically, does T.U.R. merit its place alongside slavery classics from T. Morrison to F. Douglass, is it an ephemeral PC popularity spike that’s just critically and commercially well-timed but without the ability to sustain long-term interest, or is it something in between or neither? Just curious if the popular consensus is A): still genuflection, B): getting tired of this ID politics juggernaut already, or C): some other stance I haven’t thought of.

  3. @Cecil

    Listen, there’s been an epidemic of virtue-signaling prize-giving for at least a couple of years now… both Untamed State and The Sellout would never have been published if LIT were judged by Literary Standards, anymore. But before you can get away with typing “… I found myself wondering about The Underground Railroad and its continual amassing of awards…” you need to have read Whitehead’s book. At least, say, the first 50 pages. Have you? Why do I doubt that?

    I’ve read all the books I disparage (the books I love, I read 3,4, 5 times). I can tell you why I think the books that are too predictably hyped, and too often win the PC PITY prizes, are awful, usually sub-literate, efforts. Whitehead’s Underground Railroad is not awful; it’s not sub-literate; it’s pretty good. It not a masterpiece, but how many Pulitzer winners are better than Good? It’s a solid piece of writing with a great premise.

    In detail: there are two glaring technical problems with The Underground Railroad, stopping it from being a great book. First: Whitehead doesn’t do enough to imprint the particularities of his leading characters (or the particularities of their settings), on the reader, as the narrative takes shape. All the streams of info are presented in one plane, like a folktale (a folktale that required research), or an HBO miniseries. Writers need to remember that just one frame in the opening scene of a film can transmit a lot of useful information; a novel has to be sneakier, trickier… a novel has to cheat. Whitehead needs to learn to cheat. He also needs to learn to vary the rhythm of the sentences (varying the rhythm rhythmically is the gold standard); vary the rhythm and the tone. There’s a start-and-stop feeling to the prose. It takes a while for the book to assert itself.

    Anthony Doerr won the Pulitzer for 2014 with his All the Light We Cannot See and it’s not quite as good a book as The Underground Railroad (though Doerr, despite a couple of serious stylistic deficiencies, has mastered one thing that Whitehead needs to work on: Doerr reels the reader in before he jerks the line; Doerr’s book isn’t my cup of tea but he’s got the “page-turner” technology down pat). Doerr and Whitehead are both Pulitzer winners… did you sneer, for any reason, when Doerr won his?

    Which is all to say that you really need to know what you’re talking about before you attack/ critique… if you don’t want to sound like a racist, that is, dismissing Whitehead’s book out of hand. Which would be just as racist as praising it sight unseen, but meaner.

    And re: “without their beloved and highly overrated POC president”

    Aha. Well, I happen to think that anyone who can kill so many people, while remaining so charming, is a sociopath, but if you’re comparing BHO, unfavorably, to the rest of the Figurehead Parade… to the idiotic Dubya, the ultra-corrupt Bill, the sinister Poppy, the oily Tricky Dick, the hapless Jimmy, the orgiastic JFK, the buffoonish Trump, the shallow and ignorant Ronnie, the inert Ford or the monstrous LBJ, I have to find your reasoning (and motivations) a little suspect. BHO was no better or worse than the best and worst of them.Remember: most racists don’t think they’re racist… they’re operating under the naive assumption that one has to hate, or act out, in order to qualify. But it’s much easier than that, Cecil. It requires very little thought or energy. An attitude will do.

    Your comment is another reason that Lit Prizes need to stop being such blatantly politicized farces: they give ammunition to crypto-racists and crypto-sexists and hurt innocent (and actual) writers like Whitehead, who doesn’t deserve to be lumped in with literary charity cases like Beatty and Gay. And imagine how Beatty and Gay might improve if greater things were expected (demanded) of them? It’s a great loss, all around.

  4. @Steven

    “In detail: there are two glaring technical problems with The Underground Railroad, stopping it from being a great book. First: Whitehead doesn’t do enough to imprint the particularities of his leading characters (or the particularities of their settings), on the reader, as the narrative takes shape. All the streams of info are presented in one plane, like a folktale (a folktale that required research), or an HBO miniseries. Writers need to remember that just one frame in the opening scene of a film can transmit a lot of useful information; a novel has to be sneakier, trickier… a novel has to cheat. Whitehead needs to learn to cheat. He also needs to learn to vary the rhythm of the sentences (varying the rhythm rhythmically is the gold standard); vary the rhythm and the tone. There’s a start-and-stop feeling to the prose. It takes a while for the book to assert itself.”

    This is pretty well put. TUR’s prose is good, but almost completely unmodulated. Whitehead can write–can’t speak to his other books, though I’ve heard the Intuitionist and John Henry Days are really good–but at least here he writes everything from a static, narrated perspective that never really bores down into his characters’ perspectives. Many of the characters, including Cora, are fairly stock and one-dimensional and no one really surprises. It does read like a folktale, with various elements borrowed from writers like Morrisson–describing slaves as “souls,” I found particularly grating.

    That said, TUR is a worthy, interesting book (unlike ATLWCS, which in my estimation is low-middlebrow dreck), with large aims, and I have no problem with him taking the prize. You correctly call Cecil on the casual racism implicit in his dismissal of Whitehead, which assumes that if a black man wins the Pulitzer it must be charity or virtue signalling. One thing I’ll add: in my estimation, a book having timely sociopolitical aims and concerns is not a demerit to its cause. If the Pulitzer committee awarded extra points to TUR for cultural relevance, that is their prerogative–people act as though multiculturalism (read non white-centricism) is some bullshit shadow consideration, when in fact, it is as legitimate a metric as anything else (as, in fact, a book being central to the white experience would have been in the 60s).

  5. @Swog

    Totally agree!

    “If the Pulitzer committee awarded extra points to TUR for cultural relevance, that is their prerogative–people act as though multiculturalism (read non white-centricism) is some bullshit shadow consideration, when in fact, it is as legitimate a metric as anything else (as, in fact, a book being central to the white experience would have been in the 60s).”

  6. Tsk tsk Steve, we had a pact about the politics!

    I’m curious to see how TUR will hold up – it feels like a timeless book in that it could have been written 20 years ago, or 20 years from now, yet I do wonder if we’re in a period where it’s impossible to view art like this with totally clear eyes…best efforts notwithstanding…but, yeah, it’s a good novel. By my scientific calculations, 43.4 times better than The Sellout. It’s hard to quibble with its winning the Pulitzer, which doesn’t have 50 years of hindsight with which to pick a winner…though really, who cares, read it or don’t…

  7. @T

    1. Yeah but I couldn’t pass up the uncanny pleasure of defending BHO’s totally effective, post-racial psychopathy from a (possible) racial smear
    2. My calculations say 79.3 but the gap between our two figures is relatively subjective, so…
    3. Have you read Bleeding Edge, yet…?

    @Swog

    (I also agree with your brow-rating on ATLWCS but I’ve learned to pick my battles)

  8. “Listen, there’s been an epidemic of virtue-signaling prize-giving for at least a couple of years now… both Untamed State and The Sellout would never have been published if LIT were judged by Literary Standards, anymore. But before you can get away with typing “… I found myself wondering about The Underground Railroad and its continual amassing of awards…” you need to have read Whitehead’s book. At least, say, the first 50 pages. Have you? Why do I doubt that?”

    I swear, this HAS to be a parody account.

  9. Hey Teedle!

    “Still, much better trolling than Cecil’s brain-dead racism.”

    Much better than swinging into a thread with very little to say and lots of hardwired tween animus to offer, too. Unless this is YouTube.

    You wouldn’t be saving up an interesting comment regarding Literary matters, would you? If so, now would be the time to unleash it on us. Blow our minds, Sir or Madam!

    Have you read The Underground Railroad? What’s your take on it?

  10. I haven’t read the book yet, although I have read Whitehead’s back list, he is a writer of depth, Zone 1 killed me, not to mention his prior novels. Sadly the book is on my giant TBR. Is it wrong of me to be held back by Oprah’s gushing? Yes, probably. In the meantime, like a good Canadian, i am reading David Adams Richards “Principles To Live By”. Mind blowing! And since I am no critic, I do hope “mind blowing” is enough for you to research it, with an end to reading it. Mystery, beauracratic hypocrisy, and the Canadian Military Diplomatic fuck up in Rwanda.

  11. I don’t see questioning, dubiety or skepticism as “brain dead racism,” I guess that’s my take here. The notion that Whitehead might be benefiting from the morays of the day is hardly all that loaded a comment (and I would say “loaded” at worst, hardly even approaching “racism”). And plenty of people questioned Anthony Doerr’s win, I remember Vollman writing in the New Yorker that it was a good page-turner but not even literature/literary fiction. I think that’s the best way to look at the issue at hand — why is someone who is skeptical of Whitehead a “racist” and someone who is skeptical of Doerr a “formalist”?
    And the phrase crypto-racist is rather Orwellian, no? This notion that there are these people who are too ignorant to be aware of their own racism, that’s a slippery slope. If someone is actively not discriminating against people, they’re not a racist. If they look at all people of all colors as equally human, they’re not racists. They don’t need to know what a microagression is or be familiar with the other PC terminology of the day or have read the entire canon of bell hooks! They don’t have to go out of their way and bend over backwards and kiss the feet of people with different skin color than they have in order to prove how “anti-racist” they are (John McWhorter and William Deresiewicz have exposed this problem brilliantly). I mean, we live in a country where more and more, POCs express blatant racism out loud (ie: I refuse to live in a dorm with white people) and need to be called out on it. The fringe leftists and Maoist millennials who express real, virulent racism are every bit as despicable as the stereotypical Southern redneck calling a black child a racial slur. At a site like this one, I think it’s fair to assume that if someone criticizes a book, it’s because they have issues with the CONTENT of the book (as opposed to — they’re “secret racists”).
    Great comments on the presidents, BTW, Steven.

  12. Sean:

    “If someone is actively not discriminating against people, they’re not a racist. ”

    Wrong. I’m going to go with the dictionary when it comes to the actual definitions of words… and I think you should, too. Otherwise, discussion/ debate is impossible.

    “The fringe leftists and Maoist millennials who express real, virulent racism are every bit as despicable as the stereotypical Southern redneck calling a black child a racial slur.”

    In my experience, the average Black person is every bit as racist as the average White (or Asian etc) person… it’s the outliers who are either not racist or out there committing hate crimes; having said that, this particular comment of yours is rather silly. A Maoist half-Kenyan conspiracy theorist with pierced nipples and a Vegan burrito in his backpack calling a lumberjack of German ancestry a “cracka” is not *nearly* as despicable as the same lumberjack (or Maoist) calling a child of any description a nasty name. But I’m pretty sure you know that.

    “And plenty of people questioned Anthony Doerr’s win…”

    Sure, but parsing the exact language of Cecil’s comment (and questioning whether he’d even read Whitehead’s book) was the point of (a small fraction of) my commentary… it had nothing to do with the general issue of whether any other book in literary history has ever been disliked.

    Have you read Whitehead’s book?

    PS I liked my comments on those POTUSES, too! Concise-but-accurate. Terrible people, on the whole. I much prefer librarians.

  13. Sean,

    To say someone has to be actively discriminatory to be racist is to set an extremely high bar for what’s racist, though I suppose that’s the point. Surely you’re aware that definition excludes things like white privilege and the belittling hostilities said privilege engenders–a germane example being the assumption by Cecil (and yourself) that a book by a black man is probably unworthy of a Pulitzer because liberals and stuff (it was pretty clear by Cecil’s comment that he hadn’t read it, hence the response).

    Your comment, in fact, reads like a parody of an unself-aware white person lecturing people about how there’s no such thing unself-aware white people. You say “This notion that there are these people who are too ignorant to be aware of their own racism, that’s a slippery slope.” I’m curious, do you hold the same epistemological view of things like, say, Bayesian statistical analysis? That is, would you feel comfortable saying that it’s a slippery slope to assert that some people are too ignorant of Bayes theorem to be aware of how wrong their assessment of odds are? Or more prosaically, say, grammar. Is it a slippery slope to say a large group of people are too ignorant of grammar to be aware how bad their grammar is? Insert any knowledge field there you like.

    Is there a reason why people’s awareness of their conditioned racial reactions, insensitivities, prejudices, etc., should be different? Is it a special, different kind of knowledge, or is it just that the word “racist” is so loaded and damning in our culture that no one can accept the possibility that they might be acting that way without meaning to?

  14. Steven, I haven’t read The Underground Railroad, but that’s mostly because just as it was coming out I read Whitehead’s previous book, The Noble Hustle, and was thoroughly unimpressed.
    I agree that extremes of racism (like extremes of most things) are outliers but on the whole, with the exception of a few rural backwaters, America is a lot less racist than it was just twenty or thirty years ago and is trending in the right direction. It’s not perfect, but change takes time. That’s essentially my core critique of liberalism (they want the world to be utopic and perfect, and they want it perfect tomorrow). My core critique of conservativism, of course, being that they like things to be the way they were simply because they used to be that way (see Grace Hopper’s famous quote).
    Swog, I don’t see a lot of evidence for “white privilege” or “rape culture” or a lot of the demons that the left likes to get up in arms about (or massive illegal immigration ruining America or the scourge of marijuana legalization and the various demons the right quivers in fear of). I take a widely skeptical approach and think that, yes, things like Bayes’ Theorem are absolutely susceptible to overreaction based on people’s political peccadilloes. I’d also say grammar is a much bigger problem than racism in the America of 2017 (in the America of 1957 it was the inverse — the average person or business was better at knowing where to put the comma and apostrophe, but worse at knowing which people ought to be allowed to sit at the lunch counter).
    At the end of the day, I just want people giving awards to be as objective and clear-headed as possible, to try to limit prejudice. It’s as detrimental to start handing out awards based on politics as it is starting to hand out jobs based on personal preference or nepotism. It should be meritocratic. That’s the best way to eliminate racism, too. To judge someone on the color of their skin isn’t bad because it’s immoral, it’s bad because it’s silly, stupid, and ignorant to think that the amount of melanin in someone’s skin is relevant to a discussion of their worth or merit. Race is a fabrication, it’s skin deep. We treat it so seriously in America. So much so that we start this downward spiral of over-compensation, which may be happening with the sheer amount of accolades being handed to Whitehead’s book.
    But hey, David Foster Wallace didn’t win any of the major awards during his lifetime. David Mitchell hasn’t received any either. Maybe these things are pretty damn irrelevant. Still, it’s essential for people to put aside petty politics and retain the ability judge works of art purely on their merit AS works of art.

  15. “Swog, I don’t see a lot of evidence for “white privilege” or “rape culture””

    1 in 5 women in the general public report having been sexually assaulted. As for putting white privilege in quotes, I doubt I’m going to convince that exists in this message field, can only suggest that–as with the lack of evidence you see for rape culture–perhaps this has something to do with your own lack of experience with these things? I wonder if you’ve ever stopped to consider that maybe this stuff is real, even if liberals and PC are sometimes annoying. Why is the default reaction of the right wing to assume that people are bitching for no reason? Is it possible that women get assaulted and demeaned a lot in our culture, and people of color put up with a ton of bullshit by white people who don’t realize they’re being racist? Have you ever taken five seconds to entertain the idea that non-white men are not just irritating whiners, that they may have some legitimate complaints?

    “Race is a fabrication, it’s skin deep.”

    Indeed, yet the everyday hostilities and assumptions and insensitivities people deal with due to their skin color are very real. Waving it away as nonsense is a superconvenient position for someone with the culturally expedient skin tone.

    “So much so that we start this downward spiral of over-compensation, which may be happening with the sheer amount of accolades being handed to Whitehead’s book.”

    And we circle back to the beginning of this thread, and the fact that there is some unconscious and implicit racism in assuming a book is getting accolades because it’s written by a black man. It’s actually a pretty good book, better than quite a few past winners by non POCs.

  16. Sean!

    “America is a lot less racist than it was just twenty or thirty years ago and is trending in the right direction.”

    You need to consider the glaring fact that you’re not in the best position to know… unless you’re a member of a commonly-discriminated-against minority, Sean. I think things are actually *worse*, and trending in the worst direction. I lived in a nearly-post-racial, wonderfully-integrated, middle class neighborhood in Philly, in the 1970s, and if we had known, back then, how VERY *bad* things would be 40 years later…

    The good news you appear to detect comes, no doubt, from keying your sense of Racial Progress to the rise of highly visible token successes who represent the “uplift” of .00001% of the congenital underclass. The average White American is suffering terribly in the post-NAFTA Serf economy (you think a nation-wide plague of White drug addicts means nothing?) and the average Black American is suffering *more*… and the gulf between them is widening… and ever more hostile. How can you not see this?

    Things are racially dismal, in America, especially for Blacks, because A) the entrenched psycho-sociopolitical toxin of segregation B) ubiquitous, negative-stereotype-based propaganda C) not only sub-par educational opportunities and standards but the incredibly destructive and durable meme that an educated Black (male) is deracinated/ inauthentic/ a Tom/ unmanly/ a traitor. That last (Jim Crow) absurdity is a belief quite common to Left/Right/Black/White alike. Until that’s fixed, and the segregation problem is thereafter addressed, expect zero progress.

    “Swog, I don’t see a lot of evidence for “white privilege” or “rape culture”…”

    Well, again: how or why would you, Sean? Are you a master of Race and Gender disguise/ empathy….? I’m trying to imagine me proclaiming that “Anti-Semitism and Homophobia are no longer problems!” and getting away with it…

    “At the end of the day, I just want people giving awards to be as objective and clear-headed as possible…”

    And that’s where we agree. I am bone tired of watching Mediocrity’s endless victory lap in the stadium of the downward spiral.

  17. Sean

    PS

    “It’s not perfect, but change takes time. That’s essentially my core critique of liberalism (they want the world to be utopic and perfect, and they want it perfect tomorrow). My core critique of conservativism, of course, being that they like things to be the way they were simply because they used to be that way (see Grace Hopper’s famous quote).”

    I always thought of a “Liberal” as a “Conservative” with a guilty conscience. And I think that a “Conservative” doesn’t merely prefer the “good olde days” because “the good olde days” are old: they prefer “the good olde days” because they (or people like them) ruled, unopposed, back then, and they would very much like to continue to do so.

  18. Steven,

    The phenomenon of conservatives pronouncing unconscious racism and privilege imaginary by personal decree–itself an act of unconscious racism and privilege–is an extremely dispiriting modern phenomenon, both in terms of frequency and cognitive impregnability.

    “I always thought of a “Liberal” as a “Conservative” with a guilty conscience.”

    Strike “guilty” and you’re onto something there. There’s an essential central inability or unwillingness of the white (largely male) conservative mind to engage in empathy with people different from them. Any cultural grievance, racial or sexual or otherwise, must de facto be petty if not completely imagined. Which, of course, goes back to your definition of conservative–engaging in empathy with POC and women would necessitate rethinking assumptions about fundamental power balances in society, which is the real non-starter.

  19. Thanks for the cerebral and balanced counter-arguments, Steven and Swog. I don’t want to stray too far from Whitehead’s book, but I just want to say that I’m a case-by-case guy. Of course there is rape and racism. I think that all forms of sexism and racism should be actively opposed as vehemently and as consistently as possible.
    I just can’t get on the collectivist bandwagon. I refuse to think that somehow by mere dint of one’s status as a woman or a POC, they are somehow more fit to judge the objective reality of a situation than an objective, clear-headed white male empiricist (believe it or not, they exist). Are plenty of white males racists, blithely unaware of things that other people face often that they face rarely or never, and lacking in reflection or empirical rigor? Sure. Absolutely.
    That said, if someone wants to lampoon unironic dreadlocks or yet another book about the evils of slavery in 2017, they shouldn’t have to be black to do so. Similarly, you don’t need to be white to lampoon the dorky white guy cliche. You don’t have to be a woman to make fun of Girls/Lena Dunham, or of the absurd self-righteousness of pussy-hat marches. You don’t have to be gay to poo-poo Moonlight or call it overrated. I just think this notion that only certain people get to have a voice is a form of censorship and of humorlessness (almost always the sign of lack of intelligence).
    Of course, there are plenty of people who are not whiners, who are legitimately aggrieved. But there are a lot of people who ARE whiners, who do want a handout, who weren’t raped and yet say they were for personal gain. And the best way to parse the two, the legitimately aggrieved and deserving legal redress from undeserving scam artists (which there are, y’know, kind of a lot of in America), is to look at it case by case. Is homelessness sad? Sure. Are some of the homeless victims of circumstance? Sure. But are a lot of them straight up liars, fraud, addicts, and makers of their own downfall? Yes to that too, no?
    I found Whitehead’s prose unremarkable so I didn’t run out and buy The Underground Railroad. I only have the time to read so many books. So I guess my initial inquiry was just based on trying to figure out if I want to devote my time to reading his book instead of someone else’s (who may be a POC, or may not; who may be an award-winner, or may not; who may not be a contemporary living artist with now millions of dollars, or may not).
    Thanks again for the feedback. I appreciate an honest, open-minded debate and even though we seem to have somewhat intractable positions, I do take your words seriously. I think privilege is an incredibly overused word, but yeah, I’ll admit it exists. I think racism and sexism are WAY overused today, but of course they both exist. Determining degrees and inhabiting the gray spaces honestly is at least infinitely better than being dogmatic black-or-white, you’re with us or against us manicheans (which IMO used to be much more the paradigm of the right, and has recently infected the left.

  20. Sean!

    I agree: this has been a pleasure. And I can appreciate the fact that you aren’t sniping from a doctrinaire bunker… too many “Liberals” and “Conservatives” are doing just that, illuminating nothing.

  21. Sean,

    I agree with you that the doctrinaire quality of progressive rhetoric can be odiouss. I fundamentally believe the left really needs to work on its messaging vis-a-vis PC, as it turns off people (perhaps like yourself) who might otherwise be receptive to its fundamental aims. Stuff like pussy hats and terms like “white tears” are, I think, ultimately counterproductive.

    Still: “I refuse to think that somehow by mere dint of one’s status as a woman or a POC, they are somehow more fit to judge the objective reality of a situation than an objective, clear-headed white male empiricist”

    Is something you should think hard about. Women and POC probably know more than you about what it’s like to be a woman or POC. Try listening a little more and being turned off by the messaging a little less.

  22. Moe Murph congratulates The Millions on the rollicking success of its “Don’t Be A Jerk” comment editorial policy, reissues previously-censored observation that the comment threads are rife with quibbling arrows, shot from vasty towers of solipsism.

  23. Why wouldn’t a man who went to one of the best high schools in the world and then attended Harvard be the best person to tell us about privilege? Growing up in Sag Harbor where John Updike kept his writing house? That’s basically inner-city Baltimore.

    ONLY HE CAN KNOW WHAT IT’S LIKE TO SUFFER SO

  24. @What

    That’s a funny comment and it would be “spot on”… if the thread, or the book (TUR), were about Privilege in any but the broadest sense. Despite being Black, CW had to use as much Imagination in the construction of that book as Bill Styron needed for Sophie’s Choice, or J. Littell needed for The Kindly Ones… the same amount of Imagination he’d have needed had he been raised however it is we like to imagine Authentic Blacks are raised!

    But, yes: I chuckled.

  25. Is there any kind of internet borax that can be sprinkled on this website to rid it of these insufferable morons? Huhr dur, a well educated black man cannot write a book about slavery because the concept of privilege is annoying to me! This despite the fact that TUR is not about privilege. And I also must assume you would have enjoyed a version of TUR written by a poor, uneducated black man, right?

    For a group of people who call progressives and POCs snowflakes, modern conservatives are the whiniest bunch of idiots imaginable, forever on the look out for the latest PC outrage that hurts their tender feefees.

  26. @Swog

    For me, as (as far as I can tell) the only Black person in the thread, though, I have to wonder what all the strong feelings are *really* about?

    I can remember ten or twelve years ago, when all the heated arguments on Lit Sites were *about Lit*… the Woodites vs the The Hysterical Realists; the Paper-Based-Publishing apologists vs the Web Print Radicals; The Brutalists vs Everyone Else… the muskets were being fired over technical distinctions and writers’ philosophical banners and rarely about Bodily Identity and Privilege and all that. I preferred those Lit-Centric flamewars; I miss the privilege of that innocence.

    Now, there’s nowhere to go to have discussions that *won’t* be humorless (zero sum) shouting matches about Race/Gender/Privilege. So much free-floating Animus out there, from every side! Literary Fiction is too subtle a practise to really compete with it.

  27. Steven,

    Agreed. I guess the spirit behind my last comment was a wish for these people to go away so that we can have discussions about literature again. The Millions continues to be one of the very best serious adult lit sites going, but it’s impossible to discuss, say, Colson Whitehead’s narrative technique and actual deservedness for the Pulitzer on literary merit when you first have to (incredibly) defend the idea that a well-educated black man might in theory deserve any literary prize. Of course, I realize CW is doing just fine without the likes of you and me defending his honor in a comment section, but the bigotry (and self-satisfied obliviousness about said bigotry) is so obnoxiously palpable I have a hard time not responding despite knowing better…

  28. Swog!

    ” I guess the spirit behind my last comment was a wish for these people to go away so that we can have discussions about literature again.”

    Well, that’s the thing; I don’t really blame people, like the commenters who were skeptical of CW in this thread (none of whom struck me as fire-breathing racists), for the fact that these discussions aren’t all (or even usually) about Lit: I blame Lit (or Lit-As-Social-Practise).

    Far too often, these prizes are awarded for extra-Literary reasons… I’ve read too many prize-winning books that read as though they’d been cobbled together by a committee of 8th-graders. Either the judges are semi-literate or some kind of fix is in and I don’t think the judges are (always) semi-literate.

    The worst I’d accuse the contra-TUR commenters in this thread of is failing to actually read a book they’re criticizing. But “whatistheWHAAA” *almost* had a point, up thread, drawing attention to CW’S middle-to-upper-middle-classness, because CW’s material is too often lumped in with the broader PC category of “Underprivileged Identity Lit” and consumed in a nobly-intended way that sets my teeth on edge.

    Having been born into North America’s Congenital Underclass (super, super poor; I only escaped poverty, and my oppressive home-country, via the genetic jackpot of a big brain), I don’t read CW’s texts with some kind of special racial insight into his structures, themes and codes… because I’d only have been likely to attend a Sag Harbor Cotillion, as a teen, as a *servant*; Blackness is not monolithic. I can only evaluate any novel by its Literary Strengths and, imo, CW’s TUR passes the test by that standard (with mitigating quibbles, as we expressed up-thread). But too many celebrated books don’t pass that test and when we fudge that truth for political reasons, we’re turning Literature (and discussions about it) into a charade.

    Is it possible that the contra-TUR commenters in this thread were motivated more by a similar feeling about (or irritation with) that charade than by subliminal racism? I think it is. And I think it’s a very dangerous trap to assume that “Our Side” is always (and extremely) correct, by default.

    Anyway, I think this thread was overwhelmingly civil, relevant and bright. We need to keep the door open for that sort of thing to keep happening. Ever more-advanced conversations and ideas are right over the horizon, Sisters and Brothers…

  29. Steven,

    I agree with you to a point, but I do think the kneejerk reaction of suspecting the Pulitzer was given to CW on the basis of him being black and the novel being about slavery rests on several essentially racist assumption. One, that CW writes identity lit (he doesn’t, really). Two, that a novel about POCs or an issue that affects non-middle class whites must be inherently inferior to novels about Brooklyn wine tastings, and lauded on the basis of their protagonist’s or author’s skin color rather than on merit. Three, that lauding a book for having relevant social interests (e.g. the treatment of blacks in America) is an invalid criteria for praising a book. In simpler terms, I just kind of think the basis impulse to enter a thread and bitch about a book you haven’t read being praised because the author is black is, for lack of a better term, racist.

    Finally, I’m not even convinced that this putative virtue signalling epidemic by prize committees is even a thing. What were the 2010’s Pulitzers? The Sympathizer, All the Light We Cannot See, The Goldfinch, The Orphan Master’s Son, A Visit From the Goon Squad, and Tinkers. Is this a list of ethnic pity awards? No, it’s mostly white people writing about white people. Are we sure this is even a thing? Or is it one more strawman conservatives feel compelled to rail against for *some* reason?

  30. Swog!

    ” In simpler terms, I just kind of think the basis impulse to enter a thread and bitch about a book you haven’t read being praised because the author is black is, for lack of a better term, racist.”

    Or it’s a backlash… with an unjust target (Whitehead)… but a backlash more than a sign of pure racism. Backlash wedded to a common problem with book chat: critiquing books one hasn’t read.

    I can remember working in a recording studio c. 1.5 billion years ago, and the very suave, upper-middle-class, White, super-Liberal head engineer’s tendency to make a point of gushing, whenever we worked together, about how “Great looking” Eddie Murphy was! Laugh. At some point I just wanted to shake him and say, “Okay, Bob, I get it! You aren’t racist! You’re a good man! But Eddie Murphy is not that fucking good looking!” Being Black, maybe I could have gotten away with saying that… but, had I been White, I’m sure such a frank response would have come off to well-meaning Bob as “racist”.

    Some people see White Conservatives on one side… and Blacks, with White Liberals, on the other. But I always felt myself to be equidistant from both camps. Suspicious of both. When Black intellectuals chat among themselves, do you really think they all rejoice when some crappy book by a Black flavor-of-the-month is hailed as a masterpiece? Lots of us roll our eyes but keep it to ourselves because being frank, in public, is dangerous. Read Percival Everett’s angry satire of Sapphire’s idiotic “Push” (among others)… Erasure… to get a sense of this. Snippet:

    “Then I saw a poster advertising the coming reading of Juanita Mae Jenkins, author of the runaway bestseller, We’s Lives In Da Ghetto. I picked up a copy of the book from the display and read the opening paragraph […]

    “I closed the book and thought I was going to throw up. My sister came up behind me.

    “What’s wrong?” she asked.

    “Nothing,” I said, dropping the book back onto the stack.

    “What do you think of that book?” she asked. “I read it’s going to be a movie. She got
    something like three million dollars for it.”

    “Really.”

  31. Steven,

    We seem to be talking past each other a little here. I do recognize that occasionally works of art by POCs are overpraised by well-meaning liberal white people (though I’d say just as often, or more often, works of art by POCs are underpraised or overlooked because they are by POC). So yes, I think you can characterize the beefs of people like Cecil and Sean in this thread as a “backlash,” but I think it’s a backlash that is essentially racist in character. For some reason I doubt these folks got up in arms about All The Light we Cannot See selling 800 trillion copies and winning everything, or questioned Doerr’s intellectual and personal bona fides–this despite ATLWCS being dreck, and vastly inferior to TUR.

    Our president rode in on a wave of precisely this kind of racial cultural grievance, commonly characterized by apologists as a “backlash” against PC or other perceived excesses of the left. But in the same sense that I’m skeptical of steel workers in Scranton voting for increased immigration for job safety when they’ve never met a Mexican, I’m skeptical of the intellectual honesty of posters aggrieved by the handful of books by POC that get published or win prizes on the basis of “unfairness.” What is this backlash lashing against, exactly? It all smells rotten to me, just the same old kneejerk tribalism in newish garb. An opinion, btw, not based on any kind of well-meaning paternalist feeling toward black people…

  32. … who, I meant to say, like people of all colors and creeds, should have correctly found Sapphire’s work risible on its face.

  33. @SwogHollow @toad @H.A.

    What more can be added, but, sometimes, a writer so brilliantly expresses an idea that one simply must share. In “On Compliance, Complicity and Beating Up Asian Americans,” Eng-Beng Lim muses on the positive side of obliviousness:

    But “getting woke” may depend on your level of subscription in the club of denial and complicity. Those with premier benefits might find it hard to relinquish their bad love. For denial has its own rewards, and complicity its wanton rationalization and even perfume.

    Membership, after all, has its privileges. What exactly is the cost of your membership’s privileges? Who is paying the price for your preferred status and clubby jaunt?

  34. Swog!

    “So yes, I think you can characterize the beefs of people like Cecil and Sean in this thread as a “backlash,” but I think it’s a backlash that is essentially racist in character.”

    Well, I think my point is that, beyond pointing out how common (non violent) “Underlying Racism” is, across all lines of race/class/gender/political party/nationality et al… calling someone a straight up Racist is a serious charge. And I need to either know the Defendant a bit or see pretty concrete evidence before I make that call. I write that as someone who has been spat upon *twice* (once as a kid, once as a man)…. THOSE people (the spitters) were each Straight Up Racists. They wanted it to be known.

    I think a lot of Conservatives who are called “racists,” by Liberals, are people who A) haven’t done enough thinking on matters they don’t feel compelled to think about and B) aren’t any more small-r racist, in fact, than most Liberals. These Conservatives may be smug, they may be self-centered, they may be insecure, they may be all sorts of things, but a Racist is functioning at a level of Unthinking Animal Hatred that I just don’t see popping up in these threads at The Millions.

    Let’s be precise with our terms, friends!

    And, again: how can it possibly be that “We” are Right about Everything while “They” are likewise always Wrong? Seems too neat. And symmetrical: “They” would appear to think the same way.

    Ad Infinitum…

  35. Steven,

    This is just a semantic difference then. You prefer to use “racist” to describe people who actively hate and discriminate against people of other races. I’m using it to describe a set of un- or semi-conscious attitudes that are biased towards whiteness, and in doing so, help maintain hoary old power structures that are, without question, Racist capital R. I dunno, maybe we need a new word for this kind of lazy, passive racism, or whatever you’d call it, because people sure do hate being called racist and it doesn’t usually make for a productive conversation.

    To this point: “And, again: how can it possibly be that “We” are Right about Everything while “They” are likewise always Wrong? Seems too neat. And symmetrical: “They” would appear to think the same way.”

    Imo this is relativist nonsense. Yes, there can still be honest political disagreements, and I don’t think “we” are “right” about close to everything. But world history is not a record of everyone being more or less equally right or wrong about everything. Some things are matters of opinion and some are not. Progressives are basically right about POC/trans/gay rights issues, and related topics like microaggressions and privilege, no matter how bad our messaging sucks (badly) and how annoying PC can be (very).

  36. Moe,

    In a nutshell, this is the genie I believe Trumpism has uncorked. The way he couched economic anxiety in terms of us vs them, and rendered nativism as a policy prerogative, has provided cover to bigots who can now justify their bigotry as something like just another matter of political opinion.

  37. Swog!

    You aren’t getting my point(s). I’m not saying that the “Conservative” posters in this thread aren’t sort of casually, or cluelessly, small-r racist. I suspect, from their comments, that they are. But you seem to be accusing them of something *stronger* than that, and I don’t see any evidence of it. I don’t think “Cecil” is any more racist for being leery of TUR, without even having read it, than a Liberal is for calling Paul Beatty’s shitty “The Sellout” a masterpiece… despite having read no more than 20 pages of its terrible prose.

    And I’m the opposite of a “Relativist”. I just don’t believe “Conservatives” and “Liberals” are as different, from one another, as they think… and that their respective outlooks on Race/Gender/Class often strike me as a war-by-proxy… on the battlefield of the Other. I mean, it often seems to me that both camps hate each other more than they love or hate “minorities”. And people are making authoritative accusations of, or denials of, Racism without having experienced any directly, no?

  38. Steven,

    If you think they are being small-r racist, then we agree. I do not think anyone posting in this thread is Byron De La Beckwith.

    On the second point, yes, progressives can themselves be racist, but usually they are at least attempting to empathize, even in the abstract, with POC. This seems qualitatively different to me than the opposite, and I don’t think it’s merely a proxy war, though it probably partly is.

  39. Swog!

    I wish we were having this discussion in a setting a little more congenial to long-form dialog; I think this discussion is ready to go to Phase Two, but this isn’t the place…!

    Thanks for a great talk!

  40. @Swog ….

    I was fascinated by an article several years ago in the Washington Post on the concept of “gender judo,” a quintessential “go along/get along” strategy which focused on women using “soft power” techniques and sexist assumptions of those they dealt with in a pragmatic way, to reach their own objectives.

    The “benevolent sexism” aspects of gender judo in the piece really bothered me, as well as the clear “obliviousness” of the author and several she interviewed to its operational implications for those “outside the club,” as Lim put it so well in the comment above.

    For example, Senator Kirsten Gillebrand noted that older white Senators saw her as a “daughter,” a perception which she used to her advantage during legislative negotiations. This idea has a lot more resonance now, given #45! But this begs the question. Where does this leave others who aren’t in such an attractive and “familiar” package?

    Again, gender judo employed in this way, despite the cheerleading of the Post article writer and other “boosters” is a quintessential “go along/get along” strategy, with short-term careerist benefits perhaps, but operating in league with an unjust power structure.

  41. Steven and Moe,

    Just wanted to agree, thanks for a good discussion, nice talking to you both!

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