When I first read Percival Everett’s Erasure, it was assigned to me by Gregory Pardlo. Years removed from his Pulitzer Prize, Pardlo was a professor in Hunter College teaching “Multicultural Literature,” a course as challenging and thought-provoking as the man himself. For an entire semester, Pardlo (lovingly) demanded that we see the error of labeling creative works as “Asian” or “Black;” he told us that ascribing a culture with homogeneous traits does not empower the people lashed to said traits, that the authors who peddle this work are reinforcing, unconsciously or not, the foundations of institutional racism. Shuffled between Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story and Chang-Rae Lee’s Native Speaker, I opened up the pages of Erasure and was immediately annotating line after line, scribbling in the margins, folding pages for future reference. Everett posed a question that remains unanswered 15 years later, although the argument is louder, or more visible, than ever: Who is qualified to write about underrepresented communities? What is the “authentic black voice?”
In Erasure, we follow the absurd life of Thelonious Ellison, or Monk, as he’s known: a protagonist whose biggest, fiercest antagonists are his own intelligence and boredom. A writer, Monk is told throughout his life — by black and white constituents — that he is “not black enough:”
I have heard this mainly about my novels, from editors who have rejected me and reviewers whom I have apparently confused and, on a couple of occasions, on a basketball court when upon missing a shot I muttered Egads.
Though he shares his name with two African-American artists, Monk tries to distance himself from what passes as African-American art in the present day. Existing in a world of his own, Monk is constantly reminded that he is “different,” even within his own family; his writing hinges so close to his own interests and intrinsic intellect that it comes across as alien. Monk’s own father tells him when he’s young:
‘You have a special mind. The way you see things. If I had the patience to figure out what you were saying sometimes, I know you’d make me a smarter man.’
While Monk’s intelligence and overall awkwardness seems to barely keep him afloat both in his writing career and academia, he begins to notice that another writer is benefiting from public ignorance. Throughout the story, Monk is forced to confront the success of We Lives in the Ghetto, a fictional book written by Juanita Mae Jenkins, which is lauded by critics and owes its success through its inclusion of prostitution, underage pregnancy, and violence. This has earned the book the reputation of epitomizing what one review calls the “experience which is and can only be Black America.” Monk sees Juanita — an allusion to Sapphire, the author of Push, and others of her ilk — as the embodiment of everything that he feels is wrong with cultural classification in the literary world.
Everett lays out the two major pitfalls of navigating author authenticity. The first deals with the stress writers of color deal when navigating their own narratives. Pushed to the brink, Monk pens My Pafology, a book triple stuffed with every stereotype imaginable (its chapters are titled “Won,” “Too,” “Free,” “Fo”) and ships it off to the publisher. He aims for the manuscript to be so emphatically rejected, for it to completely insult every person who turns its pages that Monk can then point to it as proof that the black experience in America is not universal. He banks on these people in power, the Gatekeepers of the publishing world, being able to identify his obvious dishonesty. He wants to be found a liar.
But of course, My Pafology become regarded as an opus of the African-American experience. As his own personal narrative unravels, Monk accepts the book deal as the offer price soars, and even dresses up to pose as the walking stereotype and author of My Pafology, Stagg R. Lee. By becoming the writer he hates, Monk becomes an extension of the industry bigotry he was intending to fight. By this time, Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, the man whose name calls back to icons of African American art and culture, vanishes, erasing himself while attempting to fit the model he is forced into. Everett paints the people in the publishing world and academic circles, who aid Monk in his self-immolation, as completely out of touch with reality. They are imbecilic, cartoonishly naive.
In the current literary world, there are failsafes built into the process of publication to manage author authenticity, although they are not absolute. We can plan parades for the new emerging voices, but a James Frey or, more recently, a Michael Derrick Hudson will come around to disrupt the common order. Hudson found himself sitting on a poem which had been rejected (on his count) 40 times by publishers. So he changed the name — not of the poem, but his own. Michael Derrick Hudson became Yi-Fen Chou and now Chou’s poem, “The Bees, the Followers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve,” quickly found itself published and honored in the Best American Poetry Anthology of 2015. The editor of that year’s poetry selection was none other than Sherman Alexie who, in an explanation for his selection of Chou’s (or Hudson’s) work, laid out the credentials for his process. While these included specifics such as not selecting work from friends and not factoring in a poet’s larger body of work, there were two rules that helped Hudson become our real-life Monk. Alexie made the decision to pay special attention to underrepresented demographics, namely women and people of color.
There is nothing wrong with an editor’s choice to strictly follow these rules, and it’s commendable to hear that a person in Alexie’s position is being especially sensitive to the disenfranchised. But as David Orr points out in his New York Times coverage of the scandal, Alexie’s selection process reveals inherent holes in gauging authenticity. No matter what his intent was, he admitted to using a standard with very poor checks in place for success, which was exactly the fallacy practiced by the editors and publishers who greenlighted Stagg R. Lee. It is in these moments in which those who prepare to combat bias begin by performing a bias of their own, and this is the trap Alexie set his bed on. As Orr explains:
The problem, as the Yi-Fen Chou case demonstrates, is that this accommodation can be a tricky business when our ideas about excellence in poems collide with our ideas about the worthiness of poets.
This exposes a major flaw in artistic perception in publishing. In Erasure, everyone is fooled by Stagg R. Lee. And while Monk wrote My Pafology (whose title he later shortens just to Fuck) to fly in the face of convention — standing as a big fiery middle finger towards an establishment that he feels seeks to earn a profit by deciding which voices are heard and which are silenced — this plan backfires when the established “Gatekeepers” in publishing failed to get the joke. If anything, the Hudson/Chou debacle proves that even though we are now more intensely sensitive to issues of race and class, if a man is able to take the place of a more deserving writer with a simple Word document name change, this system is as flawed as what was already in place.
So what is different from the world Erasure shows us and our world now? If we can’t depend on the morals of the writer or the objectivity of the editors and publishers, how do we navigate the shoals of the authenticity debate? When Erasure was published, the power and reach of the Internet were vastly different from today. Reddit and Twitter have become socially acceptable places to air grievances and watch them either garner support or get ripped apart. The comments section of articles are modern-day gladiator arenas wherein combatants thrash their opponents, helmets of anonymity firmly fastened. It is in these arenas, ones which were basically absent in the world Monk inhabited, that a parallel set of Gatekeepers has grown in voice and influence. Now everyone can afford a soapbox. And while, the result is not always productive, there has been no greater time than now for social injustices to come to light with relative immediacy.
A perfect recent example is the publication of the book Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters, which has garnered attention primarily because of the glowing write-up it received in The New York Times. The story follows the journey of Victor (at some points also known as Jim): a freed slave who becomes a bounty hunter of other slaves against the backdrop of a United States that never abolished slavery. Winters is not a stranger to retooling history for his narratives (his Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters was popular amongst some critics for its conceit in the “mashup” genre), and novels involving slavery are not uncommon — many have surfaced in the last year. But critics took issue with the fact that Winters, a white author, is not only writing about slavery but also choosing to carry the voice and perspective of a black man. In the Times write-up (by Alexandra Alter), Lev Grossman is quoted as praising Winters for being “fearless.” Meanwhile, the book, ahead of its release, has already landed a television deal.
The backlash on social media was instantaneous. The primary question was why a white man writing about slavery in the skin of a black man constituted as a “fearless” act. Winters explained that his goal was to make literal the idea that “slavery is still with us” (which prompted the follow-up question, “With whom, exactly?”). But what also has people troubled is the fact that a white author felt himself “prepared” to write about the volatile subject matter of slavery by studying black pieces of literature. While you can be sure that Winters did “read and reread literary classics by Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, and Zora Neale Hurston,” to help place himself in context, many people cited this as a perfect example of how white privilege pervades publishing.
Yet this immediate public reaction is the beauty of our current culture. This is what Everett was missing in Erasure. And yes, while I tell my classes that if everyone is shouting, stomping their feet, and clapping their hands, the actual amount of progress during a debate is limited — there is still something valuable in the opportunity for a variety of voices to weigh in.
While working on the first draft of this essay, my first contribution to The Millions was published. My wife tapped me later that night and asked, “Have you read what’s happening in the comments section?” Reluctantly, I scrolled through what had become a fairly complicated discussion. While the posts began with a severe thrashing of Paul Beatty’s work, the topic of author authenticity immediately came up. By the time I read the last comment, the discussion had covered opinions on Beatty’s intended audience and relative merits, misunderstandings that were quickly clarified, and recommendations for authors and music that handled the topic better. What excited me the most was that the comments even delved into my current fascination with author authenticity. With a quick scroll of the page, questions arose regarding the standards of gatekeepers within the African-American literary community. One even went as far to state that, much like Monk himself, Beatty was both the self-aware victim having to cater to a low-set bar, and a willing manifestation of the irony: a black man preaching about the limitations of his culture while shoveling a story that fails to advance the discussion in a relevant way. Sure, they weren’t able to solve the issue in 21 comments, but in having the discussion alongside the article that sparked the discussion, there was a reasonably clear exchange of ideas and ideals. It would be in this platform that My Pafology, even after clearing the first two hurdles of the author’s ethics and publishers’ close-mindedness, would have been eviscerated by avid and watchful readers.
In giving us the fall of Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, Percival Everett was forcing us to question whether it was possible to clearly define the African-American experience in our country. The intervening 15 years have seen further missteps as we try to determine the answer. But the conversation is moved forward, however discordantly, by the new guard of people thinking about art and equality. Our world is not like Monk’s, and yes, we have the Internet to thank.