The Confessions of Nat Turner

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I’m Suspicious of Empathy: The Millions Interviews Jess Row

Reading Jess Row’s White Flights: Race, Fiction, and the American Imagination is like reading three books in one. The first book is a memoir of Row’s artistic coming of age. The second book is a scholarly critique of white writing and how work by people of color is excluded, ignored, and otherwise neglected. The third book is a meditation on aesthetics, craft, and ideology in creative writing. All three books are imbricated in a way that the seams are hidden but felt.

I especially was taken with Row’s chapter on American Minimalism and the overarching and lasting (but eroding) influence of Gordon Lish. My interest lay in a compelling argument Row makes about Lish’s influence on minimalist writers like Raymond Carver, Bobbie Ann Mason, Amy Hempel, and Richard Ford. He claims minimalist writers aren’t “able to relax into something larger, even into idiomatic speech: the consecution method doesn’t permit that…What they are performing is a Morse code, a telegraphic effect: this is how we live, this is what the present entails. And: this is all that the present entails.”

Row and I talked recently about minimalism, race, empathy, and White Flights.

The Millions: Is White Flights a project built around empathy?

Jess Row: No, I don’t think so. I’m suspicious of empathy for a lot of the reasons you see coming up in books like Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams. There was a great roundtable about empathy published in The Boston Review several years ago. And in it was this psychologist, Paul Bloom. His basic critique of empathy is that it tends to focus our political thinking on objects that we feel an immediate emotional connection with, and it excludes beings and subjects we don’t feel a direct emotional connection with. There are a lot of people in the world of creative writing who put empathy at the center of their thinking about why literature is important and why fiction is important. My thinking about that is always a little more skeptical. Obviously, when you create literary characters, to some degree you’re looking for a connection, a recognition of the fictional consciousness of the character, if you’re in that realm of psychological realism. But I always think that using empathy as a justification is too simple. It requires some clarification about what empathy means.

TM: Because the idea there is empathy is self-directed. It doesn’t come from outside of you.

JR: Yeah, empathy is also circumstantial. To some degree, social media feeds on this quality. If you’re constantly seeing things popping up in your feed about some outrage in the world, it could be they’re designed by the algorithm for other reasons not having to do with creating any narrative or hierarchy of meaning. You could have someone being cruel to kittens and have widespread environmental destruction or homes destroyed in East Jerusalem. In other words, empathy can create a distorted sense of where your attention should be in the world. It’s easy to manipulate in that way.

TM: The question is: Between logos, pathos, and ethos. Which one do you think is being used most? Overwhelmingly, it’s the emotional appeal, pathos. I wonder how much pathos is behind empathy, as opposed to, say, logic or credibility.

JR: One thing I write about in the book (very briefly) is the three definitions of love in Christianity, which come from classical Greek thought. Philia-love, romantic love, and agape-love. This is something that Martin Luther King talked about all the time. When he talked about racism in the United States, he constantly talked about the importance of defining your terms when you talk about love and racism. You’re not just talking about philia-love. You’re obviously not talking about romantic love. He said you always have to be talking about agape. You have to be talking about the largest concept of love. Cornel West says, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” That’s a great way of summing up agape in the black prophetic Christian tradition.

TM: You write “white American writers are almost never asked to bring their own sadness or their own bodies into play when writing about race or racism; their dreams, their sources of shame, their most nightmarish or unacceptable or crippling fantasies”—but it also seems that fear is to blame, because who wants to have a tin ear or come off sounding hurtful. Though, you also write that, “dealing with shame is meaningful.” Do you see fear playing a role like shame?

JR: What you say is important. They’re definitely connected. I think fear of being exposed as being insensitive or being exposed as being racist or just not thoughtful in your speech or whatever—I would say that fear is absolutely debilitating for white people, writers, teachers.

But I also think there’s a culture that sustains that feeling of paranoia: “No matter what you say, or try to engage in, you’re going to be criticized.” That’s why I say that I think that it’s really important to look at those feelings directly and ask yourself, Where did those feeling come from? Who is it that’s telling you that you can’t win? Who is it that’s encouraging these feeling of paranoia? And: For whom are those feelings politically useful?

In an academic setting, that paranoia around race is extremely useful to the institution because it enables administrators and leaders to essentially treat racial justice and questions around it as an area of diversity that can be farmed out to the vice president of diversity or whatever. And the rest of us don’t have to think about it.

Essentially, you hire people to do the uncomfortable work of raising awareness about these feelings and you yourself are feeling like you’re not—you, the white administration or professor or department chair—are not able to do anything about it because you’re afraid of saying the wrong thing. That paranoia is structurally built into the institution.

TM: Do you find that Lish’s minimalist aesthetic, through what you describe as “beautiful shame,” fetishized the poor or the downtrodden?

JR: I think those two things are related. And it’s always what I say about Lish: he pressured Carver to remove the direct reference to his own background. I think that Gordon Lish himself was never interested in fetishizing rural poverty, because I think his aesthetic interests were so different. His interests were late modern, Gertrude Stein, an obsession with the sentence as a self-fulfilling object. He was able to create this artistic aura, this sense of existential inner-poverty that translated easily to American literary culture into a larger way of fetishizing poor white people as the authentic or raw voices.

TM: That reminds me of Sarah Palin talking about the “real America” back in 2008.

JR: The fetishizing of the dirty realists in the 1980s, Tobias Wolff, John Dufresne, Richard Ford. Annie Proulx’s first book Heart Songs is in this category. A lot of things came together at same time: Lish’s approach to realism, the overwhelming popularity of Raymond Carver. But you also had the Reagan era, white American retrenchment, there was a broader cultural interest in white working-class authenticity that you have in Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp. If you look at Mellencamps’s hits, “Pink Houses,” “Small Town,” “Jack & Diane”—white t-shirts and blue jeans. That’s part of a wave of fetishization of American rural life that started in the post-war era and really flowered with the baby boomers because so many of them were moved away from that life. As soon as that way of life began to fade, it became a fetish for the up-and-coming suburban bourgeois class.

TM: Who would be an example of an author who goes past the fear and beautiful shame? You mention Dorothy Allison and Allan Gurganus as examples back in the 1980s and 1990s. What about today?

JR: The landscape of American fiction is fractured as compared to how it used to be. You don’t have one aesthetic that’s nearly as dominant as the minimalist aesthetic was in the 1980s. Are you asking about specifically white writers who are going beyond shame?

TM: Yes. I mean, I’m taking your book to be a call to stronger self-reflection, as a challenge. That is, for writers to ask, “In my next story, how will I deal with shame?” I’ve been super self-conscious about who I could write. I’m like a vestigial Platonist, a latent essentialist. I read you claiming that we need to stop thinking there’s an essentialist aspect to writing others.

JR: When you talk about being a vestigial Platonist, you have to think about Plato’s critique of poetry in The Republic. This is a central tension in Western aesthetics. Plato hated the idea of mimesis and mimetic art because of what you’re saying. It is anti-essential. If an essence can be replicated, what is it? Do we need it?

The central challenge in fiction is representing other lives and consciousnesses. That’s always the core artistic challenge. I think that, in some ways, American fiction writers have essentially sort of sat back and avoided the central artistic question that should’ve been discussed in the 1960s and 1970s: Given that the country is becoming so equal and more egalitarian (superficially, anyway) and poly-cultural, how do fiction writers deal with that? That was a big subject of American fiction in the early 20th century. Along with the kinds of cities there were and new immigrants, there was all this discussion of the social novel and naturalism. What happened after 1970 in American fiction is things went radically the other way, especially in the highbrow white aesthetic universe. Nobody wanted to talk about that stuff. No one wanted to talk about the crisis of representation. There were all these postmodern systems novels and the New Minimalists, but even the most ambitious novelists, like Don DeLillo, were flattening, reducing, altering, and manipulating surface difference to create some otherworldly universe.

No one was interested in the basic question about how you write a novel where a Chinese immigrant women falls in love with a black man from Mississippi. No one wrote that novel. That novel should’ve been written in the late ’80s. But that novel didn’t make the front page of The New York Times Book Review. People are writing that now. Atticus Lish’s novel Preparation for the Next Life is a little bit like that, which is ironic. In some ways, the central artistic question hasn’t been discussed because writers are always so weighted down with fear, paranoia, and anger, legitimate anger about the bad attempts at racial representation that have happened in the past.

TM: Do you think the blowback over William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967) had something to do with that?

JR: I do. I wrote about this in the book a tiny bit. I’ve written about Styron and Nat Turner before. That was a huge thing for me. When I was 17, in my first writing workshop, my teacher told us, an all-white class, that white writers cannot write about race because Nat Turner proved that we will be punished for doing so. He was expressing the conventional wisdom at the time in his circles. This was 1992. The teacher of the class, Lee Abbott, a wonderful person, who knew Ray Carver and Richard Ford, was a short story writer very much of that time, of the late ’80s and ’90s. He was essentially expressing the literary consensus of the white American creative writing community. Of course, that had a huge effect on me. It basically convinced me that I could not do that. I spent years trying to write in an all-white way.

TM: Whatever “writing in a white way” means, right?

JR: Yeah. In my case, what it meant was relying only on white models. It meant I went through all of 20th-century American fiction and picked out the white prominent writers and tried to read all of them and tried to ignore everyone else. That was what was being taught in creative writing classes. I went to graduate school at the University of Michigan from 1999 to 2001, which is, in the greater scheme of things, not long ago. I don’t believe there was a single text by an African-American author taught in any of my classes. Maybe one in a craft class. One or two; that’s it. Nobody, none of my teachers in fiction workshop, made any but the most sort of marginal reference to a black writer.

TM: Five years later in the MFA program at Washington University in St. Louis, I definitely had African-American writers and writers of color included in my workshops and courses.

JR: You’re lucky. The way that I teach fiction workshops now couldn’t be more different, self-consciously so. Not just in racial representation but in looking at different aesthetics, which wasn’t really done much in any of my writing workshops. I never had a teacher who encouraged us to work with experimental texts.

TM: You mention how writers “outside of whiteness” use white writing as an anti-metaphysics. Like Colson Whitehead adopting DeLillo’s style in The Intuitionist or Monique Trong’s The Book of Salt. I think about when I first read Toni Morrison and wondered, “How in the hell do I learn to write like her? How can I do what she does?” And after reading your book, I wonder, about the reverse way that writers of color, borrowing rhetorical styles from white writers, can operate backwards, for white writers to work within African-American and non-white rhetorical styles?

JR: I think it’s hugely important for white writers to talk about how influenced they are by writers of color. It doesn’t happen nearly enough. The only way to start talking about American literature as a whole literature is to talk about the interplay among the different voices, and that just doesn’t happen enough. I talk about that issue in the book in many places. For me it came up so vividly when I read James Baldwin and was so intensely captivated by his novel Another Country. I said to my wife, “I want to write a novel exactly like this.”

That is a crucial artistic step forward, acknowledging the influence—and it should be obvious and go without saying, but it isn’t obvious and it doesn’t go without saying. Toni Morrison is held up as a larger-than-life person, an icon (which is all true), but for fiction writers she’s so important because of her technical skill and stylistic, artistic skill. As a humanist voice, yes, she’s important, but for fiction writers, it’s that she’s so good at writing. Her technical abilities and her innovations are hugely influential. When I read Beloved for the first time, which was not until graduate school, I suddenly understood why so many other writers I had seen were doing things or using the chapter beginnings or the kind of voice that they were using. “Oh, it’s because they’re influenced by Toni Morrison!”

This strikes me all the time whenever I hear discussions about American memoir and hybrid texts. “Is a memoir actually fiction?” Someone no one ever talks about is Maxine Hong Kingston. The Woman Warrior is the text that invented the modern American memoir, the text that started the whole movement toward so much of what is happening today. That text only gets acknowledged as quote-unquote multicultural literature. And, of course, it’s vital for Chinese-American culture. But for writers, it has so much to teach us about the overlay between autobiographical narrative and fictional narrative, and she does it so openly and skillfully, weaves in and out so skillfully.

Everybody should be learning from that—that should be the center of the canon.

Darkness to Light: Alexandra Styron’s Reading My Father

The most startling fact of William Styron’s existence is that it ended naturally. Suicide is the subject of his first novel, Lie Down in Darkness, a Faulknerian tragedy set in the aftermath of Hiroshima, which made him instantly famous at 26, and of Darkness Visible, his revealing and revered late-in-life memoir about the 1985 depression that found him on the cusp of pulling the trigger.

A second depressive episode would strike in 2000, and these two calamities constitute the sturdiest pillars of Reading My Father, Alexandra Styron’s memoir of the novelist she called “Daddy.” She notes that though the official cause of his death in 2006 was pneumonia, “Drowning would probably have been more appropriate,” given the anguish that engulfed him whenever he was not writing or drinking.

William Styron was from that virile mid-century caste of writer-warriors of which few remain; literature, meanwhile, has been relegated from the bar stool to the seminar table. George Plimpton, for whose Paris Review Styron was an early contributor, died in 2003; Norman Mailer, who once warned Styron that he would “stomp out of you a fat amount of yellow and treacherous shit” over some unflattering gossip, died in 2007.

Styron is more elusive, a Southerner who loved Connecticut and Martha’s Vineyard and whose most memorable characters are entirely unlike him: a Catholic Holocaust survivor in Sophie’s Choice(his greatest novel) and a slave in the Confessions of Nat Turner (his most controversial).

As his daughter writes in Reading My Father, he was eternally occupied with the “dispossessed, disaffected, condemned to die, unable to die.” The confessional of Philip Roth was not for him: Only in his sixties did Styron turn to his own story, confronting demons (his mother’s fatal cancer foremost among them) that fiction and bourbon had muzzled.

Like many nurtured in the penumbra of genius, Alexandra Styron got a good story out of her privations. At twelve she totes Sophie’s Choice to school, only to be arrested by the novel’s lush sexuality. Arriving at “the bone-rigid stalk of my passion,” she slams it shut and, deciding that “Daddy didn’t actually do these things,” does not return until her late 30’s.

This episode was first recounted in a fine remembrance Styron (who has a novel, All the Finest Girls, to her name) wrote for the New Yorker in 2007. Reading My Father, an expansion of that article, attempts to combine self-searching memoir and literary biography, with only partial success.

For one, much of her father’s early life (Virginia, the Marines, Duke, New York) was recounted in a solid, authorized 1998 biography by James L. West III. The comparison to West would be unfair if it were not so obvious: Reading My Father recycles much of his material without improving on it.

But Styron’s child’s-eye-view is not without its triumphs, either, endearing the reader most when she is observing (and, often, pouring wine for) the resplendent characters who consort with her father and his poet-activist wife, Rose Burgunder: “Jimmy” Baldwin, Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Miller. To a teacher she announces, “Joan Baez was at my house last night.”

But despite her father’s prominence, Alexandra Styron says that he lived a “hunted and haunted” existence. He regularly focused his rage on the author, the youngest of his four children, berating her for being “a fucking princess” or suddenly emptying the house of junk food.

His later years were spent trying to replicate the success of Nat Turner and Sophie’s Choice with a war novel, The Way of the Warrior, that went through three drafts but remained unfinished. As Styron neared 60, frustration curdled into depression, culminating with him on the edge of suicide, only to be pulled back by “some last of sanity” (as he would later write in Darkness Visible) that brought him to the safety of Yale-New Haven Hospital.

A grown woman struggling to make her way in Los Angeles as an actress, Styron can now see her father with the fullness of vision missing from earlier chapters. Anyone familiar with mental illness will identify with her “almost surreal sensation of watching, up ahead of me, my once imposing father shuffle sadly down the sterile hallway, toward the locked door of the mental ward.”

There follow fifteen calmer years of Styron “squarely looking at himself,” writing finally about his own past in the story collection A Tidewater Morning. But while self-knowledge is restorative, it is hardly an armor. In 2000, depression again bowls him over. There are poignant scenes in Reading My Father of Styron panicking on an airplane, sinking into paranoid delusions (“I wonder if any of these hotels has a direct line to the Vatican”), berating his daughters as “sluts.” Finding her father “essentially ungovernable” until electroconvulsive therapy provides relief, Styron gives a refreshingly unvarnished account of how frustrating it is to play caretaker to madness.

But maybe Styron’s mind gave out only because it had been so completely engrossed in the creative process for so long. There is a lesson in Reading My Father for today’s writers, weaned as they are on the MFA’s anodyne comforts: “Writing is a matter…[of] dogging yourself to death,” he once said. They don’t teach that in workshop.

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