Literature, Authenticity and Race

As Cathy Young observes in a recent essay, the media has not given J. D. Salinger a warm welcome into his centennial year. Two days before the celebrated author’s birthday, the Washington Post took aim at his legacy and relevance, specifically with regard to Catcher in the Rye. According to Ron Charles, “the anxieties of a white heterosexual young man expelled from an expensive prep school” no longer appeal to young audiences.

Charles’s focus on identity feels distinctly modern. His critique relies on two arguments. The first is that, if Salinger wrote Catcher in the Rye today, it would not interest readers. Holden Caulfield isn’t a modern protagonist. People don’t want to read about white people anymore. In Charles’s view, the modern coming of age story should showcase our diversity. The second is that readers would reject Salinger as a person. His hatred of the spotlight and his unwillingness to engage in marketing would make the modern writer’s life a living nightmare for the reclusive author. And, more importantly, the media would have heavily scrutinized his relationship with Joyce Maynard.

Charles’s two arguments rest on a single misconception: that all authorship is inherently autobiographical. He takes Salinger’s questionable relationship with Maynard as indisputable evidence that his obsession with youth was not entirely innocent. “Salinger’s fiction is even more autobiographical than we thought, and Salinger himself was even loonier than we suspected,” he writes. Instead of Catcher in the Rye, Charles nominates Ben Philippe’s The Field Guide to the North American Teenager as the quintessential modern coming of age tale. Philippe, a black Canadian from Quebec, moved to Austin, Texas in his youth—albeit to pursue an MFA, not attend high school. Still, in Charles’s view, this experience confers authenticity and authority on the text.

Critics and journalists discuss authenticity now more than ever. They talk as if it mattered. Or as if it had ever mattered. But, in fact, all novels are inauthentic. It’s the author’s job to make readers emotionally invest in events that never happened and care about people who don’t exist. If subject and authenticity were enough, history and historical fiction would satiate our literary appetites. Yet they do not. But rising concerns about cultural appropriation, combined with the application of intersectional theory, have thrust the authenticity argument back into the spotlight.

Critics of cultural appropriation often argue that a white person has no right to tell a black story. These critiques date back to at least the 1960s, when William Styron, a white Southerner, wrote The Confessions of Nat Turner, a novel about the leader of a slave revolt. Before Styron, it had not been uncommon for white writers to feature black characters. But his novel told the story of a historical figure and hit shelves just as the Black Power movement became prominent in America. Although critics and readers praised the book, it outraged the black community, who wanted ownership over their people’s stories. In William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond, Styron’s critics accuse him of being a racist and an apologist for racism and of having written an ahistorical novel. According to Stanley Crouch, white writers have since “opted for folding instead of holding, convinced that the challenge of writing across the color line was too big a risk to their careers and their reputations.”

Since then, the boundaries of cultural and racial representation have further closed. Intersectional theory argues that a black man’s experience in America is entirely different from a white man’s: they live in parallel Americas. One life is defined by racism, discrimination and violence; the other by privilege, acceptance and opportunity. One should not write from the other’s perspective because that would not feel authentically black or white. The same is said of male authors who attempt to write female characters. An article in the Guardian articulates this point of view: “so much of femininity is unspoken; moving through the world as a woman, the way you are viewed and treated, your emotions, your approach to your body (not to mention its private, shameful functions and rebellions) involve subtleties and complexities that are often unarticulated, even sometimes between women themselves.” How could a man hope to describe what they do not—and cannot—know?

From this perspective, Catcher in the Rye is, in its essence, about “the anxieties of a white heterosexual young man expelled from an expensive prep school.” Caulfield interacts with the world as a white boy. His conversations with adults are largely those of one white person to another. In the 1950s, black people didn’t worry about expulsion; there were no prep schools that wanted them. LGBTQ+ people repressed their sexual identity. And the women’s rights movement had just ended. Holden meanwhile defends the innocence of a straight white male.

Requiring authors to stay in their lane with relation to identity and experience harms those authors from marginalized groups who wish to write characters and tell stories unrelated to politics and oppression. Among Colson Whitehead’s eight published novels are a novel about a post-apocalyptic zombie world and a history of New York City, yet it was The Underground Railroad, a novel about race, that earned him a National Book Award. As Tracey M. Lewis-Giggetts writes,

it’s commonly believed that ‘good’ writing by black authors is birthed from oppression, and marginalization is viewed as a key marker for black literature. This implies a direct link between the authenticity of the literature and the sociological and political perspectives of African Americans.

The list of black writers who’ve won the National Book Award for Fiction strengthens her argument. While more black authors are finding themselves nominated than ever before, those who have won—Whitehead, Ralph Ellison, Charles Johnson, Jesmyn Ward and James McBride—all write about black oppression.

Historically, great writers have been recognized for their abilities. Saul Bellow is praised for his style, Oscar Wilde for the beauty of his prose, Fyodor Dostoevsky for his philosophy. However, for a long time, there were no great black writers. Western society was racist. When the first group of black writers emerged, they wrote about racism and oppression— understandably so, given their environment. And critics rightly celebrated their works as brilliant attacks on an unjust society. But we make a mistake if we remember those writers for their subject matter instead of their talents. James Baldwin receives praise for his polemics against racial injustice, Ellison for writing about oppression. That they were among the greatest prose writers of their century is a footnote, scribbled in the margins of history. Instead of rectifying that mistake and recognizing the literary talent of black writers, we focus on a writer’s identity and his choice of subject. On campus, professors and students dismiss the western canon as dead, white men as no longer worth reading. Raskolnikov drops out of university and murders a woman out of spite. Augie March uses his whiteness to gallivant around America. In this reading, there’s nothing more to these stories than exists on the surface.

To look at works of art in such terms is to be cross-eyed, to fail to appreciate their beauty. Great literature surpasses its subject. Catcher in the Rye is not only about a white teenager. Holden Caulfield represents a set of feelings and ideas that a wide range of people can relate to. He resists the adult world. He pushes back against the artificial and sentimental, in search of people living authentically. Telling a story that conveys a universal feeling was once the goal of fiction. That’s why the book remains popular sixty-seven years after its publication. Likewise, Ian McEwan’s novel, Saturday, is about a single day in the life of a neurosurgeon—not exactly a thrilling subject. People don’t read the book to experience a neurosurgeon’s weekend. They read it for McEwan’s sentence-level mastery, the weaving together of multiple story lines and the beautiful, overarching metaphor. Parents of grown children have felt Henry Perowne’s excitement and nervousness as he prepares to see his daughter, who has been away at university. They’ve experienced the melancholy sensation of watching your child leave the family home for the last time. And young adults can relate to the nervous energy of starting a new chapter in one’s life. Though the novel touches on what, at the time, were current subjects—the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Iraq war, religious fundamentalism—those parts of the book date it, more than add to it.

The current method of promoting marginalized writers suggests that their identity is more important than their subject. Not only are the authors writing about oppression the only ones winning awards, they are the only ones receiving write-ups in the media. When the New York Times publishes a list such as “15 Books to Read by Black Female American Writers,” the authors are rarely celebrated for writing about anything other than race issues.

Freedom produces beauty: freedom from slavery, freedom from oppression, freedom to think and freedom to create. White writers should follow in the tradition of Herman Melville, Mark Twain, William Faulkner and Harper Lee and write novels featuring black, gay, female and Latino characters. And a writer from a minority background should not feel the pressure to write about her oppression, if a story about a girl at a lake has captivated her imagination.

There are times when identity-driven literature is needed. But people connect to a novel through its themes. That authors should not stray too far from their identities and lived experiences implies that our differences are more important than our similarities, and that those differences cannot be reconciled.

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10 comments

  1. Never understood the big deal about Catcher in the Rye or why anyone would choose it as their favorite story. It is a book foisted on students to read like a few others in academic environments, e.g. Lord of the Flies, The Scarlet Letter, To Kill a Mockingbird. Those classics are not current time relatable experiences but offered much more valuable human insights than the Catcher in the Rye story. Hopefully, today’s academic studies offer a more diverse cultural authorship of mandatory reads—authors who teach beyond a racial heritage but give us stories on what makes us alike as humans and how to be more kind amid the shallow differences.

  2. The author had a reasonable piece going until he reduced Ralph Ellison to someone who writes about “oppression.” Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” is arguably be best American novel written and one of the greatest tributes to the individual spirt. Yes, the invisible man was born into oppression, but the novel deals with this experience on the most humane level. It would be far more accurate to label Richard Wright and his protest novels to be about “oppression.” Ralph Ellison rejected that kind of writing — killing the father of protest novel, so to speak — and went onto write his masterpiece. And the fact that the author lumps Ellison with these mediocre writers of today is an insult.

  3. these woke people must not think very much of other races and genders if they think it’s impossible for them to identify with characters that don’t look like them, or have different lived experiences.

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  4. There are universals of human experience: love, family, disaster, illness, nature, the chaos of war. If black writers can only write about oppression, are they forbidden to write a love story? Can a white person no longer write a story with multiple characters from different lands/races? Are all stories now to be single race? And if a man cannot write about women, then who will write love stories or about families? We all as humans have a powerful ability to empathize and to imagine. If a man creates a female character that does not work, criticize him for his failure, not for his trying.

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  5. I must admit, re-reading The Catcher in the Rye a few years ago I was rather disappointed. When I was younger, I always re-read it within a few hours and very much identified myself with Holden Caulfield, while now I had trouble going on reading and mainly thought him someone full of judgments who largely made life unnecessary complicated for himself.
    But really, ‘heterosexual white boy’. A serious paper writing about literature in those terms, or rather, seeing those terms as determinant about the quality of a book, totally disqualifies itself and shows it has no clue at all what makes good art good art.

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  6. All very good points. I know this particular black person was deeply affected by reading Catcher in the Rye during that early-teenager period of my life, though I’m not sure in a good way!

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  7. There’s a reductio ad absurdum that follows on your good point. The cliche of the day is “stay in your line.” It can be a banal tag line for the bad idea of cultural appropriation (as opposed to cultural misappropriation, on which it would be better to focus.) What defines a lane, its boundaries? Since it involves being in one’s art true to one’s own experience, then how does anyone write about anything except their own experience? That absurd logical conclusion, I argue, puts the boots to the inherent self refutation in cultural appropriation.

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    1. That last sentence doesn’t read correctly.

      Better to say simply ….I argue, exposes the inherent self refutation in cultural appropriation….

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