Recently I observed to a passing tape recorder that I was once a famous novelist. When assured, politely, that I was still known and read, I explained myself. I was speaking, I said, not of me personally but of a category to which I once belonged that has now ceased to exist. I am still here but the category is not. To speak today of a famous novelist is like speaking of a famous cabinetmaker or speedboat designer. Adjective is inappropriate to noun. How can a novelist be famous—no matter how well known he may be personally to the press?—if the novel itself is of little consequence to the civilized, much less to the generality? The novel as teaching aid is something else, but hardly famous.Keith Gessen, one of the editors of n+1, an arts and culture journal out of New York, came across a post I wrote last year in response to a lousy op-ed by one Thomas Chatterton Williams. Keith kindly pointed out that I'm a regular asshole--not his phrase, to be sure--for making fun of the guy's name (I do have to cop to that charge), and he pointed me to a recent article on the same theme by the same author in his magazine's latest number. I said that I'd give it a read and give it a go and leave the cheap shots aside. Younz've been bugging me for more literary muckety-muck anyway, so here it is.
There is no such thing as a famous novelist now, any more than there is such a thing as a famous poet. I use the adjective in the strict sense. According to authority, to be famous is to be much talked about, usually in a favorable way. It is as bleak and inglorious as that.
-Gore Vidal, from Point to Point Navigation
Williams' begins with an aside Borges once made in his correspondence, which Williams paraphrases for us:
Negroes had failed to produce a “universal culture” – like that of the ancient Greeks, the English, the Arabs, the Chinese, the Jews – because they could offer nothing of equal worth to the rest of the world, they were therefore in a sense inferior.Cultural universalism is an inherently questionable merit. I'll tell you frankly that it doesn't exist. The "universal culture" of the Jews, just for instance, really means the literary products of a few European Holocaust survivors and East Coast Americans, none of which has much currency in Lahore or Delhi or Kigali or Beijing. If "universal" means Euro-American critical plaudits, fine, but it hardly seems a strict or accurate use of the word. It is, in any case, a misdirection. What Williams is really writing is a rehash of the standard critique of black American culture: that it fails the test of seriousness and produces only the base and the vulgar, and that when a great artist like Ralph Ellison (Williams' main example) appears, other blacks shun and ostracize him.
I chose that quotation from Vidal's latest memoir because it stands in commonsensical contrast to a central strand of Williams' essay, which goes like this:
To be sure, this is by no means a uniquely black phenomenon. From Benjamin Franklin to Paris Hilton, white America has genuflected most ardently and most often at the altar of materialism. And with the institution of slavery whites hit rock bottom, reducing man himself to mere commodity. The problem for black America, then, is not one of kind but one of proportion: whereas white America has produced its William Faulkners, Frank Lloyd Wrights, Ralph Waldo Emersons, Harvard Universities, Edmund Wilsons, New Yorkers, etc., to serve as hefty counterbalances to the Lindsay Lohans, Donald Trumps, and John D. Rockefellers it creates – i.e., there is a small but healthy highbrow tradition set in place – black America is all too skewed in the direction of P Diddy and the vulgar, without the benefit of adequate opposing forces. Anyone willing to spend an hour in the company of Black Entertainment Television or to venture into the “Urban” section of the bookstore could argue that today black culture has lapsed into a greater provincialism than ever before. It would not be hard to argue that.No indeed, it would not be hard to argue that, which is perhaps why so many lazy people make this same lazy argument. The idea that the occasional great writer and architect "serve[s] as a hefty counterbalance" to the depredations of "materialism"--Williams' word--is perfectly silly. The art that they produce may be a palliative to the few of us who care, but it's hardly a cure for our infamous cultural malaise. Anyone willing to spend an hour watching prime time network television would see a white culture even more hopelessly depraved than its black counterpart, such as the racial distinction even retains meaning in popular entertainment. Is it worse to shake booty and wear diamonds on one's teeth than to eat grubs while wading in a tub of feces for a 10 grand in prize money? I doubt it. It is often true that high art outlives and transcends its times, but by that standard Ralph Ellison's admirers have little to worry about. Anyway, the truth is that a hundred El Grecos do not abrogate the Inquisition, no matter how much we might wish it were so. One thing I have learned about transcendence is that it doesn't dig into our dirty reality, but flies from it.
In making his case for the general lowness of black culture, Williams makes a big deal out of the nastiness Ellision faced from other blacks in his lifetime, and the posthumous hostility many--including other artists and writers--continue to show. But of course, Ellison was a tremendous dickhead to other black artists, intellectuals, and activists in his lifetime, a fact that Williams readily admits. His distance from the political struggles of his day is understandable. It was Joyce himself who wrote that great art requires cunning, exile, and wit. But with necessary exile comes predictable opprobium. Joyce may be an Irish hero today, but be assured that plenty condemned him for claiming the native mantle while scribbling in Zurich and Trieste. I fear that Williams is trying to turn Ellison's petulance into a sort of martyrdom. It won't fly.
He has other points to make as well, all variations on this same theme. The black community at large did not support jazz, for instance.
Even jazz music, the most widely respected and acknowledged black contribution to world culture and one of the great modernisms of the 20th century, was not primarily consumed or supported by other blacks. The poet and critic Lorenzo Thomas has noted that black artists and jazz musicians were measurably isolated from the wider African-American community and therefore subject to overwhelming outside influence from white critics.This is true, but deployed dishonestly. All modernisms were consumed principally by a narrow group of particular taste and education. The notion that the black community in toto failed to support jazz is tendentious in the extreme. The fact that only a self-selective community supported it is accurate, but it is also accurate that the imagists and the cubists and the modernist poets were "measurably isolated from the wider" Anglo-American community. To use the lumpen failure to appreciate the noblest work of the creative mind in condemning the cultural affinities of a particular race is nothing but a cheap shot.
Near the end of the essay, Williams utters his cri de coeur:
Things have changed since the publication of Invisible Man (though perhaps they have not changed enough). Since those early post-war years blacks have had a profound and alienating experience in the great American cities, an experience which the rest of the world has primarily learned of through rappers and entertainers. This experience has been alluded to, sometimes with skill, in the fragmentary poetry of Grandmaster Flash, Nas, Gang Starr, and so many others – but as the pools of critical ink that continue to spill over the long-deceased rapper Tupac Shakur might indicate, the field of genuine description is still very much open. Who will describe this experience in something more than mere fragments? Who will piece this complex black reality together at the highest level of art?This from a man who was writing about modernisms! The profoundly alienating experiences of the post-war years of the 1920s was expressed most deeply in the "fragmentary poetry" of the modernists, of Joyce and of Eliot. The Wasteland was nothing but fragments. The highest literary art of the last century was driven by a rejection of authorial omniscience in favor of displacement, dislocation, fragmentation, and subjectivity. The bulk of hip-hop may be commercial crap, but the best of it is in that same tradition. It may not be much in evidence on major record labels, but it's all over the internet, in cafés, clubs, and coffee houses. If it still lacks in critical appreciation, perhaps the relentless attacks by critics like Thomas Chatterton Williams have something to do with it. If Joyce could write about sniffing Molly Bloom's shitty drawers, then by god a man ought to be able to rap about fucking.