The Problem with American Fiction, Part I

It all started with reading George Saunders’ very well-written story The Semplica-Girl Diaries.

It’s an old debate — many of you have, at some point, thought or read about it. We can name it Achebe vs. Conrad or Jane Smiley vs. Mark Twain. Some may prefer Margins vs. Center; others view it as Alternative vs. Canon. The point, or the puzzle, I hope to discuss, as I confront it, appears to be a liberal problem in American fiction.

The Nigerian-born Chinua Achebe, the author of Things Fall Apart, took on Joseph Conrad and his anti-colonial premise in an essay An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, pointing out that the novel’s self-obsession with the white man’s moral failings was carried out at the cost of depicting Africans from a racist mindset. (That some from the third world, previously colonized countries tend to prefer Conrad’s lens when seeing Africa is another important subject which should be independently dealt with.) Achebe added that teaching such a book to Africans in Africa did more damage than good. There are points in the novel where it is difficult to separate the racist projections of the protagonist from those of the author. Failing to lend an African character meaningful words, rendering his sounds similar to those of an animal, to primordial shrieks, is the author’s failure to exercise the only generosity he is capable of: giving voice to the voiceless.

One often encounters, in fiction written by white American authors, a problem, a peculiar reluctance, to visualize a need, even an obligation, to allow the marginalized the possession of a voice when the narrative is trying to critique the American political and social system — especially when related to racism and the empire. And shifting the focus to the self, unconsciously or subconsciously, to avoid disquiet to the general literary readership, is, again, a crucial by-product of the problem I have mentioned above. That peculiar hesitation to lend agency to the other the author hopes to show in a sympathetic light is the liberal problem, further exacerbated by the structure of inequality upheld by the custodians of our literary establishment. Also, why does it persist?

There are points in the novel where it is difficult to separate the racist projections of the protagonist from those of the author.

A fellow South Asian American novelist Ranbir Sidhu has pointed out in an article The Literary Oligarchy is Killing Writing, published in The Wire, that white fiction authors, as a rule, are applauded for stretching the imagination when creating credible non-white characters, a generosity not afforded to non-white authors when they plod through the lives of white people. This is but one form of control regarding how many non-white fiction writers in the US are allowed, with an occasional exception, to add their brushstroke to the American canvas. Conrad, however, could care little for such generosity. Those who have defended Conrad’s work against Achebe’s indictment have drawn attention to the novel’s anti-colonial, liberal moral anchor, to the text’s daring effort to nudge the white man to look in the mirror. African agency is of little concern. Ralph Ellison, too, brings up eloquently a similar issue in his seminal essay The Twentieth-Century Literature and the Black Mask of Humanity, indicting major American authors (Hemingway, Steinbeck, Faulkner) for their ignoring and mistreatment of the African American in their narratives. By the time our collective literary journey reaches David Foster Wallace and his magnum opus Infinite Jest hits the bookstores, very little has changed, although Wallace refuses to see America without its new-found diversity, “he also seems fundamentally incapable of imaging non-white characters in any but subservient or otherwise racist roles,” writes Sean Gandert, the author of Lost in Arcadia, in his essay A Short Meditation on the Whiteness of David Foster Wallace’s Writing for DFW Society website.

Heart of Darkness explores the relationship between the white man’s civilizational achievements and his occasional moral failings. Africa and the African are, precisely, two-dimensional backdrops. In Things Fall Apart Achebe flips the paradigm. Edward Said pointed out similar convulsions among some Israeli “peaceniks” too, notably Amos Oz, in their super-sensitive concern with the damage the occupation might be doing to the Israeli soul, while ignoring the destruction the occupation wreaks day and night on the Palestinian lives. (a side note: Oz’s balcony analogy is a fascinating illustration of reconstructing the Israel/Palestine conflict, painting a fake picture of two balconies facing each other; the reason the two can’t talk is that the Palestinian is always digging tunnels and firing rockets. The Palestinian here is very similar to Conrad’s Africans devoid of the skill or desire to use language. Occupation and apartheid are of little concern to Oz, not to mention that the Palestinian either does not have a balcony or does not have one that’s safe enough not to be hit by a sniper just because the sniper is intent upon improving his kill count.

White fiction authors, as a rule, are applauded for stretching the imagination when creating credible non-white characters, a generosity not afforded to non-white authors when they plod through the lives of white people.

Fast Forward: American novelist Jane Smiley drew the ire of the American literary establishment when she called attention to Mark Twain’s blindspot in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a work of literature canonized by the powers that be. She noted, in her article Say It Ain’t So, Huck! for Harper’s January 1996 issue, that Twain was so preoccupied with exhibiting white America’s innate liberalism — a young white boy and a runaway African American slave journey together down the river, literally into the jaws of danger — that he overlooked a salient reality. Smiley points out that no black with an iota of common sense would have wasted time waxing eloquent while being led the wrong way by a clueless kid, when it was common knowledge that slavery had been outlawed in a neighboring state and all Jim had to do was to swim across to freedom. She has demonstrated in her novel The All-true Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton that despite the liberal or conservative posturing over race, it is Lorna, the slave, whose agency matters most. Smiley mentions Toni Morrison’s writings as one of her influences for contextualizing race in her own fiction. Toni Morrison has written a great deal about how she very consciously went about creating a work of fiction unshackled from the white gaze. She has also criticized fiction by white authors such as Hemingway and Saul Bellow, whose white gaze on race, the black male, and blackness in general, be it in Chicago or Africa, produces a narrative wherein the white Americans live in fear of black anger triggering the white male libido to run amok. Abetting an American tradition, Nina Schuyler’s The Translator (2013), for example, is a peculiar case in point where the two giants of non-western aesthetics, Japan and India, are both deployed in service of the protagonist’s sexual and spiritual fulfillment respectively.

Artistically and morally problematic, that gaze withholds agency from the black dark consciousness, the ultimate other in white American fiction. The stubborn undesirability to let the non-white characters live for themselves renders the white American author a biased arbiter of the human condition to a sensitive and educated eye. It is thus in this context that I felt George Saunders’ story The Semplica-Girl Diaries, included in his critically acclaimed Tenth of December, seemed to negotiate the aforementioned liberal malaise unnoticed by critics and reviewers alike. I offer a short synopsis:

The protagonist lives in a suburban environment with a wife, two girls, Lilly and Eva, and a son. The family would be considered lower middle class by the local standard. They are invited to a birthday party by an affluent family, and among the gadgets on display are the Semplica Girls (the story is written in the form of a diary, hence the title). The SGs, as the females are referred to, are women from the third world countries, the darker continents. With a hole drilled into their heads (painlessly, harmlessly, the diarist explains), they are strung up on a “microline” to serve as decorations. In his words, “SGs up now, approx. three feet off ground, smiling, swaying in slight breeze. Order, left to right: Tami (Laos), Gwen (Moldova), Lisa (Somalia), Betty (Philippines).” Just as his eldest daughter’s birthday approaches and the family doesn’t have enough money, either in cash or credit cards, to throw a decent party, he wins $10,000 in a lottery. Like all loving parents, the father decides to upgrade the house for the birthday party and also rent some Semplica Girls, the ultimate status symbol. Two weeks after the birthday party, the family wakes up to the horror of having the SGs missing, the microline untied. The girls from the dark continents cannot be found, and police suspect the hand of human rights or immigration activists. A representative from the company that had loaned the girls (or are they women?) arrives to assess the situation. He announces the family will have to pay the amount in full now, per agreement, since the borrowed items are considered lost. In the brief time that the representative hangs around the house, Saunders provides him with an ample opportunity to reveal his deeply racist mind. Just before the story nears anti-climax, the family learns that the younger sister Eva (Eve, the first innocence?) was the culprit. The story has the liberal icing on a liberal cake. Closer examination, however, reveals the cake failed to rise fully, reminding me of a literary encounter I once had with a visiting Urdu writer which may have some bearing on our current discussion.

Toni Morrison has written a great deal about how she very consciously went about creating a work of fiction unshackled from the white gaze.

Gathered at a friend’s house in San Jose, California, to meet with this visiting guest, we were rewarded with a live reading. The well-known author read a story that dealt with a highly emotional and humane subject. An incident is reported to the reader by a woman who watches an act of extreme barbarism from her apartment window in a multi-storey building. A newborn is abandoned near a communal trash site; as the children of the locality chance upon the newborn, a priest happens to walk by. The abandoned child is assumed to be outside wedlock and is thus rendered illegitimate. The priest orders the kids to stone the child to death. Despite the gruesome climax to the story which leaves no room for ambiguity with regards to the priest’s religious and moral corruption, the story, I told the author in a frank discussion the next day, didn’t work fully. As we carried on with our conversation, something clicked in my head when she stressed that it was based on a true story. But the narrator, who witnessed the terrible incident, would have lost her mind, I implored, after witnessing the horrific incident so helplessly without protest, without shouting curses at the killers, I added, as per the story’s requisition. Oh! she went.

The incident reported in newspapers had assaulted the author’s liberal self-identification, I realized, and, the pen being mightier than the sword, she had decided to expose the trappings of a religious and conservative mindset. Along the way, the author shows through the narrator, a stand-in for the author’s conscience, that mob mentality develops at a very tender age. The state and home both play a part in creating a society’s robots. Such topics in a lesser hand fail to connect subtle dots. Caught up in her liberal anxieties, she forgot to create a breathing, three-dimensional, morally complex narrator who must respond emotionally to the heinous event unfolding before her eyes. Instead, what sufficed for her was to create a distance between the conservative society and the liberal witness/author. Her worldview was simple: Conservative Society vs. Enlightened Author.

To further dilute the literary culture, equally appalling, however, is the state of reviewing such books in the US.

An argument could be made that the story was not really about the priest’s religious fundamentalism but about the witness, a stand-in for the silent, spineless liberals of the society, who, by their inaction, scuttle progressive literature. This was an unpublished story and it is possible that the author was able to work on it. My intention is not to offer a comparative analysis here, but to show that the similarity between the Urdu story and The Semplica-Girl Diaries points to a common liberal deficiency, which doesn’t recognize man-made borders, and its modern trapping is influenced by capitalism, perhaps even neo-liberalism and globalization, though those factors carry different weights in different societies.

Politically alert, Mr. Saunders offers a critique of America that’s in the clutches of heartless capitalist ethics, where the socio-economic set up impels good-natured people to act foolishly and inhumanely. He is right on the money on that. All one has to do is look at the crisis of homelessness in the affluent US cities, such as San Francisco, the most liberal city of the country, being the worst in terms of economic inequality. Some may agree that class consciousness and peer pressure lead to parental guilt, say, when health-conscious parents may yield to a child’s tantrum and set foot inside a deadly McDonald’s or give in to a child’s frappuccino demand ignoring the risks to her health, though from a progressive point of view patronizing a corporate coffee outlet like Starbucks would also be an act of liberalism.

Although Mr. Saunders’ protagonist is more than a witness, and unlike the Urdu story he is not a stand-in for the author, he reflects the author’s liberal sensibility as the religious bigotry of the Urdu story is replaced with ethnic/racial chauvinism. The Semplica Girls are from darker, once-colonized/subjugated countries. The company’s representative, with his racist vitriol, represents not only the moral decay but the belief in a capitalist system based on exploitation, in this case, the girls/women from other countries, who for economic reasons have “‘allowed” themselves to be shipped here and strung up three feet high, smiling, swaying, for the visual pleasure of those who can afford it. The Girls (braindead?) in Saunders’ hand equate the newborn stoned to death in the Urdu story. As logic would have it, a newborn cannot speak unless it is a miracle. But to withhold vocal expression from the Semplica Girls is an artistic omission, a failure to visualize a possibility, even a necessity to lend speech to the other, can only be facilitated by liberal blinders.

We must examine why certain writers continue not to see their privilege even when attention is called to the adverse effects of their work on the collective consciousness of their readership.

A distinction must be made at this point between a piece with a careful architecture and one that doesn’t meet the building codes. The Urdu story is an example of the latter where the author merely went beyond the newspaper, adding an unreflecting witness. The author’s liberal, albeit feminist, moorings didn’t allow her to let the story grow along progressive lines, like a living organism, stunting the growth of the stand-in witness in the process. If her main purpose was to make the reader feel disgust at the priest and children’s blind following of his dictate, the newspaper clipping alone would have sufficed. Mr. Saunders’ piece, on the other hand, exhibits his command over the craft. Thus, it feels that the power to invite characters from ethnic or racial backgrounds into a serious exploration of a capitalist society and then render them voiceless beckons deeper analysis. This lapse would not be a big deal if the author did not insist on his authorial holier-than-thou anxiety, his narrator’s mild, spineless discomfort, Eva’s rebellion and rebuke at the inhumanity of capitalist commodification of life which can strip common folks like her father of common sense and basic humanity. The author informs us that, as an American writer, he is morally obliged to be burdened by the knowledge of what capitalism under the US imperial wings does when it reaches people beyond her borders. Semplica girls represent those who work in horrible conditions in the cottage industries spread throughout the third world producing things we can afford and consume for our pleasure.

Eva is the essential major ingredient differential in the two stories. There was no Eva anywhere in the Urdu obsessed with painting the priest as evil incarnate. This could simply be due to the structural differences in the two societies. A Pakistani woman, the Urdu writer, does not have to suffer a white man’s guilt and fetishize her liberal credentials, though she is not free of similar burdens. Still, her liberal problems do not necessarily negotiate racism. In contrast, Saunders has lived and done most of his writing in a country and a literary milieu where issues of racism, illegal immigrants, deportations, internment camps, agency, politics of voices from the margins, have been discussed again and again.

To further dilute the literary culture, equally appalling, however, is the state of reviewing such books in the US. To my knowledge so far, based on online research, no reviewer has engaged with the issue of using Semplica Girls as a silent (smiling and swaying) puppets for the exhibition of white literary liberalism. And when, and if, such holes are probed, they are quickly plugged with hocus-pocus.

The establishment, to pat itself on the back to pamper its sense of liberal goodness, allows the little men and women to voice dissent — but intramurally.

Achebe vs. Conrad gets played on several levels. The recent controversy surrounding the publication of the novel American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins illustrates that point. Each phase of the literary establishment’s arrogance creates its own Calibans, who then curse back in the language the establishment understands. The establishment, to pat itself on the back to pamper its sense of liberal goodness, allows the little men and women to voice dissent — but intramurally. That’s how a morally corrupt power structure operates. A writer and critic’s role is to create a crack. That’s why it is crucial to examine and critique good literature, especially when it is put on a pedestal, from varied angles.

Compared to places like Pakistan, where the Urdu writer I mentioned hailed from, the publishing industry in the US is a fully developed corporate enterprise. The literature that is produced under its benevolence assimilates and resists the forces that produced it. The tenacity of the liberal problem is born out of the imbalance between assimilation and resistance. Granted, no society is perfect, and that applies to its fiction writers, but we must examine why certain writers continue not to see their privilege even when attention is called to the adverse effects of their work on the collective consciousness of their readership. I will explore further the issues I have raised in the next installment. Stay tuned.

Photo by leszekglasner/Adobe Stock


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By Salvatore Difalco



By Salvatore Difalco