A recent essay by Phoebe Maltz Bovy in The New Republic (illustrated with obligatory unflattering photo of David Foster Wallace) highlighted something I hadn’t really noticed: the association of “the white male writer” with the idea of being “pretentious.” She rejects that idea, I think rightly.
“Pretentious” highlights how writers of any other background have long been categorized as unserious. . . . As long as mainstream society keeps bestowing a monopoly on universality to one particular demographic, there’s a certain joy in mocking writers of the demographic in question for collective (if not necessarily individual; more on that, too, in a moment) presumptuousness.
The specific cliché that’s emerged for the White Male Writer subverts the whole Seriousness thing, reframing it instead as self-seriousness—which is, of course, how Seriousness appears from the outside. Rather than insisting that people of all backgrounds can produce universal, canon-worthy art, branding white, male writers as pretentious mocks the (ridiculous) idea that only white men can write profoundly. . . .
For White Male Writers™ rhetoric to work as a strategy, it would need to inspire otherwise aloof readers to consider that, hey, not all black writers, female writers, black female writers, etc., are the same, either. But it seems unlikely to me that terribly many of the unconvinced would make that leap. As with other™ arguments (such as, Nice Guys™, White Feminists™), starting from a hyperbolic generalization has a way of putting off even the potentially convinced. In this particular case, though, it’s particularly hard to attribute this to defensiveness. Precisely because white men have been in a position of relative advantage in the literary sphere (among others) for so long, it’s just too obviously impossible to categorize all white male writers as White Male Writers™. The majority of mainstream literature can’t be summed up as Sartre pondering existence in a Parisian café, and it certainly can’t be reduced to the musings of that guy in your dorm who fancied himself a Writer because he’d spent more than the usual amount for a notebook.
She’s right that the stereotype of “White Male Writer” just reproduces a certain idea of literature as deeply impressionistic existentialist musings, an idea that’s long been out of date. She’s also right (in the part I didn’t quote) that it isn’t actually helpful to writers who are neither white males nor pretentious. The kind of writing being disparaged does, however, exist, and a lot of people actually don’t like it. (I do, a lot of the time.) This may be because it seems impersonal or inhumane, abstract or unemotional; or it may be because it seems antipolitical, unserious, overimaginative, or unconcerned with the realities of life. It may be because it’s just not the kind of thing they like. And it’s reasonable that people who don’t like it get annoyed when it continues to be so valorized—and even more annoyed by the fact that it so often (especially when most valorized) is written by white males, and by those who can come off as in a sense pretentious.
But I think a lot of the annoyance comes from an idea about the reasons why books by people who aren’t White and Male, and who don’t write the kind of thing Bovy’s making fun of there, aren’t valued in the same way. Here are a couple possible reasons, to start:
All serious pursuits are male. Just to get it out of the way. So there’s this thing called Serious Literature, and it’s written by men, and anything women write isn’t Serious Literature, and their meddling is unwanted by anyone.
Real literature is essentially male. It has something to do with the way men are situated in the world. Or the way men experience sex, whether or not they sublimate lust into a desire for something in some “higher,” mental realm. Or the way men are integrated into civil society, and live in the public, rather than the private, realm. Or the supposed idea that women are social and men are individualistic, and that men (but not women) react to society and put their alienation into art. Or something.
I think those are the usual ones. There are a couple more, though, that might have come into currency more recently.
There are two kinds of literature, and one kind (the better one) can only be practiced by well-off white men. This seems at first to be the “real literature” argument, but it isn’t, quite. There’s more than one way to divide things up under this argument. You can set up a category for literature that pursues a sophisticated kind of aestheticism, primarily, and another category for literature that describes real things in a real world, in a way that helps people understand those unlike them in places that may be far away. This could be something like Richard Rorty’s division of art into Nabokov’s kind and Dickens’s (he includes Harriet Beecher Stowe and George Orwell with Dickens). A novel by Nabokov helps the reader learn how to feel, while a novel by Dickens tells the reader about injustice that’s going on in the world. But Rorty seems more or less to accept (as Nabokov argued was the case) that Dickens and writers like him haven’t been much interested in art as art, and so that their work isn’t, in fact, “real literature.” In any case, neither of Rorty’s categories seems to be doing very well these days.
To understand what’s getting published these days—and what writers are being told to write—we might need a different way of dividing things up. Mark McGurl’s recent The Program Years offers a possible taxonomy of late twentieth-century novels that selects some as probably, if covertly, “better” in some way, while not insisting that the others must be “lesser.” In his recounting, white male writers (somehow) end up writing something that’s (more or less) in the tradition of high modernism. Women and members of minorities (and also the white lower-middle class writers, male and female, who represent minimalism) write something more like novels of assimilation, or at least of recognition of difference. These latter are not the kind of almost muckraking novels Rorty had in mind. They’re not intended, primarily, to expose injustice to more privileged readers. They tend, instead, to represent the difficulty of a protagonist’s grappling with the dissimilarity between the world to which she or he is native and the “default” one of white middle-class culture.
There is, in fact, a tradition within high literature (possibly more on the Continent than in the Anglo-American stream) in which upper-class white males perform something like the same grappling.
What bourgeois white males tend to be producing now, however, according to McGurl, is usually “the systems novel.” Following in the footsteps of Thomas Pynchon and Don De Lillo, they write about the intersection of technology and society, and about the individual caught in those dual webs. They’re political in the sense that they’re knowing about often very recent writings on social systems and theories, and they’re intellectual in about the same sense. They’re often ambitious, linguistically and in terms sheerly of bulk and cast of characters.
Is it fair to call these “pretentious”? I would say no. I often like these novels, even as they sometimes annoy me, even if it does seem fair to pin that label on six hundred pages of paraphrase from Fredric Jameson wrapped around what’s basically the story of a twenty-one year old’s attempt to grapple with his place in a world he would have designed somewhat differently. And I don’t know why this appeals so much more to white men than to others (though not at all exclusively).
But it is definitely not fair to go on pretending that the techno-modernist school (as McGurl calls it) is the only game in town when it comes to serious literature.
The literature game is a kind of men-only space, with all this implies, like hunting and fishing. I don’t know whether this exists other than on the Internet, but it follows, in a way, from the perhaps over-intense interest in “systems.” And yes, this is pretentious. It is intended to be.