How does a black girl from the west coast read the stories of John Cheever, the closeted bisexual drunk of Ossining? How can I relate to a world overrun with ferries, bridge playing, boarding schools, summer beach houses, silver spoons, Ivy Leagues, sleep-away camp, country clubs and highball glasses? John Cheever was a perfect channeler of upper middle class, white suburban ennui, a world I’ve never belonged to and shan’t. Then why do I LOVE reading Cheever stories when the one thing they are decidedly NOT about is being black?
As far as I can tell, the black experience in America has ceased to be relevant in fiction. Gone are the days when the Book of the Month Club features a novel about an earnest young black man who “rapes” and asphyxiates an “innocent” white girl before shoving her into her a furnace. Those ghastly imponderables that cut to the heart of the African American psyche with razor sharp precision have lost their edge. What has endured is the subject of slavery, the Sisyphean task of obtaining Freedom, overcoming severe degradation, the loss of one’s humanity. I get it and I wouldn’t dare trivialize it BUT I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find the subject stale.
I was disappointed when I read ZZ Packer’s story for the New Yorker’s "20 Under 40" issue. She’s the only African American on the list and she writes about runaway slaves. Huh, I didn’t see THAT one coming. In spite of my initial disappointment, I enjoyed Packer’s story because she is an incredibly skilled WRITER and a damn good storyteller, and that is what I love about reading good fiction. You can write about anthropomorphized farm animals, or murdered prostitutes, or slavery, or vampires, or an underground network of homeless people staging a revolt against the rich; you can write about anything as long as it’s a good story—intelligent, well-written and well executed. That is how I judge fiction, but I wasn’t always this way.
Reading the great American novels in school was torturous. My white classmates relished in Salinger, Fitzgerald, Twain, Hemingway, and looked at me sideways when it came time to address themes of slavery and racism. Apparently, these were the only subjects I was qualified to discuss. Of course they were right to assume my interpretation would be informed by a totally different set of historical references, but this assumption also made me feel terribly awkward, alone, and shy. Hmmm, how do you explain to a bunch of white students and a white teacher that you think Atticus Finch is a racist? Over time I grew bitter. I mentally checked out of school and started to develop my own curriculum. It would have pleased my father a great deal for me to read Bloods: Black Veterans of the Vietnam War, a book he foisted on me since I was in trainers, but I didn’t want to read books about being black or the black experience or any one thing. I just wanted to read the books that IIIIIII wanted to read and how IIIIIII wanted to read them. After all, reading should be an intimate, personal experience (much like writing) and I wanted to enjoy that.
That time in my life shaped who I am as a reader and helped me overcome some of the resentment I had towards great American fiction in school. I learned to appreciate reading on a fundamentally selfish level. I started to separate the author from the text, to distinguish form from content—I became a critical reader, not a black girl who likes to read about black things by black people OR a black girl who likes to read about white things by white people (or whatever variation suits your fancy). I just became a Reader.
I’m still rubbed the wrong way when we talk about “great American fiction,” but this has more to do with the institutions that make arbitrary decisions about literary “greatness” than it does books and reading. As it happens, primarily white men run these institutions. As it happens, these are the institutions that select one African American to represent, ostensibly, the best of what today’s young African American fiction writers have to offer, and then proceed to publish said individual’s highly unoriginal story about runaway slaves. That same shall-not-be-named institution, however, is responsible for publishing one of my favorite short story writers of all time: John Cheever. How do I reconcile? Once again, it boils down to me the reader, the book and a good fucking story. Nothing else.
Cheever’s stories are flipping hilarious in that fly on the wall, I’m really glad that’s not me kind of way. Behind the doors of those Tudor-style homes with manicured lawns in the suburbs, crazy Shit. Goes. Down. Of course the conflict in “The Enormous Radio,” “The Swimmer,” and “Farewell My Brother,” has little to do with me as a black woman, but again, I don’t read fiction so I can analyze it through the prism of my blackness. I read fiction to escape. People who can’t enjoy a good story because it’s not about them are insufferable drips. Similarly, writers incapable of or unwilling to explore unknown territory possess little imagination. John Cheever had a great imagination. The world he wrote about so vividly was a world he didn’t really belong to—his family wasn’t very wealthy, he was expelled from school, bisexual, and a drunk. “A good narrative is a rudimentary structure, rather like a kidney,” he once said. “Fiction is meant to illuminate, to explode, to refresh. I don’t think there’s any consecutive moral philosophy in fiction beyond excellence.” It was Cheever’s commitment to excellence that propelled his career, not that he wrote about privileged snobs playing backgammon in the parlor.
I am an African American woman and I think about what that means every day of my life, but I don’t let it dictate how I read fiction because it would undermine my love of narrative, imagination, storytelling, language. That being said, African American authors—minority authors!—are not well represented in fiction, and those who are tend to follow the script lest they go unnoticed by the formidable Institutions Of Literary Greatness Recognition (cough, major book publishers and magazines still publishing fiction). My desire for more black authors does not coincide with a deep-seated need to read about my experience. I want more black authors because without them we are letting a tremendous amount of creative potential, imagination, excellent storytelling go untapped. So, yes, Hello, I am black. I love fiction. (Or, Hello, I’m a black author. I like to write fiction.) These two things aren’t necessarily related and we shouldn’t expect them to be. We should expect lovers of fiction to thirst for stories of all kinds from all walks of life and from all people, and that those stories carry in them a universal appeal.