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you know, the one with Reggie Watts and stars that come sit on a couch and sometimes talk? Maybe the host is named Scott?

Elif Batuman has been bothering me lately, or I’ve been bothered by Elif Batuman lately. One long review leads to another longer, more in-depth review of another thing. Since I can’t do it, here are some quotes again (way out of context) by her doing it very well:

There is no arguing with taste, and there are doubtless people in the world who enjoy ‘the virtuosity of Butler’s performance of narrative mobility’. To me, such ‘performances’ are symptomatic of the large-scale replacement of books I would want to read by rich, multifaceted explorations whose ‘amazing audacity’ I’m supposed to admire in order not to be some kind of jerk.

The law of ‘find your voice’ and ‘write what you know’ originates in a phenomenon perhaps most clearly documented by the blog and book Stuff White People Like: the loss of cultural capital associated with whiteness, and the attempts of White People to compensate for this loss by displaying knowledge of non-white cultures. Hence Stuff White People Like #20, ‘Being an Expert on Your Culture’, and #116, ‘Black Music that Black People Don’t Listen to Anymore’. Non-white, non-college-educated or non-middle or upper-class people may write what they know, but White People have to find the voice of a Vietnamese woman impregnated by a member of the American army that killed her only true love.

~

There is nothing objectionable in a young writer plumbing her childhood and family for literary material. It isn’t even a huge problem that poor people have been a “poetic” subject since at least Romanticism. But I was deeply depressed to learn from McGurl that Cisneros here is making ‘canny use of an operational paradox involved in … the “wound culture” of the contemporary US: a paradoxically enabling disablement’. ‘Almost all artistically ambitious authors in the postwar period “self-commodify” in this sense,’ McGurl continues, inviting us to ‘think of Tim O’Brien and his lifelong use of nine months in Vietnam.’ Indeed, think of Tim O’Brien. As a White Person, he couldn’t write about most of his life experience, which was probably just like Father Knows Best. Instead, in If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home and the several novels that followed, he had to write about the period of his life when he – like the conscripted Native Americans, like the napalmed Vietnamese – was the victim of the murderous policy of the White Man.

Defending Cisneros and O’Brien against charges of cynicism, McGurl suggests that both authors are really concerned not with ‘market value but aesthetic value: how does one write good fiction? What interesting stories do I have to tell?’ To argue that the writers of victimhood aren’t out to make a quick buck is beside the point, since what’s at stake here is literary, not financial, capital. But how does one calculate the literary value of sociopolitical grievances? If you spend any time living in a ghetto or fighting in a war, might this be objectively the most narrative-worthy period of your life? As Tolstoy put it, ‘All happy families are alike’: isn’t literature all about wounds, otherness, trauma, alienation and persecution? It is. But it’s equally true that all unhappy families – not just ‘formerly enslaved, immigrant or indigenous’ families – are unhappy after their own fashion. Tolstoy wrote equally compellingly about war and peace. Literature is best suited for qualitative description, not quantitative accumulation. It isn’t an unhappiness contest, or an unhappiness-entitlement contest. The danger of Cisneros’s dig at her Iowa classmates, ‘cultivated in the finest schools in the country like hothouse orchids’, is the implication that the children of privilege don’t have stories to tell; that, because they aren’t from the barrio, they all have families like the one on Father Knows Best.

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