“Race is big in America”

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This is not Jonathan Franzen

The acclaimed novelist, Jonathan Franzen, has an interview in Slate about how far he is willing to go to write. Not far at all, it seems. And certainly not far enough to write about race. The subject is too sensitive, too dangerous, he feels. And he has no point of access to any of the material – he admits that he has “few black friends,” has “never loved a black woman,” and “didn’t marry into a black family.”

“I feel it’s really dangerous,” Franzen says at one point, “if you are a liberal white American, to presume that your good intentions are enough to embark on a work of imagination about black America.”  “I am particularly vigilant there,” he reassures his interviewer, “I have thought about it—you know, race is big in America.”

I paused, reading this interview, over that word “there.” As if race is another place entirely. Far from him. Far from his literary imagination. As if the whole of that vast, terrifying, monstrous topic could be removed from his life.

And so, perhaps, it can be. The interview begins with a description of Franzen’s present circumstances. He has left the East Village and has moved to Santa Cruz, described as a “college town and a beach city.”

Franzen is obviously a man of self-serving contradictions. He recognizes – in the very same interview – that he has power and protection, that he can say things few others can about any topic. He describes himself as “lazy” – unwilling to read too deeply in a subject – but then codes that laziness as strength. He feels that writers shouldn’t know “too much” about any subject. Except, again, when it comes to race. “There” and only “there,” one supposes, is some special knowledge required.

I recognize that it is easy to zip off a “hot take” on Franzen, who is famous for appearing out of touch. And there is a lot in this interview to mock at some simple level. His love of birding, which clashes with his brief, awkward comments on police shootings. The laughing photo of him at the beach, pants rolled up, waves crashing behind him.

But this notion of distance – physical and existential – is not just his problem. It is ours. It is weakness and fear masquerading as intellectual practice. Fear, more specifically, of getting “it” wrong. Fear that he might write something inauthentic, or inaccurate, or be lampooned for it. And this is a fear I see and hear in the classroom.

Give me someone who is willing to try, to reach, and to get it wrong over the person who retreats to the water’s edge. Give me the white writer who is willing to look in the mirror and see that race is everywhere, that it is inescapable, that it shapes their life, too. No matter how far they run. Give me the person who isn’t afraid to make a mistake because the problem is too big to wait. Give me the person, finally, who doesn’t need to get “inside,” as Sherwood Anderson once put it, in order to write.