Authors Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Wiener recently complained that The New York Times' literary coverage is biased toward white male authors of "literary fiction." Sniffed Picoult in a Tweet, that venue of well-considered literary thought, "Would love to see the NYT rave about authors who aren't white male literary darlings." Picoult and Wiener whimpered over the massive attention the Times gave to Jonathan Franzen's new novel "Freedom," although the Times wasn't alone; Time magazine put Franzen on its cover.
If such a bias exists, it apparently doesn't extend to "creative nonfiction," a phrase that makes me uneasy. Recently, the Times has twice reviewed black woman writer Isabel Wilkerson's "The Warmth of Other Suns," and this week profiled Wilkerson. Wilkerson accomplished the literary trifecta of having her book reviewed by Times literary top gun Michiko Kakutani and receiving a front-page rave on the cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review. The profile of Wilkerson was done by longtime literary journalist Charles McGrath. Wilkerson is basking in the warmth of the New York Times' many suns.
Her book is a massive look at the "great migration," during which a huge number of blacks fled the Jim Crowe South for Northern and Western cities. The Times reviews, along with a recent strong review in The New Yorker, call the book a major work. In an inspiring show of perseverance, Wilkerson took 15 years to finish the book, interviewing 1,500 blacks who'd left the South. However, she focuses on the stories of just three people, which raises the question whether she decided to aim for commercial attractiveness rather than in-depth scholarly writing of more appeal to an academic audience.
Wilkerson's title comes from the great black writer Richard Wright, who said that the black migration to the North was in search of the "warmth of other suns." Her book draws attention to the horrid South where black men were frequent lynching victims and segregation was deeply enforced. Wilkerson uncovers strange evidence of how deep the system ran; blacks and whites were forbidden to play checkers in Birmingham parks. That thankfully vanished world today seems unbelievable even to those who lived through it, and writers like Wilkerson are to be commended for showing the brutal reality of those days.
McGrath's profile of Wilkerson is readable, yet superficial. He points out that Wilkerson lives in Atlanta, although she "commutes to Boston, where she teaches nonfiction writing at Boston University." While not elaborating further on that commute, the piece says Wilkerson moved to Atlanta in 2001 "for reasons unconnected to the book." Those reasons are never detailed. However, Wilkerson says that she discovered that "she needed to be here, only I didn't know it." She continues, "I needed to look through the exile's heart and feel that distant, rejecting, hurtful feeling," adding "I needed to come here to see what they left."
Undboutedly, discrimnation and racism remain in the South, yet the piece doesn't delve into how Wilkerson "saw what they left." McGrath, nor Wilkerson, ever reflect upon Atlanta's status as a mecca for Southern business and culture, even in the mean old days of Jim Crow. Atlanta's reputation for tolerance has been overstated --a destructive race riot occurred here in the early 20th century -- yet it still offered blacks prospects for commerce, education and artistic expression sorely lacking in the rest of the South. I would have been interested in Wilkerson's views on Atlanta's history and present status as a center of black achievement. But McGrath apparently didn't follow up on this.
Also crying ouf for further elaboration is the statement "... the book, influenced by Steinbeck's 'Grapes of Wrath' and the films of Robert Altman and Steven Soderbergh, rotates in a novelistic way among three main characters whose stories are interspered with broader, more gneral inter-chapters." Steinbeck, Robert Altman and Steven Soderbergh? Creative nonfiction, begone.
"The Warmth of Other Suns" sounds like an deep examination of a major historical subject, although male historians, whether white or black, would wish for similar attention. Also, as McGrath quickly points out, Wilkerson won a Pulitzer Prize for the Times as a features writer for the newspaper. Cynics will likely wonder whether her connection with the paper played a role in the attention giver her book.
The controversy about whether the Times plays literary favorites could only arise in regard to that newspaper, the only one that runs separate reviews in its regular Arts section and in an independent Sunday book review. Most newspapers around the country are cutting back or eliminating their book reviews. However, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has recently had a resurgence in running reviews and writing about authors, generally connected with the recent Decatur Book Festival. The AJC in a surprising sign of local knowledge, even had its own superficial profile of Wilkerson.
The disturbing trend of reduced book coverage is countered by an announcement I saw somewhere in Internet land that the Wall Street Journal will soon run a separate book review. While this is welcome, I hope the WSJ continues running as well its outstanding daily book reviews, along with its book coverage in the Friday and Saturday "weekend" sections. I'm suspicious that the arrival of a separate book review will lead to the elimination of book coverage elsewhere.
While alarms keep ringing (sorry, Mr. Orwell) about declines in reading, these literary stirrings show an abiding interest in books and publishing, and not only in New York, Boston and Philadelphia. Books on a broad number of subjects keep coming out. And the proliferation of events like the Decatur Book Festival reflect a deep and committed love of reading and books.
Yet disturbing signs are everywhere; I discovered this week that the long-established Louisiana Book Festival has bene canceled, because of state budget cuts. This left me with the chilling recollection that a state austerity movement after Huey Long's downfall led to the demise of LSU's Southern Review, later revived. The distinguished LSU Press and Southern Review were threatened by a first wave of budget cuts last year. With further drastic budget cuts looming, and an aversion to increasing taxes, the LSU Press and Southern Revew are again threatened. This year, they are celebrating 75 years of literary excellence.