Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: Justin Taylor

By posted at 6:00 am on December 11, 2015 10

I know it’s already been praised to the skies, and endlessly opined about, and I’m pretty ambivalent about winding up as part of that “Why do white people like this so much?” meme or backlash or whatever exactly it is or was, but it happens to be a fact that the most deeply resonant and personally important book that I read this year was Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, so I’m going to take a minute and try to say why I think that is.

coverThe first thing — and for all that has been said about the book, this has not been said nearly enough — Coates is a marvelous stylist. Sentence by sentence, and thought by thought, the book is as formidable and rich in its aesthetics, in its range and command of information and emotion and idea, as in the particulars of the argument it advances. Some of my favorite passages were the descriptions of Coates’s first year in college — the explosion of friends, mentors, reference-points, ideas, identities — and of the halting, hard-traveled road to becoming a writer. Despite every circumstantial difference you can think of — our ages, our ancestries, where and how we each grew up, where we each chose to go to school, what we each eventually chose to write — Coates’s narrative of intellectual, artistic, and political coming-of-age resonated deeply with my own memories of that same era in my own life, and I hardly imagine I’m the only one. It was at least as instructive to learn what we had — and have — in common as it was to be reminded of what we didn’t, and still do not.

coverMy very favorite part of Between the World and Me deals with Saul Bellow’s infamous question, “Who was the Tolstoy of the Zulus?” As someone who loves Bellow, who used a line from Herzog as an epigraph to his most recent book, it has caused me no small amount of pain and soul-searching over the years to try and reconcile the great man’s bountiful, messy, life-loving novels with his pinched, reactionary, often abhorrent cultural politics. Coates quotes the writer Ralph Wiley’s response: “Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus, unless you find profit in fencing off universal properties of mankind into exclusive tribal ownership.”

Of course this is true, and self-evidently true at that. The problem with Bellow’s question was never whether it could be answered, or what the answer might be; the problem was with the set of assumptions that caused it to be formulated in the first place, and the sneer with which it was then asked. If you want to know the limits of a man’s universe, just look at who he excludes from his notion of the universal. (You can start, if you like, with the default masculine pronoun deployed in the previous sentence.) For all my commitment to progressive politics (not that Democrat Party shit either — I mean actual progressive politics), for all my fluency in concepts of radical egalitarianism and liberation, for all my sense of myself as a leftist, I had never myself managed to arrive at Wiley’s devastatingly simple — even obvious — conclusion. (And of course I had never heard of Ralph Wiley before, much less read him; more’s the pity.) I had gone on the hunt for the short-circuit in Bellow’s humanity, but it hadn’t occurred to me to look for my own. It will surprise some of my readers more than others that I found them in the same place.

Once I understood what I’d been wrong about, it was remarkably easy to admit that I’d been wrong, and just how much. In fact, it felt pretty good. Being wrong is easier than being afraid of being wrong, because a person who is wrong and knows it can begin to imagine what rightness looks like, whereas a person who is afraid of being wrong can only dissemble or stay silent, hoping to make it through another day, another hour, with his fear intact.

Let’s be real clear here: I’m not claiming my work, or anyone’s work, is done. I don’t think this book gave me a racial-cultural exorcism. If anything, the narrowness of my own example suggests how much likely remains unaddressed, unaccounted for, as-yet-unimagined. This isn’t one of those essays where the white dude beats his chest and offers a putative mea culpa that sounds like a fraternity chant and actually doesn’t say anything except Pay more attention to me. I hate those fucking essays. In fact, I wasn’t sure whether I should write about Between the World and Me at all, but The Millions asked me to pick the book that meant the most to me this year, and this was the only honest answer I could give.

I’m going to end with a thought about Bellow, but not a defense or apology. He was who he was and he said what he said, and his reputation will stand or fall on the future’s willingness to endure him at his worst for what he offers at his best — that’s his problem, not mine. But since I said before that I loved him, I feel I ought to offer some inkling as to why. Since I’m almost done here, and this essay isn’t about him, I’ll keep this part short. One thing I love about Bellow is that he is unashamedly interested in the state of the human soul. He uses the word often, not in definitively religious terms, but not figuratively either. He believes in the soul, in its endless capacity for dilation and betterment. He believed, or wanted to believe, or his best work helps me believe, that we can be more than the sorrows our ancestors fled and inflicted; better than we ourselves were yesterday; better than we are right now. That line from Herzog that I used as my epigraph: “Oh, for a change of heart, a change of heart — a true change of heart!”

More from A Year in Reading 2015

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

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10 Responses to “A Year in Reading: Justin Taylor”

  1. George
    at 7:57 am on December 11, 2015

    “This isn’t one of those essays where the white dude beats his chest and offers a putative mea culpa that sounds like a fraternity chant and actually doesn’t say anything except Pay more attention to me.”

    Why is it necessary to say so, and if not necessary, how is it useful? It would not have occurred to me to think it was one of those essays.

  2. Sham
    at 9:18 am on December 11, 2015

    George

    Lack of confidence as a writer? Plus, I mean, what is the essay actually saying?

  3. Ano
    at 11:39 am on December 11, 2015

    “This isn’t one of those essays where the white dude beats his chest and offers a putative mea culpa that sounds like a fraternity chant and actually doesn’t say anything except ‘Pay more attention to me.’ I hate those fucking essays.”

    You couldn’t write any other way if you tried, Justin Taylor. ‘Pay more attention to me’ was the mantra you were given at birth.

  4. Tony M
    at 12:10 pm on December 11, 2015

    I’m baffled by the comments.

    The key to the sentence that seems to have set people off is “white” and the context is provided by “I don’t think this book gave me a racial-cultural exorcism.”
    Coates’ book delivered a multi-cultural shock to his system, a recognition that forces him to see himself in a new way. The “calling attention to himself” he is referring to is the typical liberal BS that just because I read Coates (or Diaz or Angelou or listen to Coltrane or whatever) I now have some privileged insight.

    The writers here are being asked to give a personal response. He did, mercifully free of clichés. He offered a personal, engaged exploration of his reaction. This is far and away the best of these essays from this year. And, yes, it has sent me in search of his novel.

  5. Mygod
    at 1:02 pm on December 11, 2015

    The contortionist soul searching the author had to do in regards to Bellow’s off-the-cuff comment in an interview marks the insanity and ideology of today. In no published work does Bellow reference the Zulus and was never any context given for the remark – Alfred Kazin, who reported it for the New Yorker, never gave any.

    Imagine living in such a society where an entire person’s legacy is defamed because of a sentence he or she said in an interview. There’s nothing *inherently* evil about that string of words – it entirely depends on the argument the person is making… of which we are entirely bereft, because no “journalist” ever decided that was worth knowing. It was also, clearly, a quip. Worse, more “loaded” quips have been said, assuredly, by anyone reading this, by the author himself, and certainly by Coates, at some point or another in their lives.

    And in fact, I can’t think of a better review of Between the World and Me than Bellow’s remarks in the NYT in 1994, writing about the controversy of of what he supposedly said.

    Here’s the man himself on how “rage is brilliantly prestigious”:

    “In any reasonably open society, the absurdity of a petty thought-police campaign provoked by the inane magnification of “discriminatory” remarks about the Papuans and the Zulus would be laughed at. To be serious in this fanatical style is a sort of Stalinism — the Stalinist seriousness and fidelity to the party line that senior citizens like me remember all too well.

    Righteousness and rage threaten the independence of our souls.

    Rage is now brilliantly prestigious. Rage, the reverse of bourgeois prudence, is a luxury. Rage is distinguished, it is a patrician passion. Rage can also be manipulative; it can be an instrument of censorship and despotism.

    As a onetime anthropologist, I know a taboo when I see one. Open discussion of many major public questions has for some time now been taboo.

    We can’t open our mouths without being denounced as racists, misogynists, supremacists, imperialists or fascists.

    As for the media, they stand ready to trash anyone so designated.”

    Bellow mic drop.

  6. Sham
    at 1:03 pm on December 11, 2015

    Tony

    The issue has nothing to do with “white” no matter how dearly you wish it did. But to reduce this to racial terms which seems to be your preference: You know how the dude who says “I’m not racist, I have plenty of [insert race] friends,” is unfailingly a racist? Ditto the writer who feels need to say “I’m not a narcissistic navel-gazer” in the middle of an essay.

    For further reading, check out the screed Taylor published right here at the Millions in which he excoriates the critics who panned his novel for being too stupid to understand how deep and complex and revolutionary it was. Mr. Taylor would be well served to step outside the comfortable, oblivious confines of the bubble he has constructed around his precious self.

  7. George
    at 7:19 pm on December 11, 2015

    Is it mercifully free of cliches?

    The paragraph is odd anyway. Tarzan beats his chest (though not, that I remember, uttering a fraternity chant while he does so). The person reciting the Confiteor strikes his or her breast at “mea culpa”, or so says the only missal handy.

  8. Tony M
    at 11:04 pm on December 11, 2015

    Sham

    I appreciate that you have directed a detailed response to my post.

    I have not read his other piece. You may be absolutely right about it being a screed. I am responding just to what’s written here. You are responding to something else he wrote. Both are reasonable approaches to take.

    Reducing this to racial terms, however, is not my preference. It seems to me what this piece is about. He is a white writer (presumably he’s white) responding to a multicultural book that has challenged his perceptions. This comment is key:

    “For all my commitment to progressive politics (not that Democrat Party shit either — I mean actual progressive politics), for all my fluency in concepts of radical egalitarianism and liberation, for all my sense of myself as a leftist, I had never myself managed to arrive at Wiley’s devastatingly simple — even obvious — conclusion”

    That’s an admission that he failed to see, failed to rise above, failed to adequately respond to a repulsive statement by his literary here. That to me is the opposite of the guy thumping his chest saying, I’m not a racist.

    Does he think critics who didn’t understand that he’s a genius must be idiots? He wouldn’t be the first writer to think that. He’s just one who lacked the judgement not to say so. He also wouldn’t be the first writer to be self-absorbed. But the piece isn’t a review. He has been asked to write about his response to a book. That is by definition going to be self-absorbed. And I stand by what I said: so far this is the best piece in this year’s series.

  9. Maureen Murphy/Moe Murph
    at 5:10 pm on December 12, 2015

    Meh…..

    [GLORIA STEINEM – MY LIFE ON THE ROAD]]
    There are tales from the bad old days, like a taxi ride in 1964 with Saul Bellow and Gay Talese. Mr. Talese leaned across her — as if she weren’t there — to explain to Bellow: “You know how every year there’s a pretty girl who comes to New York and pretends to be a writer? Well, Gloria is this year’s pretty girl.”

    http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/11/books/review-my-life-on-the-road-gloria-steinems-journey-as-a-traveling-feminist.html?_r=0

    Moe Murph
    Mentally Imagining Convos Between Chinua Achebe and Bellow in Elysium Fields

  10. Maureen Murphy/Moe Murph
    at 5:43 pm on December 12, 2015

    ” For all my commitment to progressive politics (not that Democrat Party shit either — I mean actual progressive politics), for all my fluency in concepts of radical egalitarianism and liberation,…”

    Are you that WASPy guy from my college cafeteria who wore the Che beret and yelled at me for setting up my “John Kerry for Lieutenant Governor” table?

    If so, Hey! What have you been doing since the 1980’s?

    Moe Murph
    Resolutely Lumpenproletariat

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