Monday, August 24, 2009

Pow Wow or Hodge Podge? Ishmael Reed and Race Fiction

Ishmael Reed and his longtime partner Carla Blank edited a collection of sixty-three short fiction pieces early in the year entitled Pow Wow, subtitled “Charting the Fault Lines in the American Experience—Short Fiction from Then to Now.” Da Capo Press recently issued the hefty volume in paperback, and I have been reading it this past month.

Although the book includes several complex short stories such as Russell Banks’ “The Guinea Pig Lady,” Stanley Elkin’s “I Look Out for Ed Wolfe,” Zora Neale Hurston’s “Sweat,” James Alan McPherson’s “Gold Coast,” Bharati Mukherjee’s “A Wife’s Story,” and Grace Paley’s “Goodbye and Good Luck,” many other pieces are amateurish and artistically insignificant.

The problem with the book is that Reed and Blank's criteria for selection seems to have little to do with the quality of the writing and a lot to do with the subject of race prejudice. Alongside the fine stories mentioned above are numerous short, clumsy pieces that are too subjective, too polemic, too sensational, too melodramatic, or too sentimental to be of any interest except historical and social.

The problem with stories about race prejudice is they are too often, if you will pardon the inevitable expression, a matter of black and white. Many race prejudice stories feature a victim and a victimizer. The victim is usually helpless and the victimizer is usually ignorant. It is difficult to make an interesting, complex story out of such an obvious and simplistic conflict, don’t you think?

I know, of course, that there are many very fine stories about race conflict—both by white writers and by writers of color. But, the very fine stories that explore race prejudice engage us, at least it seems to me, because the characters are not merely ignorant bigots and innocent victims but because the story probes deeply into those complexities of perceived difference that separate human beings from each other.

I know this is a touchy subject. But reading the pieces in Ishmael Reed and Carla Blank’s Pow Wow raised it for me over and over again. I would appreciate hearing from how those of you who teach stories about race prejudice and those of you who write stories about race prejudice deal with this issue.

Is it risky, or even racist, to criticize a story about race prejudice because it is amateurishly written, because it is subjective or polemical and lacks artistic control and thematic complexity?

Is it difficult to write a story about race prejudice without focusing on a simplistic conflict with a predictable conclusion?

In his long polemical introduction, in which he blames the media for much race prejudice, Ishmael Reed says, “Most American critics concentrate on literature authored by whites, regardless of right-wing propaganda that falsely claims that in American universities and colleges Toni Morrison has replaced Shakespeare.”

Is it really right-wing propaganda that in many classrooms stories about race have taken the place of stories by white writers regardless of the quality and complexity of the writing?

Is it really true that most American critics nowadays concentrate on literature written by whites when so many recent critical studies seem oriented toward the cultural rather than the universal?

I probably should not even bring these things up, for I know that I will be called a right-wing bigot for doing so. But since Ishmael Reed has brought the issue up in Pow Wow’s introduction and table of contents, I reckon I have the right to challenge both his remarks and his anthology choices.

As usual, I would love to hear from those who read this blog regularly or who stumble upon it accidently.


Ann Graham said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ann Graham said...

I think white critics, professors, people in general, need to remember that they are looking at a story, or anything for that matter, through a lens of privilege and power.

And, I do not believe that Toni Morrison has replaced Shakespeare in college classrooms.

Anonymous said...

You're doing your readers, Ishmael and Carla, and yourself unfairly by being so general with your criticism. If it's not good writing, what are the examples? - Ishmael Hope