November 18th, 2011 / 5:13 pm

Pleasant and Painful Experiences


A few weeks ago, Glen Duncan reviewed Colson Whitehead’s Zone One and he certainly got a vocal reaction, not necessarily because it was a less than glowing review but because of how he wrote the review, the strange and insulting analogies he made and so on. In his review he, among other things, attempts to predict what those ultimate arbiters of literary taste– reviewers–might have to say. As he discusses the literary nature of the novel, Duncan writes, ” We get, in short, an attempt to take the psychology of the premise seriously, to see if it makes a relevant shape.” He also revisits this idea of porn starts, throughout. Ooh! He said porn star in a literary review! Edgy! Today, he wrote a defense (???) of his review. He responded to the criticism of his criticism with more criticism! Meta! The follow up can be summarized thusly: You are all haters who didn’t understand what I wrote.


Book nerds, myself included, watched the livestream of the National Book Awards on Wednesday evening. John Ashbery was recognized for his contributions to American letters. His speech was pretty great. The highlight: ““As long as I’ve been publishing poetry it has been seen as difficult and private though I never meant for it to be.” He also said,  “I wanted the difficulty to reflect the difficulty of reading, any kind of reading, which is both a pleasant and painful experience since we are temporarily giving ourselves to something which may change us.”” Next, there was a scintillating dinner service during which we were treated to a a slideshow of images of the nominated authors and their book covers, accompanied by a rather painful soundtrack that sounded like a child playing a recorder. We also heard the light murmur of fancy book people eating banquet food. The lesson learned is this: writers eat slowly. Finally, the winners were announced. The most awkward award, of course, was the one for young adult literature wherein the presenter made an unnecessary awkward reference to the debacle we all know about. The guy said, “It was a bad year for muffled phone conversations with disastrous consequences,” and everyone watching, everywhere, cringed because it was a terrible, dismissive way to acknowledge the unfortunate, poorly handled situation. Then, Nikky Finney won the poetry category for her book Head Off & Split and read a poem as her acceptance speech, a poem that was graceful and powerful and moving. I wanted her to throw the microphone down when she finished her poem but it was attached to the podium. After that, you had to feel sad for the winners to follow but they had pretty good speeches too. In case you missed the excitement, there’s video.


I love movies which means I love movie posters and here is a collection of movie poster clichés (via Elisa Gabbert).


There’s a really great interview with Dylan Landis up at The Rumpus.


Jaswinder Bolina has written a really dense, thought-provoking essay about race, identity, language, privilege, and poetry on the Poetry Foundation website. One paragraph, I particular, says a whole lot about the complexities writers of color often have to deal with as they think about writing:

I stop by the office of a friend, an older white poet in my department. Publication to me feels impossible then, and the friend means to be encouraging when he says, “With a name like Jaswinder Bolina, you could publish plenty of poems right now if you wrote about the first-generation, minority stuff. What I admire is that you don’t write that kind of poetry.” He’s right. I don’t write “that kind” of poetry. To him, this is upstanding, correct, what a poet ought to do. It’s indicative of a vigor exceeding that of other minority poets come calling. It turns out I’m a hard worker too. I should be offended—if not for myself, then on behalf of writers who do take on the difficult subject of minority experience in their poetry—but I understand that my friend means no ill by it. To his mind, embracing my difference would open editorial inboxes, but knowing that I tend to eschew/exclude/deny “that kind” of subject in my poetry, he adds, “This’ll make it harder for you.” When, only a few months later, my father—who’s never read my poems, whose fine but mostly functional knowledge of English makes the diction and syntax of my work difficult to follow, who doesn’t know anything of the themes or subjects of my poetry—tells me to use another name, he’s encouraging also. He means: Let them think you’re a white guy. This will make it easier for you.

He also says:

The privilege of whiteness in America—particularly male, heteronormative whiteness—is the privilege to speak from a blank slate, to not need to address questions of race, gender, sexuality, or class except by choice, to not need to acknowledge wherefrom one speaks. It’s the position of no position, the voice from nowhere or from everywhere. In this, it is Godlike, and if nothing else, that’s saying something.

Where the essay really gets good, though, is when he identifies the primary tension writers of color might face, particularly poets, is at the level of language:

However, to the poet of color or the female poet, to the gay or transgendered writer in America, and even to the white male writer born outside of socioeconomic privilege, a difficult question arises: “Whose language is it?” Where the history of academic and cultural institutions is so dominated by white men of means, “high” language necessarily comes to mean the language of whiteness and a largely wealthy, heteronormative maleness at that. The minority poet seeking entry into the academy and its canon finds that her language is deracialized/sexualized/gendered/classed at the outset. In trafficking in “high” English, writers other than educated, straight, white, male ones of privilege choose to become versed in a language that doesn’t intrinsically or historically coincide with perceptions of their identities.

The entire essay is fierce. Bolina eloquently articulates the experiences of many writers of color who often have to make difficult decisions about the kind of writer they want to be. I really related because like Bolina, I grew up middle class. I attended prep school. I had privileges that, as Bolina notes, isolated me from many people who share my racial identity. He also noted that even when he’s not writing about race, he’s thinking about race:

 That my awareness of racial identity so often plays a part in my thinking about my writing makes it so that I can’t engage in that writing without race being a live wire. Even one’s evasions are born of one’s fixations.

Finally, he concludes:

Whether I choose to pound on the crooked nail of race or gender, self or Other, whether I decide on some obscure subject while forgoing the other obvious one, when I write, the hammer belongs to me.

Don’t simply rely on these excerpts though. The entire essay is well worth reading and I’d love to hear what you think about what he has to say.

6. Keith Gessen was arrested at Occupy Wall Street.

7. Speaking of writers and critics… Jonathan Lethem and James Wood. My goodness. And the comments are… a riot. My favorite? The one written at 5:45 on November 16.

8. Kate Zambreno’s Green Girl, which is such an outstanding book, is reviewed in Bookforum.


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  1. Leapsloth14

      Glen Duncan is a donut slusher.

  2. Shannon

      That essay is beautiful.

  3. alan

      Jonathan Lethem should learn to never reply to your critics.

      James Wood and that other dude should learn to never reply to critics of your criticism.

      Nice roundup, btw.

  4. Dawn.

      LOVE that Bolina essay.

  5. James

      What is the debacle we all know about?

  6. deadgod

      1.  The review of Zone One is a lightly-qualified rave.  Duncan having written (or overwritten) a high-toned werewolf novel, perhaps the “intellectual”-hooking-up-with-a-“porn star” talk is less “insulting” than it is wry.  His “defense”, while perhaps irresistible to him, was misjudged–if the uncomprehending “didn’t understand what [he] wrote”, with what tools would they get the footnote?


      When I say “privilege” here, I mean the condition of not needing to consider what others are forced to consider.  The privilege of whiteness in America–particularly male, heteronormative whiteness–is the privilege to speak from a blank slate, to not need to address questions of race, gender, sexuality, or class except by choice, to not need to acknowledge wherefrom one speaks.

      Whatever entitlement looks like to those perceptive of their presumptive exclusion, “privilege” exercised is always taken, never given or neutrally ‘found’.  Where Bolina talks of “God-like” presumption, I’d call it simple ‘unconsciousness’:  greater “privilege” is “forced to consider” lesser “privilege”, however indifferent that ‘higher’ perspective looks to those ‘lower’.

      7.  I found especially amusing Jane’s request for information (at 9:12 AM, Nov. 18) made to “James” of the differantial w/W (if she or he is the same posteur and not a them).

  7. Roxane
  8. werdfert

      ugh. being a white male has never made anything easier for me ever. there is so much assistance for minorities, but everyone just expects a white male not to need any help whatsoever. this also seems racist, sexist.

  9. Roxane

      Well if white maleness hasn’t helped you, it must not help anyone. Come on. You cannot be blind to the privileges inherent to white maleness and if you are, you have some… work to do. What magical “assistance” are you dreaming up here? Most people, regardless of their identity, benefit from some kind of privilege. Please do not turn a blind eye to yours. 


      Why does he have to admit that he is privileged? Why can’t he have that opinion?

  11. Car Ba

      Goddamit I hate disquus

  12. BAC


  13. Roxane

      He can have whatever opinion he wants. I was just expressing mine.

  14. werdfert

      i am not saying my experience is indicative of all white maleness. i am responding to the “privileges inherent to white maleness.” because it isn’t inherent. i don’t have it. i’m a white male. my experience is that shit happens to everyone and so when i see people saying that whites have it easy or men have it easy or that mine is a “position of no position, the voice from nowhere or from everywhere,” it bothers me. i have a position. i am not a white male, i am an individual who has to struggle with the same shit you do. “Most people, regardless of their identity, benefit from some kind of privilege,” you said. but white males are the only ones made to feel ashamed of it as an assumption.

  15. Roxane

      You do have it. You will never, for example, be racially profiled. Shit does happen to everyone, absolutely, but there are certain kinds of shit that will never happen to certain groups of people. That’s all. 

  16. Michael

      You’re right. White male privilege doesn’t exist.  That whole slavery and Jim Crow deal and stuff about women not being allowed to vote until the 20th C was just a coincidence. 

      Stop posting immediately and head to the library.

  17. deadgod

      Oh – I thought that, by defending the downtroddenness of straight, white men, you were teasing my seeing complexity in “privilege”.

      I don’t think there can be reasonable doubt that European heritage in America is generally a source of “privilege”. 

      This observation doesn’t mean that European-Americans don’t get sick and die, or suffer malicious indignity and frustration of their abilities, or especially that political-economic division is, eh, not ‘deeper’ even than biogender, much less than dubious physical-anthropological categories like “race”.  The presence of preferentiality towards European-Americans also doesn’t mean that every time a non-straight, non-European-American, or non-male person is frustrated in her or his desires that evil hegemonic imperialism is at work, destroying unicorns and rainbows in the world.

      –but surely it’s as much worth acknowledging and addressing unjust inequalities as it is debunking irrational Everything Theories.

      My quarrel with Bolina is that I think, at least in this one essay, he sees power simplistically, as all on one side, when ‘relations of force’ are always plural–there’s always effective resistance, no matter how unaffected by slave perspectives the sovereign seems.  “[D]ominated by straight white men of privilege”–to me, an easy casuistry, a logic of the stampede.

      Let me put it this way:  when Bolina talks about not “choos[ing] between being the brown guy writing like a white guy or the brown guy writing about being Othered”, he’s talking about two discourses of “privilege”–in addition to talking about an unhappily true “dichotomy” (in my view).

  18. Flavorwire » Visual Representations of 15 Over-Used Movie Poster Clichés

      […] having to read its name or tagline. The ever-observant Roxane Gay linked to this article over at HTMLGiant, which led us to these incredible visual representations of some of the movie poster clichés and […]

  19. Binky

      You’re making privilege sound like a more complex position than ‘not-privilege’, thus re-enforcing the perceived higher human and intellectual value of the privileged. You also seem to be implying that a person exercising privilege is doing so because they have ‘taken’ hold of their privilege (which action, you seem to be implying, a taking hold of what is there, ‘exercising it’ has ‘value-‘good’). However, (you seem to be implying) that active taking hold, or expression of ‘given privilege’ when exercised in a ‘god-like’ (ie value-‘bad’) fashion is simply ‘unconsciousness’. This last bit seem like an ‘apology’ and contradicts the previous statement that whatever person in question ‘took hold of’ ‘given’ privilege ‘actively’. I don’t know what you mean by ‘greater’ “privilege” and how it is “forced” to consider “lesser privilege” ??? you mean when people go to India after college and look at the starving children? 

  20. BAC

      But what does that have to do with Werdfert’s life? His life span? His experiences? Why can’t he have gone through life and be of the opinion that his race and sex has not had a profound effect on his ability to succeed/fail?

  21. BAC

      I imagine at times it has and hasn’t, but, as a whole? The entirety of his life. . . 

  22. BAC

      And why the hell is my name wrong?

  23. Michael

      What does your comment have to do with white privilege? Nothing at all.  You might as well have written, “Werdfert didn’t own slaves” as your red herring response. 

      Is this a literary blog, or the Rush Limbaugh Show? 

  24. Michael

      No serious discussion of privilege has ever suggested that white males have only been given things because of their race and gender. Did you even read the posted essay? Sure, there are unfortunate manifestations of posturing identity politics that attempt to cheapen and dumb down race and privilege, but where are you (and him) getting that from the posted essay and this thread? 

  25. deadgod

      a more complex position than

      No, I’m saying that the relationship of more to less “privilege” is more complicated than ‘”all the power” oppressing “none of the power”‘.  It’s denying this complexity that reinforces the preference against those with little power.

      ‘exercising it’ has ‘value-‘good’

      No, this evaluation is not connected by me to the exercise of “privilege”.  My point is that the expression and accumulation of power is always active, never passive.  Bolina suggests that straight, white men of “privilege” act – in particular, express themselves linguistically – with a “God-like” indifference to competition for their power; this, I find exactly wrong.  That big shots are sometimes relatively unaware of the constitution of their great “privilege” – even while they’re exercising it – , I’m convinced.  There’s no contradiction  between grasping power and grasping it with limited awareness–it would be a matter of less rather than more empathy.

      what you mean

      I mean that power is never exercised in a vacuum of resistance–else from where would any resistance come??

  26. BAC

      I think what I’m discussing here, is the line of discussion that started with Werdfert’s initial comment. The logical fallacy is not with me. Werdfert said he didn’t feel like he was privileged. Then you posted about slavery and women’s voting rights. Two things that were not applicable to his life experiences and whether or not he felt privileged. Your likening me to Rush Limbaugh is also a straw man. I guess you’re teaching Rhetoric this year. I think white males are privileged if anyone is, but if he’s saying he doesn’t feel like his being a white male has helped him any, why can’t that be taken as true? He probably knows more about his life than we do. 

  27. Michael

      Where to begin? 

      *If Werdfert is a white male, he is privileged, whether he believes it or not. What do his personal wee lil’ feelings have to do with anything? 

      *It’s possible for Werdfert or any other white male to be privileged and still have a stake in his individual success. This really isn’t complicated–saying that he’s privileged does not discredit any of his individual successes or triumphs. As a grown, white man who has read a few books in his lifetime, I have no issue at all acknowledging my privilege and its historical precedence while taking personal ownership for my successes. 

      *If he is privileged, there’s also a good chance that he won’t be able to see his privilege and become defensive when someone says he’s privileged, and that he’ll mistake the claim that he’s privileged for a claim that he hasn’t done anything individually that led to personal success. 

      *I posted about slavery and women voting rights to provide a context for white privilege. How is one’s “individual life experiences” completely isolated from history?! Seriously?! I can’t believe I’m having to explain this to you. 

      *The Rush Limbaugh quip is applicable because he also has a difficult time understanding the complex relationship between an individual and his or her society (it’s certainly not a strawman). Or, if you want to be more cynical about it, Rush is smart enough to understand the complex relationship, yet chooses to cater to the lowest common denominator of his base with talking points that detract from real issues and/or relevant issues. 

      *The “my-precious-experiences-prove-that-I’m-exempt-from-benefiting-at-all-from white privilege is a classic, neo-con talking point that has been used for years in discussions on topics like affirmative action.

      *If you’re going to reduce everything to, “we-can’t-read-Werdfert’s-mind-or-know-his-life-story,” then there’s no point continuing this discussion. 

  28. BAC

      So if he’s handicapped, orphaned, homeless, was molested as a child, and an addict, so long as he’s a white male, he’s privileged? 

      What if he was in love with a girl whose father wouldn’t let her date anglos?

      What if he was the only white kid at his school?

      Then what?

      And, yes, his feelings have everything to do with how he feels. And, quit being so self righteous. Everyone here is and adult. Everyone here has read books. 

  29. Michael

      And, quit being intentionally obtuse.

      Of course privilege extends beyond race and gender–I would know this, as someone with a disability who grew up in a broken home and spent two years in a state hospital. 

      However, my lack of privilege in these areas doesn’t remove my general “white
      male privilege.” 

      So, how am I being “self-righteous” (lol!) for pointing this stuff out? If anything, you’re the one who is acting self-righteous by protecting dude’s “feelings.”

      I’m done with you.  

  30. The Long, Hard Slog of Poetry « Odd Bits of Life in New Orleans

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  31. BAC

      Fine, we’ll agree to disagree. Not trying to stick up for his feelings. I think though, asking someone to accept a role of privilege isn’t far off from asking someone to accept a role of subordinate. It’s a preconceived classification, and, in all honesty, a sort of prejudice. So, if someone’s had a shit time of it, and can clearly tell that what they’ve had is not a “privileged” existence, telling them they indeed are privileged in their society is possibly disheartening/troubling/demeaning. It’s a tough point to discuss, because it’s not a popular thing to discuss. But I think, and especially now with OWS and the mentality that it has yielded, telling someone where they stand in a pecking order of privilege is a little confounding. There is a “white-male privilege,” but I don’t think all white male’s get to enjoy it. There’s probably a more inclusive “extremely good looking people privilege” and definitely the ultimate is “born fucking rich and shit privilege.” 

      But, y’know. 

  32. Michael

      Okay, I’ll bite one more time–you seem to be misrepresenting the concept of privilege. It’s complex. The linked essay is complex and avoids over-simplification, which is why I don’t get Werdfert’s posts.

      Privilege isn’t always revealed in grand, dramatic fashion. As Roxane already noted, blacks–esp. black males–are much, much more likely to be racially profiled than whites, so that’s just one instance of racial privilege that benefits whites that likely goes unnoticed in their day-to-day lives, and one that often transcends class, orphanhood, disability, sexuality etc. Do you know many black males? Almost every black male I know has had to put up with a ton of shit from cops that I’ve never had to deal with, all based on race. Many of these black males are more successful than me: better jobs, more $$-secure, non-disabled, come from middle-class homes with two college-educated parents…and yet, they are still more likely to be racially profiled by a cop than a white kid making min. wage flipping burgers at Wendy’s. 

      Do you get what I’m saying now?

      Does this mean that the white kid who works at Wendy’s has it made? No, of course not, but he still benefits from white male privilege.

  33. BAC

      Sure. The concepts aren’t difficult. In theory it’s easy, in practice it becomes more complicated. 

      I don’t think you should expect everyone to agree with that last bit though.


  34. Michael

      It’s difficult to place white male privilege in action? Okay, if you say so. 

  35. Zach

      “Extremely good looking people privilege” is probably only on par with “big black man privilege” as far as finding oneself a walking target, and being, from a purely visual standpoint, in a really extreme and constant way, a receptacle for everyone’s dreams, fears/insecurities, violence, and hatred. Being born rich can make a lot of people into agoraphobic paranoid freaks – at least from my own experience with old friends, etc. I’ve observed that it’s often the people with a lot of privilege, but not too much, who are usually the ones that abuse their privilege, and lord it over people they perceive as below them in grotesque, unthinking (and whiny) ways.

  36. Zach

      But, you know-blah blah blah. Someone just got stabbed to death somewhere. This comment section has been directed by Wes Anderson. Thank you, everybody, and goodnight.

  37. BAC

      That’s not what’s being argued.  

  38. Michael

      What’s “being argued”? Have you read the posted article that goes to great lengths to discuss privilege complexly and avoids “blaming whitey for the world’s ills”? Why are we even having this discussion again? Because someone who clearly didn’t read the article decided to use the comments section to work out his own neuroses? Strange. 

  39. Visual Representations of Over-Used Movie Poster Clichés | HYPENOTICE.COM | HYPENOTICE.COM

      […] having to read its name or tagline. The ever-observant Roxane Gay linked to this article over at HTMLGiant, which led us to these incredible visual representations of some of the movie poster clichés and […]

  40. Chiron2

      “Is this a literary blog?” you ask. No, far from it.