Tuesday, July 26, 2011


E. Ethelbert Miller asks: "In 'Night Hawks' August Wilson mentions how black people didn't go see his plays. Do you feel sometimes that because of your style of writing your black reading audience might not be as large as you would like? I once coined the expression "literary pork" to describe the type of books being consumed by black readers. Do you have any concern about this matter?
I believe that Ethelbert and I both feel that Americans do not read enough. That includes black Americans. And when Americans do read, the works they select are seldom (if ever) intellectually challenging. "Literary pork" has always been---and most likely will always be---more popular than literary works that liberate our perception and challenge our presuppositions. One of my editors at the New York Times Book Review once put it to me this way: When motion pictures came along, literary culture had real competition, and by the time televisions were in most American homes, anything we might want to call literary culture was all but finished. We simply do not have a literary culture anymore---what we have instead is a widely shared pop culture provided by movies and television. 
Don't forget, 1 out of 5 Americans is functionally illiterate (that's an old estimate from the '90s so it's probably worse than that now); that is, they cannot read a newspaper op-ed with comprehension (which is true of far too many college students)or the directions on their bottle of prescription medicine. According to a report in May of this year, the National Institute of Literacy discovered that "roughly 47 percent of adults in Detroit, Michigan---200,000 total" were functionally illiterate, "meaning they have trouble with reading, speaking, writing and computational skills." Even worse, the Detroit Regional Workforce found that "half of that illiterate population has obtained a high school degree."
During one of my family's reunions in South Carolina, a young woman who married a relative of mine told me she "didn't like to read," but was making herself do so for the sake of her young son. In other words, to set a good example for him. And I remember, painfully, signing one of my books for a young black man after I gave a reading somewhere, and him saying to me, "I want to be a writer but, you know, I don't like to read." When I did an event in Detroit a few years ago, the young, black woman who introduced me said one of her friends told her she was just "giving up" on trying to read Charles Johnson because she had to look up in the dictionary too many words she didn't know. And who can forget Alice Walker's memorable reply to an interviewer who asked her what her relatives thought of her books. She said, "What makes you think they read?" I could give you a thousand examples of this kind of tragic intellectual laziness among American readers, black, white and otherwise.
Like any writer, I've thought about this sad state of affairs since 1970 when I wrote my first novel. But remember my background is in philosophy, a field where the canonical texts (to say nothing of second-and-third tier works) are "invisible" to the vast majority of general readers. Since my undergraduate days, I've never read pop books or "literary pork" for pleasure. (And I just don't have the time or interest for watching 99% of what is on television.) Naturally, then, I've never had any interest in writing fluff---what writer Fred Pfeil once called "industrial fiction." The thought of "dumbing down" what I write is something I'm simply congenitally unable to do, because I write, first and foremost, in order to discover and clarify things for myself. (And that's why I write a lot; there are countless subjects I want to explore in this vast, mysterious universe we inhabit.) If I couldn't do that, then I wouldn't write. From the beginning, rather than desiring a lot of readers, I instead just wanted to have smart ones (the kind of readers who appreciate philosophical explorations and literary invention), regardless of their race, ethnicity, religion or background. I.e., people who have a background in what Matthew Arnold referred to as "the best that has been known and said in the world." Those are my ideal readers, and have been since I first put pen to paper. But I've never been critical of writers who write for sales. They have to pay their bills and put their kids through college, too. If they can do that with "pork," then I say more power to them, but the likelihood of my reading that dreck is very, very low. 
Ethelbert's Complaint (apologies to Phillip Roth), as I will call it, is a lament heard throughout the community of American poets and writers of literary fiction. And it has always been with us---this feeling that we, as literary writers, are culturally going against the grain. Melville and his associates said the same thing about "literary pork" in their day. So I don't expect the popularity of works aimed at the lowest common denominator to change in our lifetime. And I'm profoundly thankful for the literate, intelligent readers I do have.

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