My brother wrote to ask if decolonizing our bookshelves was the first step toward burning some books. Apparently, I had a lot to say in response:
David, I just made my way through a book I thought to be mediocre, a book that's winning high praise from the reviewers. There's nothing wrong with the book, but it didn't seem particularly high-praise-worthy to me, and I suspect this book would not have become a big hit had the protagonist and her family not been immigrants from Morocco. However, then it wouldn't be the book it is.
The book deals with prejudice against this Moroccan family, and the events following the death of the father in the family. There are other themes as well, but that's the main one, and the book is built around it. So thematically, yes, it's an important window to a world most of us know very little about. For one thing, the book is set in the Mojave desert, near Joshua Tree. How many Americans even know where the Mojave is? And few of us know the life of Moroccan small-business owners in the US. My trouble with the book has nothing to do with the content. If I learn something from a book, if it opens up a cultural door to me, or gives me a new geography, I’m happy. My trouble with the novel is the unremarkable way in which it's written. There’s very little plot to it and the writing style is pedestrian, and yet the critics are raving. So let’s take a look at the raving critics.
The critics’ job, it seems, is to find a “darling” and push their darling forward because that darling embodies a political group or statement they feel they need to (and perhaps actually do) favor. Right now, what’s in favor is whatever’s not part of the cultural majority—the anti-colonizers, if you will. What a change from the literary canon we had to read in every English class we ever took. Yes, we had a spoonful of Jane Austen and Charlotte and Emily Bronte, oh and some women poets (all of them dead), but goodness me, did you ever notice 99% of the time we just read books by white men?
As a girl kid with writing aspirations, this seemed about as unsupportive as it could get. But I guess I couldn't help myself; I just kept writing. And then do you know what? I became the critics’ darling myself because I embodied the newest political group they were going to favor: gays. They had gay male writers and now they needed a lesbian. It was a moment in my life when I was chosen because I was in a certain place at the right time. Unusual Company was a first attempt at something I'd get progressively better at, but it was not praise-worthy. And it was especially not worthy of 1100 words in The New York Times Book Review. But, David, that's the way it goes. As my writing has gotten better and better, my recognition and audience have shrunk. I’m not a niche writer, and that’s a problem. I didn’t stay long in what I call the Gay Lit ghetto, and that was a disappointment to critics who were hoping to find my second book praise-worthy. (It was not. Praise-worthy didn’t start up until book #3, if you ask the author, or maybe book #4.) And then I either wrote from inside the skin of poor Georgia blacks, which is a no no, or I wrote historical fiction based in a well-known national park. The Grand Canyon, it turns out, isn’t any more of a hot topic than an ordinarily dysfunctional family in New Jersey.
I want the author of the book I just read to know that being the critics’ darling is not a permanent position. It is, in Zen parlance, a finger pointing to the moon. These fingers are important, but don’t mistake them for the moon itself. A writer’s work is the critic’s pawn, but the moon goes well beyond these particulars. It runs the tides. It lights the night. It marks a welcome shift in our seeing and being. Decolonizing our bookshelves is not about being on the right side of history; it's about genuinely wanting to hear the stories of others who do us the great favor of reinforcing the notion of the common human experience.