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Does it mean anything to be ‘the most important white male American’ writer?

March 19, 2010

Russell Banks: America's greatest living realist?

That’s among the questions I plan to ask Russell Banks, author of Continental Drift, Affliction and other acclaimed novels, on Saturday at Nova Southeastern University. I also want to know what this “blue collar novelist” had in mind with his most recent book, The Reserve, which is set among the rich and frivolous in 1930s upstate New York.

Banks is the literary heavyweight among the 21 authors taking part in LitLive!, a day of free lectures sponsored by the Broward County Library Foundation. (For more info and a schedule, go here). Others include literary bestseller Elizabeth Kostova, crime novelist Bob Morris, pop novelist Joy Fielding, poet-biographer David Kirby, and Cuban-American writer Achey Obejas.

The Village Voice called Banks “the most important white male American” writer — a silly thing to say, if you ask me. Cornel West, the African-American scholar, is more straightforward: “Russell Banks is a great writer wrestling with the hidden secrets and explosive realities of this country.”

Russell Banks was the first name that came to my mind 21 years ago when I read Tom Wolfe’s deliberately provocative essay, “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast” in Harper’s magazine. People still talk about that essay, in which Wolfe argued that literature had strayed into irrelevance with the rise of post-modernism, magical realism and minimalism.

Wolfe is, of course, completely wrong. In calling for a return to “realism” — in effect arguing that other writers should be more like himself — he overlooked three things: 1. His traditional avatars, Hemingway and Faulkner, are not strict realists; 2. The non-realists he demonizes are among the greatest of the time: Milan Kundera, Vladimir Nabokov, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, all of whom use non-realist narrative strategies to say real things about the human condition.

And 3. The woods were full of fine and important realists! Don Delillo, Cormac McCarthy, Andrea Barrett, Richard Ford, Bobbie Ann Mason, Raymond Carver–although they may or may not fit Wolfe’s narrow definition of documentary realism, they all, by the late 1980s, had produced significant realistic fiction.

I place Banks at the head of this distinguished group. Although he began publishing in 1974, he started to gain wide attention by 1981, with the appearance of his story collection, Trailer Park. His breakthrough book, the novel Continental Drift, was a 1985 Pulitzer finalist. Cloudsplitter, his 1998 historical novel about the abolitionist John Brown, was also a Pulitzer finalist.

Over the course of a long career — Banks is now 70 — he has seen literary trends come and go, not to mention the passing of two generations of American writers. If you want to see and hear one of the best, join me at 10 a.m. tomorrow at Nova Southeastern University.

In the meantime, let me know if you think there’s any value in describing a novelist as “white male.” Or here’s another quesiton I plan to put to Banks: In an increasingly virtual, technological age, has realism become obsolete as a way to tell stories? Please let me know your thoughts on the question, too.

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. March 19, 2010 1:24 pm

    I do not know. I have not gotten used to being called that yet. I may take some time to adjust.

  2. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    March 19, 2010 1:26 pm

    It certainly seems a matter of faint praise, with its hint that white male writers generally can no longer be important. It becomes something like a reverse affirmative action, doesn’t it?

  3. March 19, 2010 1:56 pm

    Hey I can dance to. I was one of the best. Travolta would not even go to the dance contest. I guess I do not know where they come up with that. A white writer. I am a bit chestnut myself. The sun in the Northern Tropics I live in. I think it is strange. if you want to know the truth. Why would any one make a category. It then just makes a whole bunch of other categories that people do not like. Good is good.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 19, 2010 3:11 pm

      Well, to cut to the chase, it is obviously an expression of political correctness. You know, all the world’s evils are the work of white males, dead or living, and only women and “people of color” can do or create anything worthwhile these days.

  4. Candice Simmons permalink
    March 20, 2010 9:17 pm

    The answer to your first question is no, there is no relevance to being called a “white male.” But I know The Village Voice and will forgive them for everything.

    The answer to your second question is also no. Realism has not become an obsolete way of telling stories.

    That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 21, 2010 1:12 pm

      I agree on both counts, but both assertions could also be endlessly debated.

  5. October 4, 2012 4:10 am

    Excellent site. A lot of helpful information here. I am sending it to several buddies ans also sharing in delicious. And certainly, thanks in your sweat!

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