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Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Contributor Spotlight: Alan Stewart Carl

I’m going to start by saying that my protagonist in Hayden’s Ferry Review #47 is a white, middle-class male. And so am I.

I begin with this because I’ve been thinking a lot about Roxane Gay’s recent essay on the preponderance of white, middle-class male voices/characters that appear in the most current edition of Best American Short Stories (and throughout the world of literary journals in general). I won’t rehash Gay’s original essay or her follow-up post other than to say it’s a smart and nuanced opinion deserving of a read. But I do want to address the issues she raises. And I want to do so from the vantage point of a white, middle-class male writer who has had fiction appear (and who hopes to have much more fiction appear) in American literary journals.

My demographic classification provides certain, unfair advantages in America – this I know. And I know there are a great many reasons for this and a great many ways each of us can help improve the situation. But I’m not seeking to enter such a ponderous conversation here. Instead, I’m interested in a question that’s been gnawing at me since reading Gay’s essay: what is the white, middle-class male writer’s responsibility amidst all of this?

Yes, there is plenty all writers can do to change things on the editorial front and on the promotional front and on the educational and societal front, too. But what about the writing itself? Should white, middle-class male writers feel any pressure to write about people and experiences outside of those they intimately know? Would doing so even help matters?

Obviously, any white, middle-class male writer who chooses to write about white, middle-class male characters in typical white, middle-class male scenarios is traveling well-trodden ground and is thus risking artistic irrelevance. Then again, the best fiction, no matter its topic or the life experiences of its author, takes you into the unique life of an “other,” a life that in some way broadens your own understanding of the world, that brings illumination to places previously darkened. And even when those darkened places are small – nooks, crannies – bringing light to them serves an artistic purpose, I believe. And I can’t fault any writer who can do that, even if the particular story at hand comes from an over-represented pool of life experiences.

That said: I reject the idea that a writer should write without concern for the culture. And that goes double for white, middle-class male writers. Given the realities of life, white, middle-class male writers can’t just hand over their institutionalized privilege. We can, however, be aware of our fortuitousness and use our systematically unfair opportunities not for insular, navel-gazing but toward the exterior realities and struggles of our time. This is, I believe, incumbent upon any writer, but it’s particularly incumbent upon writers whose privilege has given them a boost and whose life experiences are already well-represented within the culture.

Just because a story might be publishable or even of award-winning quality doesn’t mean the story is one of the most important stories a writer can tell. There’s a lot of turmoil out there, not just war and oppression and intolerance, but also the tumult of hyper-globalization, the way we are simultaneously becoming more connected and yet more torn apart, our communities fracturing along sharpened lines of class and religion and politics and our own selves fracturing into Facebook-selves and family-selves and work-selves and socially conscious-selves, one minute bemoaning the casualties of capitalism and the next minute earning a living or buying products from massive corporations.

All this, I believe, deserves great literary exploration as previous generations of writers explored the great troubles of their day. I don’t, of course, mean everyone should be writing Afghanistan war stories or Chinese industrialization stories. But I do mean that the artistic thrust of modern fiction should drive towards the broader issues and complications of our time. It’s fine, I think, to write about a white, middle-class male accountant in Charlotte, North Carolina. But the story shouldn’t just be about his difficult marriage. Or rather, it can be about his marriage but it shouldn’t be insularly so, without regard as to how the difficulties in this particular marriage say something about the bigger ideas/struggles/issues of our time. This, I believe, can be addressed with bold strokes or subtly in subtext, but it should be addressed. Otherwise, even if the story is expertly written, it’s not likely to be an examination of anything new, a necessary story. It’ll just be a reiteration of white, middle-class stories that have already been told.

Alone, at my computer, it’s really easy to concern myself with my commonplace ennui and the various monotonies of fatherhood and work. And God knows I’ve written my share of unnecessary stories that relate to nothing greater than my own insular world. But to what purpose? To whose gain? The insular worlds of middle-class white men are well represented in fiction. Shouldn’t I want to say something more? Shouldn’t I strive towards something larger?

Obviously, the facts of my demographics means that I can’t bring to the literary world the kind of diversity Gay sees missing in BASS and elsewhere. I’m a white, middle-class male and even if I write about Bangladeshi merchants traveling by mule into India, I’m still part of an over-represented set of writers. But if I at least make a concerted effort to write stories about the true complications of our world – rather than stories that exist in some insular version of my own life – maybe I can poke holes in the cultural fabric and maybe those holes will let in some better light and some fresher air and, ultimately, do something – however small – to allow for more opportunities for all writers, regardless of race, class or gender.

I don’t know if such hopes are well-founded or just the justifications of a white, middle-class male writer who intends to keep writing and publishing. But I do think what I write – what we all write – has a responsibility to the outside world. I know change is a slow, many-legged thing. But writing towards the outside world seems like a good way to proceed forward.

Alan Stewart Carl is a Texan writer of fiction and miscellany. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Mid-American Review, PANK, Monkeybicycle, Coal City Review and other cool places. He holds an MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles and is currently at work on a novel and whatever stories have recently shown up in his head. Most of the time, he can be found down in San Antonio raising two wild and beautiful children. Virtually, he can be found at His story, "Leap," appears in HFR #47.


Beth Staples said...

I think this is so interesting. On the one hand, I think the most important thing a writer can do is be completely honest. That means no posturing, no writing about certain topics for the sake of checking them off of a "relevancy" list. On the other hand, honesty means taking risks, and pushing art into new territory. The thing about fiction is it's always about people, relationships between people, and people's relationships with the larger world - the general reflected in the specific. Doesn't a story about a difficult marriage necessarily reflect larger concerns? Or does this difficult marriage have to be framed within some other context in order to make it universal/interesting/important? What topics are too well-trodden to be relevant, and which ones are "big" enough to be reflective of a worthy exterior reality? I'm asking these questions because I struggle with them myself. I ABSOLUTELY think that a greater diversity of voices should be represented in literary journals and anthologies. But I don't think anyone's voice is irrelevant. And I think writers reaching toward material outside of their honest preoccupations/obsessions/concerns can be dangerous.

Alan Stewart Carl said...

I'd agree that no voice is irrelevant, but I think a story can be. In fact, I think one of the hardest things about fiction is making it relevant (i.e. necessary). We all have something vital to say, but expressing it isn't easy.

What I'm trying to say is: relevance -- in this particular context -- is a matter of connecting the self to something larger. So without that drive towards larger ideas/issues/purposes, fiction can become insular, staid.

This sounds more like some grand theory of fiction than a reaction to white, middleclass male writers, but I think it all fits in there. Definitely, trying to write outside honest preoccupations, etc. can be bad for one's fiction, but taking the time to consider how those said preoccupations, etc. connect with the greater world (rather than just the internal one) can, I think, help broaden the cultural landscape.

Anonymous said...

If you want navel-gazing upper-middle class white male perspective, look no further than:

But seriously, good points have been made here. Honesty is important. Perspective is also extremely important. We're never going to get a Dostoevsky out of skateboarding popular white kids from the suburbs of St. Louis, but you can bet even money we might get a Johnathan Franzen, or a Dave Eggers.

E. Mena said...

Glad to see some discussion on the responsibilities of writers (and artists) to engage with the world. I'm troubled by the prevalence and mis-use of the "personal is political" claim, wrenched from the jaws of feminism and misapplied to justify self-absorbed, insular artwork. Thrilled to think carefully about how privilege (since as Gay points out, we are all privileged here to some degree) can be used responsibly and without compromising integrity (artistic, social, etc.).