Beware of Literature’s Purity Police

Woodcut from Swift’s “Battle of the Books”


In a recent New York Review of Books article, novelist Francine Prose weighs in on the furor caused by a Kirkus review of Laura Moriarty’s young adult novel American Heart. Although originally receiving a star, the book had the star removed after the first Amazon reviewer, and then many others, attacked it for being a white savior narrative.

Prose summarizes the plot as follows:

Moriarty’s dystopian novel imagines a future in which Muslims are being herded into internment camps, a fact of minor importance to the novel’s white heroine, Sarah Mary, until she befriends an endangered Iranian Muslim, a professor named Sadaf. 

The Amazon reviewer, who appears to be a white woman going by the name of Leah, minced no words in her attack:

fuck your white savior narratives
fuck using marginalized characters as a plot device to teach the white mc how to be a decent person
fuck you for perpetuating the idea that marginalized people need to suffer in order to be worthy of “humanity”
fuck this book and everyone who thought it would be a good fucking idea…
to my Muslim friends, i’m sorry this book and this mindset exists

Now, if “my Muslim friends” is a sign that Leah is not herself Muslim, then she too is engaging in a savior narrative, a self-appointed spokesperson riding in to speak up for oppressed Muslims. Self righteousness mixed with paternalism is a heady brew. So, should we listen to Leah or to the reviewer who wrote the original starred review, described by Kirkus as “an observant Muslim person of color”?

But I want to put that aside for the moment and look at the white savior genre. It’s true that many works fall into this category–and even more if one expands it to “white observer” narrative. If we banished such stories from the canon, we would have to drop Othello, Oroonoko, “Modest Proposal,” Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Huckleberry Finn, Passage to India, and Heart of Darkness, to name just a few off the top of my head. Prose mentions some of these, adds a few more, and then points to how much poorer the world would be without them:

I can still remember how pained I was, the first time I read The House of Mirth, to stumble on Edith Wharton’s portrayal of the sleazy Jewish banker, Simon Rosedale, who “had his race’s accuracy in the appraisal of values,” whose “idea of showing himself to be at home in society was to display an inconvenient familiarity with the habits of those with whom he wished to be thought intimate”—and whose ambitions are dashed by a society matron who recognizes him “as the same little Jew who had been served up and rejected at the social board a dozen times within her memory.” Though I would have preferred that a thoughtful editor had advised Wharton that her flat, biased, and stereotypical portrait of Rosedale was a serious flaw in her novel, I have never wished that her book had gone unpublished because of a furious online outpouring of rage. Moby-Dick might not exist if a sensitivity reader had objected to Melville’s depiction of the indigenous Queequeg, silent, telling fortunes. It’s painful to imagine someone reading Huckleberry Finn and having only one thought: fuck your white savior narrative.

If authors never moved beyond their own race, class, gender, nationality, ethnicity, or sexual preference, then fiction would be monochromatic. In fact, we wouldn’t have fiction. As Prose points out,

Isn’t reading an experience that the writer allows us to “live”? Doesn’t fiction let the reader imagine what it might be like to be someone else? Or to enable us to consider what it means to be a human being—of another race, ethnicity, or gender? Should we dismiss Madame Bovary because Flaubert lacked “lived experience” of what it meant to be a restless provincial housewife? Can we no longer read Othello because Shakespeare wasn’t black?

Those who look for purity soon find themselves on a slippery slope. Should, for instance, Lucille Clifton and Alice Walker, hailing from a developed nation, be excoriated for how they characterize Africans? (A Nigerian colleague at St. Mary’s told Lucille Clifton that her depiction of Dahomey women was a sentimental fiction.) For that matter, should we allow middle class members of an ethnicity write about lower class members of an ethnicity?

A version of this debate used to convulse leftist politics. What did it mean, for instance, that many of the spokespeople for the working class were themselves middle class, including Karl Marx and Frederick Engels? Wasn’t there some “savior-ism” going on here? And yet many of the world’s liberation movements have been spearheaded by people from privileged backgrounds.

I’m not against critiquing works for their various blindnesses. I myself have criticized To Kill a Mockingbird, and indeed Prose makes exactly the mistake that I warned against in Monday’s post when she defends the book for making people uncomfortable. (I said there’s no virtue in making black students in a Mississippi school system uncomfortable in the way that it does.) I argued, however, that rather than banning To Kill a Mockingbird, which might indeed open some white eyes, teachers should add other works to complete the picture, say, poetry by Clifton and Langston Hughes.

While I agree with Prose for the most part, she fails to acknowledge a real concern with the publishing industry:

“The fear,” one literary agent told me, “is that if a publisher takes on a book written by a successful white male writer about a disabled Native American lesbian, a real disabled Native American lesbian might have trouble placing a book about the same subject at the same house; the publisher already has one.”

Prose’s response is unsatisfactory. First of all, she doesn’t call out this facile agent for piling up adjectives to convey a sense of political correctness run amuck. Also, she assumes that the white writer has written a better book that this hypothetical disabled Native American lesbian—and if he/she had not, then of course the DNAL author would be the one that gets published. Literary merit would prevail:

What this suggests is that books are being categorized—and judged—less on their literary merits than on the identity of their authors.

In other words, Prose is arguing against literary affirmative action. The problem, however, is that editors have unconscious biases, as W. E. B. Du Bois pointed out many years ago in “Criteria of Negro Art” (1926). That’s what the furor is about in the first place. It’s why a white teacher trying to do the right thing gets blindsided by black objections to To Kill a Mockingbird.

 The solution is to have as much diversity as possible in every field and to have open conversations about our differing perspectives. Only when this is the case can we really be confident that merit will be the final criteria.

Critiques of Moriarty’s book may well be warranted (I haven’t read it so can’t say), but I am against self-righteous purity police wielding shame as a weapon. I agree with Prose that this is a form of bullying, not to mention a cowardly and ineffective way to address our very real problems:

Literature will survive online social media bullying just as it has survived book burning and state censorship. One of the ugliest aspects of bullying is the way the aggressor finds easy targets and avoids the bigger, tougher challenges. But these attacks—and capitulations—may make it harder for us to champion the importance of the imagination at a time when we so urgently need to imagine a way to solve the larger crises that face us.

If nothing else, it sounds like Moriarty wants to engage with people unlike herself. Leah is not interested in engagement.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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