The Truth in ‘American Fiction’

In my nearly three decades as an editor, author and former editor of The New York Times Book Review, a shorthand has often been used to describe contemporary authors — the Latino poet, the Indigenous novelist, the Black writer. Often this extends to a reductive way of viewing their work: This book is by an X person telling an X story.

After a presentation to the Book Review in which a publicist referred to yet another book as “unapologetically gay,” a gay editor on staff said in jest, “I wish for once they would talk about an apologetically gay novel.”

But his quip made a point. Why is identity so often used as code to describe a particular kind of novel? Just who is this meant to satisfy?

The writer and director Cord Jefferson has given a lot of thought to these questions. Back in 2014, Jefferson, then a journalist, wrote a widely read post on Medium called “The Racism Beat,” in which he lamented editors’ tendency to call on him every time something terrible happened to a Black person.

“If America would like to express that it truly values and appreciates the voices of its minorities, it will listen to all their stories, not just the ones reacting to its shortcomings and brutality,” he wrote.

In a culture that has become obsessed with how our identities define us, far less time is spent considering how those identities just as often circumscribe. Just as emphasis on diversity can open minds, it can also harden preconceptions.

If a debut writer is a Chinese immigrant, do publishers and readers expect her work to convey the Chinese immigrant experience, or would a novel by her about Bolivian miners be equally welcomed? Why can’t she do both?

Some writers may enjoy the privileges conferred by representing a particular perspective, especially when starting out. But others feel pigeonholed or marginalized by the assumption that their work necessarily reflects a particular identity. Philip Roth, for example, bristled at being called a Jewish writer or a Jewish American writer, rejecting the effort to box him in. “The epithet ‘American Jewish writer’ has no meaning for me,” he told one interviewer.

Or as Percival Everett said in one interview, “I’ve been called a Southern writer, a Western writer, an experimental writer, a mystery writer, and I find it all kind of silly. I write fiction.” It’s this attempt to pin writers down that Everett satirized so effectively in his exquisitely mordant novel “Erasure.”

“Some people in the society in which I live, described as being Black, tell me I am not Black enough,” writes Monk, the novel’s protagonist. “Some people whom the society calls white tell me the same thing,” Monk, a middle-aged professor reconsidering his family life and his life’s work, continues. “I have heard this mainly about my novels, from editors who have rejected me and reviewers whom I have apparently confused and, on a couple of occasions, on a basketball court when upon missing a shot I muttered, ‘Egads.’”

As one fictional reviewer says of Monk’s work, “One is lost to understand what this reworking of Aeschylus’ ‘The Persians’ has to do with the African American experience.”

“Erasure” came out in 2001, but the mind-set it describes feels even more pervasive in 2023. No wonder Jefferson chose to adapt it for his debut feature, “American Fiction,” which opens on Friday. A brilliant commentary on our booby-trapped cultural landscape, it’s probably the best movie I’ve ever seen about book publishing.

Like most good literature, “American Fiction” operates on multiple levels, driven by a seemingly preposterous scenario: What would happen if a Black writer whose intricate, experimental riffs on classic Greek tales sell miserably took a page from the fictional Sintara Golden, the best-selling author of “We’s Lives in Da Ghetto,” and wrote a clichéd, exploitative book of his own? The result is “My Pafology,” written under the pseudonym Stagg R. Leigh, a press-shy ex-con. A parody sold completely straight to publishers, it becomes a critical darling and runaway best seller.

Meanwhile, another story — imbued with all the complexity “My Pafology” lacks — unfurls around Monk’s family life. The worsening condition of the matriarch, the death of one sibling and the estrangement of another, the fallout from a father’s extramarital affair.

Perhaps most remarkable is the film’s refusal to cast villains. To that end, Jefferson told me, he added a scene in which Monk confronts the bourgeois Sintara about what he sees as her cashing in on racist stereotypes. To Monk’s surprise as much as the audience’s, her motivation and methods are far more complicated.

“One of the things I didn’t want to do with this film was police Blackness,” Jefferson said in an interview over Zoom last month. “It’s always more interesting where people wake up every morning and think they’re doing the right thing.”

He also wanted to get people to laugh at themselves. “We are so entrenched in our corners these days talking amongst ourselves,” he lamented. “We have to get past all these hang-ups to get anywhere and make some progress.”

That instinct, so rare in a culture that judges art and its creators as good or bad, correct or immoral, elevates the movie beyond its success as an audacious and very funny bit of entertainment. What “American Fiction” does is what art should do: illuminate a universal truth about ourselves.

Source photograph by Issarawat Tattong/Getty Images.

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