Who/se ethnic?

With the help of my trusty, stalwart RAs, I’m doing some initial data collection from newspapers and news magazines. In a first coding run, I ran into an article from the The New York Times (July 22, 1984, “A Noted ‘Hispanic’ Novelist Proves to be Someone Else” by Edwin McDowell). It relates the non-appearance of Danny Santiago at an award ceremony at the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Mr. Santiago is the author of “Famous All Over Town,” a novel about a Mexican-American family in the LA neighborhood of Eastside. He was to win a $5,000 award for “outstanding work of fiction” published during the previous year. In fact, the author hadn’t been seen–by his agent nor his editor–ever. “This is because”, the article says, “the author of ”Famous All Over Town” is not a Hispanic American, as many critics assumed, but Daniel James, 73 years old, who grew up in Kansas City, Mo., graduated from Andover and says he was the only member of the Yale Class of 1933 to major in classical Greek.”

Apparently, his editor (Bob Bender, at Simon & Schuster) thought there was something fishy writing to the author care of a post office box (because he claimed not to have a telephone), ”But we figured he was probably in prison and didn’t want anybody to know.” To me, this speaks volumes about the willing suspension of disbelief of the publisher, seeking to “discover” an authentic Mexican-American author who might win the kind of award Mr. James did, in fact, win. That the editor attached a particularly ethnic stereotype to his non-routine P.O. Box speaks to this point (I mean…don’t all Mexican-Americans in LA end up in jail?).

In response, Mr. James claims he never told the publisher that he grew up in LA, only that “Danny Santiago was a product of Los Angeles.” To the Times reporter, the author described his name change as “only a ”mild deception” for which he feels no qualms, in part because he and his wife spent 20 years in the Los Angeles barrio as volunteer workers.” So Mr. James is up to something imaginary too, by assuming his social service work gave him access to an ethnic consciousness he then channeled into his fiction. This is also a kind of suspension of disbelief that relates to ethnic difference (I mean…don’t all elites imagine their social service work provides them with unique insight into disadvantage?). It was a little perfect storm of politically charged rectitude, a topic I’ve been quite interested in of late.

The Times article relates the grave disappointment of both “writers of Hispanic origin, some of whom regard the deception as serious” and the chairman of the Academy selection committee (Prof. R.W.B. Lewis of Yale University). The chairman said the “new information about Danny Santiago casts a different light on the matter.” In particular: ”I don’t think when I was reading it I was too much concerned with whether the author was Chicano or not,” he said, ”but now that I know, I think I admire the novel all the more. But I would have to say that if we had known, it would have given us pause. We would not necessarily have rejected it, but we would have had to talk a little more about it. It does raise all kinds of interesting questions.” The hair on the back of my neck always bristles when someone says the word “interesting.” Which questions are interesting, do you think? And why didn’t he think about the ethnic identity of the author, when the disclosure of an ethnic identity (in this case, as white–which isn’t ethnic, exactly) would so dramatically change the deliberation of the committee? I mean, if it matters that much, shouldn’t it be exactly the sort of question he should have been concerned with, at the start?

For his part, Mr. James claimed many authors use pen names–he mentions Mark Twain and Rabelais–but these authors did not change their name to convince the reader of their personal authenticity as fiction writers, did they? Is that the interesting question for Prof. Lewis?

And speaking on behalf of “writers of Hispanic origin,” Felix Gutierrez, chairman of graduate studies at the University of Southern California school of journalism said that while the stories were very good (and even spoke accurately to his own experience):  ”I think Dan James should write as Dan James, because a piece should stand on the merit of the writing, not the author’s name.” Statements like this make me wonder if anyone has ever read Foucault’s essay, “What is an author?“:

“…literary” discourse was acceptable only if it carried an author’s name; every text of poetry or fiction was obliged to state its author and the date, place, and circumstance of its writing. The meaning and value attributed to the text depended upon this information.”

“The third point concerning this “author-function” is that it is not formed spontaneously through the simple attribution of a discourse to an individual. It results from a complex operation whose purpose is to construct the rational entity we call an author. Undoubtedly, this construction is assigned a “realistic” dimension as we speak of an individual’s “profundity” or “creative” power, his intentions or the original inspiration manifested in writing. Nevertheless, these aspect of an individual, which we designate as an author (or which comprise an individual as an author), are projections, in terms always more or less psychological, of our way of handling texts: in the comparisons we make, the traits we extract as pertinent, the continuities we assign, or the exclusions we practice. In addition, all these operations vary according to the period and the form of discourse concerned.”

Foucault argues that the merit of the writing is tied in complex ways with the author’s name (exactly contradicting Mr. Gutierrez’s claim). In fact, it is not only that we need a named author for most texts, but that the name must be linked with an identity, and that identity must be congruous with the position of the author vis-a-vis the substance of the text. We no more wish to read an economist writing about climate change than we do a white writer fictionalizing Mexican-American life. Oh, wait.

So, under what conditions are different kinds of authorial expertise employed in assessing the quality of an author’s writing? It seems that professional expertise in the relevant domain (of non-fiction) is not (always) necessary. Unless you are Malcolm Gladwell, in which case some sociologists will flatly reject the quality of your analysis. It seems that personal experience in the relevant lifestyle (of fiction) is only sometimes necessary–yes, it was problematic for Mr. James/Santiago (and modifying the facts in biography was a problem for James Frey) but not so for Truman Capote who wrote Other Voices, Other Rooms and also In Cold Blood. Personal experience is so extremely important in the valuation of rap music that artists have been tried for crimes their protagonists committed. And so I ask again: what kind of expertise, and for whom?

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “Who/se ethnic?

  1. Is the issue authenticity? We talk about the work as being authentic or inauthentic. The quality of Famous All Over Town doesn’t change when we know that “Danny Santiago” is not the author. But the authenticity of the work does change.

    Did questions of authenticity arise in the early days of white rap? I would think that in rap, more so than in writing and more so than in some other musical genres, there is supposed to be less separation between the performer and the work performed.

  2. Interesting question Jenn, perhaps it might be helpful to conceptually compartmentalize the content of the expertise and the content of the thing being created? Economics (and politics maybe?) seems to have carved out a wide-ranging legitimacy w/r/t areas of expertise. Sociologists have somewhat less of this since there are already sub-specializations that key into particular areas (sociologist of x, where x=family, race, culture, economics, military, etc.). Political players and pundits seem to be willing and able to insert themselves into any old thing as a particular kind of authentic expert. Expertise derived from personal biography may be a peculiar form expertise?

    And then some areas demand more congruency, though your Capote example is a reminder that I may be completely wrong in my theorizing. Finance seems to demand a particular kind of expertise to claim credit in talking about it (though I recall that NPR called up Venkatesh to talk about the credit crisis, so maybe not). Rap, (country as well? jazz? regional/culturally-specific music?) seems to as well. What do these areas have in common? No clue.

    Sorry, nothing definitive, just noodling alongside you.

  3. >This is also a kind of suspension of disbelief that relates to ethnic difference
    >(I mean…don’t all elites imagine their social service work provides them with
    >unique insight into disadvantage?).

    reminds me of the part of many a participant-observation write-up (usually around page eight of an article or halfway through chapter two of a book) where the field worker brags about how within a few weeks he/she was fully accepted as a member of the community

  4. Re Gabriel’s comment about p-o reports. I don’t think I ever made that claim in my book about gamblers (I don’t have a copy handy, and it was long ago). But I do recall an exercise in authenticating the research via performance. In a grad student seminar, I was asked about it, so I tried, ex tempore, to do a gambler rap — i.e., to improv the kind of autobiographical story they told at Gamblers Anonymous meetings. I was not entirely successful. It was a little bit like being gang leader for a day — actually having to do it showed me where the gaps in my knowledge were.

  5. Jenn Lena

    #1: Piece of evidence no. 1: Vanilla Ice, whose “autobiography” stated he had grown up in innercity Miami, gone to high school with Luther Campbell and honed his skills in black clubs. None of this was true.

    #2: I’m still puzzling, too. We’re on the same track, but so far, no station stops.

    #3: The most striking example I know about are the “slum tours” that Yale professors led into immigrant neighborhoods in 19th century New York.

    #3&4: One of the more interesting aspects of the article was that all the representatives of “hispanic life and culture” argued that the book very closely replicated their experience. But none of them reflected on the question of how generalizable their own experience was…after all, all the speakers were themselves accomplished academics and writers. It seems obvious to me that there are many kinds of “hispanic experience” that might be very different from one another, but that only certain kinds would strike certain audiences as legit.

  6. Your post brings a bit to mind that old essay by Joan Scott on the ‘Evidence of Experience,’ which aside from being a well-timed contribution to the politics-of-identity discourse of the 1990s offered what I thought was a useful framing. What forms of ‘evidence’ does (the reporting of) experience purport to provide, what claims does such evidence supposedly satisfy, and who is authorized to handle such evidence? Of course, this is just a rewording of your questions rather than an answer to them.

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