Why don’t people talk about Paul Beatty? I’m sure they do. I’m sure they talk about him in hushed tones, looking over both shoulders before they mention his name at literary cocktail parties, as if he has the power to be everywhere at all times, so you’d better watch what you say about him. It’s like when racist white people say the words “black people.” They whisper it, as if the words had the power to invoke the wrath of Voldimort. Which, I guess, in their mind, the words do.
People don’t talk about Paul Beatty in the same sentence as Jonathan Lethem, as Michael Chabon, as Junot Diaz. And why not? Beatty is just as talented (if not more so) than Lethem and Chabon, can hold his prose weight in the ring with Diaz any day. So why do you never hear about him? My theory: because he uses the n-word.
I took a critical writing class in college called American Voices, which was vague liberal arts college speak for “non-white authors.” It was taught by a writer in residence, a lovely woman named Valerie with an amazing smile who wrote mystery novels for a living. She introduced me to Beatty and, subsequently, to the concept of talking about and thinking about race. We read an excerpt of White Boy Shuffle aloud in class and afterwards we were discussing it. Actually, we were forced to discuss it. We went around the room and everyone had to say something. I was one of three white people in the room, and I’d never talked about race in front of black people before and I was terrified that if I even spoke the words “black people” in front of the class that I’d get assaulted with an unanswerable line of questioning, “Black people?! What do you mean black people?” which would quickly devolve into “Let’s kill this racist motherfucker!” So instead I rambled about the style, the structure, something about maximalism. Basically sidestepping the race conversation as much as I could. For an entire semester. The funny thing was I never heard a mention of Beatty after that. Almost as if he was banished from the earth. I had to search for him. And I found him in Borders a couple weeks ago.
A hallmark of Beatty is that he plays around with race and I think that’s what scares most people about him. People are so shook-up by the PC movement that they’re scared to even talk about race for fear of sounding racist. Beatty appears dangerous. Which is probably why you’ll never see him on the Oprah book club (btw, there’s a hilarious footnote in Slumberland wherein it mentions Oprah buying the movie rights to each and every black American in history, therein becoming the embodiment of the black experience in America).
*taken from the Vice Guide to Everything.
Overly defensive Post-Script:
There’s arguments for using the word in a non-racist way* (which always sounded kind of ridiculous to me, as it seems like it would take a millennia for the word to be diluted of its cultural history and connotations, and even after all those years it would probably just take on a new form of negativity), arguments that say it’s just a word, and that everyone should be able to use it, that we should rob it of its power by using it ias a joke, that you’re a bit of a Politically Correct pussy if you’re too afraid to say it. And the reason I don’t is cause I have a lot of people I deeply care about who would be deeply upset if I used it, and not only with me, but with life in general. And isn’t that what personal politics really boil down to? Whether or not you want hurt the people around you? That, and maybe I just don’t have the comedic inflection for it.