On Common (Sense) and First Person Narrative

I’m not going to get way into the argument about Common’s White House visit, in part because I refuse to give a certain news network attention for their temper tantrum, in part because I’m committed to keeping this substantially a blog about writing (not because I think writers shouldn’t have and share opinions about the world at large, but because if this blog lacked parameters and became a place for me to talk about everything that bothered me, I would have so much to say that I would never write my actual book,) but mostly because John Stewart has already addressed the issue pretty definitively.

But between the Stewart piece, and this Root article on the controversy, I’ve been thinking about some broader questions about narrative and the first person. The Root article quotes Adam Serwer as saying:

“Rappers are often conflated with the content of their material in a way other artists aren’t because the narratives almost always take place in first person as part of an emcees’ effort to create a literary persona.”

So,  why is it that while elements of Cash’s music certainly reflect some of Cash’s own history and personality, nobody believes that Johnny Cash actually shot a man in Reno just to watch him die, but so many are willing to believe that every rapper is expressing a literal truth of the past or an immediate desire?  I suspect it’s why so much critical discourse surrounding hip-hop falls flat—it speaks of hip-hop, collectively, and takes all artists and lyrics at face value, failing to distinguish between deliberate humor and hyperbole and things said seriously, failing to distinguish between  an artist who has adopted for storytelling purposes on a single song or album, an artists who claims a persona, but has not actually lived that life (technical term for one sort of this performance: “studio gangster”), and an artist who is narrating his or her own life story, failing to distinguish between a clever lyricist who is saying terrible things, and terrible lyricist saying terrible things.  I suspect it’s a big part of why we end up having conversations about hip-hop as if it exists in isolation, as if it’s an “ethnic” culture or a youth culture, and not something that at this point in its life span is a fundamental part of American culture, both shaped by and shaping the overall landscape. I don’t say this to say that hip-hop, humor, metaphor, or hyperbole are beyond reproach, simply saying that in order to intelligently and fairly critique hip-hop, one has to know the music well enough to identify these elements as such, and should probably be willing to think about instances of, say gendered or violent metaphor, or sexist humor, in other parts of language and culture as well.  

I wonder how this conflation or artist lyrics carries over into the book world. Do we have different standards for suspension of disbelief? Are some writers interrogated about their pasts, or held responsible for the personal or sociological truth of their work in different ways than other writers? Do we credit some writers with inventiveness and performance and intelligent use of imagination and structure more quickly than we credit others? I sometimes have to push my Af-Am lit students away from reading the assigned books as sociological reflections on the way the world is/used to be, and get them to analyze the artistry of the book itself. We are of course all familiar with stories of writers of color being asked when they will move beyond their ethnic niche, as if a diversity of culture and experience and language can’t exist in a book where all of the characters have a similar ethnic identity, unless that identity is white. Anecdotally, I’ve heard a lot of female writers say that the public assumptions of conflation between the self and the work is worse for female writers, that they are more likely to get completely inappropriate questions, or be accused of writing memoir every time they write poetry or realist fiction.  Obviously, the plural of anecdote is not data, but it would not surprise me if this were true, if part of what it means to be a marginalized person in this country/world is to be denied the sort of complexity that would give you layers—the complexity to have a public persona that is not one’s true self, the complexity to have multiple first-person voices and be able count on an audience to recognize that none of them are you and they are also not each other, the right to own your own work in such a way that it gets sincerely heard, and not just used to justify the listener’s conscious or subconscious assumptions. Over at The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates follows up his coverage of the controversy with a consideration of Cornelius Eady’s poem, “Why Do So Few Blacks Study Creative Writing,”   and points out how often this credible fear of being misunderstood constricts artistry. Who has access to narrative as a space of escape, instead of an extension of the self, as a place for reinvention, rather than an arena of translation or explanation?

3 thoughts on “On Common (Sense) and First Person Narrative

  1. The James Frey affair, and some of the recent talk about memoirs, seems related to this question of personae, masks, and contemporary culture. So I think it’s a 21st cent. thing as well as a hyphenated-writer thing. But I would agree that the general stance of reviewers re connection between author and narrator seems to be a lot stronger when the author is not a white male. (I am a little reluctant to admit Cash into this scheme because I think that any explicitly folk music gets a bit of a free pass as regards being read as autobiography…)

    1. I think parts of what’s interesting about the way Stewart uses Cash in The Daily show clip though is that it emphasizes that culturally, we’re a lot better at parsing the dinstinction between Johnny Cash as Johnny Cash, and Johnny Cash as first person narrator of someone else’s story than we are when it comes to hip-hop. I’d actually argue that in regard to storytelling, hip-hop is closer to folk music than pop music as a whole, in how much it relies on narrative and persona and having a storyline. Not all of it, certainly, but enough of it for the comparison, in both execution and reception, to be useful.

      I think my frustration with James Frey et all has less to do with performance and more to do with the fact that I do think memoir is a different form. I remember being in a fiction workshop once and protesting that something people thought was not credible was in fact the one part of the story that had actually happened, and Elizabeth McCracken saying some smart things on the subject of credibility, one of which was that if something was unconvincing on the page, your defense of it couldn’t be “a footnote that says this actually happened.” I sometimes stress with my students that it doesn’t matter if something is actually true or not, their job as fiction writers is to make the reader believe it. I think memoirists are doing something different– not lesser, not at all easier, but different. They get to go into the bookstore with that fottnote that says this actually happened, they get to speak to the reader from the point of trust instead of having to sell the reader the fictional world. So, I think memoirists who lie annoy me not because I want everything I read to be true in some way but because I think they’re cheating on the level of craft. But yeah, of course there are many straight white male fiction writers who get personally conflated with their work in ways that are sometimes silly and uncomfortable (and I would venture that even then, this probably happens more to straight white male writers who are “othered” by region or class background,) I just think it also blends into a generally reductive understanding of difference and can be super problematic for writers from marginalized territories.

      1. (Tangentially: I remember Julia Segal quipping on twitter a month ago that she shot a man in Reno, just to be like Johnny Cash.)

        I guess I don’t quite believe that hip-hop is received in the way folk music is — at least by a mainstream audience. And the role of the persona in the two genres seems to me different (though I might be misreading hip-hop); Cash’s folk music persona is “flattened” like one of the characters in medieval morality plays like Everyman, it’s not someone you can identify with; the tradition has allegorical roots, which I think differentiate it from both pop and hip-hop, in both of which (as a rule) the FP narrator’s identity is the sort of thing one can imagine inhabiting. (In folk-performed-today the flattening is even greater because the singer is in the wrong historical period.)

        I agree that fiction and nonfiction ought to be different genres but I think there are several factors pushing people to trust authors of fiction more than the genre would justify. So for instance I think the reader is invited to trust Richard Powers or DFW or Sebald on the purported facts in their work; I was surprised, e.g., to find out that some of the details in Sebald’s descriptions of rural England were made up. And maybe part of what’s going on with regional/minority writers is that people sometimes read such writers “to educate themselves” or “to broaden their horizons” etc. and therefore come at them with more of a nonfiction-reading mindset — which then leads to disappointment when one realizes things are made up…

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