Might As Well Be Dead is my ninth book, sixth novel, and third novel for young readers. So I’ve gotten many, many reviews. From literary critics in mainstream periodicals, book buyers on commercial websites, book lovers on private blogs, and school kids assigned to write papers and post them online… and those reviews are mere mouse-clicks away, in all their glory and horror, if you’re curious.
It’s rare, then, that a negative review sticks in my craw. Yet the initial pre-publication notice of MAWBD, in the journal Kirkus, did just that. Not for the unsigned reviewer’s judgment of the quality, or lack thereof, of the book. What got to me was a shot across the bow from the Good Ship Identity Politics delivered as a critical indictment: “The main cast presents White.”
For the record, MAWBD is the tragicomic story of David, a 13-year-old boy whose home life is in shambles, who begins hallucinating the ghost of John Lennon. The cast includes the Jewish protagonist, his Hispanic best friend, his Greek American girlfriend, his Italian American soul mate, his African American guidance counselor, his Asian American homeroom teacher, and a famous Brit who isn’t actually there. Except for the ghost, in short, it’s about what you’d expect in a story set in Queens, New York, one of the most ethnically diverse places on earth.
What does it mean to say that each of these characters “presents White”? That they don’t conform to cultural stereotypes? That the black guidance counselor doesn’t break into a rap or trot out his street cred to advise David? That the Asian teacher takes attendance and makes routine announcements without revealing her inner tiger mom? That the Hispanic best friend is more focused on his sexuality than on lottery tickets, telenovelas, or Lionel Messi? That the Italian soul mate doesn’t have ties to the mob? That the Greek girlfriend doesn’t hide in a wooden horse?
The problem seems to be—in at least one reviewer’s mind—that the characters’ ethnicities have been sublimated in a common identity as middle class Americans. Thus, they’re no longer adequate representatives of ancestrally-defined communities. They’re fully assimilated. They’re carving out lives in the American melting pot. They devote no thought to intersectional power dynamics. They’re un-Woke. Bourgeois. Inauthentic.
This idea of authenticity lurks beneath much of our current debate over social justice. It derives principally from the German philosopher (and part-time Nazi) Martin Heidegger, although its adoption by the lumpen Woketariat involves significant bastardization and conceptual trickle-down. The basic idea is that we are fully ourselves only if we can slough off social expectations of who we should be at any moment or in any relation. The society into which we are born is an accident of fate, a distraction. Society may expect us to be a loving spouse, a dutiful parent, a hard worker, a loyal friend, a generous congregant; we may experience pleasure meeting those expectations since doing so brings us praise. But are any of them who we authentically are?
The Woke twist on Heidegger is to merge the pursuit of authenticity with political action rooted in tribal identities. The premise is that American society, indeed Western culture in toto, exists to benefit straight, white, cisgendered men. To thrive under such conditions, if you are Other, is to be complicit in the systems that oppress you. Complicity is the worst form of inauthenticity. It’s not only a crime against the self; it’s a crime against the movement, a betrayal of those with whom you are naturally, inescapably affiliated. The authentic self, if you are Other, is always an outsider, a rebel… a warrior.
Does this logic sound familiar? It’s nothing more than reheated Marxism seasoned to taste with essentialism and served on a plate of lukewarm agitprop. It’s no coincidence that social justice warriors reserve their fiercest invective for black conservatives, gay conservatives, and female conservatives. Conservatism is natural for straight white cis-guys. For anyone else, it must be inauthentic, the worst form of bad faith. To “present White,” from a Woke perspective—and there’s no other perspective from which such a criticism would, or could, be leveled—is to ape the outlooks and mannerisms of your oppressor. It’s an attempt to belong where you will never belong.
If you’re drawn to such pseudo-intellectual slop, bon appétit. But when I write a novel, I try to create characters who are authentic to themselves, not to categories of consciousness. I don’t mind a reviewer saying I’ve failed—that my characters are one-dimensional, or inconsistent, or dull. But a reviewer who thinks they’re inauthentic because they’re not living out the legacies of their 23andMe swabs has lost sight of what it means to be alive, to partake in humanity in the here and now. More critically, he’s lost sight of what character consists of and what fiction strives to do.