The Problem with 'American Fiction'
Where a good film errs
Like many theatergoers and critics, I found much to admire in Cord Jefferson’s American Fiction. Having read Percival Everett’s Erasure several years before, I was excited to see how such a wonderfully acidic novel was adapted for the screen. And unlike most film adaptions of literary fiction, American Fiction didn’t disappoint. It was, at its best, an affecting portrait of a family on the brink, novelist Thelonious “Monk” Ellison’s mother vanishing into a haze of Alzheimer’s as his brother comes to terms with his sexuality—and battles drug addiction—while both of them grapple with the recent death of their sister, the glue of the Ellison clan. The acting is superb, and Jeffrey Wright deserves all accolades that come his way.
The film has been hailed, by certain cultural critics, as a needed rejoinder to the shallow identity politics of the 2010s and early 2020s. It gleefully satirizes a white liberal publishing complex that is desperate for “Black” books that peddle stereotypical victimization narratives for hungry white audiences. Ellison is a writer of difficult, highbrow fiction who happens to be Black. He is enraged when he finds his novels in the African American literature section of the bookstore. His lament is familiar to writers of color who are pigeonholed by publishers and booksellers, backed into corners they’d rather not go. No editor wants to buy Monk’s latest novel or deal with his thorny oeuvre, which probes Greek mythology and is not “Black enough.” Though ensconced at a West Coast university at the start of the film, Monk is quickly placed on unpaid leave after shouting down a student who can’t tolerate that he is teaching a canonical, uncomfortably titled Flannery O’Connor short story. The student is light-skinned and Monk is not.
American Fiction tosses in enough contemporary references—defund the police, goofy Brooklyn libs—to make it all seem like a reaction to the here and now, but the film’s relative faithfulness to its source material elides what Everett’s novel, published in 2001, was viciously satirizing. In turn, American Fiction blunts what could have been a more cutting critique of 2020s corporate publishing and a deeper exploration of why so much hyped literary fiction seems to underwhelm. In Erasure, Everett was critiquing the rise of “poverty porn” and the tales of “ghetto” life that found such purchase for a spell in the 1990s. The source of his ire was Sapphire’s Push, a 1996 novel about an obese, illiterate teenage girl from Harlem named Precious. The novel, narrated from Precious’ perspective in working class vernacular—“with” becomes “wif” and “child” becomes “chile”—polarized critics, with the New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani calling it “disturbing, affecting and manipulative all at the same time.” Eight years after Erasure was published, Precious, an adaptation of Push, was released to widespread acclaim, racking up six Oscar nominations. Mo’Nique, who played Precious’ unemployed and abusive mother, won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.
In both American Fiction and Erasure, the stand-in for Push is the best-selling We’s Lives in Da Ghetto, which white audiences devour for its supposedly authentic portrayal of the gritty African American experience. In Erasure, the author is Juanita Mae Jenkins; Jefferson renames her Sintara Golden, and offers her more sympathy than Everett did in his novel. Monk, as an upper middle class intellectual, cannot stomach the runaway success of We’s Lives in Da Ghetto and decides, in a fit of rage, to pen his own satire, My Pafology, under the pen name Stagg R. Leigh. Written in the same vernacular as Golden’s novel, My Pafology is crammed with graphic sex, gang violence, and enormous amounts of profanity. Since American Fiction is a movie and not a novel, the viewer can only learn so much about Monk’s novel. A few brief scenes, with live-action enactments sprung from Monk’s imagination, suffice, and the real intrigue comes when Monk learns, to his great chagrin, a major publisher loves My Pafology and wants to pay him an advance of $750,000. Monk’s beleaguered literary agent urges him to take the deal—the money is great, and film rights will be scooped up for another mountain of cash. Struggling to pay his mother’s medical bills, Monk has no choice: he’ll publish My Pafology. But not before, out of spite, he forces his white publisher to name the novel Fuck instead. The house balks only briefly before embracing, wholeheartedly, what will be the literary event of the season. All this time, Monk is pretending to be Leigh, a supposed convict who has recently broken out of prison.
My sense is a significant number of critics who reviewed American Fiction did not read Erasure. Like another dark and savagely funny novel adapted for the big screen, American Psycho—we’ll hear more about its author in a moment—American Fiction cannot quite approximate the transgressive bent of its source material. To help those who never read Erasure, here are selections from My Pafology/Fuck, as written by Everett. (I took the discretion of censoring a racial slur used widely in the book.)
“I got another coupla minutes before that lunch bell ring and that Willy the Wonker n— come walkin down the street my way. He be singin that song what ain’t no song that always be gettin on people’s nerves … “Lawd Gawd,” he say, “let these n— on these streets leave me alone today. Please, Jesus. Don’t let no drive-by gang punk-ass mutha-fucka put a hole in me. Don’t let no junkie kill me fo’ my junk. Don’t let no white man throw me in his dungeon. Don’t let yo son, who died fo my sorry ass, come back down here just yet, not until I get my shit ironed out.” Then Willy see me. “Hey, I know you, young n—.”
And later, the protagonist, 19-year-old Van Go Jenkins, has a dream.
I dreams when I’m sleepin and it be on an island somewhere in them islands down there. There be all these beautiful, fine-ass bitches walkin round wearin nuffin but strings over they nipples and shit. I think, damn, these some fine bitches here and I know they gone give me some and I start countin the babies I’m gone make and I start thinkin up names for them babies. Their names gone be Avaricia, Baniqua, Clitoria, Dashone, Equisha, Fantasy, Galinique, Hobitcha, I’youme, Jamika, Klauss, Latishanique, Mystery, N—ina, Oprah, Pastischa, Quiquisha, R’nee’nee, Suckina, Titfunny, Uniqua, Vaselino, Wuzziness, Yolandique and Zookie. I gone hit that many bitches, I think.
Van Go meets another girl.
I laugh, “Shit girl, you be almost flat-chested.” She get mad then. “I a woman, though.” I kiss her. “Yeah, you a woman though.” We get our clothes off and I get on top of her and ride her real good for a long time and she be crying and shit and saying it hurt, but she like it. I know she like it, the way she moanin like that. I fucks her good. Then I get up and pull on my pants.
There is absolutely no chance any major publisher accepts and distributes a novel like My Pafology/Fuck in 2024. The white liberals at the Big Five conglomerates have moved on from such stories. It is increasingly rare to find literary fiction that depicts working class life, let alone a work that satirizes it or traffics in garish tropes. The Push era is long gone. As writers like Chris Jesu Lee, Terry Nyguen, and Alex Perez have pointed out, elite literary fiction today obsesses, largely, over the trials and travails of the professional class, and reduces most nonwhite storytelling to a kind of low-stakes squabbling among the encultured. Novels like Yellowface and The Other Black Girl are set, quite literally, in publishing houses, and not on the streets of Harlem, Chinatown, or Compton. American Fiction might bemoan the trauma narrative, but trauma narratives are not vanishing from Penguin or Random House anytime soon. Discursive, disturbing novels are harder to find, as the writers today who meet the criteria of the gatekeepers check all the proper professional managerial boxes beforehand. (Exceptions to the rule, like Ottessa Moshfegh, occasionally emerge.) Our contemporary novelists tend to be good in the classroom, good in the boardroom, and eager to espouse the gauzy left-liberal politics that confer the required amount of cultural capital.
Towards the end of American Fiction, Monk joins a selection of novelists to judge a prestigious literary award. Monk himself as never won this award, but Fuck, of course, is nominated. The other judges love it, except for Sintara Golden. Jefferson takes the liberty to write a showdown between Monk and the We’s Lives in Da Ghetto author, and the two Black novelists are intended to represent two sides of a greater artistic struggle. Monk is angry that Golden is pandering to the lowest common denominator. Golden shoots back that she’s giving the “market what it wants.” (Jefferson said in an interview he didn’t know “whose side I’m on.”)
Monk: You’re not fed up with it? Black people in poverty, black people rapping, black people as slaves, black people murdered by the police, whole soaring narratives about black folks in dire circumstances who still manage to maintain their dignity before they die-- I mean, I’m not saying these things aren’t real, but we’re also more than this. And it’s like so many writers like you can’t envision us without some white boot on our necks.
Sintara: Do you get angry at Bret Easton Ellis or Charles Bukowski for writing about the downtrodden? Or is your ire strictly reserved for Black women?
Monk: Nobody reads Bukowski thinking his is the definitive white experience. But people—white people—read your book and confine us to it. They think that we’re all like that.
Sintara: Then it sounds like your issue is with white people, Monk, not me.
MONK That may be, but I also think that I see the unrealized potential of Black people in this country.
SINTARA Potential is what people see when they think what’s in front of them isn’t good enough.
It’s notable that Sintara’s identity gambit (“Or is your ire strictly reserved for Black women?”) is treated without derision, and offers an alternative view that Jefferson, at the very minimum, sanctions. Everett’s Erasure would not, especially since the Monk of the novel—as well as Jefferson’s Monk—is clearly not a misogynist. He might be a snob who is too embittered to understand what the public wants, but he does not hate women. He reveres his sister. He does not care that Golden/Jenkins is a female author; he would be equally perturbed if a man had published We’s Lives in Da Ghetto. There’s a reason he hates himself for writing My Pafology/Fuck.
What’s strange to me still is that so few critics commented on the factual inaccuracy of Sintara’s response. If I am being generous, I might argue Jefferson does it purposefully to undermine a character he likes less, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. He sketched her with compassion and took this exchange seriously. Sintara—or Jefferson—manages to conflate Charles Bukowski and Bret Easton Ellis, two writers who share a race, a gender, and a hometown (Los Angeles) and almost nothing else. Sintara’s point that Bukowksi is not indicted for his portrayal of brutal, white working class has some merit—though most American critics didn’t take Bukowksi’s writing seriously in his lifetime—but her description of Ellis is nonsensical. American Psycho, Ellis’ magnum opus, is told from the vantage point of an increasingly unhinged Wall Street investment banker, and his other novels are studies, in one form or another, of the corrosive effects of wealth and privilege. His latest novel, The Shards, is one of his best, and is set, like Less Than Zero, in the most exclusive neighborhoods of Los Angeles, shuttling among beach clubs, night clubs, and private school campuses. Ellis, quite literally, does not write about the downtrodden. Sintara’s false note was unnecessary, and could have been caught with enough attention to the literature. But Ellis, who is famous enough for being a white writer, was a convenient stand-in. By the end of American Fiction, Monk is on a movie set, coming to terms with Fuck’s transformation into a film. He is getting more comfortable with giving the market what it wants. In this alternate universe of the 2020s, the market apparently wants a movie about Black life called Fuck. It all would’ve been more realistic if Monk had simply unearthed another Marvel superhero or Mattel doll to spin into a film franchise. That could have made him a millionaire many times over.
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