Before Richard Ford's most recent novel, the one about a Ford-like idiot trying to comprehend a world that's passed him by, there was A Multitude of Sins, a book of short stories wherein Ford-like idiots are trying to deal with the aftermath of ill-advised extramarital affairs. The novelist Colson Whitehead, reviewing Sins for the New York Times Book Review, excoriated Ford's characters for their shallowness and lambasted Ford himself for worrying more about perfect word choice than why anyone should care in the first place. This is the end of that review:
When asked last year by the Kenyon Review what kind of relationship he has with his characters, Ford replied: "Master to slave. Sometimes I hear them at night singing over in their cabins." Singing. So that's what that was. It sounded like whining.
Swear to God, there was smoke rising off the page. It was the kind of fearless, unforgiving call to action that had been far too long coming: Ford is a Big Name of Literature, and his work had gotten sloppy and pointless. Whitehead was the young sheriff calling out the tired old windbag, and his aim was true. Ford's reputation has never completely recovered from that lashing, but he would eventually get his petty little revenge.
Two years later, Ford approached Whitehead at a party, announced that he had waited a long time for the moment, and then spat on Whitehead. According to New York Magazine, Whitehead would later comment: "This wasn't the first time some old coot had drooled on me, and it probably won't be the last. But I would like to warn the many other people who panned the book that they might want to get a rain poncho, in case of inclement Ford."
This was an historic loogie.
Ford's sputum represented the passing of a literary torch to Whitehead, exemplifying the rise of writers like Eggers, Foer, and Smith. It was the untidy birth of a new literary generation, still wet with the fluids of the previous one, and Colson Whitehead is the author who finalized the transition.
Whitehead's written four books in nine years, and the three novels among them—The Intuitionist, John Henry Days, and Apex Hides the Hurt—are all wildly different but wonderful. African-American themes are as integral to these books as, say, the desire to not be alone, or the overwhelming urge to forgo aspirations in order to be more comfortable. It's telling of the generational sea change that race isn't a problem to be solved in Whitehead's novels, it's a fact. On his website, Whitehead responds to the question "Are You a Black Writer, or a Writer Who Happens to Be Black?" with a perfect "Is that a dumb question, or a question that happens to be dumb?"
Whitehead gives a Seattle Arts & Lectures talk at Benaroya Hall (200 University St, 624-6600) on Mon Jan 14 at 7:30 pm, $10–$27.