“I could be wrong, but I believe Diversity is an old, old wooden ship that was used during the Civil War era.”
So says Ron Burgundy in the comedy classic Anchorman. The film brilliantly satirizes the rampant workplace sexism of the 1970s as network executives threaten Burgundy’s chauvinistic dominance at Channel 4 by hiring a female co-anchor. Seemingly, his definition of diversity is hilariously inaccurate. In fact, Burgundy is wildly misinformed throughout the film much like the Gladney family in Don DeLillo’s White Noise. But this isn’t an article about upper-middle class comfort/privilege allowing its members (specifically male) to be woefully wrong about most things with no real consequences. It’s an article about diversity.
In regards to literary diversity, Burgundy’s definition is not far off. It does have something to do with wooden ships, but not of the Civil War era. More like the wooden ships of colonialism. For the past two decades, post-colonial voices from Africa, Asia, and South America have been diversifying the literary world. Narratives of diaspora and assimilation have taken major prizes and rightfully so. Currently, humankind is at its most existentially tumultuous where the ebb of colonialism has most receded. The resulting struggles make for great storytelling and provide an outlet for the pain and suffering of those who have been dislocated from their own cultures, who must seek a new identity while dealing with prejudice. Postcolonial novels and short stories also educate privileged Americans on the realities of their own history and politics and those of Europe.
But there’s another kind of literary diversity that deserves more publication and press than it currently receives. I am speaking of experimental literature. Are the voices and styles of Markson, Coover, and Barthelme not diverse? They are certainly different from those of mainstream American publishing. The old white patriarchs of fallen empires (and matriarchs) can certainly offer up non-paradigmatic viewpoints. Maybe this is an article about upper-middle class comfort/privilege, but the kind that allows First World writers to focus on experimentation of craft because they have that socioeconomic luxury. The postmodern works of Amy Hempel and Ben Marcus offer alternative perspectives on American life, but can they be viewed as diverse? I think so. Such authors render our current bourgeois realities in radical ways. It’s not only diverse, but in some ways subversive.
In a 1988 interview, DeLillo said this about the role of the author…“The writer is the person who stands outside society, independent of affiliation and independent of influence. The writer is the man or woman who automatically takes a stance against his or her government…American writers ought to stand and live in the margins, and be more dangerous. Writers in repressive societies are considered dangerous. That’s why so many of them are in jail.”
Can you imagine an American author being imprisoned for his/her words? What would they have to say? How would they have to say it? Fight Club? American Psycho? Naked Lunch (banned in Boston and LA) was probably the last novel to even come close. In 2004, Nicholson Baker published Checkpoint, a novel in which the two protagonists plot the assassination of George W. Bush. The book didn’t even raise eyebrows. Baker wasn’t even waterboarded. The subversive content of such novels are ideologically diverse but I can’t imagine their authors ever serving jail time. Is it possible for a writer to be dangerous in a democratic society? Worse than being sent to prison, the fate of most dangerous American authors is countless rejection letters. Postcolonial authors often find themselves imprisoned. For dissident, experimental Americans, the worst-case-scenario is being ignored. If you want to eat, you got to write publishable stories. It was easy for Burroughs to risk irrelevance and censorship. Food and rent were much cheaper in those days.
My preference is for literature that is diverse in both perspective and style; that is both postcolonial and experimental. Writers such as Julio Cortazar, Toni Morrison, and Nadine Gordimer, or Solstice’s very own Robert Lopez (Fall/Winter 2011). And let us not forget James Joyce, the godfather of the avant-garde. The content of Ulysses was considered dangerous in Edwardian England, but in today’s culture it’s barely rated R. Its language and form however have made good on Joyce’s promise of keeping scholars busy for one-hundred years. In this sense, can we not say that Ulysses and Finnegans Wake are diverse works?
Postmodern diversity should not solely include ethnicity, gender, and sexuality. Postmodernism isn’t just a sociopolitical phenomenon. It’s also aesthetical. It’s about taking all the free bourgeois time in the world to get surreal and abstract. It’s the Beckettian way of getting back at an absurd universe. As DeLillo says, it’s about opposing authority and colonizing figureheads. Therefore all literary innovation is inherently postcolonial and thus diverse. Maybe that not’s true, but we’re talking postmodernism. What’s the truth (especially the truth of some imperial white dude) got to do with anything?
Boston native Eugenio Volpe is a PEN Discovery Award winner and Pushcart nominee. He teaches creative writing at Arizona State University’s Piper Studio. His short stories have appeared in publications such as Salamander, New York Tyrant, Post Road, Solstice Literary Magazine, and dozens more.