Sunday, January 21, 2024

The state of American fiction.

I had a day off from work yesterday (not always a given during session), so I saw a movie, and you get a blog post about it.

By, Fair use,
(Sorry about the gnarly cutline. I don't want anybody coming after me for copyright infringement.)

American Fiction has already won numerous awards, and supposedly there's Oscar talk for Jeffrey Wright, who plays Thelonious "Monk" Ellison. Monk is a literature professor at a West Coast college who is forced to take a leave of absence after a student complains about him writing the N word on the board (it's in the title of a Flannery O'Connor short story). That incident is the tip of the iceberg; Monk is tightly wound due to his agent's inability to sell his latest novel (a retelling of Aeschylus). Despite his literary cred, his novels keep getting categorized as "African-American Studies" because he's Black. And his attendance at a literary festival in his hometown of Boston only makes it worse when he sees that the biggest draw is a novel by a Black woman -- a graduate of Oberlin -- whose novel relies heavily on stereotypical Black narrative elements and street slang.

Monk's visit to his family home is one of the film's revelations. He comes from an upper-middle-class -- maybe even upper-class -- background. His sister is a lawyer; his brother is a plastic surgeon. The family home is a lovely old house in a lovely old-money neighborhood. The family owns a beach house. His mother employs a woman who's clearly been with the family since the kids were small. Everything is so far from the streets that it's no wonder that Monk is frustrated about the state of publishing for Black writers. But then his mother's health begins to degenerate. There's talk of having to sell the beach house to cover her care. And Monk decides to give the White publishing establishment what it wants: a novel full of Black stereotypes that he calls My Pafology. He writes it as a joke, and he insists that his agent send it out.

Of course, it's snapped up immediately for a huge advance. Monk needs the money, but he doesn't want it -- not on those terms. So he tells the publisher that he wants to change the title to Fuck. He figures that will kill the deal. But of course it doesn't. And Monk -- the upper-middle-class college professor -- is forced to do marketing for the book using a persona that his agent came up with on the spur of the moment: a Black criminal who did time for a felony and is now on the lam.

The movie is being marketed as a comedy, and there are definitely funny moments. But there's a lot more to American Fiction than that. There's family drama, and there's Monk's character development. There are sweet moments, too. 

And there's the critique of the publishing industry that drew me to the movie in the first place. The film's thesis is that publishers pigeonhole serious writers of color as "African-American Studies" while glorifying the "raw", "visceral" and "real" street life of poor Black people that Monk has made up. Undoubtedly there are people living that life. But Monk insists that there's more to being Black in America than that, and he maintains it's a failing of White folks that we ignore it in favor of sensational stories about drunks on crack in the 'hood who shoot each other as a way of life.

As an aside, I enjoyed actually seeing Wright, who I knew only from his voice role as The Watcher in Marvel's What If... shorts on Disney+. There's also a very funny appearance by Michael Cyril Creighton, who's also in the cast of Only Murders in the Building. And Leslie Uggams plays Monk's mother.

I wouldn't call American Fiction a perfect film, but it's very good, and it has some important things to say about the state of publishing, not just for Black authors but in general. I hope it's not consigned to the same fate as Monk's serious novels: critically acclaimed but lost in the shuffle. I enjoyed it. Go see it.


It wasn't lost on me that I'm a White woman who saw the movie as part of an audience of White people. Maybe we'll learn something from it?


These moments of bloggy movie reviewing have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell. Stay safe!

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