For Jess Row, a long read is time well spent
Jess Row’s new book of essays, “White Flights: Race, Fiction and the American Imagination,” explores whiteness in American fiction starting with the civil rights movement until now through the work of authors such as Jonathan Franzen, Marilynne Robinson, and Don DeLillo. Row, who teaches at The College of New Jersey and has won the Pushcart Prize among other awards, is the author of the novel “Your Face in Mine” and two short story collections. He will discuss his book with Gish Jen at 7 p.m. on Aug. 15 at Harvard Book Store.
BOOKS: What are you reading?
ROW: Some new novels, Colson Whitehead’s “The Nickel Boys” and Ben Lerner’s “The Topeka School,” which is auto-fiction about his growing up there. I especially like to read long novels in the summer. So on my bedside table I have William Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair,” which I’m just at the beginning of, and Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” which I’m just at the end of. Also on my bedside table is Uwe Johnson’s mammoth novel, “Anniversaries.” It was published in the 1960s but was just translated into English last year. I have the first volume, which is 900 pages.
BOOKS: Are you reading any nonfiction as well?
ROW: For the novel I’ve been working on I have a lot of books on time, such as Carlo Rovelli’s “The Order of Time,” James Gleick’s “Time Travel: A History,” and a wonderful book by Sean Carroll, “From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time.” These are general interest books, but anything about time makes your brain start crisscrossing. I like challenging books, especially when I have the time to dive into them.
BOOKS: Have you ever met your match in a long or challenging book?
ROW: There are some writers I have put down because when I was reading them I didn’t have the attention span for them. László Krasznahorkai, the Hungarian novelist, is super challenging. I’ve never been able to get past page 20 of any of his books.
BOOKS: Have you always liked long books?
ROW: Always but more so as I’ve gotten older. My favorite book is Cao Xueqin’s “The Dream of the Red Chamber,” a Chinese literary classic from the late 18th century. It’s like 1,200 to 1,400 pages. It’s my favorite book. I tell people to read it and they never do.
BOOKS: In researching your own book did you come across quintessential novels about whiteness?
ROW: Yes, and in some surprising places. For example, Don DeLillo has been often described as never having written about his being Italian-American, but “Underworld” is filled with references to an American-Italian childhood in New York City that comes from his life. It’s a novel about erasing the ethnic origins that came before whiteness. Another one is Jeffrey Eugenides’s “Middlesex,” a novel about the assimilation of a Greek family into suburban whiteness. It’s an epic of whiteness.
BOOKS: What would you consider the better novels that engage race?
ROW: James Baldwin’s books are a great place to start. “Another Country” is, for me, the essential postwar novel. Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” is a classic that every American should read. In terms of contemporary novels, Mat Johnson, who writes about being biracial, wrote “Loving Day,” and Danzy Senna’s “Caucasia” is a classic about being biracial. Colson Whitehead’s “The Intuitionist” is a classic American allegory about city and race. His short novel “Apex Hides the Hurt” is one of my favorite novels. It’s incredibly funny and about a young black advertising executive who comes up with the idea of selling Band Aids in different skin tones.
BOOKS: Has your book changed you as a reader?
ROW: Whenever I see a book by a white American writer that uses very familiar themes — baseball, cars — I’m going to feel a little skeptical. For example, I totally loved Jonathan Franzen’s “The Corrections” when it first came out. And then I taught it and noticed there were no non-white characters in the book. It takes place in cities and there are no black characters. Now I’m very much aware of when fiction by white Americans is mono-racial. That has made me a much more careful reader.