If Jess Row, born in 1974, received a legacy from the white writers of the 20th century, it was one of “silences, defensive postures, lacunae, conscious and unconscious self-limitations” on the subject of race.
But that doesn’t mean race is absent from their work, as he notes in his new book White Flights: Race, Fiction, and the American Imagination: “even writers who would seem to have almost nothing to say about race…are saying a great deal.”
Row’s book is an ambitious attempt to investigate what is latent in those silences, and to create a theory of what Row, borrowing from the critic Eve Sedgwick, calls “reparative writing.”
In seven linked essays, Row considers white art from the writer Gordon Lish to emo music, which he calls a kind of white blues, together with reflections on his own heritage and family.
White Flights is both astute and painfully self-regarding, showcasing a fierce intelligence trained, too often, on its own belly button. Row falls into familiar traps of white writers addressing race, including exaggerated confessions of guilt (Row liked guns and action movies as a kid), and invocations of racially ambiguous ancestors to, presumably, confer authenticity. In other words, despite his great care and acute self-awareness, Row shows how very hard it can be for white writers not to make it about themselves.