The Cynical In-Joke of ‘American Fiction’

Alex Perez

The Cynical In-Joke of ‘American Fiction’

In recent decades, the American culture industry has been fixated on the need to lift up “POC voices”—so long as these voices tell a particular type of story focused on marginality, deprivation, and oppression. The Oscar-nominated, critically acclaimed film American Fiction is the most successful send-up of this tendency so far. Its protagonist, Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (Jeffrey Wright), is an overlooked author of highbrow novels who, initially as a joke, gives his publisher what it wants from a black writer: an over-the-top tale of poverty and violence in the ’hood. The book promptly becomes a bestseller, and hilarity ensues as Monk has to figure out what to do with the monster he has created.

The critical triumph of American Fiction has been taken as a watershed moment, signaling that perhaps our culture is ready to move beyond the crude politics of racial representation. Finally, a mainstream cultural product has acknowledged what everyone familiar with the publishing industry knows: It has become an anti-art bureaucratic hellscape only interested in “POC voices” that confirm certain political narratives. With this truth brought into the light of day by a Hollywood studio, and to great acclaim, perhaps we can move on.

This is wishful thinking. American Fiction aptly mocks the idea that publishing professionals only desire narratives of black suffering, but as the film’s own critical success—including five Oscar nominations—suggests, there is another acceptable option: stories that traffic in metafictional games about the shortcomings of representational politics. Maybe the increasing permissibility of this sort of story amounts to progress, at least for minority writers’ literary freedom; but it may also function as a release valve that helps keep the stifling norms of the industry in place. In other words, the existence of narratives that wink and comfort the in-group audience aware of the shortcomings of “identity” doesn’t mean that endless, staid stories about victimization are going away anytime soon.

American Fiction’s Monk is a respected scribe who has steered clear of the identity trap, only to end up being pushed into it. As he discovers when visiting a bookstore in an early scene, his meditative, cerebral novels inspired by Greek mythology are stashed away in the African-American Studies section. Upset that his work has been classified this way, he attempts to relocate a stack of his books, but a young employee informs him that shelving decisions are made by corporate. Monk, whose charming malaise carries the film, gives up; he knows the score.

In another early scene, he attends a book festival in Massachusetts, where he catches a panel headlined by the literary world’s newly minted starlet, Sintara Golden (Issa Rae). Golden, interviewed by a white woman, gives the expected answers about representation and diversity, but when she stands up to read from her novel, We’s Lives In Da Ghetto, she code-switches into a ridiculously affected street vernacular. Rae, who is perfect as a Roxane Gay-esque literary queen bee, leans into the exaggerated slang to great comedic effect. The mostly white and female audience predictably eats up the Oberlin-educated Golden’s show, granting her a standing ovation.

American Fiction really gets going after Monk witnesses Golden titillating the self-satisfied audience at the literary festival and decides to write an “authentic” black novel of the sort the white literary world seems to want. He takes the pen name Stagg R. Leigh, and cranks out a manuscript titled My Pafology; the book quickly sells for an obscene $750,000 advance, and we’re off. Infuriated that writing a novel loaded with stereotypes has landed him the biggest book deal of his life, Monk attempts to sabotage his good fortune by renaming it Fuck. The publisher and marketing executive, unwilling to go against a writer with street bona fides (Stagg R. Leigh’s backstory is that of a convict on the run), agree. As Monk tells his agent, “The dumber I behave, the richer I get.”

The premise works, and a lot of it is very funny. But there is also cynical self-satisfaction to it all. The film’s writer-director, Cord Jefferson, worked in the digital-media ecosystem of the mid-aughts, writing for Gawker, Huffington Post, and other outlets before he got into screenwriting. He intimately understands the histrionics and affectations of the New York media world. Anyone who has worked in publishing or dealt with publishing people will get a kick out of the jabs thrown at the industry, but one must also be in on the joke to get the joke—which is where the self-satisfaction comes in. Look, that’s us. The joke is directed at us—aren’t we so hip that we can laugh at ourselves?

American Fiction has been pitched as a film that produces laughs of discomfort, but what it truly induces in its primary audience is the ultimate currency in the cultural economy—recognition. To be recognized, to be represented, is to be empowered. Jefferson doesn’t pull punches per se, but he merely delivers attention-grabbing jabs—the type of punch that a fighter nods and laughs at when he’s caught, but that ultimately leaves him unhurt.

“The film’s metafictional games reassure culture-industry insiders.”

The film’s metafictional games reassure culture-industry insiders of their sophistication, even as they are supposedly being mocked. For instance, when Monk writes a scene in My Pafology in which a drug dealer confronts his deadbeat father, the characters materialize before him as he piles up slang and violence to “gritty” up the scene; numerous N-bombs are dropped, and the confrontation ends with the son melodramatically shooting the father. It’s amusing enough to watch a writer stack cliché atop cliché, but its postmodern construction ensures the audience is self-aware while being in on the joke. We’re being indicted right now, we laugh, nodding in recognition. We’re being represented on screen in this movie about representation.

There is another side of American Fiction, however, that points to different narrative possibilities: the parts having to do with Monk’s upper-middle-class family. Alternating with his adventures in publishing are scenes of his siblings reeling from divorce and financial difficulties, his mother beginning to suffer from dementia, and posthumous revelations of the marital infidelities of his late father, who hanged himself years earlier at the family’s beach house. These domestic sections, reminiscent of a John Cheever short story, are beautiful, complicated, and moving. In these sequences, Jefferson shows himself a nuanced chronicler of black American lives, unconstrained by fixed ideas about identity or race.

Jefferson, an astute cultural critic when he isn’t leaning too heavily on the metafictional games, is no doubt aware that he is making his strongest points in the less flashy domestic scenes. But he had to smuggle his domestic realism in through the back door: The selling point of the film is its outlandish satirical premise.

He didn’t invent this premise: American Fiction is an adaptation of Percival Everett’s novel Erasure. Everett is considered a writer’s writer; he has built a cult following with his unclassifiable work, but since he seemingly follows his imagination wherever it leads him—shifting from crime fiction to literary fare to novellas as he sees fit—he has only recently begun to cross over to the mainstream. He is also a black writer who doesn’t strictly write “black” stories, and when he does, it’s in unexpected ways. Everett’s time has finally come, but it is ironic that American Fiction is based on ideas he has been playing with for decades; Erasure was published in 2001. Progress is slow in publishing, but in this case, perhaps progress simply means returning to a time when POC writers were given a bit more leeway.

Five years before Erasure, Junot Diaz ushered in the era of the contemporary POC writer with his riveting debut short-story collection, Drown. The stories, documenting the travails of a young Dominican named Yunior, made Diaz an overnight literary sensation. Drown was funny and dark; it captured the immigrant experience without pandering to the white readers who have always been the main audience for literary fiction. Drown was about identity, but it wasn’t about “identity.” Internet-addled social-justice discourse didn’t exist yet when it was written and couldn’t dictate the parameters of representational acceptability. Diaz’s Yunior is quite unlikable in many of the stories; he is neither a noble savage nor a defeated victim.

In the decade and a half that followed Drown, the cultural tides shifted toward hyper-awareness of identity. POC fiction followed suit, as evidenced by the success of Nam Le’s 2008 debut story collection, The Boat. Le’s book, like Diaz’s, was a smash success, but it dealt with identity in a far more postmodern manner. Le, a Vietnamese-born Australian writer and graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, was resisting the “marginalized identity” gambit that publishers had begun to foist on writers, so the stories were written from disparate points of view: One was from the perspective of a Colombian hitman; another was narrated by an aging white man in New York; others were narrated by young women of differing ethnicities.

Ostensibly, Le was rejecting the idea that POC writers had to write about their own cultures and backgrounds, but he was so obsessed with rejecting identity that he was just as trapped by it as the writers putting their “marginalized” selves on display. In the collection’s most famous story, “Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice,” the narrator, a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop—just like Le—struggles to write a story about his Vietnamese identity and delves deeply into the writing process. Because of the overwhelming pressures of identity and representation, Le couldn’t pull off what Diaz had in Drown, so he opted to play metafictional games. Le never published a follow-up to The Boat, but he’s back now—as a poet. His debut poetry collection’s title, 36 Ways of Writing a Vietnamese Poem, suggests that Le is still playing the metafictional games, even if he has switched forms.

American Fiction appears on the heels of other novels that follow Le’s metafictional formula, notably R.F. Kuang’s acclaimed publishing satire Yellowface, and more are sure to come as the high tide of wokeness abates. The question is: Has progress really been made when writers can openly lampoon the politics of representation? To some extent, sure, but as the end of American Fiction suggests, the demand for identity narratives isn’t going anywhere. In the final scene Monk, hanging out on set in Hollywood with the director of the film adaptation of My Pafology, sells out yet again and workshops the most gratuitous ending possible. To Jefferson’s credit, he gets away with as much as he can in American Fiction, but ultimately, he couldn’t break out of the box. What the success of American Fiction really shows is that industry power players are willing to put out a movie that makes fun of them, so long as they are the stars of the show.

Alex Perez is a fiction writer and cultural critic from Miami. He blogs at Substack.

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