The Following Classic Books Are White Nonsense

In the 25 years since Harold Bloom published The Western Canon in 1994, there has been a worthwhile and, at this point, idiomatic backlash to the concept of a list of books by white men deemed essential reading for all cultured people in Western society.  Nevertheless, they still make kids read The Catcher in the Rye.

I have been avoiding the whole genre of “these things are overrated” listicles, but an article in BuzzFeed News by Scaachi Koul about Goodreads suddenly made it seem ok.  Koul writes:

But since there aren’t any gatekeepers stopping anyone from giving their two cents about a book, Goodreads can be a frustrating experience for authors. People are free to review books they haven’t read or refuse to read [...] It means that The Catcher in the Rye has a bunch of one-star reviews because “Salinger tried just too damn hard to make [Holden] ‘universal.’” It means “Dickens is a jerk” counts just as much as any other review for Great Expectations. (This isn’t to say any of these reviews are wrong; plenty of classic books are actually just white nonsense. But it is, at least, probably not the review that Charles Dickens might have expected when he wrote the book in 1861.)

[Emphasis in bold my own.]

I had a few thoughts about this, and let’s get the digressive ones out first:

  1. My own book, published seven years ago, has three Goodreads reviews and I think one might have been planted by my agent.  None of them describe it as “white nonsense,” if only because Goodreads reviewers save their sweetest burns for more consequential work.

  2. Although I’m a nobody in the art world and the art criticism world, I feel totally superior to Goodreads reviewers.  I am working through, in my mind, why that is. I think it’s just that I bought this domain and designed my own site to do my own style of criticism, instead of using someone else’s free distribution channel to just host some words I wrote.  I have a brand. I like to think I have “quality,” whatever that is. But who knows!

  3. Grading reviews:

    “Salinger tried just too damn hard” : B- 

    “Dickens is a jerk” : B+

Anyway, yes!  Plenty of classic books are actually just white nonsense!  Not that the concept embodied by that line is foreign or surprising, it’s that the phrase “white nonsense” burned a new pathway in my brain and I had to imagine what my definition of “white nonsense” would be such that I could apply it, or not, to the Western canon.

Here’s what I came up with. 

Let’s say I had a friend who comes to me and says “I want my children to be educated, thoughtful people.  The kind of people who could totally write novels, but choose not to because they’d rather earn mid-six figure salaries doing work they believe more inherently meaningful.  What books should they read before they’re 25 years old?”

I think for a moment and I reply: “well, it’s a white man’s world, and so I’d start with the Western Canon, at least the highlights of the list Harold Bloom provided in the appendices to his 1994 critical masterpiece.”  

And then I look at the list, and I add a few titles from the last 25 years.  And then I add a lot of titles by brown people and women. And then I think wait a second, and I start crossing off names from the first part of the list.  My friend asks why I’m crossing off names, and I say “there are some of these that are just white nonsense.”

Of course what I mean by white nonsense is books whose artistic value--aside from the historic value of their popularity and thus perhaps their influence on thought and commerce at various times, if you call that artistic value also--is at best limited to white people.  So, in some cases, the works below (I made a list for this post, obvs) really have no artistic value, because they just don’t speak with any depth to any concerns presently seeming fundamental to the human condition. In other cases (looking at you, Portnoy’s Complaint), their artistic value is highly dependent on white (or Jewish, which now means white) cultural reference points and even those are not important enough that I’d recommend the work to a young person today as any kind of guide to understanding white people.

When I began this blog post, I thought I’d make an actual list of books in the canon, at least my personal canon.  Then I realized that would take a long time. So instead, here is a list of classic books that, I promise you, are white nonsense, with a brief explanation. 

A few rules: 

  • I start with the Romantic period (about 1800), because prior to that there were very few non-white cultures with a self-aware tradition of “books” as we think of them now (and I’m not terribly familiar with, e.g., pre-1800 Japanese poetry, if that would qualify).  Moreover, the class of people capable of writing and publishing books prior to 1800 was almost exclusively white, male, and wealthy, and largely imagined their audience to belong to the same class. So arguably every “classic book” written before 1800 is hardcore white nonsense.  (Oddly, I struggle with Shakespeare in this category. I’m glad to avoid the question of whether Shakespeare is white nonsense.)

  • In general, I think only U.S. and English authors can write white nonsense, because I’m an American and we’re talking about the concept of whiteness I inherited from the U.S./English literary traditions.  Somehow, though, 19th century Russian novels are also unbearably white, so I let them in. It must be the amount of rich white male navel-gazing.

  • I would not deem many works of the last 30 years to be “classic,” and so I’ve left off many authors whose entire bodies of work are white nonsense, whether irredeemable or enjoyable.  (Franzen and Foer are my token entries; don’t read them.) If I were going to let in some of the literary hotshots of the Baby Boomers and Beyond, you would find Tom Wolfe, Brett Easton Ellis, David Foster Wallace, and Michael Chabon on this list.

So let’s dive in! (In roughly chronological order.)

  1. George Byron (d. 1824), Complete Works
    The original embodiment of white nonsense.

  2. Mikhail Lermontov, A Hero of Our Time (1840)

    Apparently, the hero of Lermontov’s time was Byron.

  3. Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights (1847)

    So white, such nonsense.

  4. Elizabeth Gaskell, North and South (1854)

    As a Unitarian I hate to admit this, because this is probably the only book about secret hero martyr Unitarians. But Unitarianism is most definitely white nonsense.

  5. Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1854)

    An essay about living in radical isolation and simplicity...a few blocks down the road from your mom's house so she can cook you dinner and do your laundry and manage the family pencil factory to burnish your inheritance. That is some white nonsense.

  6. Ivan Turgenev, Fathers and Sons (1862)

    Asks the timeless question, “But who shall manage the estate?”

  7. Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone (1868)

    In college, I couldn't even pretend to have read this book, I just dropped out of my 19th century literature class. It's very long and I didn't like the first paragraph.

  8. Charles Dickens (d. 1870), Complete Works

    There’s a great joke in Futurama in which, for reasons not worth explaining, Frye needs the perfect book for an idiot. He’s sorting through a pile, and goes “The Hardy Boys? Too easy. Nancy Drew…too hard. Ah! Bonfire of the Vanities!” Charles Dickens is that. The Tom Wolfe of his time.

  9. Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1878)

    People remember Anna Karenina as a book about a woman's unhappy love life. Seventy percent of the words in Anna Karenina are about a rich guy, clearly modeled on the author, who can't decide whether to live in the country or the city. Seriously.

  10. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (1880)

    Any book that requires you to maintain a detailed chart of character names and histories is bullshit (see also: The Count of Monte Cristo). Dostoyevsky is not entirely white nonsense though--Notes from Underground is perhaps the defining book about being a misanthropic asshole (until I write my memoir).

  11. Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885)

    The first half is worth reading.

  12. Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890)

    I think Wilde would admit he's white nonsense. But so delightful!

  13. Robert Louis Stevenson (d. 1894), Complete Works

    Stevenson is the 19th century Tom Clancy, we don't need to pretend it's great literature.

  14. Lewis Carroll (d. 1898), Complete Works

    Let's stop pretending this is enjoyable, much less important. Also, wasn’t he a pedophile?

  15. Anton Chekhov (d. 1904), Complete Works

    Apparently it was tough being a wealthy intellectual man in 19th century Russia, other than that you could do anything you wanted and the laws didn't apply to you.

  16. D.H. Lawrence (d. 1930), Complete Works

    What’s wrong with being sexy?” “Sex-ist.

  17. Rudyard Kipling (d. 1936), Complete Works

    A great author of the "local color" stories, i.e. "them foreigners does weird." We have the Travel channel now and we don't call it great literature.

  18. James Joyce, Finnegans Wake (1939)

    Just awful.

  19. Richard Wright, Native Son (1939)

    Easter egg!

  20. John Steinbeck, East of Eden (1952)

    There's nothing about this setting, time period, allegorical background, or literally anything else in the realm of artistry that is not done better in There Will Be Blood.

  21. Joseph Heller, Catch-22 (1961)

    If you're looking for war satire, try The Big Lebowski. Catch-22 is a collection of doublespeak that is neither witty nor illuminating, and plenty sexist.

  22. Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire (1962)

    This is what happens when you try to write Lolita about any other subject.

  23. T.S. Eliot (d. 1965), Complete Works

    Depending on how you feel about cats, and Jews.

  24. Philip Roth, Portnoy’s Complaint (1969)

    But it’s such great white nonsense.

  25. John Cheever (d. 1982), Complete Works

    Whitey white nonsey nonsense.

  26. Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections (2001)

    Haven’t read it, seems bad.

  27. Norman Mailer (d. 2007), Complete Works

    We already agree on this, right? Stabbed his wife, just a dumb drunk asshole, yadda yadda.

  28. John Updike (d. 2009), Complete Works

    Does it count as white nonsense if that’s the point?

  29. J.D. Salinger (d. 2010), Complete Works

    Salinger's creative obsession with sexy underage privileged Manhattanites should be read in conjunction with his abusive sexual relationship at age 53 with an 18-year-old Joyce Maynard, among other affairs with teenagers that now scan as rape. Like a Woody Allen who knew better than to (a) keep publishing that shit and (b) survive to 2017. I never understood the appeal of Catcher in the Rye.

  30. Jonathan Safran Foer (living), Complete Works

    Gen-X whites are, like, bothered by the holocaust and 9/11, you know? Jonathan Safran Foer's body of work is the cosmic extrapolation of that time Keanu Reeves farted on the set of Point Break.

Final note - I’ve started a separate blog series where I’m just going to straight-up review individual works of art, probably film and tv for the most part. You may not get email updates on that series until I’ve built up a few posts, but you can spot them if you scroll down the main page.