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A Writer’s Honor

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books and culture

A Writer’s Honor

Acclaimed novelist Richard Ford comes under fire for reckless past behavior. December 6, 2019
Arts and Culture
The Social Order

After being named the recipient of a lifetime achievement award from the Paris Review, Richard Ford, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Sportswriter and Independence Day, recently came under attack for two incidents involving his belligerent responses to negative book reviews. Some have called for the Paris Review to withdraw the prize. Their condemnations point both backward and forward—recalling previous assaults on the reputations of writers such as Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis, whose personal behavior set off booby traps in the bien pensant world of literary politics, and resonating with today’s censorious “cancel culture.” 

Perhaps the Ford episode is best understood within the context of the eternal struggle for recognition among writers—and, in this case, that of a white Southern male writer. The transgressions occurred long ago. In 2004, two years after receiving a negative review from novelist Colson Whitehead in the New York Times Book Review, Ford encountered Whitehead at a party and spat in his face. Nearly two decades earlier, in 1986, Ford shot a hole in a book written by another reviewer, novelist Alice Hoffman, and sent that book to her in the mail. Because it touches on racial politics, the Whitehead incident, though arguably less alarming, has received much more attention.

Whitehead is black, while Ford is white and grew up principally in Mississippi. In his work, Ford’s characters still used the word “negro” long after it became an anachronism, and he has acknowledged using racial epithets in private correspondence written in the 1980s—when he was old enough to know better.  The dimension of race changes entirely how Ford’s actions have been received.  Such an incident occurring between two white male writers would be merely a subject for literary gossip. As between an older white writer and younger black one, it becomes an occasion for moral grandstanding.

At first glance, Ford’s reaction to Whitehead’s negative review seems odd. Even if one is sorely aggrieved, a fistfight, rather than spitting, is the remedy that comes to mind. Ford is reported to have said to Whitehead, “You spit on my book, you spit on me.” Most of us wouldn’t regard a negative review as a personal attack unless it contained some measure of ad hominem or seemed otherwise in bad faith—which Whitehead’s review decidedly was not. Ford says that he doesn’t regret his actions, which may be stubbornness but perhaps also suggests how curiously embattled he feels, despite several decades of enviable recognition of his work.

Now 75, Ford is unpopular with younger writers on aesthetic and political grounds. His best-known narrator is Frank Bascombe, who lives in suburban New Jersey and sells real estate to people demographically not unlike himself. Bascombe is a less crude version of John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom: a midcentury white American male with middling moral sense and middling aspirations. Today, hip M.F.A. students talk about wanting to “overthrow” writers like Ford and Updike. Perhaps Ford, as a subject of such jejune resentment, felt resentful in turn; he told Whitehead to “grow up.”

In Ford’s case, understanding his rearing in the American South’s honor culture might make his actions more comprehensible. Most writers, despite the emotional wounds, let bad reviews go. Ford did not, or could not, because for him it contained an element of threat. 

Ford has the strong sense of personal honor one would expect of a Mississippian. His late friend, short story writer and poet Raymond Carver, once lamented to Ford that his daughter was trapped in an abusive relationship. Ford, who wasn’t then well known, told Carver that he would take a Greyhound bus to the remote town where Carver’s daughter lived, murder the abusive boyfriend, and then leave town undetected: the perfect crime. Carver demurred, and the boyfriend was spared. In telling this story, though, Ford communicates essential information about himself—that there are things he would be willing to kill for.

Class enters the picture, too. Losing his father early, Ford was raised by his grandparents and didn’t attend college immediately after high school; he might be justified in feeling that it’s he, rather than Whitehead, who is the outsider. Perhaps his sense of grievance was inflamed by a bad review from a young, black, Ivy League writer. This is conjecture, of course, but it’s the only way that I can make sense of Ford’s peculiar combination of courtliness and belligerence. For me, it points toward the conclusion that the Whitehead incident concerned race but wasn’t in fact racist. No doubt some will find this distinction too fine, but we should resist the temptation to condemn that which we have not troubled ourselves to understand. 

In spitting, Ford reduced his store of personal honor rather than augmenting it, as he must know. He should apologize to Whitehead, but he probably won’t, because for Ford their confrontation is bound up in a broader struggle invisible to most of their peers. I find myself sympathetic to Ford, not because I condone what he did but because even after four decades of fine writing, he finds himself misunderstood—and because acting out in public, perhaps aided by alcohol, is the sort of thing many of us might be prone to do, and then have to live with. 

The eagerness in some corners to “protect” Whitehead, nearly 15 years after this incident, remains curious. Whitehead received a MacArthur “genius” grant at 32 and won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for his novel, The Underground Railroad. His position is secure, and his rhetorical powers are such that he can defend himself ably if he feels the need to do so. And in not responding to Ford’s vulgar provocation, he came out looking much the better of the two. Does he really need defending—or might those attacking Ford be playing a different game?

Literary prizes are coveted and even campaigned for, but literary reputations are ultimately moved by deeper currents. Only a fool would predict whether Ford’s best work will be read in 50 years. For now, though, a well-thumbed copy of The Sportswriter sits in my home, and there it will remain. I have a copy of Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, too. Perhaps I’ll keep them on different shelves.

Richard Ford (Photo by Francois Durand/Getty Images)

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