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English prof Jess Row riffs on the modern troubles of an old truism and his new book on race, fiction, and the American imagination.

In 2012, writer and producer Lena Dunham faced harsh criticism for the all-white cast of HBO’s hit series, Girls. When asked about her decision in an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, Dunham said it was an accident; she wrote about people she knew, and only later realized it was a show about four white women.

Writing about what’s familiar is not uncommon; white writers accused of whitewashing often echo Dunham’s sentiment. But why is this response so instinctual? 

We sat down with Jess Row, associate professor of English and author of the new book White Flights: Race, Fiction, and the American Imagination, to find out.

Q: What has the response to the book been so far?

A: The response has been great. I’ve gotten a lot of wonderful feedback from readers who have written or called me or spoken with me to tell me how much they appreciate the book and look forward to teaching it. I’ve had all kinds of interesting conversations, which is exactly what you want when a book comes out.

Q: What’s your take on the evolution of American literature in recent history? 

A: There’s been what the novelist Michael Chabon calls an “apartheid of consciousness” in American literature. Over the past 40 or 50 years, there’s been this tremendous growth of the status and importance of black writers, Latinx writers, Asian American writers, immigrant writers of all kinds — people like Toni Morrison, Sandra Cisneros, Junot Díaz, etc. — and white American literature has, for the most part, remained sort of alien and distinct and not in conversation with those writers, to the point where it sometimes feels like there are two American literatures. 

Q: Why are white writers reluctant to include non-white characters or racial issues in their work?

I think a lot of that has to do with the kind of paranoid feeling of not wanting to write about race, not wanting to write about racism, not wanting to write about non-white characters for fear of somehow getting called out, getting criticized, getting it wrong. A certain amount of it also has to do with a kind of inertia in the way that creative writing is taught in American classrooms: the over-reliance on the assumption that students are supposed to write only what they’re familiar with. The truism, “write what you know,” is intensely problematic.

Q: What’s your take on Lena Dunham’s reaction to the criticism? 

A: Art comes from a place of instinct, but it also has to come from a place of intellect — there has to be a balance there. It is absolutely true that Lena Dunham grew up in a cultural context in New York City that was predominantly white. Maybe most of her friends were white kids like her, but she grew up in an overwhelmingly diverse city. It’s simply not accurate to say that the world that she created in Girls is a representation of New York City as she lived it.

Read more about White Flights in this review by The Washington Post and learn more about Jess Row in Poets & Writers 10 Questions for Jess Row” column.

— Sarah Voorhees ’20 and Emily Dodd