Sunday, August 26, 2012

What the "best [black] writer of a generation" tag means

Books by Colson Whitehead, Kevin Young, and Ta-Nehisi Coates
I've been studying and writing about a group of contemporary black writers for so time now, and I've been intrigued at how often commentators about their works declare each of them as some version of the best of their generation. Of the many writers I've studied, the words "best" and "generation" appear most often in discussions of poet Kevin Young, novelist Colson Whitehead, and now journalist/blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose most recent essay "Fear of a Black President" has received substantial attention over the last few days.  

From my observations over the years, the "best of generation" tag tends to emerge at the time the writer in question publishes a new work. Young and Whitehead have been especially prolific in terms of books published over the last 10 year, and so the compliment / assessment has emerged frequently with those two. Coates became more widely known when he took on his current job as a journalist and blogger for The Atlantic in 2008. Observers regularly praise and cite his blog entries, but it is usually the long magazine pieces that earn him the label "best of" or "one of the best of his generation."   

The compliment comes from men and women, black and white. Sometimes, the praise comes just before a critique. For instance, historian Blair Kelley opened a piece about Coates's article by noting, "Let me start by saying that I like the body of work that Ta-Nehisi Coates has produced over the past few years. I believe that he is one of the best writers of my generation." She goes on to explain what "irritates" her about "Fear of a Black President" and points out several shortcomings. [As a side note, television host and professor Melissa Harris-Perry opened with a high compliment for Coates ("you're such a gorgeous writer, it's so seductive") before explaining what she viewed as limits of his piece.]    

Looking back for a second, a strong case could be made that Richard Wright (b. 1908), Toni Morrison (b. 1931), and Amiri Baraka (b. 1934), to take three examples, were the best of their respective generations in their fields, but that particular phrasing seems not to have circulated as widely when those writers were first becoming prominent. Generally speaking, literary scholars, many of whom focus on historical work, generally avoid proclamations about "best" in part because of the field's commitment to "recovery" work. There's an understanding among scholars, especially those who study African American literary history, that the popular record, at any moment in the past, was always incomplete anyway. How could we ascertain the best when so many important texts were ignored or undiscovered.

Those who follow and contribute to discussions of contemporary cultural productions are inclined to engage in those pervasive "best of" lists. In addition, contests and awarding institutions have actually increased over the last 20 years, so the impulse to talk about the leaders of a field or generation is difficult to resist.

Of the many poets born after 1960, Kevin Young is one of my favorites, but I try to stop short of saying he is one of the best, for fear that doing so obscures the wonderful work by poets such as Elizabeth Alexander, Adrian Matejka, Allison Joseph, Treasure Shields Redmond, Evie Shockley, and several others. I also suspect that many writers who are designated "best" are involved in active networks of support.  

Related: A Notebook on the work of Ta-Nehisi Coates  

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