Essentialism disguised as authenticity

“…[E]ssentialism, usually regarded as dead in contemporary cultural studies, has survived and is thriving, having gone incognito under the rubric ‘authenticity'” (9) writes Jeff Karem in the introduction to The Romance of Authenticity: The Cultural Politics of Regional and Ethnic Literatures. Karem goes on to show how that plays out in the reception of the works of the writers William Faulkner, Richard Wright, Ernest Gaines, Rolando Hinojosa and Leslie Marmon Silko. It’s been good reading so far (I’m about halfway through), and, in particular, it’s an excellent example of reception studies (which dives into reviews, sales, correspondence, etc. to show how particular works are received by various publics/publications/peers).

How this essentializing plays out is fascinating to me. For example (and I’m reducing Karem’s careful scholarship here to make a point), in the case of William Faulkner, he had more critical and sales success when he wrote works that confirmed what people already believed the hallmarks of Southern Literature to be. Readers and critics were looking for work that, while well-crafted and new, reflected their notions of the South. Indeed, Faulkner’s more complicated (formally) and complex (thematically) novels — the ones I’ve actually read like Absalom! Abaslom! and The Sound and the Fury — were largely rejected (or recommended-with-reservations) by many critics and definitely by the reading public. This rejection, according to Karem, actually affected Faulkner’s later fiction, where he more or less accepted the role that he was expected to play. Continue reading “Essentialism disguised as authenticity”