A friend of mine Gchatted me this Benjamin Wallace-Wells profile of Ta-Nehisi Coates. She said, “congrats! You have the closest thing to a negative word in the whole piece.” But the quote, it turns out, is about his commenters. I tend to disappoint people in that way. Some have come to me looking for a contrarian take, a real vicious takedown, but I can’t provide one. Though I am one of the only writers I can think of who has publicly criticized Coates, in print, I am generally a fan of his work. I think he’s a good writer.
Is he as good a writer as James Baldwin? The profile compares Coates to Baldwin from beginning to end, and quotes several people making that comparison. And yet on that actual question — on whether Coates’s writing is of a quality worthy of repeated and express comparison to that of one of the greatest essayists we’ve ever had — the profile is suprisingly mute. I don’t blame Wallace-Wells, or anyone else, for making the comparison, which has been the fashion when writing about Coates. But I do find the avoidance of the actual essential question (indeed the absence of the essential question) troubling. I think you should take a writer for his writing, and I think if you want the comparison to mean something, you’ve got to say whether you think Coates the writer is like Baldwin the writer. Otherwise, you’re left with a pretty cruel kind of abstraction. I would like to believe that I’m the kind of person who, when I say “this writer is like this other writer,” is referring to the actual writing.
The way people talk about Coates has always seemed like reciting the catechism, to me, and I’m not Catholic. Me, I like writing. And Coates is a good writer — practiced, perceptive, frequently quite funny. Like a lot of strong writers, he tends to stay in a particular register, and I often wish that he would branch out a little more, that he’d subvert the style that has won him the audience that discusses him in such sacramental tones. But if you’ve got a good horse, you might as well ride. At his best, Coates has helped rehabilitate a kind of meditative essay writing that went out of fashion in the more immediate culture of online writing. If that work has been somewhat repetitive, well, that’s the nature of meditation.
I guess that praise sounds pretty mundane. I think Coates is a good writer, not a transcendent one. I think his work displays fine craft, but not genius. I find his writing often stirs me intellectually and emotionally, but it doesn’t move me to the kinds of ecstasy that it seems to move so many others. I find his essays interesting and engaging, but unlike AO Scott, I don’t find it as essential as water or air. Indeed though I’ve read things that have made me feel like the top of my head has been physically taken off my body, I’m afraid I have never felt, in my life, like an essay is as essential to me as water or air. I don’t particularly know what that means or what it can mean for Coates’s actual writing. When I read it, I know nothing more about Coates’s essay. I just know a little more about AO Scott.
I’ll read Between the World and Me, with interest, and with the kind of sympathetic dedication that I try to bring to every book I read. I imagine I’ll like it. If I think it’s good, I’m going to say that it’s good, with enthusiasm. What I won’t do is try to outdo others with my praise. That is not a race that I’m interested in running. I’m not interested not merely because I have no use for reverence, don’t like going to church, and find mythology boring, but because I believe that adult respect depends inherently on adult discrimination. Your first job is to read the words and to decide whether you think what they say is true, good, and new. Read people’s work before you read yourself into it. Though this piece will inevitably be taken as a kind of disrespect, I in fact find my relationship to Coates’s writing is more intimate and more fun than that of a lot of people who read him and write about reading him. When people talk about reading his work as a kind of soulcraft, I think, god, that sounds awful.
Though I’m willing to be proven wrong, I doubt that, in the end, the comparison to James Baldwin will be flattering to Coates. There’s no insult in that. How many writers could possibly live up to that standard? After all. We’re talking about James fucking Baldwin here.