When I wrote this piece, I said to myself “It doesn’t matter how sincerely and expressly I register my praise for Ta-Nehisi Coates; some people are going to lose their shit about this.” And lo, on Twitter, it came to pass. That was part of my point in that piece: that people take anything other than unqualified praise for Coates as an insult to his greatness. That’s unhealthy, and it’s weird, and as a successful and celebrated professional, Coates does not need that kind of protection.
I say that Ta-Nehisi Coates is a very good writer because I believe that. I do not give false praise. I have never given false praise. I will never give false praise. The thought of giving false praise physically hurts me. Do not presume to tell me that my praise is not genuine.
Some people are mad about an argument that I didn’t make, have never made, and will never make, because I don’t believe it: that Coates’s success is the product of liberal guilt, that his celebrity and career are unearned, that he doesn’t have any chops and gets advanced because of tokenism or affirmative action, etc. I agree: that’s a dumb, wrong argument. It’s an argument that has literally nothing to do with me, because I’ve never suggested it and don’t believe it. If that argument bothers you, find someone who believes it and yell at them.
The comparison to James Baldwin was made, expressly and directly, in Benjamin Wallace-Wells’s profile, a profile I was quoted in. (Out of context, as it happens.) It has been made many times before. I find that comparison not entirely flattering to Ta-Nehisi Coates. As I said, that’s not insult to Coates. It’s hard to think of living writers who would look good in that comparison. If that opinion — saying that I don’t think Coates’s work yet approaches the quality of one of our greatest essayists — is too challenging and controversial, then we should all give up on this sharing opinions thing.
Are you mad that I’m making the comparison at all? Then get mad at Wallace-Wells, Toni Morrison, or any of the dozens of other people who have made the comparison. Do you think I shouldn’t compare quality, just subject matter? That, itself, is an insult to Coates. What is the purpose of the comparison if not to consider the quality of his work? I disagree with that comparison because I take it seriously. I take it seriously because I take Baldwin and Coates seriously. How do you show respect to writers? It is bizarre to make a comparison as a matter of praise and then to turn around and declare that the comparison can’t be examined too closely.
I promise you that most of the people going after me on Twitter have not read even two of Baldwin’s books. I would bet my life on it. Baldwin for them is not a writer, as they haven’t read him, but a symbol. Well I have read Baldwin and I refuse to debate the relative quality of his work with a bunch of anonymous Twitter users who haven’t read him. That’s one of the open secrets about our tastemaker class: they don’t read. It’s like when we debate Martin Luther King’s attitude towards nonviolence; it dawns on you, as you read the hot takes, that the people writing them have never read his books.
For the record: Baldwin did not earn his (deservedly) sainted reputation until after his death. During his life, he was considered by many not to live up to his potential. He wasn’t taken for a definitive voice on race; in fact he had a difficult, contested, frequently unhappy relationship with the various civil rights and racial justice movements of his time. He was crabby and liked being crabby. He was difficult and liked being difficult. I doubt he would have enjoyed the venerated esteem we now hold him in. And I like that about him. Because piety does no favors for writers or political minds.
The blog post that my quote about Coates’s commenters comes from is a deliberately exaggerated, lighthearted piece about media consolidation. It was part of a riff where I threw off a lot of hyperbolic shade at a lot of media properties. Coates was an entirely tangential mention in the piece. I teased dozens of publications in that post. I have heard from dozens of people involved with those publications. Not one of the people involved got mad about that post, as they took it for the lighthearted dig it was meant to be. People are getting mad at that quote now because they haven’t bothered to read the post it comes from.
I find, if you look just a little bit under the surface, that Wallace-Wells has embedded a bunch of implicit criticisms that he doesn’t have the guts to quite make. There’s a lot of hinting, a lot of feinting. He brings in my quote, drained of its original context or meaning, to do that criticism for him. That happens a lot, with me. I fulfill that function for people.
For years now, I have argued that our professional writing class is not the bastion of debate and difference it represents itself as, but instead a self-aggrandizing coterie of unanimity and conformity, which uses professional and social pressure to punish anyone who upsets the apple cart. This strikes me as so obvious that it barely needs saying, but people rail against it. This is a good example of when the veil drops. Because what people are asking of me here is literal unanimity: one opinion. No dissent, not even of the mildest form. Maybe they’re right to want that, fine. But that’s what they’re demanding, and I wish we could just be honest about the nature of what all of this writing stuff is, today. It’s about fealty to a set of shifting norms that are decide by the fiat of a hivemind.
I suspect that eventually the worm will turn; success like Coates’s breeds jealousy, inevitably, and sooner or later I think people will get the gumption up to throw the shade they want to throw, and once a few people do it, more people will do it. And the cycle of opinion making will bend the stream. My opinion will remain exactly the same as it’s been, which is exactly the same as I’ve been saying, publicly, for years: that Coates is an uncommonly talented writer who sometimes inspires praise that seems, to me, to be out of proportion with his considerable talents. I said that yesterday, I’m saying it today, and I’ll say it tomorrow, and you know it because I’m telling you.