My Coates problem–and ours

I refashioned my posts about Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book Between the World and Me into a column for City Journal. The column has now been published under the heading “An updated racial hustle.” Please check it out if you have any interest in the subject.

Dreadful as it is, Coates’s book remains at the top of the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list this week. Culture matters, and this book is polluting the culture, yet Coates’s book has been hailed as a brilliant contribution. New Yorker editor David Remnick, for example, welcomes Coates and his book in Remnick’s fawning podcast with Coates. (“You are a writer with a capital W,” Remnick tells Coates.) In his capacity as editor of the New Yorker, Remnick closes a loop of sorts here.

Coates is not a modest man. He fancies himself the second coming of James Baldwin in The Fire Next Time. As the editor of Commentary, Norman Podhoretz had commissioned the long closing essay in The Fire Next Time for Commentary and Baldwin had taken him up on it. After writing the essay, however, Baldwin gave it to the New Yorker for a fee about 20 times what Commentary would have paid him.

Upon its publication in the New Yorker Baldwin’s essay made a major splash. Podhoretz felt betrayed by Baldwin and let Baldwin know it. His furious conversation with Baldwin led to Podhoretz’s famous essay responding to Baldwin, “My Negro Problem–and Ours,” published in Commentary in February 1963.

Podhoretz tells the story in the closing pages of his superb memoir Making It as well as in his 2013 Commentary essay looking back in “‘My Negro Problem–and Ours’ at 50.” Not surprisingly, with his unsurpassed editorial eye, Podhoretz plucked Coates from the current scene to make a cameo appearance in his retrospective essay.

I do not fancy myself Norman Podhoretz, but I had him in the back of my mind while suffering through Coates’s book. His opinion regarding my piece on Coates was the one I cared about. Closing the loop in my own way, I sent the edited draft to him last week. He took a look and graciously responded by email: “I hadn’t realized from ​the reviews how badly written the book is. Jimmy Baldwin at his worst (i.e., in the last years of his life) never came close to writing such gibberish, and at his best he was many literary miles beyond the reach of Coates. Evidently Toni Morrison [in her endorsement on the back of the dust jacket] can’t tell the difference, but the Baldwin I knew would have been insulted by the comparison to him.”

I also had City Journal in mind while working through Coates’s book. Coates rehearses many of the themes that City Journal has manfully resisted over the years. I am most grateful to the editors for their hospitality to my piece on Coates.

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