Getting on

Joyce Carol Oates

  • Colored People: A Memoir by Henry Louis Gates
    Viking, 216 pp, £16.00, January 1995, ISBN 0 670 85737 8

As in one of Escher’s visual paradoxes, where infinity opens up vertiginously within a single geometric figure, object and anti-object define each other, and ‘foreground’ and ‘background’ are made to shift according to one’s perspective, the highly combustible issue of race in America, and its consequences in terms of the academic-literary canon, depend almost entirely on one’s position. The much-publicised ‘culture wars’ and the seriocomic ‘battle of the books’ of the American literary-academic community – the bitter controversies over who will determine the sacred ‘canon’ – are less about putative standards of literature than about what constitutes a ‘worthy’ life.

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