In Colin’s reply to my comment about how the idea of “worlds persisting” could be connected to what it means for readers to encounter a seemingly unfamiliar version of the story of slavery they thought they knew, he writes the following: “I’m a bit more cautious about making the same claim for readers of The Known World and their mental maps of slavery history, if partly because (as was touched on in class) I worry that the novel remains assimilable into sentimental genres of “moral porn” about tragic subjects/worlds. The “people down there just talked that way … they didn’t mean any harm by it” (382) that nearly ends the novel could well apply to liberal readers of (neo-)slave narratives, even if each aesthetic case that enters the genre has the potential to open a gap that doesn’t merely confirm for readers what they knew all along about slavery.”
Okay: I didn’t love The Known World. And I also think it’s dangerous when readers are getting off on some feeling that current humans (or they personally) are so good, in a position to cast judgment on those past humans who were so bad. But I think that, just as there are wrong readings of less politically charged works, there are wrong ways of reading books that fall into the neo-slave narrative genre. I think you exactly must focus on what’s going on in this book in particular in order to argue whether the work seeks to elicit that sentimental liberal reaction, or if that’s just the reaction any sentimental liberal would have when confronted with any book in the neo-slave narrative genre.
I actually think it’s useful to think about (some) Holocaust-related art and museums as a counterexample to The Known World. A lot of the photographs you see, of piles of bodies or shoes, elicit from the viewer a feeling of pity or disgust for the dead as dimension-less victims rather than as full people. (Many of those pictures were actually taken by the Nazis, which makes it very troubling that they are presently used in museums which seek to communicate the horrors of concentration camps.) I don’t want to go into this in too much detail, because one’s a picture and one’s a book and one’s real and one’s fictional etc, but I think the creator’s intent/ specifics of the work are crucial to understanding both examples. This seems obvious, but I think it’s important to reiterate because it’s really easy to go from “neo slave novels are moral porn” to “no one should write a neo slave novel because everyone is going to misread it”.
There is a real risk that comes with the representation of unthinkable horror — that people will understand it in a way that is actually politically/ morally damaging — but I think it’s unfair to Jones not to look into the things the book does which actively seek to combat certain types of sentimentality. I think the sheer number of characters, for example, prevents too strong an identification with any individual, such as one might have while reading Anne Frank’s diary or something. And to me, the revelation of the cause of death often right at the character’s introduction, meant there was no heightening of suspense and then resulting satisfaction. A lot of people said they felt like the book was sort of one note throughout, and were a little unnerved by the sense that nothing had happened by the end. I think that’s a really interesting piece of evidence when thinking about how the work resists representing the past as a drama into which we can throw ourselves (even if the book is immersive in other ways). But maybe I am just being too optimistic about what this book can and cannot do?
This also raises questions about the connection between the limitations of a genre and those of particular works. And, I think, questions about the connection between “genre” and “subject-matter” (as we started to talk about in class, between “slavery” and “its genre).