Doing No Harm: Some Thoughts on Reading and Writing in the Age of Umbrage

Some years before apartheid came to an end, I was invited onto a morning television talk show in the San Francisco Bay Area, to appear there with a black South African writer. His memoir had recently been brought into the light by Oprah Winfrey, and he was now on the circuit with the mass-market paperback. It seemed obvious to me why they wanted me on the show: I was white; I’d grown up under apartheid and was to be held accountable for its injustices and sufferings.

“I can’t do it,” I said to my editor.

“But you must,” she said. “It’s wonderful exposure. And it’s been far too long since your last book.”

My last book, published three years earlier, had been an autobiographical novel about a Jewish girl growing up in a rather eccentric theatrical family in South Africa in the fifties and sixties. The book had garnered respectable reviews and caused outrage in South Africa, where the government considered a few semi-sexual scenes between whites and blacks dangerously provocative. So they’d canceled my appearances at local universities, and on radio and television.

To be put on display again, now that all that was behind me—to be paraded out this time as the child of privilege, having to face off against a victim of such privilege—well, no, I wouldn’t do it.

“Do you know,” said the editor, “how many millions watch this show?”

Thousands or millions, it would only make the thing worse. “Can’t they find someone else?” I said.

She sighed. “We’d like you to do this,” she said impatiently, “and we’ll be disappointed if you don’t. But if you’re adamant, of course there’s nothing we can do.”

At 6:00 a.m. I arrived at the television station and was ushered quickly into the green room. The other writer was there already, staring at a television monitor on which a gerontologist was chatting amiably about geriatric incontinence. In a ribbon along the bottom of the screen ran “A WORLD OF DIFFERENCE: BLACK HISTORY MONTH” and then “NEXT: A JEWISH WOMAN DESCRIBES HER EXPERIENCE GROWING UP UNDER APARTHEID IN SOUTH AFRICA.”

“Jewish woman”? I leaned forward to look more closely. But the gerontologist was winding up now, shaking hands, leaving the stage. And a young man had arrived to shepherd us both from the green room and out into the blinding light of the stage.

There I sat, hardly breathing, as the microphone was clipped on, tested, reclipped. For more than a week, my friends had been rehearsing me: If they ask you this, say that. If they accuse you of that, just say this. I’d written it all down, read it in the bath every night, and then again before going to bed. But somehow neither the questions nor the answers would stick. The minute I read them, I forgot them.

As it happens, I am at my most useless when rehearsed. Had I gone in without trying so hard to be prepared—straining for phrases, ideas, arguments that were not my own—I might have saved myself at least this terror. But, in the event, I sat as if carved in rock, my back straight and a look of gravity on my already grave face.

The interviewer gave a practiced smile. She held up first the other writer’s book and then my own. “Ongoing racial injustices faced by those who grew up in South Africa,” she was saying. “Devastating poverty, horrors of growing up under apartheid rule—these made for difficult, if not impossible, childhoods as our next guests know firsthand. They both survived growing up in this country—she, a white Jewish female, and he a black male.”

“Survived”? I tried to take the words in, but they only seemed to hum around my head like flies. And the stage was a furnace. This must be what a stroke is like, I thought, looking around for someone, some sort of audience to give me my bearings. From the stage, however, it was impossible to work out just who the real audience was—the live audience out there, somewhere in the dark? the interviewer herself? the enormous eye of the camera turning this way and that like a Cyclops?

And then, suddenly, I remembered. One of my friends, a woman entirely comfortable on television shows, had already given me the answer. The camera is the real audience, she’d said, but you must never look at it, never. You look only at the interviewer, as if you don’t even see a camera.

The trouble with this was that the interviewer was ever more painful to look at. She was a hopeless actress—opening her eyes too wide, scrinching and scrunching her face into an exaggerated look of sorrow as the other writer talked.

“We slept on pieces of cardboard under the kitchen table,” he was saying. “Sirens blaring, dogs barking . . . We had to scavenge for half-eaten sandwiches.”

He wasn’t much good at this himself, delivering the lines too quickly, and in a high-pitched, self-righteous singsong.

The interviewer sighed. She shook her head.

“The only solace we children had,” he went on, “was that each night my mother would gather us around the fire and tell some beautiful stories.”

“And we,” the interviewer broke in, “go home and watch television.” She held his book sadly up to the camera.

I’d seen this sort of show before, usually while flipping through channels in hotel rooms. Regardless of the offenses being aired, there was something in the parading of suffering as entertainment—the bid for sympathy, the performance of the sympathy itself, shallow, sentimental, short-lived—something in all this that left the heart defiant.

Considering all this now, as they talked, I was thinking that the paradox applied in just the same way to self-pity or self-righteousness on the page. And, for a moment, I almost managed to forget why I was there myself.


I looked up.

“You were growing up in South Africa at the same time,” said the interviewer, the smile back in place.

Here we go, I thought.

“Yes,” I said, trying, without success, not to look at the camera, because there, on a small monitor attached to it, was my face staring back at me—sober, somber, worthy of Mount Rushmore—and “LYNN FREED, RAISED IN SOUTH AFRICA” running beneath it.

She sat forward. “But certainly, it couldn’t have been as horrible?”

“No, of course not,” I said. “It couldn’t have been more different. I grew up in a large house, with loving parents, servants, a measure of ease and freedom—”

“But you also experienced some difficulties?” she cut in quickly.

“Difficulties?” I said.

“Because you are Jewish?

I frowned at her. Never mind that I couldn’t conjure up any of the answers I’d tried to memorize; this was entirely the wrong question.

“No,” I said. “Whatever difficulties I experienced were trivial in comparison with his.” And then, because this didn’t seem to satisfy her, I added, “Probably much the same as those of any Jewish child growing up in an Anglo-Saxon society.”

She blinked. She reached for my book and held it up. “LYNN FREED, RAISED IN SOUTH AFRICA” ran again along the bottom of the screen. But her smile seemed to have frozen in place and she with it. I saw that she was wearing an earphone, and that beads of sweat were beginning to stand out on her forehead.

I glanced at the other writer. He too was sweating under the heat of the lights. So was I.

“Okay!” said the interviewer suddenly. “Back in a moment!”

With that, the lights went up in the auditorium and, yes, there was the real audience out there. They were raked almost to the ceiling—a sea of women chatting, shuffling, gazing down at the stage.

“Lynn!” A large blonde woman with a clipboard bore down on me out of nowhere, hair and eyes wild.

I looked up at her.

“This was not at all what we expected you to say!” she hissed, panting.


“I’m the producer!” she said.

The producer? For a moment I couldn’t think what a producer was, or why this should matter to me. But whatever she was, I felt as if I were failing my orals. Or had been stopped for speeding on the highway.

“What did you expect me to say?” I whispered urgently.

“We want you to talk about being discriminated against, as a Jewish girl!” she said furiously, very flushed in the face.

“But that was not at all the case!” I was reddening now in anger myself. “It was my sort of parents who employed his sort of parents, for God’s sake! It’s all in the book.”

“Argh!” she said, consulting the clipboard. “We don’t have time to read the books!”

Recently, in a creative writing course I was teaching, I found myself facing a standoff between two of my students. One was a rather beefy athlete and the other was someone I’ll call Alice, a woman who had once been a man. The contention was over a story the athlete had written, in which men have been magically turned into women, dogs stand up on their hind legs and talk, etc. At a certain point in this story, one of the newly minted women looks down disconsolately to where once had been the pride of his (or her) manhood, feeling disempowered, “empty,” airy.

The class, most of whose members were devotees of fantasy fiction, was quite taken with it all. But then, suddenly, up spoke Alice. She was offended by the story, she announced, very offended. In fact, she had compiled a list of its offenses, which she proceeded to work through, one by one, effectively taking over the class.

Over the years, I have had to defuse any number of such standoffs in the face of offended sensibilities, although never until now on the score of sex. Usually I would do this by fiat: No grandstanding! The story will be discussed on its own merits, and the author not held to account for writing about racists, idiots, perverts, etc.

All this the students knew. They knew too how I felt about the stranglehold of political correctness in a creative writing class, or in any class, for that matter—that it had no place there, trigger warnings and safe spaces notwithstanding. They would have heard me quote E. L. Doctorow, who said, “I believe nothing of any beauty or truth comes of a piece of writing without the author’s thinking he has sinned against something—propriety, custom, faith, privacy, tradition, political orthodoxy, historical fact, or indeed, all the prevailing community standards together.”

In this case, however, Alice clearly considered the sin to lie so far out of bounds, and herself so qualified to address it from both sides of the issue, that she felt entitled to teach us all a lesson in right thinking. Indeed, as she worked through the points on her list—empowerment, disempowerment, victimization, etc.—the class fell into a sort of guilty silence, casting down their eyes or glancing, occasionally, over at me. The athlete, in the meantime, bleated weakly, here and there, that he hadn’t meant to offend anyone; it was just an idea he’d had, a sort of joke—

Some years ago, the New York State Regents English exams were discovered to contain excerpts from the works of well-known writers, almost all of which had been sanitized wholesale, and without permission. This had been done, explained a commissioner, to comply with “sensitivity guidelines” and in order that no student be “uncomfortable in a testing situation.” To these ends, the word hell had been changed to heck, skinny to thin, fat to heavy, sections of a Chekhov story had been removed wholesale, Isaac Bashevis Singer cleansed of all references to Jews and Gentiles, etc.

Is it any wonder, then, that, in such a world, my student, working down her list of offenses, should have felt so entitled to her discomfort? Or the writer himself so obliged to apologize?

“Okay,” I said, breaking into the litany, “that’s quite enough.”

They looked up, startled. Generally, I would let them have their say before taking over.

“I am a Jew,” I said. “And if I chose to be offended by every writer who describes Jews unflatteringly, I’d have to avoid Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens, Trollope, Pound, T. S. Eliot, Dostoevsky, and any number of others, not to mention Isaac Bashevis Singer and Philip Roth.”

Silence, dead silence. What shocked them, I knew, was not Chaucer or Shakespeare but the word Jew, unsoftened by an ish. To be Jewish in this new world of ours is one thing, but to be a Jew—well, no, that was far too close to the ghetto.

“So now,” I said, “we’ll simply discuss this story.”

Almost immediately, things loosened up. Someone pointed out that it’s all very well to switch genders—I had failed completely in getting them to use the words sex and gender correctly—but the dogs in the athlete’s story all seemed to talk like teenage boys. The discussion lightened into laughter. In fact, for the rest of our weeks together a sort of lightness took hold of the class, Alice included. She laughed along, seeming to forget entirely the heavy role in which she’d cast herself. And, in so doing, she became rather beloved of the others.

They were young, most in their early twenties, and few, if any, I thought, would become writers. The issue of corruption—the corruption of the imagination by the constraints of right-mindedness—posed little danger to literature from them. And, anyway, their imaginations, their thinking, their use of the language itself, was already well on the way to corruption. They were students at an English-speaking university, in a country of English-speaking universities, where talks such as the following were commonly on offer in the humanities:

“Women’s Self-Perpetuated Oppression: Complicity and Moral Responsibility in Collective Action Problems”

“The ‘Illegal Alien’: Intersectionality, Biopolitical Racism, and the Construction of Immigrant Subjectivity”

“Quasi-Metaphoricity and the Turning Force of Alterity”

Comedy Central? Saturday Night Live? Not at all. These conglomerations are what pass for the language of scholarship. And, as it turned out, the students themselves seemed quite well versed in it. Perhaps they took its meaning on faith, not expecting to be able to understand it in any standard way. What they also understood quite well, I found, was the value of oppression in their cultural universe. And so the subjects of their stories were often victims—of bullying, of incest, of poverty, racism, unfairness of every sort. It was difficult to convince them that life is unfair, and that the intention of the writer, moral or otherwise, is irrelevant to the success of the story. That the real currency of value, the moral currency of literature, if you will, lies in the just use of the words themselves in the quest for truth.

I was not, of course, making a plea for the sort of language to be found in the self-conscious, carefully crafted prose that can seem to pass for high literary achievement. Seldom, when reading such prose, do I find myself able to forget the writer. In fact, I suspect, one is not meant to be able to forget him or her. There she is behind every clever phrase or metafictional trick—there he is delivering careful photographic descriptions of an attic, a train circa 1939, an American suburban street. Look at me! the writing shouts. See how observant I am? How significant? How clever?

And I think yet again of Thomas Mann saying, “There are many forms of stupidity, and cleverness is the worst.”

So I try to find stories that seem to leap into existence off the half shell—stories in which the writer seems so inextricably woven into the fabric of the fiction that one can forget, as Somerset Maugham puts it, that it is a story one is reading and not a life one is living. I try to find stories that neither sanctify victimhood nor labor to serve received standards of rectitude.

To this end I might suggest Marguerite Duras—in particular, the way she explores the story of her first love affair as a very young, very poor white girl in French Indochina with a much older, very rich Chinese man. In many books, over her entire writing life, Duras wrote versions of this story, most recently in North China Lover, published in 1992 when she was seventy-eight:

He’s Chinese. A tall Chinese. He has the white skin of the North Chinese. He is very elegant. He has on the raw silk suit and mahogany-coloured English shoes young Saigon bankers wear.

In The Lover, her forty-eighth book, published to great acclaim when she was seventy, she describes him thus:

He smells pleasantly of English cigarettes, expensive perfume, honey, his skin has taken on the scent of silk, the fruity smell of silk tussore, the smell of gold, he’s desirable. I tell him of this desire.
But, thirty years before that, when she was thirty-six, Duras wrote a far less flattering portrait of him in The Sea Wall:
His face was certainly not handsome, nor was his figure. His shoulders were narrow, his arms were short . . . When he stood up, his ugliness became apparent.
And, in one of her notebooks, begun when she was almost thirty, she went even further:
(He) was perfectly laughable . . . He looked ridiculous because he was so short and thin and had droopy shoulders. . . . Not once did I agree to walk a hundred yards with him in a street. If a person’s capacity for shame could be exhausted, I would have exhausted mine with (him). . . . The mouth, the saliva, the tongue of that contemptible creature had touched my lips.

Does it matter, I ask, which depiction is most true to the original experience? Does the original experience—if, indeed, the notebooks are faithful to that experience—matter at all? Of course it does not, I say. What matters here—what matters in all writing, in any genre—is not the life of the writer that may or may not lie behind the work at hand, but the life in that work, with all its in-built contradictions, its “significant irrelevancies,” as Henry Green put it. And for this there is no formula.

In all these books, Duras herself seems to be on a voyage of discovery, moving around and through the central experience of her life, realizing it in fiction most magnificently in The Lover—wild, furious, oblique, contradictory, true.

“The writer . . . ” wrote Flannery O’Connor, “sees his obligation as being to the truth of what can happen in life, and not to the reader—not to the reader’s taste, not to the reader’s happiness, not even to the reader’s morals.”

I read this to the students.

But never mind O’Connor; at least one of them is bound to take issue with Duras. First, there is the lover himself, whether flatteringly or unflatteringly described. Is Duras entitled to his character, the student will want to know? After all, he is Chinese and she is white. And what about the girl’s family—impoverished white colonials, clinging ruthlessly to their last shreds of status among the natives? Racism here, too? And the domestic abuse? The mother virtually prostituting her own child? The avaricious, opium-addicted, violent brother who beats the girl up? Even the girl, both victim and perpetrator—shouldn’t she be judged complicit? Or is she simply the sad prey of an evil system run by evil, evil human beings?

In a culture of grievance, the victim walks at the front of the parade. And literature, considered through the prism of offense, is rich in subjects for discussion. It is the rare writer who hasn’t found himself, at some point in his career, drawn into discussing his work in terms of its social or political significance. Making a feint toward truth-on-the-page reflecting truth-in-life can seem deliberately to be veering off the path of righteousness. Anyway, for those with a firm toehold on the moral high ground the complexities and contradictions inherent in the truth are not particularly interesting.

“[Political correctness],” said Doris Lessing, “is a continuation of Communist party doctrine. It’s the same attitude—the need to control literature by an ideology. But the interesting thing is the people who are politically correct don’t seem to recognise this. . . . They haven’t, as far as I can make out, taken the trouble to find out what terrible results it’s had in the past, like destroying literature all over the Communist world.”

Writing “correctly”—which is to say, endeavoring to eliminate all cause for offense—is by far the most difficult sort of writing to undertake. It is to run the story, or the essay, or the memoir—or whatever one is attempting—through an ever more crowded minefield, a crooked path at best. And this metaphor does not take into account the skill it takes to negotiate a real minefield. What it takes to write the sort of bland, flat, predictable, charmless prose that tells the reader only what she approves of already is a deadening of the mind and heart, a stilling of the desire for truth, without which desire nothing good can ever be written.

Once, in the mideighties, riding on a bus down Fifth Avenue with my editor, I was telling her about a book I had found recently in a bookstore in South Africa. It was titled An Easy Zulu Vocabulary and Phrase Book and subtitled Simple Sentences for Use in the Home and Garden and on Other Everyday Occasions. The book had first been published in 1938 by Shuter & Shooter, a respectable publisher of textbooks in South Africa, and was now in its fourth edition, umpteenth printing.

“The primary object of this little work,” says the preface, “is to help newcomers in their common contacts with Zulus.” To this end, the phrases provided were mostly in the imperative: Come here, Answer when I call you, Wipe the table, Do not smear your clothes with blood.

The editor was predictably outraged. “You must write this up!” she said.

And, as soon as I returned to California, I sat down to do so. Day after day I struggled. After a while, just thinking about how to find my way into a subject with what I knew to be the appropriate tone of outrage seemed to guarantee that nothing would take life. Still, I persevered, draft after draft of predictable, lifeless, self-righteous nonsense.

And then, one day, just as I was about to give up, I landed on an opening sentence. “White South Africans,” I wrote, “are convinced that having servants is no easy matter.” Away went all thoughts of pleasing the editor—and, behind her, the whole, vast outrageable audience whom I had hoped to serve.

From then on, I wrote quickly, one ironic leap to the next, as if in the interests of explaining that world to this. Taking this tone, coming at the thing from behind, allowed the book, those commands, and that whole sad world to speak for themselves. It also, and not incidentally, allowed the reader to laugh.

The piece built up to a finale in a picnic vignette from a section in the book titled “Motoring”:

We will stop here

We will have some lunch

Make a fire

Put the kettle on

Spread the rug in the shade

Get out the lunch basket

See how deep the river is

“Useful Zulu Phrases” was my first publication in Harper’s magazine.

Some years ago, a poet I knew told the story of a class she was teaching in Southern California. In this class was an old woman who had survived Auschwitz. She was writing about it, but the poems were a failure. They were simply litanies of horror, suffering, misery, all in the abstract, all sounding as if they had been told many times before. In one poem, the survivor wrote of children being led to their deaths. And, indeed, the members of the class responded with phrases of horror and outrage. But nothing in the poem seemed more real than the idea itself—no images, no phrases, nothing that made the blood run cold.

“Tell me,” said the teacher, “what you saw when those children were being led past you. Tell me what you heard.”

The survivor shook her head. “We couldn’t see because there was a wall,” she said. “And we couldn’t hear because of the geese.”

“Geese?” said the teacher.

“Oh, yes,” said the survivor. “The Germans kept a flock of geese. They beat them so that they would honk, and we couldn’t hear the children crying as they led them to the gas ovens.”

So there was the poem. And the class was, at last, in tears.