Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace and Richard Ford are enshrined in the white literature pantheon, beloved for their prose, even if their narratives exclude people of color. In his earnest and ranging essay collection, “White Flights: Race, Fiction, and the American Imagination,” Jess Row, a white writer who dealt with race in his 2015 novel, “Your Face in Mine,” uses these juggernauts to open a dialogue about how white literature often ignores nonwhite experiences and narratives, and how to create a space for inclusivity that starts with the writing arena.

Row uses the personal to expand into a discussion of the larger issue: white culture, in its fear of being oppressed and displaced, has oppressed and displaced minority groups. He often starts with his own experiences, owning up to blind spots and recounting confusion throughout his life. When writing about the 1992 Los Angeles riots, Row says, “I drove back to my house and turned on the news in my parent’s bedroom. The event seemed momentarily to wipe out anything else. I cried, witnessing it.”

Row’s admission of crying, of feeling defeated by racial inequities after spending the day protesting the Rodney King verdict, reverberates with anyone who’s felt lost after trying to stand on the right side of history. Row uses this sense of feeling adrift when writing about his own complicated family history — he’s descended from both white settlers that pushed out Lakota tribes and immigrants from Portugal’s mixed Azores region — and when speaking to his formative experiences.

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At times, Row loses grasp of his focus, and flits into seemingly meandering reflections on religious and existential concerns, but when he anchors his thinking to how white writers have created white utopias in their work, and how that work showcases larger cultural issues of exclusion and a seeming disinterest in nuanced representation, he’s brilliant and insightful. Working from this vantage, Row is able to get at how a lack of diverse characters has led these writers to create lonely bastions in their prose. When writing on Jonathan Franzen’s “The Corrections,” Row wonders how such “a deeply, avowedly self-knowing book” could also seem so tone deaf, before pointing out that Franzen shrugged off the problem in a 2016 New York magazine interview, admitting he had few black friends, which made it hard to want to write a deeply developed black character.

Row performs the same thoughtful exhumation of white writing again and again. He takes influential writer and editor Gordon Lish to task for claiming, “I want communion. I want mutuality. I want to enter the being of the other,” but then championing predominantly, if not solely, white writers. “What concerns me,” Row writes, “because I was taught it, and absorbed it, long before I’d ever heard his name — is how his aesthetic so easily translates into a radical practice of shame, rooted in the white body, that makes it so difficult for white writers to recognize race at all.” Although Row also calls out the writers Lish worked with, he doesn’t dismiss them entirely, instead operating from a place of optimistic frustration, believing it’s possible to make things better if we just try a little harder.

While Row admires the hypnotic prose of Richard Ford, he’s also critical of the Pulitzer winner. He revisits some of Ford’s more controversial interviews and tracks the careful way Ford dodges culpability in creating white spaces; how Ford lacks consideration of his black characters, even if he is giving them voice. “Racial problems are as much a spiritual and moral detriment to me as to any black Americans,” Ford once claimed. “Equality means equality for me, too, [and] I’m entitled to view race as a tiresome, irrelevant, nowhere issue that just keeps us all from playing the game we want to play — the game of life on a flat field.”

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Row looks at Ford’s decision to essentially opt out of conversations about race and racism through the prism of W.E.B. Du Bois’s concept of “double-consciousness” — the idea that black Americans must live with the consideration of how the rest of the world perceives them in any given situation, and be “measured by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” According to Row, what was inescapable for Du Bois, and continues to be inescapable for people of color, is a concept Ford has the privilege of dismissing.

Row ultimately accomplishes his goal of raising “the possibility of a new method.” Now it’s up to the larger writing community to translate his plea into action.

Eric Farwell has written for the Paris Review, Vulture, Rolling Stone and McSweeney’s, among other publications.

White Flights

Race, Fiction, and the American Imagination

By Jess Row

Graywolf. 320 pp. $16

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