Much as I hate to, I’m going to start by talking about the damn money. I’m only doing it because almost everyone else is.
It’s not just the author profiles and publishing-trade columns, but seemingly every other review of The Emperor of Ocean Park that mentions, way before stuff like plot or characters, the $4.2 million Knopf paid Yale Law professor Stephen L. Carter for this first novel and another to come. Most, if not all, of these pieces seem incredulous that an academic-of-color could reap the kind of dough-re-mi for thriller writing that the John Grishams and Tom Clancys could command. Pundits of both colors–or of what Carter’s novel continually refers to as “the darker nation” and “the paler nation”–sound pleasantly surprised that an African-American male could earn some pop-cultural buzz by being paid millions of dollars for doing something that doesn’t require a ball or a microphone.
I’m guessing Carter has the grace to be appreciative about all this. But I’m also guessing that the author of Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby is equipped with inner radar delicate enough to pick up faint signals of condescension (or worse) beneath all this hype. Sifting through the reviews so far, especially those taking Carter to the woodshed, one detects glimmers of doubt as to whether the book or the author deserves all that money and attention. No matter that Carter, Yale Law’s first tenured African-American professor, has established his credentials as a legal scholar and public intellectual, having published seven nonfiction books whose subjects include values (Integrity, Civility), faith in public life (The Culture of Disbelief, God’s Name in Vain) and, of course, race (Reflections…). Black people have been through enough job interviews to recognize the skeptically arched eyebrows in key precincts of Book-Chat Nation over Carter’s big score. The eyebrows ask: Is the book worth all this fuss–and all that damn money?
The short answer is yes, though we’ll get to the longer, more complicated answer in a few clicks. First I want to address the other recurring motif in the reviews so far: a belief that the novel’s primary value–if not the only legitimate reason for all that money–comes in the way it foregrounds privileged reaches of African-American society. As if Dorothy West, John A. Williams, Nella Larsen, George S. Schuyler, John Oliver Killens, Charles W. Chesnutt, Lawrence Otis Graham and E. Franklin Frazier, the Veblen-esque sociologist-satirist who wrote Black Bourgeoisie, had never been born, much less ever bothered writing books. To these weary eyes, such incredulity over class issues reflects nothing more than the same-as-it-ever-was manner in which novels by African-Americans are waved toward the sociocultural checkpoint before they can compete for artistic consideration. And since it’s being marketed as a legal thriller/whodunit, The Emperor of Ocean Park has the added burden of being stigmatized as a genre piece. Hence the carping in some reviews over Emperor, whose closing kickers spring merrily like tripwires.