R. Dwayne Betts is an award-winning poet and memoirist whose latest collection is Bastards of the Reagan Era. Betts spent eight years in prison starting when he was 16; he recently graduated from Yale Law School. He spoke to Current Affairs editor Nathan J. Robinson in response to the article “Mass Incarceration and the Limits of Prose,” published in our March/April edition, which had reviewed recent books on the American criminal justice system and explored the possibility that prisons were nearly impossible to write about well.
NR: You take issue with the idea that mass incarceration is a problem impervious to literature, that there’s something about its nature that is uniquely impossible to convey in words. Why do you think that’s wrong?
RDB: I don’t think that there are any problems impervious to literature. Also, it seems that the issues with these books is on one hand their imperfection and on the other their failure to offer a cogent solution to a complex problem. I’m not sure that’s a fair assessment or standard. And, just as a broader point – I challenge the idea that mass incarceration cannot be conveyed – its problems, challenges, and tragedies – in words. This is particularly a hard task – this conversation when you consider that we are talking about two memoirs, a book of legal scholarship, and work by a young ethnographic scholar. The standards for judging them vary so widely that they can’t, even with their considerable ambition, begin to carry the water of decades/centuries of racist and unjust criminal justice policies.
NR: So if the existing literature on mass incarceration fails us (and it seems like you might not disagree with that), it’s not because there’s something inherently impossible about the subject, it’s just a function of the way people are doing the writing. It’s nevertheless going to be difficult to use words alone to communicate the nature of racism and a criminal justice system that ensnares millions. How could someone possibly hope to convey those truths to people who will never experience them firsthand?
RDB: I’d ask you what literature you find compelling about Vietnam? The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien? Dien Ca Dau by Komunyakaa? [In Elizabeth Alexander’s essay “A Black Man Says Sorbet”], one of the issues she takes with the prison memoir is the way it essentializing prison as the experience of young black men. So this is a critique of Makes Me Wanna Holler, of Manchild in the Promised Land. She talks about this narrative of redemption, and I think she is talking about the way that these narratives are woefully disengaged from politics and community, both in the downfall and the rise. But the existing literature on prison goes beyond that – and, I’d argue that failing to be fully realized, is not failing. The memoir itself, with the author trying to resist being the hero, is as much to blame as all else. The need to write people as more than flimsy representations of violence. This is probably where the prison memoir, at its worst, has failed. I think about the rape scene in Makes Me Wanna Holler, for instance.
But there are other books that don’t fail like this. Mitchell S. Jackson’s The Residue Years. Etheridge Knight’s poetry. But your final point brings up something I struggle with. Has prison gave me some unique understanding of hell that you cannot have? And if it has, can my writing bring you close to that? The philosopher L.A. Paul has a new book called Transformative Experience. She defines a transformative experience as one that gives you new information (that others who haven’t experienced don’t have) and changes the way you experience being you. Prison is the quintessential transformative experience. There are things you can’t get, without being there. But that inaccessible thing (horror, agony, absence?) does not prevent you from getting the texture, the feel, the gut wrenching absurdity of prison. If that were true, there would be no capturing real knowledge: of war, of prison, of power, of childbirth, while standing on the outside of it. That’s not a tenable position.
NR: When we’re talking about the specific case of race and criminal justice in American life, one problem seems to be that writers who want to draw attention to these things are trapped by the perceived necessity to create some kind of narrative with publishable, marketable appeal. Yes, they face the problem that every writer faces; experience will only ever be imperfectly captured on the printed page. That’s unavoidable; if you thought writing needed to create a perfect picture of its subject matter, you could never write. The trouble seems to be that as well as trying to depict the situation, they also feel the need to provide an explanation for it, and this is a case where a lot of explanations are destined to be cheap. So Jeff Smith only gets a book deal because he’s a professor/state senator who went to prison, and that gives it an entertaining narrative; Alice Goffman is telling us about the Ivy League sociologist who went into the wilderness of the Philadelphia streets. What gets read (and so what gets written) is the stuff that tells the best stories, not the stuff that tells the most truth.
RDB: But even Goffman’s book, which I have been highly critical of, is an attempt to understand something. And her failures have little to do with genre specific challenges, but the challenges of any writer. In fact, her book is really about the kinds of narratives that I think will force us to look at this situation with more complexity. I just think her analysis failed. There is no hard distinction between the truth and best stories. I’m not convinced that the best writers aim for explanations. Michelle Alexander’s book is scholarship, Alice Goffman’s is scholarship. And so explanations drive it… But ultimately, we can point to books of all genres that use stereotypes and tropes as their author’s major cache.
NR: No, I think it’s exactly true that the best writers don’t aim for explanations, that attempts to explain rather than depict are a major pitfall. When you try to come up with some theory for why everything is the way it is, rather than just trying to show what it is, the facts end up being contorted to fit the theory rather than the theory emerging from the facts.” If I were rewriting the article, I don’t think I’d refer to the “limits of prose,” but probably the “limits of explanatory nonfiction” and the challenges of prose. Goffman is an interesting study in failure, because she clearly felt as if her intentions were good, and she clearly doesn’t like mass incarceration, and she spent 8 years doing field research. What went wrong there? I do think one problem is that, as a sociologist, she had professional incentives to write a big explanatory book. What you criticized her for in your review of On the Run was creating this cops and robbers story in which black life was defined by criminality at its essence. But in sociology, you’re always kind of looking for an essence.
RDB: Right. I agree with the idea of the challenges of prose. But probably think that we’re better off reading better books. Of these, I think Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy is easily the strongest. And yet, even in it’s strength, one has to concede that he is the ultimate activist. And he is currently in it. So we have to expect that his book does the heavy lifting of explaining why we should be outraged. We have to go to other books for different stories. I’ve been reading Matthew Desmond’s Evicted. It’s similar to Goffman’s book, but a quarter way through I see he avoids much of her missteps. Partly he avoids them by not placing himself in the center of the narrative. For Goffman, and I’d never thought of it this way, but for Goffman, she becomes the center piece of the book, and it is she who becomes the hero. So regardless of what she feels about mass incarceration, others cannot be heroes if she is to be the hero. And I don’t mean to say this is the case because she is white. I mean to say that just like my own memoir or any prison memoir, there is this challenge – how can you write a story where you are not the hero, when part of the writing admits you are like those around you.
This is the thing that the novelist, the writer of a memoir where they are legitimately not in the muck in the same way (Stevenson’s book, for example), does not have to wrestle with. And so, thinking of her book this way, you realize that her struggles are the same ones anyone faces – any memoirist, in that it is both about being more than explanatory and getting away from being the center of your own narrative, the hero. To do that, you have to make other people full, in all their complexity. Ultimately, we have to be careful about what we desire from any one book. I think. And as much as I criticize some and praise others, they all are what help me think about things I don’t want to do with my own writing in the future, and things that I do.
Photo by Rachel Eliza Griffiths