A New Alternate History Novel About Slavery: Ben Winters' "Underground Airlines"

My summer alternate history readings list just got longer.

While I still have to crack open David Means’s Hystopia, I just saw today’s New York Times article about the publication of yet another prominent alternate history novel, Ben Winters’ Underground Airlines.

Not surprisingly, the two novels deal with “what if?” scenarios involving two of America’s enduring traumas: the Vietnam War and slavery.  I look forward to posting my thoughts on them later this summer.

But several things struck me in reading the Times piece on Underground Airlines.  

First, I was disappointed by the failure to mention the fact that the novel is a work of alternate history.  Regardless of whether Winters conceived the novel self-consciously as belonging to the genre (and he is quoted as having read Philip K. Dick and Philip Roth’s classic works, so he probably did), the failure of the reviewer, Alexandra Alter, to even mention the genre’s existence, to my mind, speaks to alternate history’s ongoing struggle for acceptance and legitimacy in the mainstream press and reading public.

One would think that after all the prominent contributions that have appeared in recent years, it would be de rigueur to note that any novel based on a historical counterfactual belongs to an established literary tradition.  Apparently, we’re not yet there…

Second, and this is a point having less to do with “what ifs?” than identity politics, I was struck by the multiple comments involving the “controversial” dimensions of Winters (a white male Jewish author) writing about a black protagonist.

Winters is quoted in the article saying: “No one tried to talk me out of it, but my wife at one point said, ‘Boy, it would be better if you were black.”…. “My agent might have said something similar, that the reception of the book would go down easier if it was an African-American author.”

The article goes on to add: 

“At least one publisher passed on the book, arguing that it might be too controversial in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement, Mr. Winters said.”

The article further notes: 

“The African American writer, Attica Locke, a mystery novelist and a writer for the television show “Empire,” said she was taken aback at first when she picked up the book and saw the author photo. “The premise was just like, ‘Wait, what now?’” Ms. Locke said. “For me, as a black writer, I have to be like, ‘What’s Ben trying to do here?’” Then she got sucked into the story and was “blown away,” she said. “There’s always this chatter about who gets to tell which stories, and I’m so grateful that he did not let his choice to have a black protagonist scare him away from the project, because this is everybody’s history,” she said."

All the above quotations obviously speak to the ongoing difficulty speaking about race in the U. S.  And there are plenty of reasons why this should be so.

The very idea, however, that – especially in fiction, the art of the imagination – some people may be un- or under- or dis-qualified from speaking about subjects because of their identity is woefully ill-considered. 

Was (white writer) Terry Bisson wrong for featuring black protagonists in his alternate history novel, Fire on the Mountain?  Was the non-Jewish writer Martin Amis ill-equipped for writing about the Holocaust in Time’s Arrow?  The list goes on and on and on…. 

Works of fiction (like film, music, theater, etc.) can be judged on all kinds of aesthetic and ethical criteria, but to prejudge works of fiction based on superficial assumptions about the identity of the author strikes me as, well, superficial. 

Human beings have the capacity to show empathy for other human beings.  This is the job of literature at its core.  And it’s our obligation to one another as members of the human species. As Winters himself notes:

“The whole art form is about empathy,” Mr. Winters said. “No, I will never know what it’s really like to be black, but I can, through as much imagination as I can bring to it, create this individual. That’s my job.”

Thankfully, everyone who touched on the issue in today’s Times article ultimately came off as reasonable, but I’m afraid this trend will lead to some less praiseworthy episodes in the future if it continues.