Book Fight!

Tough love for literature

Episode 76: James Baldwin, If Beale Street Could Talk

6 Comments

We’re joined this week by Annie Liontas (author of the new novel Let Me Explain You) to discuss James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk. The book, published in 1974, is narrated by a young woman whose fiancee has been wrongly accused of rape.

You can read the 1974 New York Times review of the book, written by Joyce Carol Oates, here.

Baldwin Beale Street

We also talk to Annie about her new novel, her parents’ arranged marriage, her love for Asbury Park, New Jersey, and why she thinks James Baldwin might be the greatest American author.

You can find out more about the Henry Louis Gates, Jr. book we talked about during the episode here, or read an electronic version of his essay “The Passing of Anatole Broyard” (warning: that electronic version has some typos and formatting issues; if you’re a New Yorker subscriber you can read a cleaner version here).

As always, we’d love to get your feedback on what we talked about during the episode. You can email us, hit us up on Twitter, or just leave a comment here on the site. If you like the show, please consider writing us an iTunes review, and spread the word to your literature-loving friends. You can stream the episode right here on our site, download the mp3 file, or subscribe (for free) and never miss another installment.

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Author: mikeingram25

writer, editor

6 thoughts on “Episode 76: James Baldwin, If Beale Street Could Talk

  1. No doubt this a finely written book, but did you question the value of celebrating yet another story of a man falsely accused of rape? The sad fact is these accusations are usually not false. Haven’t we learned that the people we love—be they celebrities or friends or family—sometimes do terrible things?

    During a time when people want to have a society where victims feel safe to come forward why promote a book that perpetuates common tactic of denial? We rally around the accused and say “The accusers must be lying. It’s all a conspiracy.” Once again, we’re telling rape victims, “You must be wrong.”

    I got the sense one of you began to address this very topic, only to be met with dead silence by your guest and co-host. Would have made an interesting discussion.

  2. I agree that a) there’s a broader cultural problem of discrediting rape victims and b) we could have talked some more about it. I think I caught Annie and Mike off guard by bringing that up without any particular warning, so the conversation fizzled in a way it might not have even if I’d just mentioned it as a possible talking point 10 minutes before recording. .

    I do think there’s a distinction between the story of this novel and the more common narrative of doubting/slandering/ignoring victims, though. The typical way this stuff goes, and what I think you’re especially objecting to, is that a woman is raped and, if she feels courageous enough to report it, she faces the scorn of a community. She’s a slut, she made him do it, it wasn’t really that bad, all those things. I don’t think that’s quite the same thing happening in this book, where Baldwin never casts doubt that a rape occurred nor that it was deeply traumatic to Mrs. Rogers. Although the accuser undergoes a pretty harrowing scene when she’s being bullied into changing her story, I think the book still casts her, and empathizes with her, as a victim. The real villain in this story is the corrupt, racist cop who found a way to turn a rape to his advantage and also not do anything at all to help the actual victim.

    I’m not sure if I said all that well. I guess the distinction I’m trying to draw is that I felt Baldwin was trying to use the story to discredit the terrible, corrupt system itself, but not to personally discredit the accuser. Maybe it’s too fine a line, or maybe it’s distinction that ultimately doesn’t mean much to you w/r/t this critique. The book certainly doesn’t allow the characters to spend much time worrying about what happened to Ms. Rogers.

    All of which isn’t meant to minimize your larger point. I guess I’m just trying to work through why none of us had quite the same reaction to the book, even though I know all 3 of us would completely agree with the broader cultural critique you’re offering.

    Anyway: thanks for listening, and for taking the time to comment. Really appreciate it.

  3. Hello Tom,

    Thank you for your thoughtful and respectful reply.

    What bothers me abut the book is the way Baldwin reduces rape to a “Macguffin”. The focus of the novel is the institutionalized racism that victimizes Fonny (and by extension his family). The details of the crime are beside the point. It could have been a murder or a bank robbery without affecting the core of the novel.

    I could see Baldwin choosing a rape for thematic reasons had Fonny been accused of raping a privileged white woman instead of Victoria, who also faces racism on a day to day basis.

    I don’t attribute this to sinister motives on Baldwin’s part. It’s just the common thoughtlessness to be found in a book written 40 years ago.

    Anyway, my reaction isn’t to Baldwin’s book per se, but an accumulation of a lifetime reading novels using rape as a cheap plot device, just an easy way to create drama for a man character.

    Thanks for not attacking me.

  4. No attacks! I’m happy to have people who care enough about the show to take the time to talk about it like this.

    re: “a lifetime reading novels using rape as a cheap plot device, just an easy way to create drama for a man character,” you’ve definitely pushed me to be more aware of rape as plot device (it’s not like I’d never heard of it, but I’m realizing it’s almost definitely something I too often blithely accept as just a convention of storytelling), and we’ll try to give that topic more thought and depth next time we run into it in a book or story.

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