Tag Archives: literature

And”We” Are?: The Quest for the “Great American Novel”

by Latoya Peterson

reading

The quest is over, aspiring writers, you can go home. Jonathan Franzen has been crowned the Great American Novelist by Time magazine.

The writer gushes:

In a lot of ways, Freedom looks more like a 19th century novel than a 21st century one. The trend in fiction over the past decade has been toward specialization: the closeup, the miniature, the microcosm. After the literary megafauna of the 1990s — like David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and Don DeLillo’s Underworld — the novels of the aughts embraced quirkiness and uniqueness. They zoomed deep in, exploring subcultures, individual voices, specific ethnic communities.

Franzen skipped that trend. He remains a devotee of the wide shot, the all-embracing, way-we-live-now novel. In that sense he’s a throwback, practically a Victorian. His characters aren’t jewel thieves or geniuses. They don’t have magical powers, they don’t solve mysteries, and they don’t live in the future. They don’t bite one another, or not more than is strictly plausible. Freedom isn’t about a subculture; it’s about the culture. It’s not a microcosm; it’s a cosm.

Yet, there were those of us who were not moved.

The anointing of Franzen has sparked a round of what is being termed “Franzenfraude,” with major writers Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner coining the term after hearing the accolades surrounding Franzen. Picoult commented on Twitter, “NYT raved about Franzen’s new book. Is anyone shocked? Would love to see the NYT rave about authors who aren’t white male literary darlings.”

And here is the crux of the argument. It isn’t so much that Franzen is or isn’t a good writer – but rather the question of who represents the American experience, and what critics make that determination.

As Michelle Dean writes:

So let’s look at the phrases that have been used to justify the effusive levels of praise being directed at Franzen. Tanenhaus, for example, says that Franzen’s book was great because it spoke to “our shared millennial life.” Grossman, the Time critic, admires the way Franzen “remains a devotee of the wide shot, the all-embracing, way-we-live-now novel.” Even the Brits agree that Franzen has tapped into some kind of shared experience psyche: the Guardian called The Corrections “a report from the frontline of American culture.”

It seems a fair question, in that context, to ask: “What’s this ‘we,’ white man?” Continue reading

Are E. Lynn, Hardy, McMillan & Perry creating art? Do they have to?

by Guest Contributor J. Smith, originally published at jbrotherlove

E. Lynn Harris, James Earl Hardy, Terry McMillan and Tyler Perry

Disclaimer: I’m not offering any real answers to “Do E. Lynn, Hardy, McMillan and Perry create art?” It’s a topic on my mind this morning. Robin Givhan at The Washington Post has a review of novel In My Father’s House, written by E. Lynn Harris before he died in 2009. It’s pretty brutal:

Let’s get this basic fact out of the way: This is not a well-written novel. E. Lynn Harris, who completed “In My Father’s House” before his death in 2009, does not have a poetic voice or even a particularly eloquent one. This is not a work of detail-oriented craftsmanship.

And that’s just the beginning.

The review goes on to call out Harris’ shallow character description and clumsy plot development. Frankly, these are things we’ve known for years. Like fellow black, gay writer James Earl Hardy and outspoken Terry McMillan, E. Lynn Harris spoke to a very specific reader. While the writing in these novels don’t challenge literary circles, they do speak to black female and gay communities longing for written representation.

Which is not to say I’m giving these types of work a “pass”. I was an early fan of E. Lynn Harris and James Earl Hardy simply because nobody was publishing contemporary work about black gay life in the mid-90s. By each of their third novel, the novelty wore off for me. Maybe I’m crazy, but I like my artist to expand as they continue to create; and possible help me to expand with them.

This point of view could be applied to Tyler Perry, as well. While his lack of skill seems blatantly obvious to me, the demand for his work is staggering. However, when a 30-minute cartoon can lampoon and sum up Perry’s plot devices in 15 seconds, you have to question how hard Perry is even trying to elevate his craft. Perhaps one issue is how Perry tries to do everything: write, direct, produce, act, etc. We’ll see when he puts his spin on somebody else’s work; namely Ntozake Shange‘s classic For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf.

Yeah, I’m afraid.

However, I remember an interview with Questlove in which he said he doesn’t categorize music as good or bad anymore. The more important question is if the work is successful in meeting its intended goal/audience. I’ve started to allow that philosophy inform my own prejudices (if only to save my sanity). This is why my second question “Do they have to?” is as relevant to me as my first.

From Margin to Center: Writing Characters of Color

by Guest Contributor Neesha Meminger, originally published at Justine Larbalestier

This essay was originally meant to be a short comment in response to Justine’s post on why her protags aren’t white. In one of the comments, someone brought up the old argument: if white people can only write white characters, then should people of color only write characters of color? Here is my response . . .

It’s a question of power and privilege. Most white people grow up thinking they have free range in everything from the political to the personal. People of color in Europe, Australia, and North America (and women everywhere), do not grow up learning these things. We learn to BE colonized. We learn, through history lessons from our colonizer’s textbooks, that we are not the invadERS, we are the invadED.

People of color know more about white people than we know about ourselves and one other because everything we are taught in the schools is by and about white people. Everything we see on television is by and about white people. Everything in magazines, on film, in books and on book covers is created by and about white people. Writers of color in the west almost always have white people in our books because that is what we know; it’s what is all around us.

Given this context, people of color writing *only* about people of color is an act of self-validation. It is an attempt at balancing something that is heavily skewed in one direction. (This reminds me a lot of the discussions and debates we used to have about why it is critical within a patriarchal/sexist context to have women-only spaces, and why in campuses all across the nation there are LGBTQ groups, etc.).

I create worlds in my books where people of color and women are at the center—not at the margins where we are habitually cast in the everyday world. This is a conscious decision. It is a political choice. Just as writing a book, film, or television series peopled ONLY with white folks is a political act, be it conscious or not.

On white authors writing characters of color: because the power imbalance leans so heavily to one side over the other, white authors absolutely must support the efforts of authors of color. White authors absolutely must people their stories with characters of color to reflect a reality they often have the privilege of ignoring, if they so choose. Continue reading