Wednesday, September 2, 2009

What's Good Reading II: The Importance of Circumstances

For the last two weeks, we’ve talked about what makes a book good or bad. One factor we’ve ignored is circumstance.

Sometimes, a book is released at the right time and captures the zeitgeist. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, for example, benefitted from circumstances. I liked The Kite Runner (though I preferred A Thousand Splendid Suns), but there’s no way Hosseini sells 10 million copies without the war in Afghanistan.

The average American knew very little about Afghanistan when the war began. The nation hungered for more information on the country and Hosseini was there. Right time. Right place. Right subject matter.

That doesn’t make his writing less impressive, but his circumstances turned him from a good writer into an extremely successful author.

Likewise, circumstances almost doomed Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Nowadays, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston is a mainstay of American and African-American literature courses. It chronicles the growth of thrice-married Janie Starks from farmgirl to mayor’s wife to the woman she wants to be.

But when Hurston released Their Eyes in 1937, it suffered a thumping. Richard Wright equated the book with a minstrel show.

In his review for the New Masses, Wright wrote:

Miss Hurston voluntarily continues in her novel the tradition which was forced upon the Negro in the theatre, that is, the minstrel technique that makes the “white folks” laugh. Her characters eat and laugh and cry and work and kill; they swing like a pendulum eternally in that safe and narrow orbit in which America likes to see the Negro live: between laughter and tears.

He precedes to call her novel one without theme, message or thought. Wright’s review predates Uncle Tom’s Children, Native Son and Black Boy, so he wasn’t Richard Wright yet. But the other reviews for Their Eyes were indifferent when they weren’t scathing. Thus, Their Eyes was condemned to purgatory where it might have languished forever had Alice Walker not resurrected it.

Walker wrote an article, “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston,” for Ms. magazine in 1971 where she found Hurston’s unmarked grave. The article sparked a renewed interest in Hurston and Their Eyes.

What changed between 1937 and 1971? In 1937, African-American literature was shifting in tone. Voices like Wright’s were replacing the Harlem Renaissance vanguard. The writers spoke of anger, protest and isolation. Hurston’s work was too subtle for an outspoken time. Hurston wrote about love and self-affirmation while others wrote about lynchings.

And we shouldn’t ignore gender. Who were the most famous African-American authors of the 1940s and 1950s? Wright, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison.

But, by 1971, Maya Angelou had written I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Toni Morrison was two years away from being nominated for a National Book Award. The country was ready for a black woman's voice when Walker went in search of Hurston.

Was Their Eyes a better novel when the country rediscovered it? No, but people had become more receptive to it. It’s circumstance — time and place — and, sometimes, that’s the difference between Richard Wright insulting you and Alice Walker beatifying you.

-Jason Lea,

P.S. This post argues the same point as Outliers, so Malcolm Gladwell deserves some credit (or hatred, if that’s your reaction).

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