Sunday, June 11, 2006

55. "Their Eyes Were Watching God" ~ Zora Neale Hurston


Janie's life revolves around her men; in fact, each major change in the plot is due to the coming or going of a man. But it isn't until Janie, who lives in an all African-American town, hooks up with Tea Cake, a man twenty years her junior, that the tongues begin wagging.

Without the backstory of the author, this book does not hold as much allure. She wrote this seventy years ago, but if released in today's market, it would barely make a ripple, sadly.

This is the first time I have been uncomfortable in criticizing a book. Is it because this is a historically important novel for black women, even prompting Alice Walker to write about it in Ms. magazine, and I am just a mixed English-Norwegian with no sense of culture? Perhaps. Or maybe I didn't "get it." But it did not touch me. I could not stand the young Janie. I could not imagine her tolerating such foolishness from Tea Cake. I did not feel like I could understand her, and that, ultimately, brings me back to my central belief of literature -- it does not matter if you are a man, woman, alien, yellow, purple, gay, straight; if the author cannot convey meaning via the character and narrative, then the author has missed the bullseye.

2.0 out of 5.0 Third Degree Martinis.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

Can of worms, lady, can of worms.

Anonymous said...

Ha. I agree with the can of worms comment. Nonetheless, I feel slightly compelled comment.

While I understand your central belief in literature, you must admit that the key word is "central". Literary critiques are too often centralized around European norms. Do you think that every non-white person "gets" every character written in the typical all white literary cannon?

If a member of the majority does not "get" meaning via the character, does it mean that it is not conveyed?

Anonymous said...

I must admit-- I am delighted that you chose to read and review this novel at all. I believe this is the first time that I've witnessed the work of an African-American author being seriously reviewed on a bookblog.

Kristin Dodge said...

The last comment perplexed me. If this is true, then what are people hoping to gain from their reading experiences?

I thank you for commenting on "getting" literature, no matter the race. Perhaps I could have been more clear. I "got" The Bluest Eye, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Spiritual Shackles. It didn't happen for me with this novel, just like many don't feel To Kill a Mockingbird.

If nothing else, I think this is an opportunity for further discussion and reflection. I know that, since posting my review, I have analyzed my stance repeatedly. If this is opening a "can of worms," then perhaps I need to use the largest sword available.

Nathan said...

K - It's nice to see someone who agreed with me. I read the book some time ago in a class on African American literature and, although it has been a few years, I did not think much of the book. The characters were rather flat, the plot was very soap opera-like, and the religious element was forced and over simplified.

I'll tear open that can of worms in response to Anonymous #2: It is appropriate to critique Hurston according to European/Western literary standards because she is writing in a European tradition. The American tradition stems from Europe and although she is descended from Africans, Hurston's education, intended audience, and work are rooted in an American/European/Western tradition. The fact that she is of African descent is irrelevent.

If you don't "get" a character, think about what that means. Part of the duty of the story teller is to overcome the labels or catagorizations and create characters and narratives that the audience will respond to in spite of those lables, not because of them. If I could only "get" books with authors or characters of the same racial, national, and religious background I would be stuck re-reading The Secret Life of Satanist for the rest of my life.

To return to K - I am glad you chose to critique Their Eyes Were Watching God. I know you well enough that you don't want to make thoughtless or insensitive remarks and unfortunately race relations are such in this culture that many people feel like they are walking on eggs. You are transparent about the criteria you use to critique books and I think you made a fair judgement.

Anonymous said...

I don't think you answered anonymous #2's question. Also, it concerns me that you stated in a prior review that you have an "Oprah bias". Since she developed the television movie of this book, could that have effected your review?

In response to "nathan", it is impossible to separate race from literature. It is the centrifugal force behind this novel. Is it irrelevant then to dismiss stories by women due to sex or muslims due to religion?

I love your blog, but I think you were off on this one.

Nathan said...

Perhaps I was not clear on the race/identity issue in my previous comment. If, as Anonymous #2 wrote, "Literary critiques are too often centralized around European norms," that does not seem to me to be an issue in K's evaluation of Their Eyes Were Watching God because the book is a part of an American/European/Western literary tradition. While race and ethnicity are relevent to the protaganist and to the themes of the narrative, the text can be evaluated based upon Western aesthetics and values.

Anonymous #2 gave two other questions. First, "Do you think that every non-white person "gets" every character written in the typical all white literary cannon?" No. Remove "non-white" and "all white" from that sentence and my reasoning should be fairly clear. No one will respond to every protaganist or every book. As Kristin pointed out, other people don't "get" To Kill a Mocking Bird, a book that clearly has had a profound effect on her. This is why we have so many different stories and genres.

The second question, "If a member of the majority does not 'get' meaning via the character, does it mean that it is not conveyed?" Again the answer is no. But meaning in the text should be deduced by careful reading of an effectively written text, and it is in that element that There Eyes Were Watching God comes up short. It is not very carefully written and set against contemporary Western literary criteria, the book does not score well.

I should note that I do not intend to speak for Kristin, only for myself, a fellow writer/blogger with an opinion.

Kristin Dodge said...

Opinions welcomed here. Unless you're anti-cocktail. Then, I'll have to show you the door.