Monday, June 22, 2009

More on Whitehead Reviews

As mentioned before here, Colson Whitehead's recent novel Sag Harbor received an extraordinary number of reviews, a relatively rare occurrence for African American fiction. So it's worth noting and perhaps celebrating that a black author would receive so much attention.

But then, we're compelled to ask about how Whitehead's book, in this case, is being reviewed.

After covering approximately 50 reviews of Sag Harbor in various publications before reading the book, I was unaware of how central Whitehead was making race to his overall narrative. The majority of reviewers tended to focus on the apparent universal appeal of Whitehead's novel. That perhaps makes sense given their audiences and venues.

However, I'm nearly done reading Sag Harbor, and I have become unsettled with how little reviewers addressed the degrees to which Whitehead discussed black culture and ideas throughout his novel. Highlighting the universal in Whitehead's work arguably ensures that his book will be picked up by a larger number of readers. Cool. That's what's gained.

But what's lost and at whose expense when seemingly well-intentioned reviewers downplay race and under-appreciate the extents to which African American cultural practices and experience appear in fiction? Also, how and perhaps more importantly where do those of us interested in "black studies" intervene in conversations about contemporary African American literary art?

I'll finish the book soon and start trying to address these questions. In the meantime, if you have thoughts on the subject feel free to drop me a line.

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