Friday, May 9, 2014

Covering a "gifted" writer: Colson Whitehead and His Reviewers

I've been tracking the coverage of Colson Whitehead's new book The Noble Hustle, a nonfiction work about Whitehead's experiences in the World Series of Poker. I'm also trying to take note of some of the patterns in the reviews and in the coverage of his whole body of work. I've noticed , among other things, that reviewers often compliment Whitehead's talents as a writer, regardless of whether they like his book.

Over the last decade, dozens of reviewers have consistently remarked on the eloquence and thoughtfulness of Whitehead's prose, his superb abilities as a wordsmith, and his creativity as a storyteller. Yesterday while reading Dwight Garner's New York Times review of Whitehead's book, I recognized that familiar compliment pattern taking place.  Garner does not particularly like The Noble Hustle, but he does, after noting perceived downsides of the book, offer the following:
The upside of “The Noble Hustle” is that Mr. Whitehead is such a gifted writer, even when he doubles down on his calculated schlubbiness, that he nearly pulls this all off. You could point him at anything — a carwash, a bake sale, the cleaning of snot from a toddler’s face — and I’d probably line up to read his account.  
In 2003, Phillip Lopate opened a negative review of Whitehead's essays The Colossus of New York by writing that "After two elegantly written, consistently engaging, critically praised, ambitious if not entirely satisfying novels, the prodigiously gifted Colson Whitehead has given the reading public every reason to follow his career closely." In a 2006 review of Whitehead's Apex Hides the Hurt, Ariel Gonzalez observes that, "Whitehead is a precociously gifted young writer whose previous two novels had equally inventive premises."

I'm not sure if any contemporary writer, particularly a contemporary black writer, has so many negative reviews that also contain commentary on the notable, favorable distinction of the writing. And it's not that negative reviews come that often for Whitehead. The majority of the more than 230 reviews I've read for his 7 books are positive.

The focus on the quality, not just the content, of Whitehead's prose catches my attention since so much commentary on black writing and writers concentrates on history. If you check out scholarship on African American literature, you'll encounter extended treatments of the past, historical figures, and literary history. When I poll students in my classes about their  main reason for taking an African American literature course, they routinely note their interest in learning more about "our history." Of course, generally speaking, concerns about black history do not permeate the writings of Whitehead's reviewers, the majority of whom are white.  

Yet, the experience of encountering elegant, witty, well-crafted means something to those reviewers, and collectively, their appraisals elevate the importance of such writing and gifted writers. 

Colson Whitehead

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