Wednesday, October 30, 2013


Literary fiction and genre fiction have been seen as enemies by both writer and critic. Approach a literary reader with commercial fiction and she might look at you as if you were offering her arsenic. The same can be said about someone who only spends his time on horror. Mention literary lines and he might make a face. Dangerous stuff! Keep that away from me! But is genre really the enemy of literature with a major “L”?
    Voltaire “Microm├ęgas” is considered a seminal work of science fiction while Voltaire himself is not really someone world literature can dismiss.  And how about Edgar Allan Poe, another central literary figure? Although he is classified as an American Romantic, isn’t it the inventor of the detective novel that makes him step beyond his century?
    So why today’s divide? Genre fiction is now seen as commercial (even if a majority of genre authors struggle) and there are those who claim that authors there spend less time in prose and more time in plot. Genre concentrates on action; literature on psychology. Is that really true? You can’t get more commercial or more successful than Stephen King. But examine his prose and you will see someone who loves to harmonize words—and does not neglect psychology, either. I am not a Stephen King fan; I don’t read his genre. Yet, when I came across his writing, I was struck by its caliber. That, reading mysteries that go beyond their duties as whodunits, plus the fact that we live in times where cultures and styles are meeting and melting, pushed me to write this and ask: should genre fiction be seen as separate from literature or as a branch of literature?
    What’s your take on this?

Tuesday, October 1, 2013


To appreciate this novel one has first to place it in its historical context: the 1930's, at the core of the Harlem Renaissance, known then as “The New Negro Movement.” Or does one?

    Nature speaks to Janie Crawford, Hurston’s heroine, nature and its open spaces; so when her grandmother forces her into an arranged marriage, Janie feels locked into a place that turns her dreams into ashes. Leaving her husband in order to widen her horizons and following her vision is indeed a revolutionary act in the Black America of the 1930's. What if I sliced off the adjective in the sentence? Would that make the act revolutionary? How about the country? Indeed any woman leaving her husband in the 1930's would commit an act of undeniable courage. But Janie assumes this dream is linked to another man, that she cannot dream alone. At the time, that may be true. Still, if her ambitious and authoritarian second husband uses her as the continuation of his dream, he also makes her a rich widow. What has been crushed and repressed in Janie has not necessarily died, however; there is a phoenix somewhere ready to fly out from these ashes.  At first, this phoenix looks like Tea Cake, a charming man younger than Janie as well as a gambler not keen on rational thinking. With him she will let her hair free, assume her womanhood. Although Tea Cake is the winner in this trio of husbands, he does hit her, if only once. Hurston could have chosen to have a completely gentle character here. Her lucid eye, albeit compassionate, compels her to honesty. There is a lot of progress to be made when it concerns respect toward women, be it in Black or White culture. Even the best men are prisoners of that culture. Although Janie discovers love with all the moments of joy that passion can convey, she never completely finds herself while living her adventurous epopee with Tea Cake. This said, during all these years of struggle that will culminate with the flood that eventually kills Tea Cake, Janie builds herself. And her return to her place in men overalls and amidst waves of female nasty gossip is a triumph of sorts. They can say what they want. She has finally found herself. Because she dared to take the journey.

    And so did Hurston. For the novel, with its subject, metaphors, and singular pacing, makes for a great act of valor. The author does not hesitate to portray a black racist among her bunch, a business owner who would rather serve white or light colored people than people her own color. A woman in constant need of bleaching out her own identity. This is a profoundly tragic character, brainwashed by the domineering culture and denying her own self.

    One can understand why the great Alice Walker played the phoenix here, that is brought Hurston back to life in the mid 1970's. With her flowing use of the vernacular, her compassionate yet perspicacious view of human nature, Walker is a brilliant Hurston inheritor. What Hurston brought to the literary scene can make the Harlem Renaissance proud, but like Janie herself who despises limits, her work goes beyond borders, as the universality of Watching God in undeniable. Women know Janie Crawford the minute they meet her. They understand the way she talks to nature, the way she dreams her space, the way her reality is beyond definition. Defining the undefinable and universalizing a theme while maintaining the identity of a culture, is a tour de force that only a central author could achieve. So thank you, Ms Walker, for kicking unjust oblivion you know where and placing Zora Neale Hurston right where she should be.