Wednesday, March 24, 2010

What makes a literary classic? Is there a place in the canon for POC?

There's a good discussion going on over at Ta-Nehisi Coates' place at The Atlantic. Coates looks at all the beef over Tyler Perry resurrecting Ntozake Shange's "For Colored Girls Who've Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf" and wonders if Perry's involvement really amounts to heresy committed against a classic work of literature:
I keep hearing people claim that Perry is desecrating a classic of the genre. But I have to ask a slightly rude question, Is "Colored Girls" a great play?

I haven't read it in years, but even as a younger person I remember thinking it was somewhat over the top and heavy-handed. Read more...
Coates elaborates in response to a male commenter who states the play was not really written "for me":
This is obviously subjective, but your second sentence--for me--would argue against it being a classic. I was thinking about this in the books thread yesterday. Gatsby is, to me, a classic because it speaks to something deep, American and human that we all relate to--the notion of reinvention. Same for Malcolm's Auto--it has special meaning to black people, but it's drawn a wider audience because this process of recreation is very familiar.
I'm a little dubious about this idea that to earn classic status, a book must offer some universal message. What is a "universal" message? We all bring the baggage of who we are to any reading of literature and it affects how we receive the message of the narrative.

Over in The Atlantic thread, someone brought up Judy Blume whose oeuvre is generally considered classic YA lit. I was a Judy Blume fanatic in my elementary/middle school years. It didn't matter that Blume's protagonists were mostly white and Jewish, and I was black and living in a Baptist household. Her characters felt universal--mostly because they spoke to me. Recently, I was reading reviews of "Everything I Learned About Being a Girl I Learned from Judy Blume," a collection of essays by female YA writers discussing the universal appeal of Blume. I learned that Blume's work, while it may have felt universal to middle class, suburban, little GenX girls, felt alien to some girls who were not middle class; who lived in urban areas; who had crushes on other girls and not boys.

While I recognize that "The Great Gatsby" is a classic, excellently-crafted work, it's supposedly universal theme of reinvention does not particularly speak to me as an American or anything else. There are many who refer to Margaret Mitchell's "Gone with the Wind" as a classic novel and would point out the "universal" theme of triumph over adversity. However, I can't find the universal themes for the overwhelming racism and pro-Confederacy revisionism.

The problem is that the notion of universal appeal is most often interpreted to mean appeal to a white, Christian, heterosexual majority. All else is marginalized. It is the reason that in a recent forum discussion about a lack of authors of color on the Kindle e-reader screensaver, one reader opined that while there are people of color who are good writers, none have written classic literature on the level of the overwhelmingly white authors represented (Oscar Wilde, Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, etc.).

Coates said:
...[For Colored Girls...] surely is the kind of play that really speaks to young black girls, in an important and significant way.
I think Shange's work speaks to many women, but what if it doesn't? Does appeal to a particular demographic mean a book can never be deemed a classic? It occurs to me that most "classics" are deemed so as much for their particular resonance with the majority culture as the quality of the writing, their plots and overarching themes. By that measure, perhaps "For Colored Girls..." is not a classic. But I'm not sure I feel right embracing the "universal theme" definition. It feels like a direction that necessarily leads to the marginalization of some great writers.

But then, what does make a "classic" literary work?

UPDATE: An Atlantic commenter named invisman52 nailed it:
See, "Gatsby" can speak to all because it is white and male. And these are easily the identity tropes of universality. It is as though whiteness and maleness can speak for all. People can look at "Gatsby" and see universality and the notion of reinvention because it is a "blank" slate--unencumbered by categories of race, gender, and queerness. When something is blatantly black, or female, or queer, it becomes marked as political, as Other. Well, "Gatsby" is very marked, too. It is just in our collective, American unconscious we do not recognize it as such. This is the insidiousness of whiteness. Shange's piece can be "universal" or a "classic" if one allows oneself to identify with the Other. In our culture, we are too quick to identify with the dominant subjects and we struggle too much to identify with the Other.
[Tami's note: Incidentally, IMHO the furor surrounding Tyler Perry directing Shange's work comes not because "For Colored Girls..." is a classic work that cannot be adapted for modern times, but because a work about black women's particular gender oppression is being directed by someone who has demonstrated particularly regressive, oppressive and stereotypical views about women in his previous works.]

[Tami's note: Read Zadie Smith's book "Changing My Mind" for a great essay on how she came to love Zora Neale Hurston's novel "Their Eyes Were Watching God." Smith deems the book a must-read for everyone now, but as a child eschewed it as being just for black women--not a classic work.]

4 comments:

msladydeborah said...

I wrote an extensive comment on the other site.

You raise some very good points about the system that is used to deem what is "classic". To me this is in the mind of the person partaking in the written experience.

I am from the generation of Black women who supported For Colored Girls. At that time there was no work that really spoke with our voices. We were the twenty and thirty-somethings. Our American experience was in many way similiar to our mothers. But it was also different. Up until then how we viewed our selves, our relationships and the people who were part of our life circle did not really have a voice with the tone of this work.

Ironically, I own a copy of For Colored Girls and I've only read it once. I do not particularly care for the style of writing that is used. Even though I fully understand what the motivation was for Shange to use that style. I have kept my copy of this book because I believed it to be an important to me type of work.

slythwolf said...

This is what I see as the white definition of "universal appeal": If something appeals to white people, but not to people of color, it can be said to have universal appeal. If something appeals to white people and people of color, it can be said to have universal appeal. If something appeals to people of color but not white people, it cannot be said to have universal appeal. This is because the universe revolves around white people.

When people talk about what is (a) "classic", it's extremely important to acknowledge that this is a term that has been defined for centuries by white men. Anybody who thinks that doesn't have an influence on how we understand the word is lying to hirself.

Jennifer said...

Hi Tami,
It's funny that you are writing about this because just yesterday, in my grad class, I was teaching an essay on Jacob Lawrence that made a straw man argument for seeing him as either an African American artist or an American modernist. And the critic wanted to claim him as an American modernist because modernism is associated with the "universal" whereas for him to be considered a black artist means he is typecast into a community. And I told my students that this was utterly ridiculous. Of course Lawrence is both an American modernist AND an African American artist, one whose art shows universal themes of black life and history and community that of course should be part of our larger, universal, American consciousness.

So the idea of what is "universal" as a default to white and maleness is one that we should all be actively debunking.

As for whether or not Shange's play is a "classic" or not, it's solidly in the canon of not just AfAm theater but American lit so yes it's a classic--whether that means it should or should not be remade/touched/redone seems beside the point since so many classic works get the Hollywood treatment to good and bad ends. [I wasn't a fan of either the film version of BELOVED or the tv version of THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD but perhaps that's because these works live in my imagination so vividly] But I think you really nailed it on the head when you noted that it may be the fact that Perry is doing this remake that is driving the criticism.

macon d said...

I appreciate this post, Tami, and the updates (that commenter really did nail the canonization of Gatsby).

But then, what does make a "classic" literary work?

That's pretty much been answered here, it seems -- what makes a "classic" is a work's alignment with a particular community's set of "classic" criteria. Institutionally empowered white men just didn't see themselves as members of the White Male Club, and most still don't. (Thus, as well, the term "classical music" and the limited range of music it describes.)

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