Saturday, December 26, 2009

A Reader's Response & Invitation

Over a course of several months, I have enjoyed reading more reviews of poc books and have left comments but that wasn't enough. I wanted dialogue. For example, there have been times when I've finished a review of a classic or staple African American book and I've thought, "That's it?" Now you could argue, "Well, Susan why don't you write a review yourself?" Fair question. Here's the deal: The book in question is often a book I've read years ago. I don't see the point of rereading it solely to write a review especially when there are so many new works being written by aspiring poc writers desperate to get a little press of their own. And me writing the review doesn't address what is the core of what I'm seeing here: a reluctance or uneasiness or something I can't name that is different when a non-poc reader reviews a poc book.

Back to me. I'm more interested in discussing a work than reviewing it. So I keep reading new reads and reading reviews of books I've read and loved and hoping a reviewer will share some meat about a work by a person of color, something that says how her own experiences and perspective affected how she processed the book. (Anytime you feel like telling me lighten up, go head, we're both safely behind our screens.)

My point is if you've read it, tell us what you really think and not what you think is the polite and safe thing to say. Why? Because when your review reads more like a polite courtesy than a gut response, your readers are likely to respond in-kind. Then a reader like me comes along glad that a review is published. I take note of all the polite responses and that usually leads to feeling we've all missed of an opportunity to talk about a book that likely has introduced some readers to experiences or views different from their own or the experiences might very well be similar, and the reader is a little surprised that the book isn't so different from what they've lived or known. Wouldn't it be more interesting to explore these possibilities?

I try not to complain without taking some action so instead of simply leaving a comment somewhere where those of you who are reading me here are not likely to read my comments to a review elsewhere, I'm going to write or republish my responses to reviews of books by people of color when I've asked or added something I didn't see in the review or comments.

My aim is to create a discussion about a book I've read and enjoyed but not reviewed. Sharing my reader's response is an invitation for dialogue, and unless it becomes problematic or troubling for you, I'm going to cite the review that inspired my response.

I like to talk about books. I appreciate an honest discussion about what literature says about us, and I'm interested in how we respond to what we read.

First up is a classic, The Bluest Eye. I recently read Su's review at Su [shu]'s. See her full review here. Here's what I had to say:

This book shook me when I was a young woman. This book is important for so many lessons not the least among them what it means to a black girl living in a culture where whiteness is not only synonymous with power and superiority, but it is the benchmark of beauty. Imagine growing up in a world with a standard you can never achieve. Pecola’s obsession with this kind of beauty in a significant way contributes to her mental breakdown.

And let’s not forget what Morrison is saying about domestic violence and incest. We don’t say these words aloud enough.

Have you read The Bluest Eye? What did you think about it? What point(s) do you think Morrison is making? Any comments about other Morrison titles?


Eva said...

My problem is that I read so many books, I have to discuss most of them in my TSS. And then I only have a paragraph to devote to them, and I don't really have space to quote authors or dive into issues as extensively as usual.

So that with most of the books I read, whether poc or white authors, I feel I give them short shrift. I'm hoping next year, I feel more healthy and have more of a life, which would result in less reading and thus more blog space to talk about the books I do read.

susan said...

What are you doing in here? I don't know anyone who reads the volume of books that you do and while your reviews are short, they are also concise and engaging. You don't short shrift, you introduce your readers to more books than most of us can ever read. I sing your praises, what, every week? :-)

I might leave out the citation. I don't want reviewers feeling criticized. The aim is to talk more about the book.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I haven't read Morrison for a long time, and so would have to go back and reread to make any intelligent comments (or even dumb comments). But aside from that, I love what you're saying here and think you make terrific points. In fact, I am printing this out and keeping it in front of me so I can think about doing this more!

Color Online said...

Morning Jill,

Thanks. Do you vaguely remember The Bluest Eye? I confess it's the only Morrison Book I've gotten through. I own several.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree about "...your review reads more like a polite courtesy than a gut response..." I'd like to see more emotion in my reviews. That said, my reviews have a tendency to remain short...sometimes very short. The reason is I am ADD. I won't read lengthy reviews or posts. It has to be short and to the point.

susan said...

Hi J.Kaye,

It's not the length that leaves me wanting more, it's the absence of intimacy, vulnerability. I'm looking for a reviewer to tell me something more than what I can glean from the jacket cover.

Anonymous said...

Susan, I get that, but not everyone can express themselves in words. I've been doing this for close to three years now and still struggle with this over and over again. How many ways can you tell someone a book left you breathless without sounding generic? Of course, this might be me and I am the only player who consistently fumbles the ball. ;)

susan said...

J. Kaye,
Struggle? You're talking to a woman who probably publishes the least number of reviews but always has an opinion. It does take effort and a certain skill to not sound generic.

I think most of us should cut ourselves some slack. Worry less about sounding brilliant and speak more off the cuff. I think we underestimate the impact of sharing how we feel.

Jessie Carty said...

If I don't write a review right after I have read the book, I often find it difficult to go back and really engage unless I re-read the whole book but with so much new I want to read, I don't often take the time to do so.

I read "The Bluest Eye" when I was a sophomore in college. It was assigned as part of a class where the teacher picked about 6 books that were all just her favorite books of modern literature. I had tried to read "Beloved" as part of advanced reading my senior year in high school and I had an extremely difficult time with it.

"The Bluest Eye" however, blew me away. I could relate to the world she was living in and I felt guilty because I was a part of that white world yet I could also feel something like the protagonist because I had wanted blonde hair and blue eyes. I wanted an ideal of "whiteness" that was even beyond my own dark hair and dark eyes.

It has been a long time since I read the novel and I still own it. It is a book I can't part with even if I never read it again because when I finished it, I wanted to be a better person.

susan said...

Thanks, Jessie. That's saying something.

Amy said...

You raise such a fascinating point. I know that not all books affect me, but when they do, I hope I can share why. I haven't read The Bluest Eye, but I do understand the longing to continue to talk about and go deeper with certain books.

Vasilly said...

Reading your post is reminding why so many bloggers have been posting their blogging resolutions for next year. I think we all want to document our experiences with what we've read more than anything else.

I read The Bluest Eye many years ago before I started blogging and I remember that last scene so vividly. I felt so much outrage over Pecola. Pecola reminds me of the little girl in Fannie Flagg's Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe. She was black and wanted so badly to have "good" hair. She made herself physically sick and would not eat. Have you read it?

susan said...

Hi Vasilly,

I've known about Fried Tomatoes but I never got around to reading it. Oh, the good hair business, a weight so many black women continue to carry around. I am glad I don't have that burden. I'm nappy and proud.

All books don't affect me either, Amy. I can't imagine though when a book deals with complex issues that we aren't affected on some level. Not looking for bowl you over responses just something that isn't generic or perfunctory.

Thank you both for commenting.

Michelle said...

I definitely see your point. That's the thing about blogging, isn't it? Do people always write (or type) what they really felt about the book, or are they actually just putting down a generic response?

I find that a lot of books leave me with more questions than actual ideas or answers. Like with The Bluest Eye, I kept having the same question play around in my head about how the general public and mass media portrayed 'beauty' (blue eyes, curly blonde hair etc..), why it is deemed superior, and why so many people seem to wish for that kind of beauty?

I've never had this thought before, nor was I exposed too much to this 'white is beautiful' thing (growing up in Malaysia might explain a little..). I was naturally intrigued. It just never occured to me, ever, before reading this book.

I think your invitation for dialogue is great. You mentioned in your response to Eva that you might leave out the citation in case people feel criticised. I'm not sure about others, but I rather think it does me good to know what or how I can improve with my blogging. =)

A little criticism is always good.

susan said...

Hi Michelle,

I chose your review because it was the most recent one I read, but one concern was that some would think this was about a particular review which it isn't. I also understood that being from Malaysia you didn't grow up with the history of race like I did. Funny no one mentioned that you are a poc commenting on a poc book. I was wondering if anyone was going to raise that point.

Too often discussions get reduced to either explaining, defending or denying.

There's more though like what has actually happened here. I appreciate you saying that prior to reading the book, you never thought about what the standard was.

Glad you chimed. Thank you.

susan said...

Oh, I meant to add, that what I love about a good read are the questions, the exchanges, being challenged to examine or consider things I hadn't before.

Anonymous said...

I love having book discussions, too, though I mostly use Twitter to do it. I'll tweet a comment while I'm reading, and others who have read or are reading the same book ending up replying with their own thoughts and a conversation evolves from there. I highly recommend trying it!

susan said...

Hi talshannon,

I enjoy Twitter but I don't find it to be the best platform for an extended discussion. It requires being available at the moment and knowing the discussion is happening.

Call me old school. I miss when we had message board communities (Am I dating myself with that reference?. That platform allowed for a permanent record and any reader/participant could follow and chime in if and when they wanted to.

Today, most online users have blogs and the comment box is the next best thing in my opinion for an ongoing discussion.

So, Tal, have you read the book? Your thoughts about it?

Michelle said...

I rather found it amusing how you referred to me as a poc. Because quite frankly, I've never thought of myself that way. In fact, I remember when I first found out about Color Online, I had to go Google the definition of 'people of colour'. =)

Like you, I like the questions provoked by good books. I was definitely exposed to a whole new perspective, reading this book. It's not something I can relate to easily, but there were some issues (like prejudice, racism, incest, male-female relationships etc) that I think are universal.

I feel that in many parts of the world still, we have come to accept biased standards as 'normal', and we strive to achieve those standards no matter how impossible. When a lone person decides to accept herself for who she is, she's identified as a 'stray' or someone who doesn't even try to 'fit in to societal norms'. It all gets a bit depressing. I think the book showed me how damaging it can be to have certain qualities (eg: blue eyes or whiteness) considered superior to other qualities (eg: black/coloured).

There are still instances of race supremacy today, though maybe not of such dire conditions. But still..

Anyway, was a long rant. =)

evelyn.n.alfred said...

The Bluest Eye is easily my favorite Toni Morrison book, partially because I didn't have to reread it so many times to understand it. *smile*

I liked the themes she addressed in the book (that you already mentioned), how she divided the book into seasons, her descriptions, the poetic way she uses words...and even the parts where she mentions Jane, "See Jane. She has a red dress."

I create a vlog post back in September about some of Toni's description in the book:

susan said...

Thanks, Evelyn.

I'll check out the link. Appreciate you commenting.

BookClubEtc said...

Sula and The Bluest Eye are my favorite books by Toni Morrison. Hampton Players (at Hampton University) recently did the play of The Bluest Eye and it was awesome. I read these two books at least once a year. I love Toni Morrison's writing.

Jodie said...

I find I remember so little about The Bluest Eye, mostly I remember that part where Morrison talks about what kind of prostitutes the women working in the town are not - that rocked because she takes this knife to the kind of literary portrayals prostitutes have been dogged with (the whore with a heart for example) that keeps people from really seeing them as people. I'm really a 'Beloved' girl myself because of the language and really being confronted by what the slave trade could drive the slaves to do, how complex they were and how much more than victims. I love 'Jazz' as well, because Morrisson's language is so spot on right for writing about that time and because again it shows how (and in what a variety of ways) dominant society destroys others and 'its own' when it seeks to protect it's own order.

As for honest reviews I think we're all fighting that fine balence between being nice and being honest and then there's that terrible fear of saying something way out of line because you're not sufficiently educated when it comes to a white blogger like myself reviewing fiction from another culture. I often feel like I need to excuse myself my explaining how much I don't know, or read up on the background before I can talk properly about characters from different cultures. I can talk about the 'humanity' aspect of the books if that makes any sense, but when it comes to critiquing specific points of how a culture is portrayed I'm never sure I have enough knowledge.

susan said...


I often don't feel very knowledgeable about books I read including black literature. My solution is to be clear that I'm not offering an expert opinion but my reaction to a work as I perceive it.

And we need to give each other permission to get it wrong. Literature is more that what's right to begin with. It's about exploration. If someone misses a point or even completely misinterprets something, then let's discuss and not beat each other up. Is the whole aim greater understanding and seeing something from a different perspective?

Thanks for reading and responding.