Reviewing Gone Wrong

The problems with book reviewing are legion, as pretty much every literary blog and magazine noted last year, as newspapers shuttered or cut back their book-review sections. But often the problems are very fundamental: Even the major review pubs run pieces that are sick with cliches (“achingly beautiful,” “stunning”), and among the chief flaws of the amateur reviewer is attacking a book for not being something it was trying to be anyway. A good example is this review of Junot Diaz‘s The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao. Granted, the publication is the World Socialist Web Site, but even partisan reviewers should have a clear idea of what a book’s intentions are. I thought it was obvious that Diaz’s book wasn’t first and foremost historical fiction–it was a study of adolescence, romantic obsession, and what it meant to be a man. All of this was set against the political history of the Dominican Republic, but the book certainly didn’t intend to be a widescreen portrait of the social-political interactions between that country and the U.S. Yet here’s Sandy English:

To a certain extent, the sponsorship of Trujillo and his successors by successive US administrations from Hoover to Johnson goes undiscussed. But this only serves to emphasize that history in this book stops at the Miami airport. Characters are formed only by a Dominican social reality. The bitterness of the dictatorship and the pathos of the failed attempts to resist oppression and degradation are also exclusively Dominican.

This goes some way toward explaining why Oscar’s internal being remains unexplored. Many aspects of American life in the years 1975 to 1995 remain unexcavated by fiction, poetry and other arts. Enormous changes in economy and politics would have had a profound effect on Oscar, Lola and Yunior’s generation. A cultural shift occurred with the Reaganite worship of success and money. A great deal of social water has flowed under the bridge in the past three decades. It affected fiction, but fiction, by and large, has failed to approach and deal with it consciously.

The great Dominican-American social novel that English dreams of may yet be written, and it may be great. But that’s not the novel Diaz meant to write, and it’s preposterous to be mad at him for not satisfying an individual reader’s wish for it.

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