Friday, 18 July 2008

Reality Bites

One of my writer friends recently received a review of his collection of short stories and although it was a mixed bag (from "part-gripping, part-lackluster" to "Stanford captivates with shocking plot twists and turns") the overall tone was negative. Several of the criticisms with regard to my friend's execution of the stories may well be merited, but I take issue with the reviewer's claim that although the stories are set in Trinidad and Tobago they provide no "insight into Caribbean history and culture". The events could have taken place in Anytown, USA, he claims.

This brings me to the whole question of people's preconceptions. My friend did not attempt to write a travelogue. He did not write his stories to acquaint foreigners with the culture and history of 'the islands'. He wrote about the violent crime that is right now tearing the fabric of his homeland to shreds. According to the reviewer, the stories "tell little of island life". Oh, really? What the reviewer means is that the stories tell little about his preconceptions of island life. In fact, the stories showcase the reality of life on this island right now; violence is an issue that Trinidadians confront every day, and I don't believe the writer should be chastened for omitting titillating cultural soupçons and historical tidbits from his stories.

Our similarities transcend our differences. Our struggles are universal. The reviewer himself says that "Stanford gives much more attention to exploring universal questions: What is right? What is wrong? What is justice?" If these are concerns that Anyone, from Anytown, USA can relate to, what of it? Why is this considered a flaw in the work? An American writer of similar stories would not be rebuked for his laser focus on the central issues. He would not be told to include more cultural and historical elements in his stories.

Criticize the writer's pacing, his prose, his characterization, his use of dialogue or whatever, I say, but please, don't censure him for not writing about limbo dancers drinking rum under coconut trees to pander to the assumed preconceptions of a 'foreign' audience.


Flowerpot said...

I quite agree - preconceptions are a dangerous thing - and so often wrong!

Anonymous said...

About a month ago I was chatting with an expat who I work with and who was stationed in Trinidad since November last year. I asked him if Trinidad was anything like what he expected and he said no. He said in the real Trinidad people worked hard and were very intelligent. I don't think he was trying to pay a compliment since he is known and disliked for being brutally honest. At least this expat had the opportunity to learn and he did. Critics, on the other hand, are usually not so lucky and in any case, they don't want to be.

Debs said...

There are a lot of preconcieved ideas about Jersey too and it can be so frustrating.

Matt said...

Apparently if your homeland is tropical, your stories must also be filled with umbrella'ed drinks and pineapples.

I always take a review with a grain of salt; particularly when the reviewer doesn't understand the need for paragraph breaks.

wordtryst said...

Flowerpot, they certainly are - and we all have 'em, I suspect!

akalol, I'm sometimes taken aback by people's perceptions of 'the islands'. Someone I met in the US was shocked that we have KFC (you know, that ultimate benchmark of civilization) here. Others assume that we're all uneducated and backward people. Thank goodness for the other kind who actually have a clue! I have to remind myself now and then that there are many places on the map about which I myself don't have a clue!

Debs, I'm sure I'm one of those with rose-coloured preconceptions about Jersey too - all based on a few Gerald Durrell books that were written a generation or two ago! I hope to visit there one day and set myself straight!

Matt, yes. Definitely pineapples. And the steelband music tinkling somewhere in the background. :)

I agree that reviews must be approached with reservations. [You noticed the dearth of paragraphs breaks too, huh? I thought I was being nit-pickety.]

Vaughn, stop lurking and say something! Then again, no. The writer is not supposed to respond to critics and reviewers, or so they say...