Sunday, November 15, 2009

What is the purpose?

Dr. Norman always says that literature is not sociology. After reading Trudier Harris’ article, “On The Color Purple, Stereotypes and Silence,” I realize why he says that. I don’t necessarily think that Harris makes this mistake, but if we take her article to be true, most people must. Harris writes, “The novel has become so popular that Alice Walker is almost universally recognized as a spokeswoman for black people, especially for black women, and the novel is more and more touted as a work representative of black communities in this country” (pg. 155). Is it possible that Alice Walker be given a power to be “universally recognized as a spokeswoman” for any community? Where does that authority come from? How can she be given the burden of speaking on anyone’s behalf but her own? Does such power merely come from “popularity”? I honestly don’t have the answer to these questions, but ask them because they matter. What is the purpose of literature? (Or of any art for that matter?) What does the world at large want to get out of it? Why do we read? I didn’t think the purpose of literature was to learn about the world, but when Harris uses the word “representative,” I feel like literature is transformed into a social experiment of sorts. That word makes me think of representative samples, surveys, tests and statistics, which brings me back to the question we have come to time and again, what is art? If The Color Purple is one woman’s expression, how is it possible that “the novel gives validity to all the white racist’s notions of pathology in black communities” (pg. 157)?

After reviewing the reasons why Harris criticizes the book (many of which I found highly questionable), she writes, ”Walker is put in the peculiar position of crying out against her own popularity or watching the onslaught of distortion continue. That is also in part the paradox—the curse and the blessing—of being chosen” (pg. 159). Speaking of sociology, why doesn’t Harris conduct a “representative” survey in order to make more accurate claims about “the onslaught of distortion” that Walker’s novel is supposedly causing? I cannot tell you how many times I screamed offensive phrases while reading this on Friday afternoon. I think Harris’ “love/hate relationship with The Color Purple” (pg. 161) tells me more about her than it does about the novel or about Walker. Why does “popularity” transform literature into sociology? Or does it? Who “chose” Walker? What is she “chosen” to do? Should this “paradox” affect her literature, her art, her human expression—in content or in form?

Ann duCille writes in her article, “Phallus(ies) of Interpretation: Toward Engendering the Black Critical ‘I’,” “Because art is invention, ‘truth’ is generally held to be a false standard by which to evaluate a writer’s work” (pg. 560). I am glad I read the articles in the order I read them; I do not know it I would have been so confused and alarmed by the power of this sentence if I had not first read Harris’ critique of Walker’s novel. How and why is art “invention”? But more importantly, why would we hold literature to a “false standard” of “truth”? How do we and why do we “evaluate” artistic expression? How can we evaluate if something serves its purpose if we don’t even know what that purpose is?

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