Upon receiving the recently published review of Confederado, the editor of SLR , indicating that aspects of the novel may have been overlooked or misinterpreted, contacted me with a request to compose a response. I was happy to do so. However, I would preface my remarks with the general assertion that, having authored a number of reviews myself, the art of reviewing is a deceptively difficult genre of writing. The reviewer brings with her or him, unconsciously or not, her or his own tastes, agendas, and pet-peeves, which—depending on the reviewer—conspire, a little or a lot, to alter the undertaking less into a consideration of the presented fictional world and more into a looking glass which offers back the reviewer’s own predispositions. This review of Confederado constitutes an example of such a phenomenon.
The review begins with a complimentary formal analysis not unlike what one might encounter in a creative writing workshop. Yet the reviewer proceeds to assert that the “power” of the writing, reminiscent of Faulkner, comes at the price of fully-realized characterization. Already, then, we have encountered a fundamental interpretive problem: one cannot generally compare the writing to that of Faulkner—a novelist lauded for his rich characterizations—while also asserting that it suffers from a lack of characterization
The review then performs an additional remove from the southern modernist Faulkner, speculating that the novel is based on nineteenth-century southern romances which make it “overly didactic.” Yet, before doing so, the review establishes the book’s concerns as connected to the “Global South, an approach to southern literature that tries to develop a broader sense of what regional difference might mean in the U.S. and beyond.” It is as if, instead of composing a coherent argument regarding the novel, the reviewer is more interested in advertising, in fragmented bits and pieces, his knowledge of southern literature. By the review’s third paragraph, it has been asserted the book simultaneously possesses modernist Faulknerian writing, qualities of didactic nineteenth-century romance novels, and a shared conceptual concern with contemporary southern literary criticism. However, any relationships between these tropes remain unarticulated.
Things get worse. The reviewer proceeds to identify the former slave who treats the protagonist upon his return from the war as a “loyal black mammy” and criticizes her “elevated syntax and diction.” As the back cover of the novel states, the book is based on a true family story. The author did not make up the fact that this former slave stayed with the protagonist’s family, aided in his convalescence, and was made literate with the assistance of the family. Yet the reviewer seems to prefer and insist upon an uneducated “mammy,” dismissing her speech as “improbable” and appropriating her presence as a symbolic opportunity for the narrator to offer an “apologist” position on slavery. It seems a sad state of affairs that almost half a century after the publication of Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner a white author may not offer a characterization of a former slave—and a laudable one at that—without inviting tired, worn-out arguments and criticism from backward-looking individuals.
The reviewer continues to find fault with the narrative once it moves to Brazil , the chief objections being wanting characterization (again), comparisons of Brazilian people and culture to those of the American South, and the protagonist’s killing of an anaconda as a symbol of his general superiority to his Brazilian peers. While the characterization issue already has been discussed, the comparison dynamic seems altogether unavoidable. After all, how is the protagonist supposed to interpret his new surroundings other than against his previous background, regardless of what and where that might have been? As for the killing of the anaconda, the reviewer might simply consider background again: while the hunting party is made up almost entirely of the local sons of civilian farmers, the protagonist is a four-year war veteran nonplussed by physical violence and very adept at, well, killing. The reviewer goes on to compare the protagonist’s hunting success to “St. George slays the dragon,” and here it is worth pointing out that throughout the review all of the reviewer’s comparisons are to western and white American literature: Faulkner, Virgil, St. George. In a novel which contains not so subtle references to several well-known African-American and Brazilian works, the reviewer’s inability to detect any of them demonstrates a pronounced lack of multicultural reading background, a general Eurocentric literary sensibility, and a willful determination to have the book fit a predetermined conservative white southern framework.
In the concluding paragraph, the reviewer muses, “Were this novel about the thorny moral question surrounding Reconstruction policy or even a realistic attempt to understand the psychological position of those southerners who chose to emigrate, it would be fair to ask readers to suspend certain disbeliefs.” On the contrary, that the disbeliefs of this reviewer are largely self-manufactured rather than gleaned from the book at hand constitutes the prime reason for the review’s almost complete failure as a useful document. Gazing into the mirror of the novel, the reviewer has offered up his own means and bases for interpretation. And it is not a pretty picture.