We all know it’s true. Or at least we should. Art, beyond the touchy-feely definition of it being made to illuminate the beauty of the universe, is a critical practice. To be successful in making something out of nothing, one must engage the world with a critical eye. To paraphrase Junot Diaz from his Harvard Bookstore Q & A for This Is How You Lose Her (the best Wednesday night rap session I’ve witnessed in some time), it is the artist’s responsibility to bring us news of the world; without question, the best education in making art is living.
Beyond offering news of the world, Diaz brought up another interesting point about the intersection of art and criticism. He referred to his Pulitzer-winning The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao as a blueprint that some other writer could use to make her way. Now, it’s definitely true that no one who makes anything is creating in a vacuum, but what happens when we consciously build our art on the shoulders of the art of others? More often than not, we put on our criticism hat when dissecting the motivations and themes of a piece of art, and that hat gets removed when we sit down at our desk, our instrument, our easel to make something new out of our own experience. But that need not always be so.
Look at someone like literary heavyweight Toni Morrison. She wrote her dissertation on Faulkner, and you can see it all over her novels. What trumps writing critical articles on the blind spots in Faulkner’s picture of Southern American living? How about taking him to task creatively, responding with characters that fill in the gaps he left? Song of Solomon does a great deal of work unraveling the same questions of identity and family history that Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom! does. But where Faulkner’s novel dances towards destruction as the truth boils closer to the surface, Morrison’s characters take flight. I won’t go into detail here, as I don’t want to spoil either book for you if you haven’t read them (and I urge you to–they are each their own kind of exquisite), but where Faulkner’s narrative tells us that if we dig deep, we probably won’t like what we find in our past, Morrison challenges him by using the truth to set her characters free. For the sake of argument, Faulkner’s novel is no better or worse than Morrison’s. Each makes a compelling argument about ways it is possible to relate to history. But beyond being compelling on its own terms, Morrison’s novel has an added layer of interest because of how it engages Faulkner’s text.
Now, what happens when artists engage creative critical perspectives across genres? Have a look. In her poem, “The Desire of Dali’s Women,” Caroline Harvey gives voice to the oft-dismembered and distorted female body as it appears in Salvador’s work.
Gendered discourse is another arena where Diaz had a lot of opinions. When fielding a question about whether or no he believes Boston to be a racist city (it is, and he agrees), he compared the skepticism people in Boston have about their own ingrained racism to the way his male students at MIT seem skeptical about the existence of sexism. Diaz himself has been criticized for the role masculinity plays in his narratives, something I was shocked to read about in this Sunday’s interview with him over at the Rumpus:
He was recently taken to task in ElleMagazine for his portrayals of women and the men who…well, cheat on them. The reviewer quipped that his new book failed to introduce her to any women who weren’t summed up as “big stupid lips and a sad moonface,” or “this one piece of white trash from Sayerville,” and went on to say that parts made her “flinch.” “The constant dismissal of women as sets of culo-and-titties slams a door in my face,” she writes, concluding of Díaz and her failure to engage in his Is How You Lose Her, “It’s not me, it’s you.”
This reading of his work, as far as both his interviewer and I am concerned, is not only shallow, but more than a touch obtuse. Anyone familiar with Diaz’s work can see that he is using the script of Dominican masculinity as his blueprint, but it is only a blueprint. From that point of origin, he builds stories that question the way gender is defined and redefined throughout a character’s life. Yunior at his weakest moments is at least latently critical of the trope of Dominican masculinity, and at his strongest is openly disgusted by the behavior of his womanizing father and brother. True, there is no dearth of prose profiling the failings of men, and I’d by lying if I said that I wasn’t exhausted by plenty of stories that show men abusing women without consequence or remorse. But Diaz’s collection is not another of these pointless chronicles. His latest book exists as an illustration of how difficult it is to break free of ingrained behavior even when you know what you’ve learned is not working. This Is How You Lose Her is a collection of moments in Yunior’s life when he is forced to question the way he has learned to be man and, by extension, the way he’s been trained to relate to women. The same way Morrison unpacked Faulkner’s narrative of Southern history or Harvey goes after Dali’s visual vocabulary of voiceless, dismembered women, Diaz’s writing is calling a cultural norm into question and begging us to do the same kind of work in our own lives.
There’s a reason the man was just awarded a MacArthur “genius” grant. As artists, it is our responsibility to arrive on whatever stage we chose for ourselves with news of the world. Diaz not only offers us news of his (and our) world through his work; he views that world with a critical eye and expects the same from his reader.