Critical of the Critics: Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi

When a book is touted as extraordinary, but it’s merely “pretty good,” are readers and reviewers (and other writers) justified in pointing this out? Is a difference of opinion still tolerated? If we strongly disagree on the criteria used to determine a work’s quality, do we, collectively or individually, have a duty to hold each other to a higher standard—a more rigorous professional standard of care, as it were—even if the only things at risk of harm are egos and intellects?

That’s what I wondered during and after reading this book. But I don’t really want to single it out, because Homegoing by itself is just fine (but not spectacular). The problem is that I’ve gotten tired of this kind of thing, the sickly-sweet cloud of unjustified praise that seems to be attached to books like Homegoing, the open conspiracy between established authors and publishers that ultimately puts books like this into my hands. Just as we were warned decades ago about the military-industrial complex, we’re now living with a twisted literary-industrial complex 1: it sucks in young authors and their works at one end, expends inordinate energy on marketing and promotion, and spits out extravagant accolades at the other—regardless of the actual quality of the product.

I want to stress something again, before I dive too deeply: this book, Homegoing, isn’t bad. It’s a solid, but not particularly noteworthy effort. But it is a representative example of a work receiving over-effusive praise for, in the end, not achieving anything truly special.

If you read a lot, or even if you only read selectively (following, for example, excerpts in The New Yorker), you’ve seen this kind of story literally dozens of times before: hyphenated-American author produces heart-string-tugging tale highlighting the injustices lavished upon previous generations of hyphenated-Americans, often following multiple generations, to arrive at personal and moral (if not social and economic) redemption in the current generation. In order to rise above the plethora—and it truly is a plethora—of such tales, both the story and the quality of the writing have to be clearly outstanding. In the case of Homegoing, neither clears that bar. The writing, or combination of writing and editing, is technically quite good, even at times excellent (I noticed only one silly error that author and editor should be embarrassed to have let slip by). But it’s never “put-this-book-in-your-best-friend’s-hands-and-insist-they-read-it” amazing.

Had I not read in the closing acknowledgements that this book was the product of multiple graduate writing fellowships, I could have made that guess: it simply reads and feels as so many graduate projects do, with laudable technical merit—perhaps too much attention to certain literary details—but not enough sparkle, imagination, or the je ne sais quoi that separates truly spectacular writing from the merely very good. The plot, on the other hand—such as it is—suggests that the author took too seriously certain axioms perpetually regurgitated in graduate writing programs: write what you know, write where you come from, write of the collective experience of your people. That is all well and good, and I have little quarrel with the writing of such books. My quarrel is with praising them as unique and extraordinary achievements, when objective reality shows them to be anything but.

Without wasting time on explicit detail, the book is in the end repetitive and predictable. While it starts off reasonably fresh, after the first two chapters the rest of the story is a series of calls and responses echoing across close to 250 years of West African and American history. Labeling this book a novel, actually, is misleading: it’s really a collection of 16 loosely-related short stories, tied together by the fact that the subjects of the first two stories are half-sisters (unknown to each other), with each following chapter touching on the life of a descendant in the next generation, alternating down these two branches of the family tree to the present. This pattern, with the foreseeable jumps in time, becomes so monotonous that the story seemed destined from early on to stumble into a cliché ending: with six or eight chapters and the better part of a century to go, I predicted to myself that the two branches of the family—separated by eight generations—would reunite in L.A. in the final chapter. SPOILER ALERT: The correct answer was “San Francisco.” Yes…San Francisco. If that doesn’t sum up the problem here, I don’t know what will.

The content of each story is in many ways equally predictable. There is violence, there is oppression, there is suffering. Oh, the injustice of it all. There is a raised, then forgotten, then over-emphasized, extended metaphor clumsily stamped upon the stories to give them a unifying image. There is love and sex. In fact, there are few chapters in which sex is not brought to the fore, at least for a time. This is gratuitous, as even in a book that depends on each generation procreating to keep up its momentum, delving into the details of the act is unnecessary.

While I have never heard of it being applied to a work of literary fiction, in science fiction there exists the concept of the “Mary Sue.” This is a class of fan fiction that relies on the author, often overtly, writing themselves into the story as a vital element. They are perhaps not a lead character, but they are a supporting character without which the hero cannot succeed. Homegoing too often reads like an extended literary “Mary Sue by proxy“: the men of each generation are always handsome, strong, intelligent, the finest in the village; the women, as you might expect, are always the most beautiful, the most clever, the strongest-willed. Had this trope not been relied on quite so heavily, especially in the earlier parts, the book would have made better reading. For that matter, this book might serve as something of a warning to other writers: adhering too closely to a formula (or an outline, or a graduate proposal) is not necessarily a good thing. Giving equal time to each generation hurts the greater story of Homegoing—some individuals deserve much more than the roughly 20 pages each receives, while the space given to other descendants could have been reduced (or skipped entirely). Consistency might be the hobgoblin of little minds; too rigid adherence to a predetermined form can be the vampire that sucks the life blood from an otherwise promising story.

I would take to task some of those who supplied blurbs for the cover of this book (there are 11 on the back of the edition I read, 10 with names attached). Words like “magical,” “hypnotic,” “haunting,” “stunning”—the list goes on—have little business being associated with this work. They might apply convincingly to some of the individual chapters, had those chapters been left alone as short stories. As a complete book? No. Some of these blurbs, of course, have been selectively edited: Michiko Kakutani’s words, for instance, are presented in such a way that one might easily be led to believe that she loved the book; in context, her review is tepid. Having her words twisted is an occupational hazard.  The praise of some others, however, is less manipulated and less restrained.

I want to be very clear: I did not dislike this book. It was “an okay read” and I don’t regret the time put into it. But I did not, by any stretch, love this book, nor did I find it particularly compelling. I could have put it down at any point, and would not feel that I had missed out. I stuck with it to the end because reading every word of a book before publicly expressing an opinion of it is tantamount to a professional obligation; to do otherwise would be the equivalent of critical malpractice.

That’s where my thoughts are as I write this: What are these reviewers up to when they produce blurbs like this, and what are their motives? And, if they are genuine in their praise, then what are the standards by which they judge a work of literature to be great? What is the line they use to separate the great from the merely good? What are their criteria for deeming a work original, and how do they justify the liberal scattering of glowing modifiers and breathless superlatives? I’m not going to attempt to answer those questions. I’ll only say that these and similar questions need to be asked by all readers—and by all reviewers before they begin each critique.

My advice to readers on whether or not to pick up Homegoing is to decide for yourselves: poke around among the many reviews available and see if something in them steers you toward or away from this book. What did the reviewers who have earned your trust think? For myself, with all the great books out there (and the so, so many very good ones), I could have done better. It’s my hope that Yaa Gyasi, after the hints of what she might be able to do found in this first novel, has a great book in her—and that in the future we’ll get to read it.

= = = = =

1 I thought I might have been the first to coin this phrase, but it’s been around for at least several years.

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About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small business meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
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2 Responses to Critical of the Critics: Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi

  1. The problems you note here are becoming typical of the current crop of books by young writers. I think in this way the professionalization of writing has hurt its spontaneity and spark. Don’t get me wrong—a knowledge of craft is essential to good writing. But the over-emphasis on craft and the current mantra against inspiration—as if anyone could be taught to become the next Tolstoy or Hemingway—has produced this bumper crop of merely middling books. It also seems to be part of the career streaming for creative writing grads to have a book published in their 20s. In the past, most editors would probably advise these young writers to keep honing their chops in magazine pieces and anthologies before attempting whole collections—maybe when they’re a decade older. A friend once said to me: “A poet at 20 is 20. A poet at 40 is a poet.” After all, what the hell do you really know when you’re 26 years old? How much insight can you gain by then?

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    • Interesting observations, sean. There have been amazing young poets throughout history, but there’s something to that statement. Personally, I don’t usually pick up memoirs by people under 30 for a similar reason.
      My immersion in the details of MFA programs covers about 2002 to 2009 (with actual enrollment from 2003-2005), so I’ll admit to not being as up on things as I could be. The years of my attendance seemed to nearly coincide with the wave of ruin: when I applied, an MFA was still interesting, unusual, and nearly as valued as an MA in many places. By the time I graduated, so many crappy little MFA programs had cropped up that the devaluation was well underway. Within a couple of years of graduating, looking for a teaching job with “only” an MFA was pretty much a non-starter, and a route to permanent adjunct status if you were lucky.
      Writers can learn a lot from these programs, but the same way anyone learns: when they want to and when they apply themselves. I had classmates whose writing was unreadable garbage in their first semester, but quite good after a year or two. That was great to see.
      That said, I also recall a student whose writing was godawful on the way in…and just as bad or worse when they gave him a diploma. He was the epitome of the dilettante MFA: no talent (but convinced of his genius), no creativity, no stories worth telling, but recently retired, with money up to his lovehandles, and he was a local with connections to the school and program. It’s always sad to see someone like that take a seat away from a deserving striver who might actually contribute something grand to the overall sum of human endeavor.

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