In a recent blog entry, literary critic Jerry Ward observed that Colson Whitehead’s Apex Hides the Hurt is “a comic book.” Further, “One senses the ghost of Henry James in the book’s machinery,” notes Ward, “although its effect is pure George Bernard Shaw.” Yes, humor and satire are on display in Apex, and really all of Whitehead’s works.
On a larger level, it’s worth noting that Whitehead represents one side of a notable yet understated divide or shift in African American literary fiction. On one side, we have Whitehead, one of our most prominent humorous literary artists. On the other side, we have Toni Morrison, by far, our most critically acclaimed serious literary artist. The distance between the two writers and what it means for African American literature might deserve more attention.
Over the last 20 years, Morrison has become the single most critically acclaimed literary artist among literature scholars. Over the last ten years, Whitehead has become the most widely recognized “new” African American author of literary fiction. Commentators continually note and celebrate the seriousness of Morrison’s works; while observers regularly point out Whitehead’s humor.
So far, there has been little discussion about the extents to which the overwhelming scholarly focus on a writer who addresses serious subjects in her works makes it less possible for attention to be paid to writers who highlight humor. By contrast, the extensive appraisals of a contemporary writer whose works display humor and pop culture references suggest that large numbers of reviewers might be less enthusiastic about writers who primarily address solemn topics. The different factors driving interest in Morrison and Whitehead are important to consider because of how far-reaching and field-shaping that they can be.
The good news is that the distances between Morrison and Whitehead indicates a rich diversity among African American novelists. The not-so-good news is that literary scholars and contemporary reviewers rarely communicate with each other, and they tend to focus on a relatively small number of writers at a time.