Alice Walker | Critical Review by Francine Prose

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Alice Walker.
This section contains 947 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Francine Prose

Critical Review by Francine Prose

SOURCE: "Celebrity and Other Complaints," in Washington Post Book World, January 2, 1996, p. 5.

In the following review, Prose criticizes the boasting and complaining tone of Walker's The Same River Twice, a book comprised of essays, interviews, fan letters, and other writings.

Whenever someone in our family lamented what might have seemed to others an enviable excess (too much work, too much travel, too many social obligations) my late father-in-law, who in old age was hard of hearing, used to shout at the top of his lungs, "Are you boasting or complaining?" Almost every page of The Same River Twice may make the most polite and patient readers long to ask Alice Walker that aggressively sensible question—and at pretty much the same volume.

The Same River Twice is a deeply peculiar compendium of diary entries, fan letters, accolades, reviews, admiring essays and interviews, a film synopsis and a screenplay. Most of these documents relate to the transformation of Walker's novel, The Color Purple, into the film directed by Steven Spielberg—a film that shares the book's title but not (according to its author) its subtexts and subtleties. Not only was the process of filming the novel fraught with complication, but so was Walker's personal life during that same period, a decade ago. Her mother was critically ill, she herself was suffering from Lyme disease, and her "partner of many struggling but overall happy years" has just informed her that her distraction and sexual inattention had driven him to have an affair with a former lover.

Certainly there have been many writers who have (or could have, if they'd been alive) complained about the tasteless hash that Hollywood made of their fiction. Tolstoy, Faulkner, Dickens, Fitzgerald, Flaubert—the brightest stars in our literary firmament—should by all rights rise from the grave, en masse, to decry unfortunate casting choices and faux happy endings. Our sympathies go out to these writers, as they do to anyone enduring the ordinary human disasters of illness and heartbreak, the suffering Alice Walker describes in these pages.

But Walker seems to have so lost touch with the lives and sensibilities of ordinary humans that she apparently cannot hear how her complaints (so often indistinguishable from boasts) might sound to the less fortunate, who have been less generously favored by greatness. It's clear that Walker has legions of worshipful fans; one section of the book comprises their adoring letters: "I am a lover, not only of The Color Purple, but just about everything you have written. The depth of sensitivity and struggle that you bring to your characters amazes me still. Your essays … touch me beyond belief. I understand you more as a person, a human being, with every reading."

Such devotion may not ask its object to temper brilliance with modesty, to leaven profundity with humility. But the unconverted may find their good moods beginning to sour early in the book, when Walker confides in her diary (and in us): "'Fame' exhausts me … I am still tired from being 'recognized' by the Pulitzer Prize. I am sent countless manuscripts to read, books to endorse, there are invitations and award offerings that I couldn't begin to accept."

Many, I'm sure, will be charmed by the New-Age daffiness that is partly at fault for Walker's Lyme disease—she was bitten by ticks while lying "on the earth in worship" as is her "habit as a born-again pagan." A similar faith persuades her to face the premiere of the Spielberg film armed with a magic wand: "It is over a foot long with a handle made of black walnut and with almost a two-inch crystal on the end … I think my magic wand helped, and afterward Gloria [Steinem] and Mort [Zuckerman] came up and we hugged."

But won't some readers be taken aback by Walker's sense of her own importance, her mission—a conviction that at moments seems to border on the egomaniacal? It's one thing to have mixed feelings about the film version of one's novel. It's quite another to congratulate one's self on the fact that "because I followed love and joyous curiosity through the twists and turns of the labyrinth … I did find all the women in The Color Purple, who together are the sacred feminine that, because of the accessibility of the film, can be beamed across a world desperate for its return." A song written for the film is "a signal of affirmation that women could hum to each other coast to coast … an immeasurable gift to the bonding of women." She seems to feel that her work—had it been more widely read—could have reduced the violence in contemporary society. Even her refusal to let the film be shown in South Africa (still then under the rule of apartheid) strikes an almost comically wrong note: "Can you imagine how much I want to share The Color Purple with my brothers and sisters of South Africa?… What joy it would be to imagine Winnie and Nelson sitting in front of their VCR, laughing, crying, smiling, sighing, or even being appalled."

Perhaps the problem is that Alice Walker has been too ready to believe the passionate fan letters of the sort that appear in the book, letters from readers so touchingly eager to understand her "as a person." And one can only hope that these fans will be deeply moved by the section documenting Walker's struggle to recover the "3 percent share of the gross" promised by her contract and her reluctant willingness to "settle for three million." I know that I kept hearing my father-in-law's voice, his honest, working-class scorn for those guilty of the cardinal sin he called "crying all the way to the bank."

(read more)

This section contains 947 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Francine Prose