I rely heavily on audio books to entertain me on my long drives to and from the Bay Area. Fortunately, I subscribe to a service that has copies of all the collected novels of Toni Morrison for me to borrow for a time. I’ve been making my way through them, and as I do so I have come to the conclusion that Morrison simply has no peer among living writers*.
Most of you know my opinions on Beloved
. It is the greatest novel. I know too much about sampling and survey design to see much worth in the New York Times
’ recent poll of authors asking them to nominate the best American novel since 1980 (inclusive), in which Beloved
came in first, with twelve votes out of more than a hundred. That being said, if I had had a vote in said poll, I would unquestionably have voted for Beloved
. If the parameters had included all American novels, I would still have voted for Beloved
. If it had included all English-language prose, I would not have changed my vote, and would only have bowed out of a poll on world literature in recognition of my own ignorance.
The novel divides people so sharply, and not at all randomly. Though I have met many women who consider it if not THE great novel, then at least a masterpiece, men do not (please pipe up, exceptions). I have stopped recommending it to men to read, because even if they are approach it with a receptive mind, they tend to come away thinking it’s a fine book, but that they don’t understand the fuss. I have found (unsystematically) that men find Song of Solomon
to be Morrison’ best work, and that women tend to consider it one of her lesser works. It throws my very notion of literature into crisis. On the one hand, I have no patience for people who approach reading unscientifically. There are some--and I have learned from Sarah that some of these teach literature at Harvard--who maintain that objective reading is a pretence, and that subjective impressions are all that anyone ever gets out of reading. This strikes me as what one of my old English professors called “seeking license to be stupid.” Any fixed work has objective aspects to it, even Gertrude Stein’s, and therefore calls for an empirical approach. But on the other hand, I have not failed to grasp that the reader’s own frame of reference dictates what aspects of a work he or she perceives. Is it possible that Beloved
delves so deeply into motherhood and daughterhood that men are simply incapable of understanding it? If so, how many “great works” have I missed out on through an inherent incapacity to understand fathers and sons? I don’t like to think of myself as incapable of that small sympathy. But if I don’t, then I must accept the uncanny feeling that comes with naming a book the Greatest when I suspect half of potential readers will fail to love it, or even to see it clearly.
Michael alerted me to a recent recording
between Katie Roiphe, Stephen Metcalf and Meghan O’Rourke, in which the three discuss Beloved
partly in order to evaluate the outcome of the Times
poll. I finally got around to listening to it tonight, because I was in the mood to wind up in a towering, cathartic temper. Well, I exceeded even my own expectations.
Here’s the problem: Beloved
is a great read, but only if you’re paying attention. It needs to be read slowly, and tasted, and preferably read aloud. If you skim it, you will miss its music, and apparently most of its plot. Roiphe, Metcalf and O’Rourke seem to have found this last project quite a challenge…because there are two threads? Because one of those isn’t told chronologically but through other characters' sometimes disjointed memories? Is that really that difficult? I am infuriated that these three would ascribe the consequences of their own sloppy reading to the author’s skill; no matter what the debate about Toni Morrison, I think any literate person can see her writing is unimpeachably clear. Which is more than I can say for, gee I dunno, Pynchon. The three critics seem, nonetheless, to have missed the fact that the character Beloved is, as her sister Denver puts it “more.” That is, while Beloved may be an embodied ghost, she carries the memories of more than one lifetime as a black woman, including passage on a slave ship. There is an entire chapter devoted to illustrating how Denver, Sethe and Beloved talk at cross-purposes, believing each other to be someone they already know. I think, frankly, the three critics just skimmed those relevant chapters because they are the most difficult in the book. They invoked their license to be stupid and then blamed Morrison. Incidentally, inattentive reading also leads to phenomena such as pronouncing the protagonist’s name “Seeth-a” as these critics did for most of the recording until O’Rourke put matters to rights with a piece of--surprise!--textual evidence.
That’s only half the problem, though. Beloved
has become like Baby Sugg’s party. Its success has been too visible, Morrison’s accolades have been too copious; her generosity as an artist has left her vulnerable to resentment. The same popular sentiment that gets the book discussed on Slate
gives educated ignoramuses a new kind of license--license to congratulate themselves on their own cunning if they don’t like the book. O’Rourke had that very much in mind, it seems, and started the discussion by asking the participants to discuss what prejudices they brought to this reading. This is as good a place as any for an aside about my own prejudices about the participants: I was prejudiced in favor of O’Rourke’s contribution because of her CTY piece
. I thought I knew what to expect fro Metcalf because he was male. Toward Roiphe I harbor the special prejudice of one who has graduated from the same high school. One last bias I should disclose: Toni Morrison is not a stranger to me. She and my mother were close friends when they were younger struggling writers, and have remained friends since. I don’t know her well, and I don’t have the problem I have had when reading the work of writers I do know well of feeling unable to dissociate narration from the voice of the person I know, therefore I feel capable of objectivity. If anything, I think I’ve subjected her work to a higher standard than usual.
Anyway, despite O’Rourke’s intent to clear the air, there was more than one round of congratulations on the caucus’ political incorrectness. These culminated in Metcalf’s closing comment:
I’m a white male critic, and I’ve been trained over the decades, well trained, well house trained--um--you know, to suspect the degree to which I prefer a writer like Richard Ford over Toni Morrison, and I think the moment, hopefully the m--, hopefully we’re at that moment where, like, that worm can turn a little bit and the people who really embrace--and you’re not in that category --but the people who really embrace Toni Morrison should inspect their own motives accordingly.
If I may adapt my old professor’s phrase, this strikes me as seeking a license to condescend, and to practice stealth racism. Metcalf is entitled to find any work a “failure” in the category of “aesthetics,” but his entitlement is conditional upon his having paid attention. He actually asserted that one of the “failures” of Beloved
is its deliberate avoidance of “physical privation” and the most concrete deprivations associated with slavery. For those who haven't read it, let me explain that the story includes protracted rape, sexual assault on both men and women, forced prostitution, burning alive, starvation, battery, punishment of a pregnant woman by whipping, hanging, immolation, child murder (and I am referring here to the ribbon Stamp Paid finds), torture…was Metcalf reading Cliffs Notes? Obviously readership should involve the inspection of ones motives; that’s at the heart of objective criticism. It really rankles that he is able to slip in the assertion that anyone who perceives greatness and its lesser correlate adjectives in Morrison’s work is by definition untrained in criticism, and probably not a white male critic (which perhaps explains it). Well, I resent the insult. No critic should even pretend to objectivity when he is so concerned with readers as a type over the text itself. Does he really think the worm of literary criticism has turned it’s back on white males? Really? Boy, it sure is unfair how Philip Roth is starving and Norman Mailer can’t get his phone calls answered and Tom Wolfe can’t get college girls to sleep with him anymore and John Updike has just been swallowed up in a historical fog of women and minority writers and…where was I? Ah. I am not convinced Metcalf has ever read Morrison’s other works. If not, he’s missing out. I’ve just finished Sula
, which is wonderful, and am working on Tar Baby
, which is better. If I’m right, his condescension is that much more maddening. Consider another of his criticisms:
There are some people who actually have a very--relatively high tolerance for Toni Morrison and her writerly ticks and her preoccupations, who think it unfortunate that she came after the enormous success of Marquez and that she felt obliged to be influenced as much by magical realism as she was by Faulkner, and that some of those elements don’t date particularly well in her work.
I could devote a couple of paragraphs just to the argument that someone who is unclear on which of Gabriel García Marquez’ names are family names should probably shut up about him.
My biggest surprise was that toward the end of the program I found myself counting on Roiphe to interrupt these insidious “criticisms” with some sense and evidentiary reading. Though I harbor my own prejudices against those she professes (for instance prejudices against feminism and “political correctness”) I at least felt her criticism strove for objectivity over self-congratulation. It was she who pointed out the incredible nature of the claim that the book avoids deprivation when it includes women whose children were taken away from them. It was she who pointed out, “we’re kind of expecting it to be the one book anyone reads about slavery, and I’m just not sure that that doesn’t compromise our evaluation of it as a novel, on the terms that we look at any other novel.” Go Beavers. O’Rourke in the meantime seemed to have a more sophisticated handle than the others on the purpose of fiction.
In fact, I could probably devote an entire dissertation to the misperception of Morrison’s work, to the strange standards to which it is held, to the strange counterreactions to her success and presumptive legacy. If I ever change fields, perhaps I will, though I’d be more tempted to write about her masterful style and narrative structure. But I’m fighting an uphill battle for now. Sometimes it’s not so good to be the king.*I am excluding my mom from this study due to my utter lack of objectivity.