Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The most overrated novel ever

The most overrated novel ever has got to be Beloved. Upon its initial publication, it was rightly passed over for the 1988 National Book Award, which went to Larry Heinemann’s Paco’s Story, while the National Book Critics Circle handed its fiction award instead to Philip Roth for The Counterlife. In protest, forty-eight “black critics and black writers”—their own self-description—wrote to the New York Times Book Review, “asserting [them]selves against the oversight and harmful whimsy” by which white males were preferred to Toni Morrison. “The legitimate need for our own critical voice in relation to our own literature can no longer be denied,” the forty-eight declared.[1]

Not quite ten weeks later Beloved was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Everyone quoted on the record agreed that the protest and demands for recognition did not influence the prize committee’s decision—not a chance, no way, no how. Just to be sure, the Swedish Academy gave Toni Morrison the Nobel Prize in literature four years later. “She is the first black woman to receive the prize,” the Times helpfully noted on the front page.[2]

To her credit, Morrison disclaimed the “extra-literary responsibility” of expressing black writers’ legitimate need. That was a responsibility Beloved “was never designed for,” she said.[3] And yet the novel invited such an investment of collective hopes: “Sixty Million and more,” read its dedication. In the annals of comparative martyrology, she appeared to suggest, the toll of the slave trade was ten times greater than the Nazi Holocaust.

The novel’s epigraph, taken verbatim from the King James Version of Paul’s letter to the Romans, makes a similar appropriation:

I will call them my people,
which were not my people;
and her beloved,
which was not beloved.
Although it is not clear whether Morrison knows as much, Paul is himself appropriating the words of the prophet Hosea here: “V’amarti l’lo-ami ami-atah v’hi yomar elohai—And I will say to them that were not my people, You are my people, and they shall say, You are my God” (2.25). Originally a reassertion of God’s promise to the people of Israel that, even though they are scattered to the four corners of the earth, they will be gathered back into the land of Israel and return to their God, Hosea’s words are revolved by Paul to refer to the Christians—they will now be God’s people, who were not before—and then revolved again by Morrison to refer to the children of slaves.

In short, the forematter assigns to Beloved just exactly the sort of “extra-literary responsibility” that Morrison sought to disclaim in the New York Times. The novel is intended to be a monument, a permanent marker of memory and history; and this is the source of its failure. It is less mythic than typological; less a “story to pass on” than a dense allegory of racial suffering. Consider the last chapter in which Morrison tries to sum up the history of the people “which were not my people” by identifying them with the ghost of Sethe’s murdered daughter:Everybody knew what she was called, but nobody anywhere knew her name. Disremembered and unaccounted for, she cannot be lost because no one is looking for her, and even if they were, how can they call her if they don’t know her name? Although she has a claim, she is not claimed. In the place where long grass opens, the girl who waited to be loved and cry shame erupts into her separate parts, to make it easy for the chewing laughter to swallow her all away.[4]
Although “she” in this passage is both Sethe’s daughter and the black race, the succession of paradoxes about “her” is effective only if the reader stays on one level of meaning at a time. Any attempt to hold them both in the mind will end in confusion. If everybody knows that the girl is called “Beloved” then the word Beloved merely needs to be halloed in order to summon her. But if everybody knows what the race is popularly called (insert ugly racial epithet here ________) then shouting out the epithet will summon not the people but only a racist projection, a bogey; that is, a ghost. The passage is written with a crossword puzzler’s ear for language. It attains neither rhythm nor sharpness, and the plays on words (lost–looking, claim–claimed) are clumsy rather than charming. As for that last sentence: try picturing it.

Yet Beloved cannot be discussed apart from Morrison’s fumbling for a distinctive rhetoric. The Swedish Academy praised her stylistic experimentation in awarding her the Nobel Prize: “She delves into the language itself, a language she wants to liberate from the fetters of race.” Well, maybe. But you know the saying: when you find yourself in a hole, stop delving. Here she is describing Paul D’s entrance into Sethe’s Cincinnati house. He must pass through a “pool of pulsing red light” to get in: “Walking through it, a wave of grief soaked him so thoroughly he wanted to cry. It seemed a long way to the normal light surrounding the table, but he made it—dry-eyed and lucky” (p. 9). Morrison’s technique might be characterized as literalizing stock language. If you can mention a “wave of grief,” she can say that it soaks you. But then she nods or the effort of linguistic distinction proves too tiring, and so the light “surrounding the table” (was there a skylight? A pendant lamp? An angel?) is, um, “normal.” Is there a norm to indoor light?

I cannot think of a worse prose writer who is praised for her language: “What she knew was that the responsibility for her breasts, at last, was in somebody else’s hands” (p. 18). But everyone agrees that Morrison is a great writer and Beloved is a great novel; there is a huge body of scholarship to enforce the agreement (as I found, there are over six hundred items in the MLA International Bibliography in whole or part on the novel). In the most recent scholarly article on it, for example, the critic singles out a “stream-of-consciousness interlude” in which Beloved recalls the transatlantic passage of Africans bound for slavery:All of it is now     it is always now     there will never be a time when I am not crouching and watching others who are crouching too     I am always crouching     the man on my face is dead     his face is not mine     his mouth smells sweet but his eyes are locked      (p. 210)And then three paragraphs later:We are not crouching now     we are standing but my legs are like my dead man’s eyes     I cannot fall because there is no room to     the men without skin are making loud noises     I am not dead     the bread is sea-colored     I am too hungry to eat it     the man closes my eyes     those able to die are in a pile     (p. 211)The critic then goes on to elucidate this passage, observing that the way in which Beloved speaks of “the living and the dead being piled on top of one another and fastened together by chains in the holds of slave ships graphically testifies to how the killing of the African slave involved more than the taking of her biological life. Stated simply, Black Atlantic and ‘New World’ mass internment, enslavement, and genocide were and are produced as much through the mass reproduction of living death as through the production of biologically expired bodies.”[5] Whether this conclusion deserves the jargon required to yield it is beside the point. The point is that, as Yvor Winters wrote of Edgar Allan Poe, “when a writer is supported by a sufficient body of such scholarship, a very little philosophical elucidation will suffice to establish him [or her] in the scholarly world as a writer whose greatness is self-evident.”[6]

Rather than taking the “stream-of-consciousness interlude” at face value, the critic might ask the obvious question: what is its place and function in the novel? How is it possible that a slave child, born in Kentucky and murdered by her mother at less than a month old (“If I hadn't killed her she would have died and that is something I could not bear” [p. 200]), is familiar with the experience of the Middle Passage in horrifying detail? In fiction anything is possible, but Morrison does nothing to devise the possibility. She merely introduces the “interlude” with an allusion to the biblical Song of Songs (“I am Beloved and she is mine”), which implies, I suppose, that Sethe has merged with Beloved after living with the ghost for so long. And Beloved, a victim of slavery, embodies the collective consciousness of racial suffering? And so Sethe achieves mystic oneness with the race’s memory? Or something?

The truth is that the stream-of-racial-consciousness interlude is a display piece, a verbal stunt that is connected to the rest of the novel by the thinnest of fictions—and by the ambition to leave a monument to the suffering caused by black slavery. The odd spacing and lack of punctuation, the fragmented phrases, are little more than an attempt to defamiliarize what are, to be honest, scenes and images that have been familiar since the first photographs of Hitler’s death camps were published in the United States. The dead, heaped in a pile, are nothing new. Only the typography is new.

And that, finally, is the trouble with Beloved. The central idea of the novel is arresting and memorable, although Sethe’s murder of her child may only be a variation on Sophie’s Choice, but nothing else about it is. Beloved has been called a ghost story, but it has neither of the “two ingredients most valuable in concocting a ghost story,” according to M. R. James, the genre’s best-known practitioner—it has neither atmosphere nor the “nicely managed crescendo.”[7] It has, in fact, no pace at all; it is, at best, a series of tableaux. Morrison is more interested in disrupting the chronological narrative than in telling a story. And her ghost is not really a ghost; she is the Oversoul of black folk. My guess is that, secretly, few readers believe in her reality. They claim to believe otherwise because the novel’s monumental pretensions and rhetorical self-importance—to say nothing of the overwhelming scholarly backing—suggest the presence of greatness where nothing of the sort is to be found.

[1] Robert Allen, Maya Angelou, et al., “Statement,” New York Times Book Review (January 24, 1988): 36.

[2] William Grimes, “Toni Morrison Is ’93 Winner of Nobel Prize in Literature,” New York Times (October 8, 1993): A1.

[3] Herbert Mitgang, “For Morrison, Prize Silences Gossip,” New York Times (April 1, 1988): B5.

[4] Toni Morrison, Beloved [1987] (New York: Plume, 1988), p. 274. Subsequent references in parentheses.

[5] Dennis Childs, “ ‘You Ain't Seen Nothin’ Yet’: Beloved, the American Chain Gang, and the Middle Passage Remix,” American Quarterly 61 (June 2009): 277.

[6] Yvor Winters, Maule’s Curse: Seven Studies in the History of American Obscurantism [1938], reprinted in In Defense of Reason (Chicago: Swallow, 1947), p. 234.

[7] M. R. James, Preface to More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary [1911], reprinted in Casting the Runes and Other Ghost Stories, ed. Michael Cox (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 339.


Miriam said...

The murder is less Sophie's Choice and more an actual murder..., although the basic theme--the African-American mother driven to killing her own child--was already present in abolitionist literature like Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point" (1847).

Miriam said...

And, of course, there are the other antecedents--Medea in classical mythology (which was also in play in the abolitionist literature), the Jews at Masada...

D. G. Myers said...

I am aware of the historical source for the novel—not much about Beloved has not been thoroughly explored by literary scholars—but the presence of the “basic theme” in actuality and in abolitionist literature does nothing to change a basic fact: namely, Styron’s very popular and successful novel had already intervened between the “antecedents” you name, Professor Burstein, and the writing of Beloved.

Perhaps I ought not to have italicized Sophie’s Choice. For better or worse, Styron christened the category of moral experience for all time. It is this category that Sethe’s murder of her child belongs to.

One thing more. Like Styron, Morrison does not undertake to write a direct narrative account of the murder. The theme, basically, is the sadness (sadness, not evil, Sethe insists) created by the mother’s guilt. That is the dramatic foreground; the murder is background.

sriddle415 said...

Dear Sir,

Thank you. It is refreshing amidst all of the kowtowing to special interests to read something that runs counter to the stream.

I have no opinion of the book having started, but never having completed it. And after my brief encounter, I have not been moved to pick the book back up.

I'm always quick to point out, though, that "the fault. . .lies not in our stars, but in ourselves." My lack of connection with Ms. Morrison's work should not be seen (necessarily) as a comment on her work--it is far more probably that the fault (if any) can be found elsewhere.



Cara Powers said...

I completely agree that Beloved is highly over-rated, maybe not the most over-rated ever.

Chrees said...

I tried to read Beloved when it was released, and have feigned ignorance of the novel rather than share my initial impression of it. Which was "So this is what a sober Faulkner would have sounded like."

As to the accuracy of that, I have no idea. But not wanting to revisit the book to see how wrong (or even possibly right) I was, demonstrates how strong the aversion to such a experience can be.

Tayari Jones said...

There is no novel as important to me as Beloved. Period. There is no novelist more engaging to me as Toni Morrison.

I must say that I resent the implication that her Nobel Prize and other honors are somehow a reward for being a black woman. It seems that when she is overlooked for prizes, race has nothing to do with it, but when she is rewarded, it is all because of race and gender.

Toni Morrison is a great American writer who was given the Nobel Prize. Griping about this honor almost feels to me like celebrating that fact that Chicago didn't get the Olympics.

I wonder if anyone ever speculated that Faulkner got the Nobel because he is a white man. I mean, certainly he would not have been given the prize were he NOT white, but that really doesn't explain why he got the award.

This is not to suggest that Morrison's award if analogous. If the Nobel Committee, and the Pulitzer Committee, etc are handing out awards and accolades to writers just for being black, the rest of us didn't get our vouchers.

Ms. Morrison is a credit to us all--as Americans,as writers, as human beings. Let us celebrate her acheivements and let us celebrate the acknowledgement of the same.

D. G. Myers said...

I must say that I resent the implication that her Nobel Prize and other honors are somehow a reward for being a black woman.

Me too. Only those implications came from the forty-eight who protested Morrison’s being passed over for the 1988 National Book Award and the New York Times front page, on the occasion of her Nobel Prize.

My case against Beloved, you will observe, advances no such argument.

D. G. Myers said...

Tayari Jones linked to my little essay on Beloved, saying: “Why, oh why, must people hate on Toni Morrison like this? Go leave a comment.”

Before you leave a comment, then, please note that the essay is on the subject of a book (Beloved) and not a person (Toni Morrison) and that it is not an expression of “hate” but of literary criticism.

ktfleming said...

There is no harm in not appreciating or not connecting to the work of Toni Morrison. One's relationships to books or authors is entirely personal. Moreover, there are a great many people, including literary critics and scholars of letters who simply do not understand Toni Morrison's work, because of the language, the subject matter or both. You are among them.

Your singular opinion that Beloved is the most highly overrated novel EVER does not make it so, any more than a passage in the novel describing the horrors of slaves in transport (or anything else in the novel) seeks to undermine the horrors of the holocaust as you seem to suggest in your essay. It doesn't even make sense to mention such an unsavory contest as Slavery vs. The Holocaust, chiefly because such comparisons are baseless. The two are not remotely related and are not comparable in reasoning, methodology, time span, or the number of lives taken, "Sixty million and more" being an accurate and probably sparing estimate of slavery-related deaths. Nevertheless, paying literary homage to slavery, does not demote or minimize The Holocaust, or vice versa.

You're entitled to your opinion, of course. But it seems that your opinions of the novel are a little disingenuous. So much so,that present-day,the group of 48[self-described]black writers and intellectuals might call you a "hater"(colloquially, that is). You'll understand, I hope, if I, and the vast majority of the literary community disagree with you.

D. G. Myers said...

You'll understand, I hope, if I, and the vast majority of the literary community disagree with you.

Of course I do. But the agreement of the “vast majority” no more establishes the greatness of Beloved, although it makes it seem self-evident, than my opinion, as you point out, establishes its overratedness.

weeklyvista said...

Ratings are static tools in my mind, and really of no consequence when judging the true worth of something. About a year ago, ESPN 2 said that Derek Jeter was one of the most overrated players in sports. I'm a Yankees fan; maybe I'm sensitive. Stoker's Dracula was underrated until he was dead for a few decades, and now you can't buy a book without finding blood and fangs in it. I'm not big on vampires; maybe I'm sensitive here, too.

My point is, the critique is good, and I won't argue with it -- but as ratings go, it'll be invalid by next month. Maybe this weekend, if Florida loses to Georgia, we'll reconsider what we think about #1. In the meantime, I'd like to know why Beloved is overrated. You've laid out the hows elegantly. Bravo. But you've dallied and feinted on the whys. I was with you as far as the forty-eight, but then the whole thing glazed over into a conspiracy worthy of Dan Brown, with a powerful few controlling the purse strings and opinions of all. Can you clear that up for me? It'll go a long way toward helping my understand.

D. G. Myers said...

No conspiracy. To adapt something that Thoreau once said: the head monkey in Cambridge puts on his hat, and all the little monkeys follow suit.

dwayne said...

We read critiques like this, drawn to the idea of a "most overrated novel ever." I read it, in part, to hear what it was you had to say, in discussing the novel. One thing I thought off base was that Morrison isn't a good prose writer. But you know, in a novel of 200 or so pages, it's easy to pull one line and pretend it's representative, or to fail to acknowledge how any lines gets and loses strength based on the lines around it. With that said, I can say I've always found Morrison's prose lively, engaging, and the kind of thing that falls into the class of Wideman and Faulkner.

Whatever the case, the premises that you start your discussion with - both the idea of Beloved being overrated and the idea that the Pulitzer Prize and Nobel Prize were the result of outside pressure- are the kind of light weight thinking that your critique, however much I disagree with it, belies as a false. A way to catch people's attention who will praise you for taking on the system, as opposed to just appreciating what you say and then deciding to agree or not.

weeklyvista said...

Nicely put. Again, I can’t argue with it. Scholarly worthiness is a top-down manifestation, and rarely aligns with popular opinion -- but you said it better.

I’d be interested in an overrated list though, like you did with your top 50. That would be edifying.

J said...

“In the annals of comparative martyrology, she appeared to suggest, the toll of the slave trade was ten times greater than the Nazi Holocaust.”

And? As another person pointed out, the death toll of the transatlantic slave trade, which lasted hundreds of years, was indeed much higher than that of the Nazi Holocaust. If Morrison “suggested” this she was not incorrect. The real problem is that you even feel compelled to compare the two.

“The novel is intended to be a monument, a permanent marker of memory and history; and this is the source of its failure. It is less mythic than typological; less a “story to pass on” than a dense allegory of racial suffering.”

You really should clarify this. Are you saying that the program is flawed or that Morrison simply does not succeed at realizing the program? Surely you cannot mean the former since Ulysses, The Sound and the Fury, Invisible Man, Sentimental Education, In Search of Lost Time—in short, many great works of literature—adopt a similar program. You reveal a great deal about your bias in that last sentence. Why is it that an “allegory of racial suffering” cannot qualify as a “story to pass on”? Perhaps it’s not a story or myth that YOU would pass on. But judging by the way it has captured the American imagination, I would guess that there are quite a few people who feel that it demands to be passed on.

“I cannot think of a worse prose writer who is praised for her language[.]”

Bellow does come to mind. Updike perhaps. But they’re not women, of course.

“In fiction anything is possible, but Morrison does nothing to devise the possibility.”

You mean apart from writing a novel?

“The odd spacing and lack of punctuation, the fragmented phrases, are little more than an attempt to defamiliarize what are, to be honest, scenes and images that have been familiar since the first photographs of Hitler’s death camps were published in the United States.”

The reference to the Holocaust makes even less sense here when discussing representations of a historical event that predates it by hundreds of years. Morrison’s writing about the Middle Passage follows in the tradition of Equiano and slave narratives not pictorial representations of Hitler’s death camps—which brings us to the real problem with your critique. Any critic who uses Nazi Holocaust literature or European history as a framework for assessing the success or failure of Beloved clearly does not understand the primary tradition in which Ms. Morrison writes. Beloved is written in the tradition of slave narratives—which are, like the Negro Spirituals, a uniquely American genre—and African-American Modernism, from Toomer and Hurston to Ellison and Forrest. Your failure to take this into account represents a failure to meet Morrison on her own terms, indeed a failure to even understand on a very basic level Ms. Morrison's technique. You appear to be writing from ignorance—and not with the aplomb of Mr. Beckett. There’s nothing wrong with not liking Toni Morrison. But if you’re going to offer a critical analysis of her work, you should at least learn a thing or two about its literary context—and I don’t mean the works William Styron.

rjnagle said...

Somewhat relevant: my essay (not specifically about Beloved): Do Perpetrators Tell Better Stories than Victims?

About Beloved, I would describe it as interesting but unreadable. I like to regard it more as a meditation on history more than a story.

Anonymous said...

I was given this book as part of World Book Day, together with Margaret Atwood's 'The Blind Assassin.' I remember a former (white) American work colleague gushing over it, so looked forward to reading it after Atwood's hugely enjoyable novel. Unfortunately, I'm having a hard time with it. It's just - boring. Both authors are new to me, but regarding Morrison, I feel it's a case of the Empress's New Clothes -stark naked in other words. Yes, she's completely overrated. Will skip the Oprah movie too.


Forshorn said...

This thread is old, but why not let it go on. Myers' article was well-written, well-taken, and well-defended. He was bound to get a lot of guff for criticizing an author whose ascendancy on a fairly arbitrary list was explained (by A.O. Scott) by the fact that she had been included in more college curricula than any living author. Now, this inclusion is partly due to "extra-literary" reasons, and Myers' assumption is that ranking works should not be based on such reasons.

He is correct. Further, he was bound to get flack for the hyperbolic title, but this is how journalists write titles, in case the reader is new to journalism. The most overrated book of the century is probably Of Human Bondage. The point is that Morrison's writing is often awkward, while Roth's flows like the Kreutzer Sonata played by David Oistrakh. This passage from Beloved shows a touch of clumsiness:

"Counting on the stillness of her own soul, she had forgotten the other one: the soul of her baby girl. Who would have thought that a little old baby could harbor so much rage? Rutting among the stones under the eyes of the engraver's son was not enough. Not only did she have to live out her years in a house palsied by the baby's fury at having its throat cut, but those ten minutes she spent pressed up against dawn-colored stone studded with star chips, her knees wide open as the grave, were longer than life, more alive, more pulsating than the baby blood that soaked her fingers like oil" (5-6).

The voice is nondescript, giving the character's thoughts, but not in the character's voice, which is fine. But the narrator's clipped style fails to establish an authorial presence. The writer has trouble with syntax: "Counting on.. she had forgotten" is ambiguous - counting or relying? - and the ambiguity weakens the passage. "Who would have thought..?" This appears to be the character's thoughts but is not in the character's voice. "Rutting among the stones..?" I have trouble with that image and its connection to the next sentence is unclear. It was not enough that she had to rut among (or on?) the stones, now she had to live in the palsied house. "Palsied house" is a poetic image, but also subjective... the house feels to her as if it's shaking. The trouble is that this type of subjectivity is not established by the rest of the passage - many of the character's feelings are flatly stated. "Dawn colored stone studded with star chips..." - just distracting in the last sentence saying how those ten minutes were more alive than the baby's blood. And overall this paragraph rambles: this final sentence does not in any way complete a question posed by the earlier part.

Morrison is a good writer, but overrated; not everyone can tell the difference between good prose and indifferent prose. Myers can, and I thank him for the article and the site.

Damian said...

Seriously! Beloved is The Greatest American Novel of the 20th century. Maybe you should go read it again.