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MAY 16, 2012 10:41AM

Our Real Great American Novelist

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We've been reading a great deal lately about the issue of gender preference in the publishing world. More than anything, the proclamation a few years back that Jonathan Franzen had written the new Great American Novel (complete with JonnieFranz's appearance on the cover of Time magazine) really upset a lot of people. Probably the most cogent questioning of this issue came in the form of an essay by Gabriel Brownstein at The Millions comparing Franzen and his book Freedom to Allegra Goodman and her book The Cookbook Collector. Read this excellent piece here.


There's been a good amount of hand wringing on this topic too for years -- mostly by women. I think they have a point. It's not clear to me what is going on in the media world with the need to anoint a book as the "next great American novel." Partly, I suppose, arguments against novels have been a mainstream occupation of contrarians and critics now for decades.  Anytime a big, sweeping book like Freedom or Don Delillo's Underworld comes out those who are pro-novel in the publishing world (i.e., people who make their living funding novels) can't help themselves. The fact that men seem to be the ones who supposedly write these great American novels is as much a "book-as-phallus" issue as it is anything else. 


But something that bothers me in all these debates is that many people seem to miss the fact that only one American writer has won the Nobel Prize since Saul Bellow won it in 1976. That American has written a number of great American novels. This spring she will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She has also had to grapple with being categorized as a Black Woman Author, a Female Author, and a Black Author. She is, of course, Toni Morrison (who has also been on many magazine covers in her day). Her books obviously tell the story of the African American experience in the New World, but that story is in many ways all of our stories. She writes of love and revenge and lust and family turmoil, the urge to create, succeed, destroy, and kill. In this land of free willed creatures, those are certainly traits of great American stories.


More than anything, at least from what I have read of hers, Morrison shows the heroism of people (usually women) rising above the difficulties of circumstance and even the horrors and atrocities of life. Too often novelists of today get by with characters nobly accepting their circumstances or tragically being the source of their own ruination. Morrison usually steps far beyond acceptance and making peace with life. More than anything, it seems to me, what is required of a Great Writer of any kind is the ability to show us what it means to be Great in Life and to be part of this Great Country that continues to blow open the doors of history.


Photo from Guardian click here for article


The more I think about this issue of Greatness and the question of what it is that defines Great Art, I can't help myself in the conclusion that Toni Morrison is truly our Great American Novelist. Books like Song of SolomonBeloved, and Jazz aren't simple little entertainments.  


For those of us who care about books and stories -- and the novel -- we need to think more about emulating and learning from this great poet and creator and less about arguing whether men or women should get credit for defining things here in our times. 


Congratulations Ms. Morrison on your latest award. Congratulations as well on the publication of your 1oth novel, Home. A lot of us are looking forward to a great read this summer. 




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Right on. I'll be ordering her latest from Powell's later today.
While I agree with some of what you say, she is not for me, and I get tired of kudos only going to the heaviest possible, weightiest possible, topics. Do we have to feel like slashing our wrists at the end for a book to be lauded?
That said, I do respect Ms. Morrison's literary achievements -- the breakthroughs she has made are worth being fêted....I just won't be picking up another book of hers to give her yet another try.
I love Ms. Toni Morrison, and your words inspired me. ... I was reading "Jazz" on the lightrail train a few years ago while riding into work when a black man (a regional transportation employee) shyly tapped me on the shoulder and asked, "Who's that beautiful woman on your book?" I turned my book to look at the large photo of Morrison on the back and smiled. "You don't know?" I asked surprised. "Why that's Ms. Toni Morrison." ... I hope he got around to reading her work.
Thanks for this, David. Embarrassed to say I've neglected Ms. Morrison.
I should add that I'm not embarrassed to say I've neglected DeLillo and Franzen, too. I intend to continue to neglect those two.
Toni Morrison fully deserves the Medal of Freedom. I admire the art and craft of her oeuvre, but although I readily acknowledge the brilliance and Great Book status of Beloved, having made it through once, I'll never read it again. On the other hand, Saul Bellow is my pick for Best American Novelist Ever, Living or Dead. If you haven't read Humboldt's Gift, Henderson the Rain King or Herzog, drop everything and run to the nearest bookstore.
My favorite novelist of the moment is the Brit, Ian McQuown. I don't have the chops to devour Morrison the way I used to. Have no idea what that says about me.
What just Thinking said...
I can see how it would appear that Morrison is being weighty with topics. DeLillo is the same. Franzen, used to be that way. From the sounds of it, for what it's worth, Morrison's Home is at least more linguistically accessible. Personally, while heavy, languagie books are daunting to me too -- I am a freaky slow reader--I love the sense that I'm out in the ocean swimming by myself. Try reading The Recognitions or Infinite Jest. Oy! The way I do big books is to figure it will take me a couple of years, so I read them in tandem with "lesser" stuff.

For JustThinking, just asking: who do you call Great if not the likes of Toni Morrison (or Don DeLillo)? There are many greats of course, but just asking.
I loved The Bluest Eye and Song of Solomon but since Beloved and beyond, I find her books unreadable. She is certainly worthy of any awards, though. Congratulations to Toni Morrison.
I'm with you all the way on this. I love Toni Morrison. Regarding the question of great literature, the first thing my AP English students do every year is listen to Faulkner's Nobel Prize acceptance speech and analyze his concept of The Writer's Duty:
My only criticism of the great Ms. Morrison is that she is a slow writer. Her stories seem to require an aging process, like fine wine. Whenever her latest book comes out, I do a happy dance, then read slowly, knowing that it will be years before there will be another. She can create memorable characters like nobody else–except maybe Tom Waits. Sula. Wowser. Thanks for this appreciation for an exemplary writer.
Responding to your question to Just Thinking, I would put Joyce Carol Oates in the top tier. I know, I know, she's too prolific to be taken seriously by the gatekeepers of Serious, but I've always been inclined toward rebellion when it comes to authority. I acknowledge a reluctance to embrace any author who demands more than his or her share of devotion by cranking out so much material it becomes onerous to try to keep up as a reader. I would suggest to anyone not yet disenamored of Oates who hasn't read You Must Remember This, to do so. It's a good place to jump in, too, for those who might have dismissed her without ever taking a taste.
There are some terrific writers out there now: Sam Lipsyte, Rivka Galchen, Ben Anastas to name three. Not just DeLillo and Frantzen, or even Joyce Carol Oates.
There are some terrific writers out there now: Sam Lipsyte, Rivka Galchen, Ben Anastas to name three. Not just DeLillo and Frantzen, or even Joyce Carol Oates.
I love this, David, because I've always loved Toni Morrison—and in the current ranks of Franzen et al. she gets way too much short shrift. I've never had patience for novels like "Infinite Jest" or "The Corrections," but I will always love the linguistic experimentation and noodling of her "Jazz."

P.S. I know you will appreciate the latest review of Harbach's "The Art of Fielding" in The Atlantic, which calls it an over-rated, over-hyped thing. No kidding! Of course, that review is not as good as your own—months earlier—in Talking Writing. I'm just sayin'.
As a female writer I see several issues at work: one is the limited and reducing avenues for publication which relies on "established" and typically male authors discovered decades ago to carry operational costs; one is having limited access to serious study of fiction writing outside of the rising tidal costs of higher education which challenges the poorly prepared and underemployed; and the constant emphasis on pay as the only incentive. The last is not as it may sound to some: as long as the only people who have the time to write and perfect technique have to be wealthy and demand higher compensation to maintain their "lifestyle" of writing, the rest of us must toil away at jobs that do not support the writing of novels in our shrinking "spare time" and competition falls. If one can only be a professional writer if one sells either a mega-successful book or an estimated 10-12 novels before one can turn full attention to the art of writing, then competition falls. Competition is what brings out the best writers. I guess we'll have great American writers when America decides the pursuit of literary excellence has multi-level value. Until then, you never know who is filling your water glass...Or who they could have been.
Interesting read. I always find the idea of naming a "great american novelist" to be restrictive. I haven't read any of Morrisons books as yet but only because I have not gotten to them yet. There are too many great writers out there to pick one and say, "This is the greastest". Besides which it is rather a subjective view point.
I would not be one who could define The American Writer, as I like books individually more than writers, Europeans more than American writers...certain Southern writers more than others...but the book "The Winter's Tale" by Mark Helprin, is fantastic.
Joyce Carol Oates would not be on my list.
Mark Twain would.
Pat Conroy.
Jack London.
John Steinbeck.
Not Great American, but I do like mystery writer Elizabeth George.
A good Southern with the best crazy characters woven in? Anne Rivers Siddons.
Too much of the 'great'works, as I said above, is just depressing to me, and separately, too many women writers in general lose me with all the emotional development, not enough action in the plot (that's not completely depressing).
Anita Shreve, for instance.
All just an opinion of one, since you asked.
And thanks for asking....
I'm sure someone else is better qualified for this....although thank you, as I've learned about myself today, that I generally prefer male writers.
A challenge is on!
For the record, because commenters made me recall this, I do want to state that there are so many great writers and novelists these days it is almost obscene to give one the mantle of The Great One. I would personally put Diane Williams, Amy Hempel, Annie Dillard, Alice Munro, Bobbie Ann Mason, Alice Walker, Claire Messud, and Lorrie Moore all right at the top of my list. I am also an avowed David Foster Wallace kook, and love trying to read William Gaddis, William Vollman, and, of course, Bellow, Roth, Mailer, Updike and Cheever. Anthony Doerr is one of my true favorites. I highly, highly, highly recommend everything by him, especially Memory Wall. And then there's Richard Ford, James Salter, Barry Hannah, Rick Bass and ... well, I'm being ridiculous now.

I must say, to close, that while I anachronistically lean towards reading and writing fiction, the writer I am most consistently surprised by is Chet Raymo. See his work here: He is an under-appreciated national treasure.

I've not read any of her novels but I think it's because the genre is not my particular favorite type of literature. She does deserve this prestigious award and I hope she continues to inspire her reading audiences.
JustThinking, I don't think anyone is more qualified than anyone else to talk about what they think of with respect to writing and writers in general. Your thoughts and interests are totally write-on.

What I do like about talking about "Great American Writers" is that it just gets folks thinking. If there is one single pathetic cultural shift going on in the US right now it's the move away from reading good fiction. I won't get started, but it really is sad. Thanks for responding back. I know what you mean about depressing. Me, I like to watch characters rise above it in the end...
Annie Dillard!
That's who I was trying to think of...
: )
@Lea - do you mean Ian McQuown or Ian McEwan? I think the former is an actor not an author.

@just thinking - Elizabeth George *is* American, and very good too, though of course her books are set in England. "I consider "What came before he shot her" to be one of the more amazing books I have read in the last five years.
thanks for the EDUCATION!
Thanks, GeeBee, I did know her to be American...I was trying to list the Americans I do like...isn't she great?
Love, love, love Ms. Morrison. Good essay.
I agree with what Just Thinking said. I have several of her books, and my husband has probably read them all but he's more of a heavyweight in the intellect department. Why do those pieces of literary merit have to be sooooooo ponderous? Food for thought. Good post.
Excellent! As my friend J.T. said, Ms. Morrison isn't for everyone, but she is well-deserving of any honor she receives. I guess I didn't know there was a debate about male vs. female writer recognition, but I think it is B.S. There a MANY Great American Novels and there are more to come. (Just not from me! :D)
Isabelle Allende.
Americas, anyway.

Anyone read 'Five Smooth Stones' by Ann Fairbairn? An older book, excellent. Kind of a tangent? Sorry to take up so much thread. I get excited by books and authors, obviously.

@ Amy A: I love this sentence blend, one day it will be about my books!
"I agree with what Just Thinking said. I have several of her books"
: )
What a writer! I've read most of her work, except the last. I keep picking it up and putting it back down. Too lazy, I suppose. She is work, but oh it's so worth it. I met her about 8 years ago at Carnegie Hall for a benefit for Nina Simone. She was standing in front of me, her gray dreadlocks down to her butt and I purposely bumped into her because I knew I would never have the nerve or opportunity again to meet her. She turned to me, interupterd her conversation, took my hand and listened while I told her how much I admired her. She is warm, real, and amazing.
Alas, the gender bias continues at TIME magazine, ergo their latest french-kiss veneration of John Irving. Granted, the man has stature, and granted he is an accomplished stylist, he's still pretty much adrift when the topic departs from wrestling, bears, and the state of Maine.
David,I am a Greek and I had never heard of Toni Morrison before.Jim Morrison,yes...Thank you for introducing her to me..I am glad that although you are so young you stand next to old and great causes as literature..and freedom..and sensitivity..Excellent work..Rated..