- Paradise by Toni Morrison
Chatto, 300 pp, £16.99, April 1998, ISBN 0 7011 6041 1
Something amazing has happened to Toni Morrison’s reputation in the United States. Over the last ten years, since the publication of Beloved, her fifth novel, she has been catapulted from the teeming ranks of well-known, well-respected fiction writers, to the thin-aired plane reserved for America’s deities and seers. Winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993 had something to do with this of course, but Morrison’s status in American culture goes beyond, and is certainly not reducible to, the approbation of the Swedes. She appears on the cover of the New York Review of Books and Time magazine. She is required reading in American schools and colleges, and very probably the subject of more doctoral dissertations than any other contemporary American writer. She is Oprah Winfrey’s Favourite Author. (In gratitude for which honour, she has, by the way, made several Papal appearances on Oprah’s Book Club, delivering gnomic verities about Literature and Life to a slightly confounded, but droolingly reverent studio audience.) In the great halls of the New York Public Library, an extract from her Nobel Prize acceptance speech has been graven on the stone wall.
Vol. 20 No. 11 · 4 June 1998
Zoë Heller an authority on Blackwomen’s writing (LRB, 7 May)? I think not. If the LRB does not take our writing seriously enough to be reviewed by the same criteria of scholarship and prior knowledge that you privilege white authors with, then do not bother to review it at all.
Founder, Blackwomens Creativity Project
University of Central Lancashire
Vol. 20 No. 15 · 30 July 1998
I may be belated in this reply to Maud Sulter’s terse dismissal (Letters, 4 June) of Zoë Heller’s review of Toni Morrison’s latest novel Paradise, but Sulter’s remarks continue to unsettle me with their assumptions and appropriations. Certainly, the review was less than sympathetic, and seemed to argue that Morrison’s work is increasingly unworthy of the accolades accorded her. This may or may not be the case, but I did not feel that Heller was claiming to be an authority on black women’s writing; nor, indeed, that such a position would be helpful. Heller was responding to Paradise in tones of critical disappointment. Sulter’s stance implies that Morrison’s work can only be viewed in relation to its place in the canon of black women’s writing, a reductive approach which valorises commonality at the expense of diversity. Nor does it change the possibility that Heller is right, and that Morrison has fallen prey to the kind of cloying ‘woman-imagery’ in which Adrienne Rich glories. Feathers, wombs, fiddle-headed ferns – mercifully, this is not the sum of what women, black or white, write about.