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 Solomon, Beloved, 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.