Why my English lecturer doesn’t get Toni Morrison

One of my university courses this semester is called Literary Classics: Texts and Tradition. It’s really quite interesting the way that this course is structured: it begins with Beowulf, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Johnathan Swift and Jane Austen and then merges into Jean Rhys, Toni Morrison and Salman Rushdie. There’s a lackluster lecture on literary criticism and theory thrown in as a filler in week six, and another one on postmodernism in week thirteen. The lectures aren’t great, but the tutorials are generally better as they facilitate more discussion and throwing-around of themes and ideas. Read: I heatedly discuss, challenge and every now and then agree with what the tutor has to say, while everyone else groans softly and rolls their eyes. Yeah, not much has changed there.

Skip back a couple of weeks from now and the novel of the week was Toni Morrison’s Beloved, which I’ve never attempted to read before (mainly because I couldn’t get through Paradise and only just scraped through Jazz the first time I read it), but am quite happy to have experienced. And yes, it’s a novel you have to experience, rather than read. Some interesting ideas emerged in our discussion, but the one that struck me the most was my lecturer’s comment on the value of looking at Amy Denver’s character in the novel. Amy is a girl who helps Sethe (the protagonist) escape across the Ohio River dividing the slavery-based south and the north, which had outlawed slavery some time before. Most importantly, Amy is a white character in a cast dominated by black characters. This is what made my lecturer’s comment so interesting to me. She had chosen to fixate on the one white character in a novel full of black characters, because, as she stated, she gives us “a different point of view” of the context of the novel.

In an interview about the book, Toni Morrison says that the reader of Beloved is “snatched, yanked, and thrown into an environment completely foreign… and I want it to be the first stroke of the shared experience that might be possible between the reader and the novel’s population. Snatched just as the slaves were from one place to another, from any place to another, without preparation and without defense.” [1] It’s the perfect example of Morrison’s writerly ethics. When she writes, she writes to decenter the white, to shake up the way her white readership looks at the world of her novels and the world they occupy. In her seminal interview with Jana Wendt in the ABC’s 1998 Uncensored series, she powerfully states “I stood on the border, stood on the edge and claimed it as central.” [2] Instead of, as Wendt suggests to her, moving her writing over to where everyone else is (ie. where the white audience is), she lets everyone else move over to her. It’s what makes her novels so powerful.

But apparently that’s too confronting for the primarily young, white and privileged Australian students enrolled in my course. Why otherwise would we be asked to look at the only “good” white character in the novel for a “different perspective”?

I was quite taken aback by that comment. Instead of letting the novel take us out of our comfort zones, allowing us to immerse ourselves in the world of the historical other, it’s suggested to us to look at the one positive (if a bit nutty) white character. Why? Presumably to comfort us with the knowledge that some white people actually helped slaves escape to their freedom, rather than oppressing people based on race and ethnicity. I don’t know. Is that demeaning to you? And just a little contrary to what the novel is trying to do? After all, it basically turns around and says “I don’t accept this position as being the center; I am going to take the center back to where I (and other white people) stand.” And even though the lecturer’s comment was most likely meant innocently enough, it still shows something about the way we perceive past racism and trauma, doesn’t it?

Side note: There’s a bit of a comparison to the Stolen Generations here in Australia that can be drawn too. Like the slaves on the middle crossing, the Stolen Generations were dislocated from everything they knew; family, culture, language. I don’t think white people understand how much trauma was actually involved. My understanding of that has shifted after reading Beloved. But that’s another story for another day.

So there are some thoughts to start off posting in this blog. Comments, suggestions or challenges? I’m happy to hear them!

[1] qtd. from Tally, Justine. The Cambridge Companion to Toni Morrison. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

[2] Deans, Gary, Alan Hall, Jana Wendt, and Toni Morrison. Toni Morrison Uncensored. Princeton, NJ: Films for the Humanities & Sciences, 2003.


More stuff on Toni Morrison:

I discovered that Toni Morrison has her own Cambridge Companion, which is great for different approaches to her novels and her criticism. Morrison’s Nobel Prize speech is available here. I also recommend her book Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. The Toni Morrison Uncensored interview is also glorious to watch, right down to the camera angles. Enjoy!

8 thoughts on “Why my English lecturer doesn’t get Toni Morrison

  1. It’s one of the problems with social commentary novels, that sometimes the author does not take the care to engage the reader. Job one for many readers is to find a character they identify with and use that character to put themselves into the story. So if you can get the reader to buy into the character, then you can, at the appropriate moment, twist the character and thus twist or change the reader’s mind. Once the reader is fully vested in the character, it’s nearly impossible to come back out of it no matter where it goes. So if the white character had started out appealing to white but then had been convinced into changing their point of view and transitioned into helping the black characters, the reader would have been brought along. Instead, from what you describe, it sounds like the author decided to paint a picture and display a point view. That works for social activists reading but not for others. One thing I have learned is that the reader is unmercifully filled with apathy, always, The challenge is to break that.

  2. …’the reader is unmercifully filled with apathy, always’ – that’s a big claim and one I’d dispute!
    Jo – interesting and thought-provoking, as one wd expect from you. I’ve never read TM but get your point.
    Loved the description of your course – looking forward to further posts

  3. I speak from the cynical new author point of view. It’s true that if the reader is already sold on the character before they read the book or a particular life style/subject matter, then they have to be disappointed to be chased away. I suspect that in many cases, a class being forced to read a book to stretch their minds will approach the book with a bit of hostility. At least until the first reader reads enough of the book to comment on it to the reluctant readers.

  4. ‘approach the book with a bit of hostility’ … I’m an uncynical old author, and I’ve had classes made to read my books, with hostile results. (I can only think, sometimes, ‘what was their teacher thinking?’ – in one case I think the teacher wanted them to be hostile!) I’ve had hate mail because I put a poetry-writing gentle boy in a novel (‘Why didn’t you just make him gay?’ – this was obviously a homophobic classroom and no amount of coaxing would have convinced them otherwise.). I obviously don’t mind chasing people away from my books – but then maybe we’re talking at cross-purposes, because I don’t think of novels as primarily out to change people.

    (And Jo! you’ve provoked a dialogue on your blog! I’m just sitting here judging poetry (judging, judging… this is such a nice diversion) and have just finished a novel that no one will like but me… free as a bird now, me!)

  5. I don’t completely agree with the idea of apathetic readers. I think there are people who don’t want to engage with what they’re actually reading and this miss out on some of the nuances of the text. You just have to look at Twilight readers for that. But I don’t believe in it myself. When I read, I consciously read. I expect a book to play with my way of thinking, I want it to challenge me because then I know that I am growing as a person. Novels have the power to change things, and that’s the key point I want to make with this blog. Lives aren’t just bodies that move through time and space, they’re slates on which everything read and experienced leaves a mark. For me, in permanent marker.

    To refer to Barthes: It’s why I like writerly writing more than readerly writing. Jo, you don’t care if people decide to hate your books, because the people that love them will outweigh hate with love. Readerly writing does that. It challenges. Readerly writing is by definition written for the reader, while it can challenge, it often doesn’t, because the reader expects the writer to have catered to them.

    Anyway, I’m so happy that this blog has already become a space of discussion!

    (And don’t think you can get away with that “having just finished a novel no one will like but me” thing, Jo. I challenge that!)

  6. very well put, Jo. And the thing about reading is that people learn to be readers – it is a very conscious, learned art. They learn about reading by reading, and by challenging themselves with books that demand more of them. People who don’t like to do that remain limited readers – and there are many adults in that category. It’s not always to do with levels of education either, it’s whether the reader is open and listening to what the writing is saying. Though education helps.

    And learning to be a reader starts from very young – it’s why books for children and infants are so important.

    And okay, Jo, I’ve written a book that one or two discerning readers will like (let’s just hope that one of those is a publisher!)

  7. Yeah, the whole gentle boy thing rings a bell. I have lots of gentle/crying boys in the novel I’m working as well as every single character being a metaphor for a gifted human. So people can wonder a bit about whether or not they are gay, or they can call me an elitist or they can pick on the fact that the two main lovers (both composed mostly of energy) one looks like a 7 grade boy and another a 19 old girl, call it a bit jarring for a middle school novel or probably other things that don’t get repeated to me. The irony to me is that the gifted middle school kids who read the early copies love the book and find nothing shocking about it (at least they don’t tell me). It’s everyone else that runs into problems. So some books seem speak to a certain set of people and others approach it skeptically or hostilely.

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