Does Beloved Belong? The Absence of Minority and Fringe Literature in the New York Times Canon
A literary equal amongst these other authors Toni Morrison has, unfortunately, been cheapened to the status of a safe signifier: the voice of an outsider, so well received by the public, that she has become inevitably insider herself. Yet she is still regarded as 'alien' as before.
It happens once every year, or so. In my Yahoo inbox, among the daily correspondence with college buddies, the spam from South-American pharmaceutical companies, and the chain e-mails, I come across a forward with an intriguing title, usually starting with the phrase: "The 25 Best..." or "Top 100..." And unlike the typical forwards filled with sentimental sap, or promises of good luck, I will open these emails just to find out exactly what are the top 100 Albums of the '90s, the 50 Greatest Comedies of All-Time, or (as was the case recently) The Best Work of American Fiction of the Last 25 Years. And to give this particular count-down an extra shot of credibility: it was compiled by the New York Times based on surveys of, according to the article, "a couple of hundred prominent writers, critics, editors and other literary sages." In other words: the Literati. You know, the people who spend their time reading the books that they suggest to each other, as well as the critical works they write for an audience compromised of one another, and apparently (whenever they have a free moment) contributing to these important lists. And the lists do serve an undeniable function in society: to get circulated via email forwards, office chains, and conversation, until soon enough, every Borders across America is featuring the works in frontal display (and just in time for summer reading!).
The idea that a couple hundred people can possibly conclude upon a definitive list like this is absurd, of course. And while the accompanying essay by A.O. Scott acknowledges the slip-shod parameters of formulating such lists, there is no real explanation for the abundance of certain Authors' works (Philip Roth has five novels on the list of 20, Don DeLillo has three, and Updike's Rabbit novels are listed as a singular work) or the complete absence of others. After all, the list is simply a summary of favorite reads of those "literary sages."
That certain canonical works will get passed over with such crude calculations is inevitable. But what is not inevitable, what seems almost too ironic to ignore, is the hypocrisy of the choice for "The Winner": Beloved by Toni Morrison. Among the one dozen old white folks (11 males, one female) is a lone minority representative. Morrison, of course, belongs on these lists as much as anyone else. She is a tremendous writer, and Beloved is a monumentally influential novel. It is not so much surprising that Morrison's work earned this honor as it is disappointing what Morrison has come to represent in the literary world: a token. Due to her accessibility, her popularity, and, quite possibly, her relationship with a certain talk show host, she has become a darling of academic exercises like this. A literary equal amongst these other authors she has, unfortunately, been cheapened to the status of a safe signifier: the voice of an outsider, so well received by the public, that she has become inevitably insider herself. Yet she is still regarded as "alien" as before.
It is important to understand the context surrounding this nomination: the unnamed intellectuals whose preferences sculpt such lists; these folks' inherent prejudices toward white male authors, such as the ones who dominate this list; and the reciprocal white-male guilt that leads the intelligentsia to throw a "bone" in the direction of minority literature (although Sherman Alexie is noticeably absent, as is some of the extremely underrated Gay Literature that belongs on, and often finds its way onto these lists.) The point is neither that Morrison is a less-talented writer, nor that she has been somehow "affirmative actioned" into this honor (both assertions could be easily eschewed by the proliferation of her literary acclaim, as well as her historical importance and significance as a writer.) Rather, the point is, that by formulating such objective, and ultimately meaningless lists, publications like the Times lend their namesake to the intellectual elite that has a tendency to at once reaffirm the status quo of academic favoritism, while also marginalizing minority authors and fringe literature to a tokenized role. With all of their apologetic and half-handed acclaim for the one or two minority authors handed out by white academia it is easy to forget just how fraternal the institutional thinkers have become. After all, it is nearly impossible to accuse this committee of racism or prejudice when they have honored Morrison with such high praise. All of this regardless of the fact that three white male authors' works make up nearly half of the entire list. Of course, they hope it wouldn't be lost on you that one of those authors (Roth) is Jewish, and another author being honored (Marilynne Robinson) is female. But honestly, in scanning the list of the Times top 25, it isn't very hard to play a game of "which one of these is not like the others."
Intellectuals, particularly intellectuals in the field of literature, are quick to point to their open-mindedness. James Joyce, ee cummings, Ralph Ellison, even Faulkner, all celebrate their success because the Literati was willing to herald their unique qualities, and praise them as "revolutionary." Yet apparently, over the past quarter century none of the gains and evolution of American literature has stuck. While lists like this heap accolades on the stylistics of Updike, the philosophical undertones of DeLillo, and the colloquial, humorous style of Roth (all groundbreaking authors in their own day) they are secretly fearful of what might happen if classicists began to recognize the familiar work of minority writers like Sherman Alexie. They are equally tepid of acknowledging the groundbreaking work of young writers like David Foster Wallace. And, perhaps, the people who created these lists are most afraid to mention or give credit to out-of-the box authors like Phillip K. Dick, Frank Miller, Norman Mailer, or Michael Chabon (even though the last two were winners of the Pulitzer Prize, which seems to have been the template from which each of these author's brushes were stroked.) A cynic might argue this is because, just as minority authors have been represented by Morrison, revolutionary authors have been represented in one, singular work: A Confederacy of Dunces, which, not surprisingly, was a Pulitzer Prize winner, as well.
I can't help but be reminded of this year's Oscar Awards: an event which was characterized by the members of the Academy congratulating themselves and each other for being so far ahead of the public curve on issues of cultural, political, and human relevance. At one point, rebuffing host Jon Stewart's reference to Hollywood's having lost touch with the American people Hollywood stalwart, George Clooney, mentioned how proud he was to be "out of touch." After all, he reasoned, Hollywood was out of touch because it was so progressive: you know, shining the spotlight on black talent, exposing political and cultural myths, acting as a forum for change. The night concluded with this self-proclaimed "progressive" body passing up three works of enormous political significance (one gay fiction, one gay biopic, and Clooney's own film about an American historical atrocity) only to award Best Film to a fairly entertaining, but hardly groundbreaking, film about race. In a way, it was Hollywood reaffirming how "forward-thinking" they were, while remaining, ironically, very much in line with mainstream culture. It mattered little that the winning film's general theme left little room for progress, and was nihilistically dark: racism is omnipresent, and inevitable. The point was: Hollywood wasn't shying away from the sensitive issues like political censorship or homosexuality. Look! See! They weren't passing up those films for some Tom Hanks flick. There was another imminent cause to be championed!
Isn't this, more-or-less the exact reasoning and justification used by the people who compile these obviously transparent best-of lists? You can just picture the good-old-boys of a tight-knit self-absorbed fraternity, hobnobbing and drooling over the works of their brethren, doing their best not to appear so blatantly exclusive by bequeathing a meaningless title on the non-threatening outsider. By doing so they save face, seem less cliquish, and reaffirm their values as "men of the people." It permits them to guiltlessly continue on their path of righteousness, spreading the sword -- the mighty pens --of the proud few great ones: the Updikes, Roths, and McCarthys! Regrettably, it also dismisses them from the responsibility of acting as truly progressive minds, pointing towards the future of the word: the Alexies, the Chabons, the Wallaces.