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On Toni Morrison, Reviewers, and Other Sad Tales
By Carolyn Howard-Johnson, multi award-winning writer of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry
I ran across a column that I wrote several years ago for a review website which is no longer living on the web, in part because of Covid. I took a minute to read it again because Toni Morrison was in the news… again! This time, it seemed the issue revolved around something called “critical race theory,” a term so ambiguous it is easy to be confused. As an unrecovered journalist and advocate of freedom of speech and freedom of the press, I was eager to unravel my own confusion. I did know Morrison was in good company, this time the Bible, and Anne Frank seemed to be part of the issue as well. It also seems she is a target because she tells the truth about slavery and this “theory” is at the root of it all. The column I wrote back then isn’t about being “woke”—the word didn’t exist in its newer form back then. But, generally speaking, it is about bias and telling the truth and, in some sense, about how writers are keepers of truths. I thought it was time to let its little light shine again. The BEA (Book Expo America) breakfast I mention was probably about 2004-ish. Maybe it’s time to read from Morrison’s trove of wisdom once again. And maybe to pass whatever book—or books—you choose along to anyone who is unfortunate enough to have never read one of her books, which is now being attacked for being too “woke!”
Here’s the column, with a few asides from my perspective in this September of 2022:
Right after Toni Morrison’s book, Love, was published, I heard her speak at Book Expo America (BEA). I paid $25 for the privilege of hearing her and other book luminaries speak before a packed house of booksellers, librarians, reviewers, and publishers who certainly weren’t there for the very light breakfast. I remember—and this may not be an exact quote—she said that her new book Love is a great book. Bravo! She is unashamed to acknowledge her own art, just as she has taught her students to be over the decades.
Later that year, I was stunned to read Lev Grossman’s review of Love in Time magazine. He indirectly accuses it of not being much “fun,” as if that is the direction all novels should take. He makes a couple of snide comments about how difficult it is to read and accuses her of being drawn to ugly people. I understand that he knows literature—knows it well—that he knows great characters (and characterizations) are not necessarily pretty. And, get this! He says she gave way to some embarrassingly maudlin emotions. I asked myself, like what? Love?
That was when I started asking myself why Mr. Grossman had turned from reviewer extraordinaire into The Shredder. The answer did not come to me until yesterday. My fellow author, Leora G. Krygier, author of a newly minted memoir, sent me a clip from the alternative newspaper, Village Voice. It spotlighted a Brown University study that surveyed The New York Times Book Review. The inquiry found:
72% of all the books reviewed by the New York Times Book Review were by men. (A reminder: That was 2004-ish!)
The editor of The NY Times Book Review, Chip McGrath, showed little contrition. He said, “we don’t have any plans at the moment for changing how we review books,” and “I’m not convinced that we are guilty of a male bias—either consciously or un-.” He went on to explain that the reviews staff has more women than men. So why more reviews by men? Could it be that when he used the word “staff,” the term included support personnel rather than anyone allowed to write reviews?
McGrath also said that The Times has been trying to use their women reviewers on more publicity-prone books. Really, why would that be?
And here’s the trigger: He says, “more books are written by men than women.” Presumably, then, that’s a good excuse for the imbalance.
I’d like to know where he came up with that zinger. Is he including all those romances and erotica (probably mostly written by women unless names like Kristie Leigh Maguire are pseudonyms for more masculine types)? Does he actually have a count of all those books that are subsidy- and self-published lying around in his slush pile? It’s highly unlikely. If there is any such study that is reliable, I’d like to know just where they (and he) got that information? It’s not that I doubt the figures. It’s just that bias against self-publishing is still as certain—perhaps as prevalent—as any other kind.
Naturally, that got me to wondering what Time magazine’s review of Morrison’s book would have been like if they had assigned a female reviewer.
After my award-winning novel This is the Place (now out of print) was published, a review of it was posted on Amazon.com. This reviewer strenuously objected to what another reviewer had said, that my book was as surely part of the cultural past of Utah as Gone with the Wind was of the South. His objection was prompted by his belief that subtle discrimination and prejudices don’t count for much; they’re only important if they balloon to the dimensions of slavery or holocaust. “Insensitive man,” I thought, practicing a little prejudice of my own. Two days later, another reviewer, one of Amazon’s top reviewers—took him to task for his insensitivity, praised my book, and lambasted Gone With the Wind. He, too, was a man.
Which brings me full circle to how the possible, even probable, imbalance between feminine and masculine perspectives at the New York Times Book Review affects their coverage. Do I believe that disparity exists? Yep. (Do I believe it still exists? Yep!) Do I think it is warranted because it reflects the existing inequality in the publishing world? No. Do I think there really are more men writing than women? I’m not so sure. It may be.
And therein lies the saddest tale of all…
So, here’s my postScript from 2004-ish when the bulk of this column was written and the autumn of 2022 as I write this one:
This year, PEN America recorded more than 1,500 book bans in school libraries and classrooms between July 2021 and March 2022. I lived through a time when I thought life (and people) were becoming more tolerant—at least in some parts of the western world.
Now we who write know the battle is not won. It never was. And Lev? Well, at least he and other writers still have the right to write a review the way we see it. But that is not the same as banning Anne Frank, Toni Morrison, or any other book.
I also feel in my bones that in many ways discrimination of many kinds is worse today than it was when I wrote this column. Maybe in these early decades of this new millennium, we aren’t trying as hard to avoid it as we should.
Carolyn Howard-Johnson is a multi award-winning author of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. Her HowToDoItFrugally series of books has helped writers and retailers worldwide. Her newest book of poetry, Imperfect Echoes, (Bit.ly/ImperfectEchoes) was honored by Writer’s Digest. Learn more at https://howtodoitfrugally.com.
“Careers that are not fed die as readily as any living organism given no sustenance.” ~ CHJ
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I will have to give some of your arguments some thought, Paul. But about banned books in particular, I wholeheartedly agree that the real of victims of banned books are not the authors who may realize increased sales from the publicity they get…at least the already famous ones may see this benefit. The people who really suffer are the poor, the children who don’t have access to these books at home or at school (depending on the kind of reasoning /education/etc found in these entities most responsible for their futures). And in the long run, the future of our countries. Many of them might not even be aware or what is forbidden, and that might well be a problem for the future of our culture (and many others). I believe that–as writers–we should be among those most concerned. Yep, even when banning, burning, or otherwise limiting free speech doesn’t affect us personally. As writers, we put pen to paper for ourselves but also for share with others. It may not feel as if having our book banned it of much concern, but history shows that those that don’t speak up, speak out, must share the responsibility for the ultimate outcome of what the results or such repression might bring to societies as a whole.
I hope you keep writing and let your views be known and that no one limits your right to do so. Personally. But I also hope that for every other writers. Those that agree with me, and those that don’t.
As a ‘conservative,’ or ‘traditional’ if you like, self-published author, I’ll NEVER be reviewed by the New York Times, so the fact that 72 % are male, means nothing to me. Just like the fact that 87% of basketball players in the NBA are black does not bother me as I’m old and a career in basketball is out of the question.
However, men may rule at the NY Times book review, I believe women rule the declining number of publishing houses. And what I write can not, ever again, get past the ‘woke’ young women (mostly) and young, feminized men manning the barricades. This imbalance and unfairness is wrong and may never change. Another reason I can’t get upset about an imbalance in the male/female ratio at the NY Times.
One further point. The ‘banned books’ farce. I would love to have some of my work on a ‘banned books’ list. These lists are circulated all over the internet by people simpatico to the ‘subject matter’ that got the books banned in the first place. But the ‘woke’ book people would never ban my books as they know that it would help them sell. What the woke book people, that would be publishers, reviewers, book bloggers, do, is ignore, disappear, my books.
Anyway, I used to think that I had a ‘shot’ at getting some eyes on my work by submitting to sites like this, but after reading your column, since you seem to think that some affirmative action is needed in the reviewer dugout, I don’t think that is the case. I’ve been writing for fifty years and saw the rise of outfits like this, that gave me hope. But most of them are now staffed by people who believe that books should push or advance the cultural memes of the day, whereas, books that push against those memes should be declined, politely, of course.
By the way, despite the fact that early on, I read somewhere that Toni Morrison would not have any ‘white characters’ in her works, I made it a point to read one of her books as she is an acknowledged author. I read Beloved and thought it was brilliant and moving.
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