Friday, April 02, 2010

Why I Hate Toni Morrison's Beloved

["Why I Hate Toni Morrison's Beloved" was first presented as the Seymour Fischer Lecture at the Free University of Berlin, on January 17, 2001. It has been greatly revised and expanded.]

by Scott Bradfield

The first time I told someone that I had problems reading Toni Morrison's Beloved, she started yelling at me in a Marie Callender's restaurant in Dana Point, California. I had recently received my Ph.D. in English at U.C. Irvine, just a dozen miles north, and we were having what graduate students consider a "blow out" (food and beer) at a moderately-priced franchise restaurant; it marked the saying of our goodbyes before I drove my truckload of books to the heretofore unglimpsed state of Connecticut. This wasn't the first time that someone has yelled at me in a restaurant, by the way. I don't even think it was the first time someone has yelled at me in a Marie Callender's restaurant. But it was the first time anybody has ever yelled at me, at length and in volume, for disliking a book. Oddly enough, I didn't even hate Toni Morrison's Beloved at the time. I was just having trouble reading through its middle pages and seeing what the fuss was all about.

There are two reasons why the title of this essay appealed to me so much that I decided to write some pages to follow it up.
First, it strikes me as an almost unspeakable statement. In our apparently jaded culture, where every conceivable obscenity has already been made a common topic of talk radio, web cams and trash TV, it still manages to anger and shock people; and unlike most expressions of relative value, it makes me hesitate before uttering it. Now, let me say that I hate a lot of things, and hating them has rarely gotten me into any trouble, or caused anybody to yell at me in restaurants. I hate, for example, margarine. I hate chemical sweeteners, automatic transmissions, trade paperbacks, and just about every book Norman Mailer has ever published. I hate that smarmy sitcom "Friends," George W. Bush and Al Gore, the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather, Jay Leno (who's going to burn in hell someday, I swear), genetically modified food, rap music, static electricity, Bruce Willis, the Modern Language Association, kiwi fruit, and the Grammys. We all like and dislike different things, love and hate them, but we accept that personal opinion is a free-form, shoot-from-the-hip business, so we do our best to tolerate one another, and not get too bent out of shape when we like and dislike different things. But hating Toni Morrison's most famous novel seems to bother people to an exceptional degree, especially those who teach literature (as I do) at an American university.

What's more, saying "I hate Toni Morrison's Beloved" may actually be unhearable. As an expression of personal opinion, preference, idiosyncracy, taste, what have you, I am not sure that people hear this statement in itself, since all sorts of cultural, social, and historical meaning gets tangled up with it. To take an obvious example, an Anglo-Irish non-denominational suburban guy such as myself will be "heard" in a variety of ways that he might never wish to be heard; and, whether he likes it or not, many assumptions will be inferred about his opinions on history, race, politics, power and so forth. Or, to dispense with the issue of race altogether (something that's not easy to do when discussing Beloved), I could even be accused of writerly bad faith. I mean, we writers are an envious lot, and here I am hating a book which has succeeded spectacularly in ways that none of mine ever have or, I can admit it now, ever will—such as winning a Nobel Prize for its author, appearing on Oprah and selling a gazillion copies.

And let's not overlook the issue of gender, either; I certainly can't. For example, when I was yelled at in that restaurant, I was told that my inability to appreciate Toni Morrison's Beloved manifested a genetic failure on the part of my man-ness. The argument ran, as I recall, thus:

I felt threatened by the success of a woman novelist because of my inborn inability to embrace her radically new perspective on history which could only be generated by all-embracing female heterogeneity; in fact, by disliking Morrison, I was validating many opinions that many female colleagues already held about me and the fact that I had completed my Ph.D. in a manifestly sexist English Department, since at least one member of my committee was a known sexist who had reputedly engaged in a long-standing affair with a female graduate student....

And so forth. It really did continue for a while, dredging up a lot of unspoken emotions. Some of them surprised me; others didn't. I won't belabor this conversation, or the way my statement was "heard" by an individual whom I liked, respected, and continue to be friends with. But I do want to place this anecdotal moment in the context of contemporary academic scholarship, since I don't consider it arbitrary or inconsequential. In many ways, it strikes me as surprisingly representative of contemporary scholarly thought.

To put it simply, there are many important issues raised by the ways my statement ("I hate Toni Morrison's Beloved") can be heard or misheard by intelligent individuals. And while I concede that issues like sex, race, the canonizing of texts and the subverting of canons all provoke, and should provoke, a lot of heat when we discuss them in university, this still doesn't get me past my immediate concerns as a reader and a writer:

1) I have trouble saying that I hate Toni Morrison's Beloved, mainly because I don't want people to think I am either a racist or a sexist, and;

2) people have trouble hearing what I think I'm saying.

As a teacher of literature, where does that leave me when I try to teach Beloved? If neither I nor my students, can express a simple statement of opinion or conviction, where does that leave us when called upon to explore even more difficult issues? And where does it leave the common reader who picks up books and puts them down again according to the many multifaceted, and deeply idiosyncratic reasons we all pick up books and put them down again?

As academics, can we even begin to discuss what it means to read, enjoy, and dislike books?

#

In a sense, I'm writing about two different objects of reading. On the one hand, there is the specific book that I hold in my possession, a blue jacketed thirty-eighth printing Plume paperback that I purchased across the street from the University of Connecticut at the Paperback Trader. This is a limited, identifiable object. On the other hand, there is this, I don't know what to call it exactly, this illimitable presence, this "landmark of contemporary literature," this vast region of wisdom and light which stands over us in judgment, a manifest benevolence which can only be called

Toni Morrison's Beloved.

I've set these words off in twenty-point boldface type, which doesn't do justice to the way I see them projected on the screen of our cultural imagination. As I really see them, they flicker above and behind all our heads, just out of vision, emitting a vibratory thrum, like a neon sign. You can feel the words in the air before you glimpse them. To my mind, twenty-point type doesn't do these words justice. Thirty-point type, perhaps. Forty-point. But then I wouldn't have any space left over for writing this essay, there would just be page after page of

Toni Morrison's Beloved.

Which might be a little hard to take.

Now maybe it's my imagination, but whenever I hear those words spoken, they are accompanied by a little sigh, a half-sensible expiration. The speaker places a hand over his or her chest, a little woozy in admiration. They aren't just speaking the name of a book, you see; they are speaking their own puny inarticulacy in the face of this, this thing called

Toni Morrison's Beloved.

A silence falls over us in our divided spaces.

What else can you say?

It's up there now, looking down as I type these words. This vast pulsing network of affirmation, filled with superlatives.

Finest. Greatest. Inspiring. Unparalleled.

You have to love it or—

Or.

I would like to get to this "or" in a moment.

#

According to the MLA International Bibliography, since 1987 there have been more than five hundred articles published in respectably vetted journals on the subject of

Toni Morrison's Beloved.

And almost every one of them is laudatory in the extreme. Occasionally you might find an article which appears value-neutral—examining image-clusters or ideological configurations or whatever—but for the most part these articles never make a negative or qualifying statement about Beloved; and they almost always refer to it as a masterpiece, or one of the twentieth century's greatest novels, or something along those lines.

At my university library, for example, one and a half shelves are devoted to Toni Morrison, and most of them contain the word Beloved in their title, or in one of their chapter titles. And each year, many more books on the subject are published, along with at least two or three introductory texts for beginning students, since Beloved is already a significant topic on everything from the SATs to your next Master's exam. Now the liberal academy often likes to congratulate itself for being "open-minded" on the subject of books and ideas; our systems of tenure and advancement are built upon the unexamined assumption that it is not what you say that counts, but only how responsibly you say it. But if you would like to investigate just how tolerant the academy really is to disagreement within its ranks, you might like to read one of these introductory surveys on Toni Morrison's Beloved.

Take, as a purely arbitrary example (it's on top of the stack of books I have assembled in my office), the Ikon Critical Guide, edited by Carl Plasa. This survey of critical essays and topics contains interviews with Morrison, framing comments by the editor, and a fairly standard critical bibliography. Subtitled "The Student Guide to Secondary Sources," it is designed to teach students how to compare and analyze arguments, then extrapolate new arguments of their own. Like most books teaching you how to do something, it teaches you how not to do something as well. And what it teaches you not to do is pretty frightening.

In his introduction, Plasa reminds us of the existing approbation: calling Morrison a "superstar," and "the American and African-American (woman) writer to reckon with." He then assures his readers that ever since Beloved's publication, almost every critic and reviewer has been "fully in step" with the "general acclaim," the only notable exception being an article in The New Republic by "the right-wing commentator, Stanley Crouch." As Plasa goes on to explain (just so you know what to think about Crouch's review when you get to it, sixteen pages later):

The extract from Crouch, by contrast, is a denunciation of Beloved/Morrison, as vehement as it is both scurrilous and wrong-headed. Running thoroughly counter to the overwhelmingly positive critical reaction to Beloved, it is included here less in the interests of some spurious critical balance than as an illustration of just how highly charged debates about Morrison's work can sometimes be.

"Highly charged," indeed. I guess it's a good thing that even-handed critics like Plasa are around to help the cooler heads prevail; perhaps this is why he prefaces Crouch's review with a comment by Nancy Petersen, which accuses Crouch of "capitalizing on the desire of white readers to consume black women's tales of being abused by black men." (I'm sorry, but I have no idea what that means.) Plasa then takes every opportunity to misread or selectively quote from Crouch in order to make some pretty damning statements. At one point, he claims that Crouch, insensitive to the brutality of slavery, refers to the Middle Passage as little more than a "trip across the Atlantic." This is an inaccurate and misleading statement. Crouch doesn't appear to suggest anything of the sort, though he does argue that Morrison misreads historical events in order to validate modern presumptions, especially feminist ones. It's an argument worth considering by any serious student.

I must confess that I don't know much about Stanley Crouch. I saw him interviewed recently on PBS, so I know he's black; he writes for The New Republic, a so-called "neo-conservative" weekly out of D.C. which I have no interest in reading; and he clearly knows how to get up people's noses. His work may well reflect some serious cultural and political biases; but the same could be said of Plasa and his colleagues, pumping away on their critical Stairmasters. Finally, though, I wouldn't call Crouch's review of Beloved any more "wrong-headed" or irresponsible than any of the others reprinted by Plasa; at least he writes more clearly, and raises some interesting and contentious points—points that deserve, but don't receive from Plasa, fair-minded consideration and reply.

Which is, of course, the job of any critic or, for that matter, any teacher.

#

Here are some lessons a young student might learn from the first thirty pages of Plasa's book, thus equipping him or her for a high-flying career in literary scholarship:

1) Some white male and female academics consider themselves incapable of saying anything about Beloved—though this doesn't render them incapable of asserting that Toni Morrison represents "a major figure of our national literature";

2) Everybody who loves Beloved is "fully in step" with the vast mass of scholarship being produced today;

3) Anybody who disagrees with points 1) or 2) above is probably "scurrilous" and "wrong headed," and may well be pandering to white readers who like to see black women abused by black men.

That's quite a tutorial.

#

When I walk down the corridors of any literature department in any university anywhere in the world, I get the overpowering sense that my relationship to an individual book (in this case, my thirty-eighth printing trade paperback of Beloved) is overseen, and in some sense monitored, by this huge presence called Toni Morrison's Beloved, a presence elevated above us, in a region that we can't quite see.

And I have to say that I hate that. I really, really hate Toni Morrison's Beloved.

I hate the smugness of it. I hate the sanctimony. I hate the unquestioning sense of superiority. And I hate everything about it that takes the individual book out of the individual reader's hand. This hateable thing clearly isn't limited to Beloved, by the way. For example, I might just as well have entitled this essay "Why I Hate Herman Melville's Moby-Dick," a book which I have enjoyed hating with genuine conviction over the years. I studied American literature in grad school, and wrote my dissertation (and a subsequent book) on it, and while I've always liked the man Melville appears to have been, and many passages of Moby-Dick are undeniably angry and beautiful and unique, I've always considered it a big fat drag to read from beginning to end. I'll concede that you can learn all sorts of things about American culture from it; it can be fun to teach, and to be taught; and Melville had a lot of interesting observations about consumer culture, racism, and those institutions of slavery that he saw around him as a sailor, a writer, and a clerk. But there are still many books I'd rather take on my next plane trip; it contains far too many descriptions of harpoons; and out of all the dozens of articles and books I've read on the subject of Moby-Dick, none have more accurately defined my feelings for it than this statement from one of my best (and first) undergraduate students: "It's just too long." That statement comes to mind every time I see, or discuss, or consider discussing Melville's Moby-Dick. Not a lot of blather about landmarks of cultural hegemony deconstructing the western metaphysic blah blah but just the simple fact of it in your hand, and the daily task of reading it.

Moby-Dick is simply "too long."

#

Or I could have written about "Why I Hate Gunter Grass's The Tin Drum," which I simply never got through, or "Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children," which, sure, it's probably a very intelligent book and has lots to say about post-colonial rhetoric and so on, but Rushdie has a wooden ear and his sentences are, I'm afraid, just too angular and clunky. And while we're at it, let's add Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow to the list, and anything by William Burroughs or Jack Kerouac, and most of Saul Bellow, and more than half of Ulysses, and the entirety of Henry James's late period, and Vladimir Nabokov's Ada (which is nowhere near as good as Lolita or even his great early novel, Laughter in the Dark), and okay, you can probably hear it, I'm getting a little out of breath, I'm ranting, I'll stop. But I'm afraid this is what happens when I start exercising about all these books and authors I've forced myself to read, or failed to read, or could only read in order to teach for some survey course which paid my rent.

Books that are bigger than I am, and bigger than my students, staring down at us from on high, and inviting us to share our opinions about them—just so long as we don't say anything "scurrilous" such as, say, that we don't like them.

#

Consider my trade paperback copy of Beloved, purchased second-hand for $2 from the Paperback Trader in the late spring of 1999. It features an author photo of an attractive, middle-aged woman, along with some pretty impressive jacket copy, most notably:

Winner of THE NOBEL PRIZE in Literature

and a highly-placed quote from the important American reviewer, John Leonard, who says: "I can't imagine American literature without it."

When I hold this book in my hand, I do not feel alone; nor do I feel like a free individual with his own thoughts and opinions. The presence of Toni Morrison's Beloved looms oppressively, its bristly tentacles and veiny suction devices wrapping themselves around me, coating me with a warm, treacly substance. It entangles my limbs and thoughts, attaches itself to my nerves and vertebrae and belly, feeding me reality like one of those pod-spiders in The Matrix. In order to read this book, clearly and simply, as one person reads any book in the privacy of his own head, I require something I don't normally bring to my reading experience. I require an act of will and a monumental act of forgetting. I must uproot all the snake-like wiring and suction creatures and find my own way, word after word and page after page. And frankly, I don't know how well I can do that. I don't know how well I can let this book speak for itself, amidst the sanctimonious reverberating thrum of Toni Morrison's Beloved. And if I'm honest with myself, and I think as clearly as I can about what I've read, I find myself concluding something a lot more outrageous than that I hate it.

The book starts off really well; the central character of Sethe, and the haunting of her family, is strange and surprising and beautifully written; but the book never recovers from the arrival of the mysterious ghost-girl. I lose sight of Sethe; and the succubus doesn't work for me at all—some of the passages told through her eyes strike me as sentimental and phony, like beat poetry. Finally, I don't like it when the town's wise women come along at the end to sort things out; I'm always annoyed by books where the women turn out to be more noble and capable than the stupid men, since it's the longest-reigning trope of just about every TV commercial I've ever seen since I was three years old. ("Oh, honey, stop fiddling with that drain. Just pick up the phone and call Roto-Rooter!")

I've been in academia long enough to know that all my objections to Beloved can be explained away by critical methodology—theories of alterity and the mise en abyme and so forth. ("You're supposed to be lost when the succubus appears—you're experiencing Sethe's self-estrangement.") I am even willing to accept that I suffer from my fair share of cultural misconceptions; that I'm not as smart as I should be; and that my missing the point of Beloved may be precisely its point. But, at the same time, none of these theories have anything to do with the way I read books. Nor do they explain the pleasures I experience when reading a book I enjoy, or the annoyance I feel when I'm reading a book I don't.

#

Like many people who enjoy books, I have fond memories of being read to as a child. It is strange to think that while my parents did many things for me when I was growing up—fed and clothed and housed me—that I still remember evening bedtime stories with a special fondness. In my early years, before my brother was born, my parents guided me through large picture books—I especially enjoyed the ones filled with photographs of lions and tigers and zebras. Later, we read smaller pages with more words in them—books which I didn't understand sometimes, and didn't need to. There was something about the ritual warmth of reading that mattered more than what the words conveyed. It provided, in fact, a different sort of consensus: cuddling up around the book with my brother and one of my parents, I would listen to that night's chapter of Call of the Wild, say, or Alice in Wonderland, and ask endless questions about what it conveyed, and what might happen next. ("I don't know," my Mom or dad would explain simply, "we'll have to wait until tomorrow to find out, won't we?") Finally, after making sure I knew the title of tomorrow's chapter, and had glimpsed at least one of its illustrations, I went to bed with these weird visions of other worlds in my head. I might imagine my brother and me riding bobsleds across the frozen steppes, or sitting down to tea with the Mad Hatter, or leading Black Beauty home to her lost master. They weren't better than me, these books. They were inseparable from the imaginative life I lived in my home. They never spoke to my mind, but conversed with it.

Eventually, I learned to read books for myself, preferring stories about travelling to faraway countries and planets. The word "Voyage" figured often in their titles, as in A Voyage to the Mushroom Planet, or The Voyages of Doctor Doolittle. I was especially intrigued by stories about boys who built things in their basements—zoos, printing presses, secret laboratories—and overcame various obstacles in order to achieve worldwide renown. Sherlock Holmes figured prominently on my bookshelf. And I read everything I could find about Snoopy, the Hardy Boys, and Encyclopedia Brown.

About the same time that I was reading books to find out what was in them, I was growing intrigued by the mass, volume and variety of all the books I couldn't read. Both of my parents had been to college, and their old textbooks were assembled in a long, waist-high wooden bookshelf that divided the living room from the hallway in our suburban tract-style house in San Luis Obispo. If I lay down in this hallway, hidden away from my parents in the smack-dab middle of the house, I found myself in a "secret place" of books where I never felt entirely lost. They included quite a few dog-eared and spine-warped bestsellers, such as the James Bond novels my Dad was always reading, and about which he seemed vaguely embarrassed. ("They're kind of like grown-up comic-books," he used to say.) Then there were my mother's nursing textbooks, featuring glossy schemata of bowels and reproductive organs and brains and lymphatic tissue. And finally, there were the "adult story books." Most of these were in Modern Library editions, without even jackets anymore to illustrate what they were about; their titles and authors were embossed in flaking gilt on fading green spines, just above the figure of a tiny ankle-winged Hermes, messenger of the Gods, weirdly poised like a ballet dancer.

I still remember the titles of these books as vividly as anything I have ever read. There was Of Human Bondage, of course, and I had no trouble imagining what that was about. Some brave man, captured by Indians, lay trussed up in a closet for 837 pages until he triumphed, broke free, and saved his family from being burned at the stake. Then there was War and Peace (which couldn't be half bad), and Native Son (young Navaho seeks freedom on the plains), and finally Pride and Prejudice, which, somewhere on the periphery of my suburb-locked understanding, seemed to invoke all these news reports I had been hearing about long hot summers and bussing in the south.

I remember loving Moby Dick before I read it. What's not to love when you're five or six years old? This one-legged Captain driving his crew across the seven seas in search of a gigantic white whale? What a great book not to read. I even loved the movie when I was little (it was on par with "The Amazing Colossal Man," though it didn't give me so many nightmares), and I went on to purchase the Classics Illustrated edition at the local Rexall drugstore. I read and reread it, carrying it around scrunched up in my back pocket until it resembled the head of a mop. In fact, I read it so often and so intensely that, many years later, as an undergraduate at UCLA, I got away without reading the actual novel on at least two exams. I have many friends who love Melville, and I hope that the day arrives when I can say I like Melville as much as I loved that Classics Illustrated comic book. In my most subjective universe, that would be saying something.

Then there was The Brothers Karamazov, another one of those titles that jumped out at me when I was five years old. I had a brother three years younger than myself, and we were very close, so I figured it had something to do with us and the games we played together. My mother aroused my interest even further by informing me that it concerned a murder ("Great!") and finding out who did it ("Even better!") and that one of the four brothers who might have committed the murder was an atheist who didn't believe in God.

Wow, I thought. And, for that matter, still do.

For me, Dostoevsky has always been one of those rare writers who lives up to the hype.
I remember this space on the hall floor, surrounded by books I couldn't quite read, with great fondness. These books were far from objects of worship, and I played with them like toys, stacking them in interesting configurations—pyramids and forts and obelisks—and imagining what might happen if the characters they contained were to wander out of their books and move into one another's spaces. Would Ellison's Invisible Man be a match for the Invisible Man of H.G. Wells? Would Mailer's naked soldiers perform bizarre and unconscionable acts with Samuel Butler's flesh-bound travellers, very likely in a hot bath before bedtime? I played with these books and even developed a sense of commitment to reading them some day, when I grew up, because I wanted to know what was really in them and wanted them to know what was in me.
Whenever I think about books, or the act of reading, with pleasure, I always think about this time I spent alone on the floor with these books I couldn't yet read. It was the most enjoyable relationship with books I have ever known.

#

Something has happened to the reading of books in my lifetime. I don't want to sound like one of those cranky old men who say everything was better in my day, because I don't think it was. But the worst aspects of book-reading definitely have taken the place of the better ones. Our academics and critics select a few books each year (often written by their friends) as worthy of consideration without having read anything else; then they congratulate one another for liking the same books, or pick petty quarrels about which end of the book should be cracked first. Which book is more reactionary than the other two? Which undermines gender stereotypes more effectively, or unravels the always unravelling thread of language? At the end of the day, you don't feel anybody is talking about books at all. They're talking about themselves, and the disciplinary institution called, for want of a better term, literary culture. They're talking about their boring jobs.

When I think about all those huge indigestible books hovering up there behind us, I think about the statues on Easter Island that were erected by people we don't know much about. Statues bigger than us, more frightening, and more real than we're supposed to be, and while I think that I can live with the statues erected by somebody a few thousand years ago, I can't bear to watch my colleagues, my students, and myself, straining to erect more of them.

Books are about a lot of things: race, gender, the Napoleonic Wars, sex, death, food, social norms, social outcasts, social incasts, fantasy, fact, dreams, sadness, loneliness, elation, injustice, class, the Mason-Dixon line, language, stupidity, co-habitation and rage. But ultimately, they are about the process of reading them; they are about the things their authors have known and seen and imagined long enough to write them down. They are, by their nature, transitory experiences, just like our lives, and we shouldn't judge them, or be judged by them. We should only live with them, much the same way as we live with one another. We do not owe them respect or allegiance; we only owe them the considerable effort of trying to read them the best we can.

When I first thought up the title of this essay, I felt uncertain and defensive about it. But in the course of writing it, I have come to conclude that I don't mind hearing anybody say that they hate or love any book, or any writer. To hear people disagreeing about books, hating and loving them, doesn't make some of those people good and other ones bad. It doesn't sound like a bunch of "right wing" people arguing with a bunch of "fully in step" ones. It just sounds like the noisy contentious clash and accord of people reading. You see, it's my opinion that the most terrible statement you can utter is not "I hate X" or "I love Y." The most terrible thing you can say, especially to your students, is: "You must hate X." Or: "You must love Y."

For it seems to me that the greatest lesson we can teach our students about the power of beauty of books is that they are not—or should not be—a set of conclusions handed down to us by people who know better than we do. Rather they are a series of decisions we make every day of our lives, perpetually and unceasingly, each of us alone in our imperfect heads, continually glancing at one another for confirmation, elucidation, and contradiction, with the books stacked up around us, and lying on the floor.

28 comments:

archmandrate said...

It's interesting that you bring up Beloved in this context, because, for me, it's one of the reasons I realized I can probably never be an English PhD student--this was a book I am supposed to love, and yet found myself wondering what about it is supposed to keep me hooked.

Granted, I can concede that Morrison's use of language has the penchant to verge on brilliant. But I've always approached books as not things where I'm impressed by the prose, per se, but rather by the story. And to me, the story in Beloved just doesn't interest me, mostly because it is choppy and reliant on gimmicks to make it seem "plausible."

And here's the kicker--I work in science fiction and fantasy, so I have no problem at all suspending disbelief. But there has to be a context for which I'm supposed to suspend disbelief, and Beloved never establishes that. Instead, I think we're supposed to accept the alien-ness of the book (and by we, I mean the culturally inculcated masses who are taught the canon as law, as well as perceive white maleness as the dominant societal being) on faith.

But why should we? I found the same problem when I tried to read Ulysses (another book I hate), which is perhaps even more alien to my mindset than Beloved, and found I couldn't get past his exercises in language to even find out if there was a story.

Maybe my dislike of Beloved is different than yours, but, in the end, I actually had to have these same kinds of arguments in undergrad and grad classes. To me, I think it ultimately stems from an overall wariness of post-modern literature. But I also have to think it comes from the fact that, in the end, maybe Beloved just isn't the right book for me. Do I feel guilty about not liking it (or, perhaps "dumb" for not "getting it")? Sometimes. Yet, at the same time, no one has ever convinced me why I should like it other than it's "a great piece of American literature."

That'd be like me saying "You should like The Da Vinci Code because millions of people like it." That argument would never fly in academia (despite the fact that it logically holds better than the subjective "great piece of American literature argument"), and I respect that.

Now I just wish someone would respect the fact that some of us--educated, well-read individuals--don't like Beloved.

Unless, of course, it's just you and me...

Francis said...

Scott, I really hated how much I loved your essay since it put me in the "me too" category. As I have written on my blog The Screaming Pope, I'm an Empathophobic, but I couldn't help myself in this case. In reality I have never read Beloved, though I read Song of Solomon (which was good). What I'm responding to is what I think to be your hatred of smarmy self congratulatory humanism. (By the way I would rather be smothered than screamed at for something I had written, but that gets into the area of likes and dislikes.) Two movies I would put in this category are "Life is Beautiful" a truly ugly work that made me momentarily want to kill myself and The English Patient which still makes me want to kill myself. Empire of the Sun would seem to fit into the category of sanctimony as would the Leopard, but I curiously like those and the Garden of the Finzi Contini (books and movies by the way) despite the sentimentality.

Scott Bradfield said...

Hi guys,

Thanks for your comments. I love to hear people love and hate things. (Personally, I love the first three chapters of Ulysses, and the last chapter, and Circe, and hate almost everything in between!)
Hi Francis, nice to make contact. I have your book in my stack as I work through the 2$Radio list. I think I'm becoming an empathophobe too. I managed to avoid Life is Beautiful - but just thinking about bringing laughter to the death camps makes me want to kill myself! Scott

Francis said...

True about laughter to the death camps, but human existence having this odd coloration, I must convey that we recently screened Pasolini's Salo and it was refreshing to see one couple out of the six people left (after the other 20 or so walked out)laughing.

Anonymous said...

I wish I weren't so late to this conversation. I haven't read Beloved either, but this essay brings back everything that kept me from doing grad school.

My favorite paper I ever wrote in school was an emphatic eight-page pan of Ulysses. It seemed to me that Ulysses, unlike Lolita, didn't bother to reward the reader for the stretching required to understand it. It just reeked of the ego of its author. Now three generations of nincompoops, having gone to the trouble of deciphering it, have to say it's a great book, if only to justify their efforts. Just another example of the universal rule: the larger the group, the more fucked the consensus.

Scott, I love your stuff. I've read all of it at one time or another, but not recently. I hope to remedy that soon.

--Alan Hartley
Portland

Anonymous said...

Adore this article, Scott. I loved being read to, and still love reading, and hated Song of Solomon and could never get through Moby Dick. I feel much better.

Anonymous said...

I don't really get the point of this essay. You spend the first 3/4 of it explaining some personal ancedote about a woman yelling at you in a restaurant and why you're not racist.

I think a better essay would have been a straight forward "Just because I don't like Beloved doesn't mean I'm a racist". That is pretty much your point summed up there, and it's fair enough. I don't like Alice Walker much and I'm not a racist.

I disagree with your point about Beloved having all the women turn out saintly and all the men be the villians. One of the things I found most refreshing about Beloved was that there are black women characters who do dislikable things, and white male characters who the reader (begrudingly) likes. For example the women of the community rally round Sethe to dispell Beloved, but only after they have shunned her for years. A white girl who is selfish and inconsiderate, non the less does help Sethe give birth. Sethe and Paul D's original owner, Mr Gardner, was a reasonably kind man, despite being a slave owner. He went against his neighbours and treated his slaves like humans. Paul D runs out many women over his life, but the reader sympathises and understands why.

Have you read and Alice Walker? I got annoyed with Meridian for being cliched- basically everyone who wasn't a black women was severely flawed. I think Morrison avoids this pitfall rather brilliantly. You don't have to like the book but maybe, as a white dude, you came to it expecting to be attacked and read more into it then is really there. Go back, re-read. See if you feel the same in 2 years.

Anonymous said...

great essay!

I found Beloved to be a really boring book...

Anonymous said...

It would have been nice, in a piece with such a title, to spend more than one short paragraph on what you find disagreeable about the book itself. It goes without saying that I wasn’t there to witness the fight you had in the restaurant, but judging by my own reaction to your opinion expressed here, I suggest maybe you wouldn’t experience such hostility were it not for your feigning oppressed by a book about slavery; your spitting-into-the-wind accusations that your colleagues are bored with their jobs or are talking about themselves in some masturbatory manner; or your nostalgia for not reading books. If you want to make bombastic statements like this, you owe it to your audience to dispute specific laudatory readings or elaborate on the short-comings of the novel. By my calculation, about 3% of this article actually deals with the novel itself. The rest is a resentful disengagement with the text, supposedly in the name of being able to intimately engage a book! This is precisely not a reading. There is no evidence here that you actually read the book. Consequently, what you do end up writing could have been written about any canonized work presented in the classroom as unquestionably “good”: the Homeric epics, Hamlet, the Divine Comedy, take your pick. Frankly, it is more than a little suspicious that it’s the one by the black woman that really earns your ire.

Mark said...

Scott: Before I comment on this essay, I need to tell you how much The History of Luminous Motion blew me away when I read it shortly after it first came out - as a book collector, I really dug the graphics of the covers and dustwrapper as well - now, back to your essay - I read Beloved shortly after it was released and before all the critical acclaim of the past couple of decades and was very moved by it - that is to say, once I had reached the end of the book, I felt like I had experienced an imaginative and evocative work of literature. That didn't stop me nor does it stop me now from recognizing that it wasn't perfectly executed and had some issues with "ghost-girl" roughing up the narrative flow. Still, I think you are entitled to hate the book and it wouldn't occur to me to call you a racist or misogynist because you did. I love and hate lots of books, too. While I was very moved by Beloved, I hated Morrison's books Jazz and Paradise and frankly haven't read her since either of those. I totally loved Tarbaby which is the book that turned me on to Morrison to begin with and still think it is her best work. Now, Moby Dick - I remember reading it in the 11th grade and loving the hell out of it - not wanting it to end - loving the length and breadth of it - same with Brothers Karamazov and Anna Karenina and War and Peace - they all probably could have been fewer pages but I wouldn't have wanted them to be briefer even if the extra doesn't add that much to the narrative - I will end by confessing that I am a Trollopian and love his work despite the fact that half of much of his work could be excised - it's like the dude never met an editor or was his own - whatever, still, I step back from the many criticisms I could list about all of these works and tend to make my "love or hate" decision based on the "overallness" of its effect on me. The only author I have thrust aside in disgust in recent memory was Chesterton. Almost did so with Rupert-Davies biography of Auden, but stuck it out for the educational value, I guess. I'm guessing many couldn't wrap their heads around your Luminous - but many like myself were blown away by it - I get why you hate Beloved - it just wasn't enough to overcome why I loved it - but, go ahead with your bad, hating self - thanks - MDB

Barbarie said...

Hi, Scott. I just want to say this, as a woman who cannot be judged as sexist: THANK YOU! I HATE BELOVED TOO! I find outrageuos the way Toni Morrison ALWAYS needs to explain every symbolism she builds up -which makes me wonder, why put it there in the first place? For instance, the "tree" in Sethe's back. She describes it as a tree and then tells you it's a tree, in case yo hadn't noticed. Same thing whith the chain of prisioners. I don't think she takes her readers seriously, otherwise she wouldn't do this. I find it extremlly annoying, to the point it makes it really difficult for me to read any of her writings.
I also hate the way it seems one needs to like her literature in order not to be sexist or racist, or whatever. If I must like her writing because she`s a woman or because she's an afrodescendant, how on earth is that NOT sexist and/or racist?
So, thank you for saying it out loud, I know it can't be easy.

Udayan said...

I am a little surprised at how little this article (/essay) actually addresses its stated topic. I understand what you're saying, man, I really do, but what took you that long to express it. In other words: do you now see how a MOBY DICK gets written to be "too long" -- because it engages with and deals with themes and topics far more dense than this here article (/essay). What I mean to say is that perhaps reading your own essay in that context will give you some more appreciation for that great work.

Udayan said...

I am a little surprised at how little this article (/essay) actually addresses its stated topic. I understand what you're saying, man, I really do, but what took you that long to express it. In other words: do you now see how a MOBY DICK gets written to be "too long" -- because it engages with and deals with themes and topics far more dense than this here article (/essay). What I mean to say is that perhaps reading your own essay in that context will give you some more appreciation for that great work.

I think there is something rather more interesting that your article (/essay) is getting at, and it really would pay to reimagine and rewrite it as such. What you have to say about the academic establishment is interesting, for one, and it would be great to read a more thorough and reasoned out piece.

I am afraid, in my opinion, this article is a bit clouded by the Beloved-hate business, which, I understand, was the inspiration for the piece; but it's been a few years and it would be great if you did a rewrite about the themes that are actually being raised.

On a different note, you are completely entitled to hate the novel "Beloved" and it would be extremely interesting to read your critique there-of, rather than a generalized tirade (though, well-conceived) over the whole establishment.

Finally, I haven't read "Beloved" yet, but judging by the rest of Morrison's work that I read and appreciated (greatly) it is likely that I might end up liking it. Inasmuch as I have a pre-bias that makes me think that I understand where the author is coming from. Of course, it is completely likely that I may not like it, even hate it.

Anonymous said...

never trust a white person with a strong negative opinion on rap music.

Anonymous said...

This is why I stopped with two master's degrees and refused to go on for a PhD (I have one in Humanities and one in English), and also why I ran for my life away from all academics. I was tired of people giving their opinions of books they had not read. That holds for whether they are positive or negative. I remember one idiot professor talking about a friend who had managed tenure as an English professor, who was actually proud of never having read Shakespeare. I respect your right to your opinion on any literary work you choose. Just please make it one that is informed by a careful reading of the text. That is the insulting part here, not whether or not you believe you are a racist white guy for not loving Toni Morrison. Sheesh...

Anonymous said...

I am reminded of one of the final lines of "Spinning into Butter" (a great play): "I don't even *like* Toni Morrison!" Bravo, sir.

Anonymous said...

I am also one who doesn't understand the fawning tributes to Beloved. I think it is just 'supermarket trash'. I honestly believe it was lauded due to Ms. Morrison's race. It's like they needed a black woman who could stand shoulder to shoulder with Cormac McCarthy or Philip Roth and this was the best they could come up with. Genet never won the Nobel Prize so I guess it is only appropriate that she did. This is political correctness disguised as literary criticism.

Anonymous said...

You know, I never read the book yet did see the movie. It was awful and because of how awful it played out on screen, I will never read the book.

Kim said...

Gosh, I thought I was the only one, I thought there was something wrong with me but the book is ignorant and over rated.

Anonymous said...

Let me get this straight: you spent all of this time writing this lengthy essay about how it's okay not to like a particular book?

Really?

Let me get started on how it's not sexist to prefer women with sizable breasts. What does that say about my dislike for existential navel-gazing?

On an unrelated note, did you know that it's also okay to use an obscenity when you get a paper cut? Of course, I've never had anyone yell at me for espousing that opinion. Then again, I hang out with normal people.

Donna Cluny Gardner said...

I believe we were separated at birth.
Retired English instructor.

Anonymous said...

I am a current student and my biased english teacher thinks that Beloved is the best thing in the world and the best thing that will ever happen to us. She gave us "a range" of articles, all of which praise the book. I finally found your post after my english teacher "challenged me to find something that didn't love Beloved". I think I will send this to her and show that there are educated people in the world who do not appreciate reading about bestiality, ghosts having sex, women peeing in the middle of their house, and various other unnecessarily gross scenes. Thank you for this post

Karen said...

I am several years behind this "back and forth" about Beloved. I actually liked the way you ranted and shared, going down bunny trails, and looping around to the topic of Beloved again. This is how some of us get to our own truth. In regard to Toni Morrison, I am having trouble as a high school teacher being pressured to teach The Bluest Eye which I think is garbage.

Anonymous said...

Great literature holds a mirror to nature (John Bayley, Iris). So if Beloved is great literature one has to wonder what that nature is. Could that nature be the nothing short of completely vicious anger of most black people? It is an anger which neither whites nor blacks want to acknowledge much less investigate. Could the nature be the statistically proven a la Charles Murray's Bell Curve but dismissed as racist fact that blacks have lower iqs? If thats the case then there would be some sort of irony to Toni Morrison winning a nobel prize I would think.

There are of course many things that could be said pertaining to race, literature, propaganda, lack of negative criticism, intellectual cowardice concerning Ms. Morrison but I will refrain for brevity.

I will say though that in your line of work you would do well to keep your mouth shut and your pen capped, given your opinions about Ms. Morrison, lest you find yourself not only jobless but careerless as well.

I must say of course that while I really don't, my opinions are such that for intellectual purposes I hate niggers. In reality I only have serious disdain for them.

Between the time I started writing this and now I managed to procure a hardcover copy of Paradise for one dollar at a used book sale. It will be the first book of hers I will read and I will be reading it on the toilet.

I am late to this discussion but the New York Times magazine had an article on Ms. Morrison in which the author declared her one of the most important authors in american history. Let me conclude by saying "I call bullshit" on that one.

Anonymous said...

Early review of Paradise ten pages in. The guy who wrote on here who says he works in science fiction has it right. That is what Morrison writes; science fiction that doesn't deviate from any known reality from which you can suspend disbelief.

The reality of Paradise is a black propaganda utopian town where all is hunky dory and that blacks must defend from evil white doers amazingly evil women. Note the white race has not been explicitly mentioned yet.

The story is an excellant vehicle for Ms.Morrison to nurse her black racial propaganda and racist grudges. Man though what an imagination and attention to detail; absolute boiling anger. Could this come from years of sleeping in ironed sheets the New York Times magazine mentioned she says she loves. Personally racism aside, her writing style apes Stephen King in alot of respects. No wonder people like Oprah eat this racial minded crap up.

Local geographic note: As a Ohian I am somewhat familiar with Lorain Ohio where Ms. Morrison grew up and wish to geographically dispel any hood cred Ms. Morrison generates to hide her most probable moneyish Uncle Tomish upbringing.

While its true that parts of Lorain, east lorain city for instance, are probably as poor as any area in the state, and Lorain county houses a huge prison complex as well as a large for Ohio illegal immigrant population (Mexican nursery workers) the town of Vermillion where Ms. Morrison actually grew up is one of the richer areas in the county. Vermillion has a quaint downtown with restaurants where one can walk shop dine and take in Lake Erie in true upscale progressive fashion.

It's the monied blacks that are often the angriest, Miles Davis for instance, and in that respect TM and her artistic BM share good company if not actual talent level.

Anonymous said...

Wow. Thank you for this incredible article. I'm a college student who is undergoing this same de-moralizing method of force-fed literary culture. I cannot agree enough with this statement, by the way: the books chosen in academic settings are not for the enjoyment of a unique story, but chosen because they are commonly hailed as masterpieces by 'experts' and therefore must be genuinely great literature. I find this method used by teachers who claim to be incredibly-open minded, yet require that students read the exact same 'morally-superior' books to reach the exact same conclusions despicable. Individualism is a wonderful thing, and I have no doubt that if grades were not be penalized for reaching opinions different from professors, both student and professor would be wiser from the reading/discussion experience. For the record, I also hated Beloved with a burning passion. You are not racist or ignorant for feeling this way. You just have an individualistic opinion that wasn't spoon fed to you. That's a beautiful and perfectly-okay thing.

WOKE Mel said...

You hate when women come into a story to solve things? But you're not sexist, though. Hmmm. Honestly, you had no real reasons to support why you hate Beloved. You're in denial that it stems from sexism and likely racism. We live in a patriarchy and male characters run most books and movies, so for a woman to come into a story to solve things is more of an anti-trope. I guess you would have preferred the men save the day.

Grace said...

Oh ! Great, great essay. ! Personally I found this book extremely insufferable. I had to finish it for my lit mod and I would hold out on it as Long as I could because it was so... hard to read. I don't even mean it in a literary way. I just hate the way it's written; the whole Hoo ha of dreamy poetical prose and the occasional flirting with magical realism made me so sick. Oh man. Right now as I'm reading this I'm googling for a like minded person who feels the same way and I'm so happy I found your essay. There is so much relief in knowing I'm not the only dweeb who can't appreciate a nobel prize winning book