“Oh my God, I’d forgotten I ever knew X,” I said the other day when I was sorting through old letters. X was a brilliant, little-known writer who encouraged his/her writing students.
I laughed when I read the letter, not because it was comical, but because it reminded me of the years when people said what they thought. I had sent X my review of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, but (s)he did not like Morrison’s work, which (s)he thought was influenced by Garcia Marquez, whose work (s)he thought overwritten.
X also asked if I’d seen a letter to The New York Times about Morrison. Forty-eight black writers and critics had signed a letter saying it was disgraceful that Toni Morrison had not won a National Book Award or the Pulitzer Prize, which they said was due to “oversight and harmful whimsy.”
X was impatient with such protests. (S)he wrote, “Too bad she didn’t think to head those backscratchers off. Don’t they know, firstly, that awards kill; secondly, they don’t mean a damned thing; thirdly, it’s reverse racism; fourthly, she’s gotten plenty of awards, so what are they talking about?”
Trust me, X was not racist. (S)he liked only European writers! American contemporary fiction did not interest him/her.
Reading X’s letter, which was perfectly acceptable in the context of knowing X, a hyper-critical reader known for honesty, made me realize that (s)he could not express such opinions today. (S)he would (a) be driven out of the Twittersphere, or whatever it is; (b) be suspended from or lose his/her job; (c) have his/her work and legacy wiped out; and (d) have to apologize on Twitter after all that.
May I say that I love the writing of both Toni Morrison and X? I once flew to Bloomington to hear Morrison speak! And I think I’ll reread Beloved this weekend.
In every age there are backscratchers–it is how people get ahead–but there are also people who are honest at the wrong time. And this is the wrong time!
Thank God we have our writers. But you know we’re in trouble when everybody raves about the TV show The Handmaid’s Tale but then hisses Margaret Atwood on Twitter for talking about “due process.” And so they prefer TV to writing?
I think I shall spend the weekend reading Morrison, X., and Atwood. I need to get back to words that matter. Words that make sense.