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Who Gets to be the 'Great American Writer'? Toni Morrison and Oprah's Book Club
This essay began as teaching notes. --Amardeep Singh
Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club has been an extremely successful experiment. It’s disrupted traditional structures for assigning cultural capital to emerging authors, and proven to be a powerful engine for authors to gain publicity and influence. It’s also been good for Oprah Winfrey, as she transitioned, starting in the late 1990s, from someone essentially known as a feel-good talk-show host and talented interviewer to a person with a broad influence over a swath of American culture, through her magazine and TV network.
But Oprah’s Book Club been coded as specifically feminine -- her list has been dominated by authors who identify as women -- which means it’s sometimes been seen as not ‘literary’ enough for a certain kind of author. Below, we'll contrast Morrison's involvement with Oprah's Book Club with the approach taken by Jonathan Franzen, who indicated he was ambivalent about being selected for Oprah’s book club in 2001. It’s intriguing to compare the way Franzen’s career has been received to how Morrison’s has. Who gets to be called “The Great American Novelist”?
Oprah began her Book Club in in 1996, at the peak of Oprah Winfrey’s successful run as a daytime talk show host. Oprah’s website lists 86 total books in the book club over the years. Initially, she was picking a book every month. Later, the club went into hiatus & since its return it’s been on an “occasional” basis, with no set schedule. The "Book Club" effect on the publishing industry was pretty dramatic: a book selected for the book club could see its sales skyrocket, from ~10,000 to into the millions overnight. And while it's not the force it once was, Oprah's Book Club is still generating hits; a recent example might be the book American Dirt.
Some of Oprah’s selections align with ‘prestige’ choices (i.e., writers like Cormac McCarthy, John Steinbeck, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and yes, Toni Morrison). But others were clearly chosen because, well, Oprah liked them. The breakthrough initially was the sense that these choices were authentically connected to Oprah -- chosen by a highly relatable human, not a publisher, editor, or academic.
Toni Morrison made four appearances on Oprah's Book Club:
- Song of Solomon (October 1996; book originally published in 1979! Became a National Bestseller for the first time after Oprah)
- Paradise (January 1998)
- The Bluest Eye (April 2000; originally published in 1970)
- Sula (April 2002; originally published in 1973)
Morrison of course appeared on Oprah's show on numerous other occasions as well. Below, for instance, is an excerpt of an appearance she made in 2011.
John K. Young, in Black Writers, White Publishers: Marketplace Politics in Twentieth-Century African American Literature, explores the intersection of gender, race, and prestige entailed in Morrison's presence in Oprah's Book Club:
Before her first Oprah appearance in December 1996, Morrison was a Nobel and Pulitzer prize winner, held an endowed chair at Princeton University, and was one of the most respected voices in contemporary American literature. While Pierre Bourdieu’s inverse equation between cultural and commercial capitals would make this aesthetic success dependent on a consequent lack of marketability, since aligning herself with Winfrey Morrison became the best-selling author of Song of Solomon, nineteen years after its first publication; of Paradise, probably the least accessible book she has yet written; of The Bluest Eye, Morrison’s first novel; and, most recently, of Sula (2002) [... ] By constructing an audience built through popular, ostensibly low, culture for her serious novels, Morrison explodes the high-low divide that still holds for much of postmodern art. Morrison sells herself and her novels, like jazz, through popular media and thus constructs herself as a self-consciously commodified textual authority.
In effect, Young suggests that Morrison's presence on Oprah's Book Club contributed to a realignment of American publishing, away from a prestige hierarchy (which almost always had white male authors at the top), towards a new alignment in which serious literary fiction and commercial marketability could be linked, especially when supported by charismatic author figures like Morrison.
An example of the high-low divide in action might be the episode with Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections (2001). The Corrections is a book that had a high-prestige orientation -- it was widely and approvingly reviewed in prestigious venues like the New York Times Book Review, and it won prize after prize. had a ‘serious’ subject -- the transition from an industrial economy to an information based/tech economy -- and the sense that our lives are increasingly not grounded in concrete materialities but virtualize technological fads and fashion. Looked at another way, it’s about highly educated, middle-class white people and their complicated romantic and personal lives.
Oprah apparently read The Corrections and liked it in 2001. She selected it for her Book club, only to discover that Franzen was unhappy about the selection choice. Here’s a Salon.com article dealing with Franzen's comments on Oprah's Book Club and his subsequent attempt to take it back:
"She's picked some good books," Franzen said in an interview posted on Powells.com, "but she's picked enough schmaltzy, one-dimensional ones that I cringe, myself ..." Although the rest of the quote read "even though I think she's really smart and she's really fighting the good fight," damage was done.
Franzen has apologized and clarified, blamed his own inexperience in handling the media and attributed his reservations to not wanting to see a "corporate logo" on the cover of his book -- but it will be difficult for him to erase the impression that snobbishness caused him to diss Winfrey. And so, alas. Alas because "The Corrections" is a very fine book, one of the best I've read in several years, and Franzen is a well-intentioned, hardworking, serious and very talented writer whose work I've long admired (full disclosure: I know Franzen socially). "Oprah Winfrey is bent on demonstrating that estimates of the size of the audience for good books is too small," Franzen told the New York Times Wednesday, "and that is why it is so unfortunate that this is being cast as arrogant Franzen and popular Winfrey." (Salon.com)
When Franzen published another novel in 2010 (Freedom), he was only too happy to have it selected for Oprah's Book Club -- and she was ahppy to invite him back -- water under the bridge.
Still, one has to wonder: Which books exactly did Franzen find “schmaltzy” and “one-dimensional”? How many of those “schmaltzy” books were written by women or people of color?
To answer that, I looked at the list of writers and started to collect some demographic data about them:
Oprah’s Book Club’s first five years up until The Corrections
Women writers (1996-2001)
Jacquelyn Mitchard, Toni Morrison (X3), Jane Hamilton, Ursula Hegi, Sheri Reynolds, Maya Angelou, Mary McGarry Morris, Kaye Gibbons, Anna Quindlen, Alice Hoffman, Edwidge Danticat, Pearl Cleage, Billie Letts, Anita Shreve, Maeve Binchy, Melinda Haynes, Breena Clarke, Jane Hamilton, Isabel Allende, Barbara Kingsolver, Sue Miller, Elizabeth Berg, Joyce Carol Oates, Malika Oufkir, Lalita Tademy, Gwyn Hyman Rubio, A. Manette Ansay, Tawni O’Dell, Christina Schwarz
29 total names
Men writers (1996-2001)
Wally Lamb (x2), Bill Cosby (x3), Ernest J. Gaines, Chris Bohjalian, Brett Lott, Bernhard Schlink, Robert Morgan, Andre Dubus III
8 total names
(Writers in bold are people of color, mostly Black)
Who Gets to Be the "Great American Novellist"?
In short, 78% of authors in the first five years of Oprah’s Book Club were women. 33% of the total titles (42) were by people of color. (And yes, alongside the three titles by Morrison there are three titles by Bill Cosby… That might be a conversation for a different day.)
In short, while the link between gender and prestige status is overdetermined, it seems hard to avoid thinking that Franzen’s distaste for Oprah was at least in part distaste about being associated with a feminized and therefore low-prestige list of authors, even though many of the writers were in fact award-winning authors.
One other thing we could note. Despite Morrison’s interest in being recognized by high prestige venues (i.e., the Pulitzer Prize in fiction, the National Book Award, the Nobel Prize, etc.), she never once expressed any reservations about being included in Oprah’s Book Club!
Given their differential responses to Oprah's book club, it might be interesting to compare how the mainstream media responded to a writer like Franzen vis a vis their response to Morrison. Below are two Time Magazine covers:
Notice the subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle differences! There is of course a difference in how the two authors are photographed, with Franzen shown in shadow, mostly in gray tones, and a look of contemplation. Morrison, by contrast, is presented with an inviting smile and a vibrant color photo. Franzen is every bit the 'serious author'; Morrison is an attractive personality. The more subtle distinction is in the choice of caption. Franzen is described as a "Great American novelist," while Morrison is (in the smaller print), a "Great American storyteller." The difference in the choice of phrase is significant: a "novelist" conveys institutional authority and official recognition. Being a "storyteller" is important too, but in a slightly different way -- it suggests a more informal sense of status and a connection to oral tradition and folk culture. In Morrison's case, this turns out to be accurate -- her works are connected to oral and folks culture in the Black tradition! But the difference in cultural capital between the two phrases is unfortunate. Why isn't it Morrison who is the "Great American Novelist"?
"Paradise" (1998): Overview and Links
Paradise, published in 1998, is Toni Morrison's longest novel, with a sprawling cast of characters spanning several generations in an all-Black Oklahoma town. Morrison herself described it as the concluding work in a trilogy that included Beloved and Jazz, though the book has no direct plot or character-based links to the preceding novels. Though it is widely thought of as one of Morrison's most difficult novels, Paradise was a national bestseller upon release, probably due in part to its being selected for Oprah's book club (1998 also saw the release of the Hollywood film adaptation of Beloved). Toni Morrison was on the cover of Time Magazine in January 1998, in connection with the release of Paradise.
The following overview focuses on a few key bits of historical context as well as a few key themes in the story -- the all-Black settlements in Oklahoma; the engagement with the Civil Rights movement in the novel; the theme of religion in Paradise; Race and Gender in Paradise; and the representation of war veterans in the novel. Finally, we'll do a brief overview of a few of the main characters in the novel.
Paradise is based in a fictional all-Black town called Ruby, Oklahoma. In her Preface to the novel, Morrison remarked on the point of historical inspiration for the story. As with Beloved, it started with her exposure to the deep archives of African American history she encountered when working on The Black Book:
In addition to helping to ground Morrison's historical interests in the novel, this account from Morrison also gives hints about some of her thematic preoccupations in the text. How to consider the status of African American settlers in the west, on territory that was taken from Native American communities, often in the very recent past? Also, to what extent did the selective, sometimes exclusionary ethos of the Black settlers in the Oklahoma territory lend itself to forms of patterns of social isolationi? Was this ethos (encapsulated in the line quoted above: "Come Prepared Or Not At All") a factor in the decline of these settlements? Can you really build a lasting Utopian community predicated on the exclusion of anyone who might have a different way of living -- including non-conforming women -- or a different skin complexion from yourself?
“It was inevitable, therefore, that when I edited The Black Book, a complex record of African American life that I solicited from collectors, the earliest newspapers would fascinate me, especially the “colored” ones. There, in photographs and print so much African American history— sad, ironic, resistant, tragic, proud, and triumphant— was on display. [...] I learned there were some fifty black newspapers produced in the Southwest following Emancipation and the violent displacement of Native Americans from Oklahoma Territory. The opportunity to establish black towns was as feverish as the rush for whites to occupy the land. The “colored” newspapers encouraged the rush and promised a kind of paradise to the newcomers: land, their own government, safety— there were even sustained movements to establish their own state.
“One theme in particular in those papers intrigued me. Prominent in their headlines and articles was a clear admonition: Come Prepared or Not at All.” (Toni Morrison, Preface to "Paradise")
All-Black Settlements in Oklahoma
One of the key historical themes of Paradise is the history of segregated Black settlements in Oklahoma. Some early all-Black towns were settled by Freedmen, people of African descent who had been enslaved by the "Five Civilized Tribes" (Cherokee, Chicasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole). After the Civil War, newly freed African Americans created their own settlements, often adjacent to land where they had formerly been enslaved.
Another block of African American settlers began to migrate to Oklahoma after 1889, when the U.S. government encouraged migration to the territory in part as a way of weakening the power of indigenous communities there. This is roughly the story of the fictional community described in Morrison's novel, which came to the Oklahoma territory as a group of nine families, and settled the town of Haven in 1890.
More on the history of Black settlers in Oklahoma can be found here.
Religion and Paradise
In Paradise, Morrison engaged in the most sustained discussion of Christian theology to be found in any of her published fiction. Between the fictional Reverend Pulliam and Reverend Misner, she sets up two competing visions of Black Protestant Christianity, one more strict and unforgiving, the other more flexible and modern. She also pays a fair amount of attention to Roman Catholicism through the conceit of the Convent, a large house on the outskirts of Ruby that was for a time a Catholic Convent.
That said, in the 'present' moment of the novel, the Convent is no longer an ordained Catholic community, though one Catholic nun, Consolata still lives there. It is, instead, a type of haven for non-conforming and troubled women, including Gigi, Pallas, and Seneca. For the women of Ruby, it also serves as a refuge during times of crisis, and many of the women of the town find their way there, either during unplanned pregnancies or other personal crises. The difference in theological orientation between the all-Protestant town of Ruby and the nominally Catholic Convent is a point of tension that runs throughout the novel.
In her Preface, Morrison also cites John Milton's Paradise Lost as a point of inspiration for her novel:
In subsequent comments on representations of the Judeo-Christian Heaven in literature (especially in Paradise Lost and in Dante), Morrison points out that writers have often, perhaps unconsciously, had a penchant for "giving the Devil the best tunes." As she puts it, "Other than outwitting evil, waging war against the unworthy, there seems to be nothing for the inhabitants of paradise to do. An open, borderless, come-one-come-all paradise, without dread, minus a nemesis is no paradise at all." This emphasis on the 'other' to Paradise also appears in her novel, again in the form of the Convent outside of Ruby, which the male inhabitants come to view as an existential threat.
Historically, the images of paradise in poetry and prose were intended to be grand but accessible, beyond the routine but imaginatively graspable, seductive as though remembered. Milton speaks of “goodliest trees, loaden with fairest fruit, Blossoms and fruits at once of golden hue . . . with gay enameled colours mixed . . . ; of Native perfumes.” Of “that sapphire fount the crisped brooks, Rolling on orient pearl and sands of gold . . .” of “nectar visiting each plant, and fed flowers worthy of Paradise . . . [...] “Flowers of all hue and without thorn the rose.” “Caves of cool recess, o’er which the mantling vine Lays forth her purple grape and gently creeps Luxuriant . . .”
That beatific, luxurious expanse we recognize in the twenty- first century as bounded real estate owned by the wealthy and envied by the have- nots, or as gorgeous parks visited by tourists. Milton’s Paradise is quite available these days, if not in fact certainly as ordinary, unexceptionable desire. (Toni Morrison, "Preface" to "Paradise")
Race and Gender in Paradise
An important theme in Paradise is the tension between two intentionally segregated communities -- the all-Black town of Ruby and the all-female house called the Convent. Ruby's founders intended it to be inhabited entirely by dark-skinned people of African descent, understood as 'pure-blooded' (described in the novel as "eight-rock," a word derived from coal mining terminology -- the "eight-rock" level being the deepest level of the mine). The women of the Convent are racially indeterminate, a strategy Morrison indicated was intentional:
Morrison's strategy of painting important characters in her book -- including Connie, Gigi, Pallas, and Seneca -- but then intentionally omitting information that might indicate their racial identities, including skin complexion and other phenotypical markers, is one of the features of Paradise that makes it so unique. (Morrison also employed the strategy in her short story, "Recitatif," with two women protagonists whose racial identities were intentionally omitted.)
“The black town of Ruby is all about its own race— preserving it, developing myths of origin, and maintaining its purity. In the Convent race is indeterminate— all racial codes are eliminated, deliberately withheld. For some readers this was disturbing and some admitted to being preoccupied with finding out which character was the “white girl”; others wondered initially and then abandoned the question; some ignored the confusion by reading them all as black. The perceptive ones read them as fully realized individuals— whatever their race.” (Morrison, Preface to "Paradise")
Members of the town of Ruby do at times invoke the racial identities of inhabitants of the Convent, including in the famous opening paragraph of the novel ("They shoot the white girl first. With the rest they can take their time."). At other times, the women are described as "mixed up," and there is at least some indication that some of the women understood as "the rest" in the opening lines of the novel might have mixed ancestry. Despite the strong social barriers in place between Ruby and the Convent, the men of Ruby do at times have romantic relationships with women in the Convent, including Deacon Morgan's affair with Connie, and K.D.'s relationship with Gigi.
While the borders of Ruby are patrolled and the status of newcomers is carefully monitored by its all-male leadership, it seems that any woman who needs to can stay in the Convent for any length of time. The Convent, in other words, is a loose and ad hoc community while Ruby is a strictly hierarchical and patriarchal one.
Paradise and the Mainstream Civil Rights Movement
Like Song of Solomon and Jazz, Paradise unfolds with fairly momentous historical events in the background; here, events such as the Tulsa Massacre of 1921 are alluded to in the text only briefly -- though they are definitely there. (In Song of Solomon, an important event in the background of the text is the murder of Emmett Till and the acquittal of his killers; in Jazz, an important reference point is the East St. Louis massacre of 1919.) The community in Ruby in Paradise keeps its distance from the mainstream of the Civil Rights movement, in part because its separatist ideology does not mesh well with the anti-segregation orientation of mainstream civil rights groups like the NAACP.
Many of the references to the civil rights movement in the novel appear in the "Seneca" chapter of Paradise. For instance, there is a passage on p. 82 that mentions Thurgood Marshall, a prominent Civil rights leader who would go on to become the first Black member of the U.S. Supreme Court. Marshall is perhaps best known for being the NAACP’s chief legal counsel, who argued (and won) the landmark court case, Brown v. Board of Education. Before that, Marshall had been involved in two cases relating to segregation specifically in Oklahoma (Sipuel  and McLaurin ).
The Tulsa massacre is mentioned only passingly in the novel in the following passage:
This passage does not speak directly to any of the central plot points or major characters in Paradise, though it does help to clarify the shift in the community that has emerged since the 1920s and 30s. Many other all-Black towns in Oklahoma either failed completely or were in serious decline; the leaders of Ruby from the 1950s on feel an intense pressure to try and maintain the integrity of their vision from all sorts of threats.
Big Daddy drove his brother Pryor and his firstborn son, Elder, all over the state and beyond to examine, review and judge other Colored towns. They planned to visit two outside Oklahoma and five within: Boley, Langston City, Rentiesville, Taft, Clearview, Mound Bayou, Nicodemus. In the end, they made it to only four. Big Daddy, Uncle Pryor and Elder spoke endlessly of that trip, how they matched wits with and debated preachers, pharmacists, dry-goods store owners, doctors, newspaper publishers, schoolteachers, bankers. They discussed malaria, the booze bill, the threat of white immigrants, the problems with Creek freedmen, the trustworthiness of boosters, the practicality of high book learning, the need for technical training, the consequences of statehood, lodges and the violence of whites, random and organized, that swirled around them. [...] Mostly they looked at land, houses, roads.
Eleven years later Tulsa was bombed, and several of the towns Big Daddy, Pryor and Elder had visited were gone. (from "Paradise," p. 108)
War Veterans and Ruby
Toni Morrison indicated that her early title for Paradise was actually War. Many of the men in Ruby are veterans of the U.S. military, including the Morgan brothers (Deacon/ Deek, and Steward), Roger Best, Deacon and Soane's sons (both of whom died in the Vietnam War), along with many of their ancestors. It's unclear whether the men of Ruby were conscripted or volunteered to serve in the army, but the presence of several American wars is clearly present in the text. Within the African American community, the perception that Black soldiers have represented a disproportionate consittuency in the U.S. military -- and a disproportionate number among military casualties -- has long been a concern and a complaint.
Within the present moment of the novel, it's unclear whether the legacy of military service should be seen as central or more incidental. On the one hand, this history does contribute to the sense of loss some families have experienced (such as the loss to the Morgan family of their two sons). The willingness to take up arms and kill a perceived enemy also perhaps informs the ill-conceived mission that opens and closes Paradise -- the raid on the Convent that results in the dissolution of that community and the deaths of Connie and an unnamed white woman. (Gigi, Mavis, and Seneca all survive the attack.)
The Structure of Paradise / Key Characters
Paradise is structured as a series of nine chapters named after a female character in the story, including five chapters named after women of the Convent, and four chapters named after women of the town of Ruby. In several chapters in the middle of the novel, the characters for whom the chapters are named also contain the stories of the townspeople, including several of the men of Ruby.
The five characters of the Convent we learn about are: Consolata (Connie), Mavis, Pallas (sometimes referred to as "Divine"), Gigi ("Grace"), and Seneca. The four women of Ruby are Ruby, Patricia (the town record-keeper), Lone (the town midwife), and Save-Marie (a child who passes away; her chapter is the novel's epilogue).
Connie has lived her entire life as a Catholic nun after having been abducted by Sister Mary Magna in Brazil as a nine-year old street urchin. In the 1950s, she has an extended romantic relationship with one of the prominent men of Ruby, Deacon Morgan, that ends when she appears to transgress the boundaries Deacon had set for the relationship. She also appears to have supernatural powers that she begins to develop after meeting with Lone, Ruby's midwife. She uses these powers to save Scout Morgan after he is injured in a car crash. Later, she uses these powers to conjure a kind of spell over the other women of the Convent, possibly helping them to heal from their various experiences of trauma and loss.
Mavis had been married, and had four children in New Jersey. Her marriage was a rocky and unfulfilling one, and her husband Frank had been quite controlling. Under circumstances that are a little murky, Mavis left her two youngest children in an enclosed car, where they died. Mavis subsequently left her family behind, stealing her husband's Cadillac and driving it until she ran out of gas and money in Oklahoma. At the Convent, she believes the ghost of her two decease children Merle and Pearl) are with her in her room. She periodically leaves the convent to visit her surviving children as they are growing up in Maryland, but there is a warrant out for her arrest and she realizes she cannot remain there.
Gigi appeared to be a free spirit and wanderer, who found her way to Ruby and the Convent after a series of relationships with men, and after a somewhat mysterious quest to find a rock formation in the southwestern desert apparently showing human-like figures engaged in sex. While Gigi does not come to the Convent following a traumatic or abusive experience, there are hints that she has been involved with countercultural movements and traces of violence in her past. In the novel, we learn she has had a longstanding sexual relationship with K.D., a young man descended from one of the founding families of Ruby.
The most notable aspect of Seneca's backstory is the way she had been abandoned as a child by her care-giver Jean, whom she understood as her older sister but who in actuality may have been a teenaged mother. Later, Seneca had a relationship with a man, Eddie, who ended up in prison after apparently striking and killing a child with his car, and a somewhat mysterious experience as a sex-worker for a wealthy woman named Norma. Seneca also apparently worked as a sex-worker as a teen, after being sexually abused while in foster care. She has also struggled periodically with self-harm, and engages in the practices of 'cutting'.
Pallas, a sixteen year old, is described as having originated in a well-off family in Los Angeles. She runs away with a sculptor named Carlos, and the two join her mother Divine (DeeDee) in Mexico. There her lover begins to have a sexual relationship with her mother, leaving Pallas feeling betrayed and lost. She subsequently had a traumatic experience where she had been hunted by men, and was forced to submerge herself in a swamp to avoid capture. When she first arrives at the Convent, she can barely speak. There are strong hints at various points in the novel that she is pregnant, though the father of the baby is unspecified.
Women of Ruby who Visit the Convent:
Soane Morgan: She briefly comes to the Convent to confront Connie after Connie has had an affair with her husband. Later, Connie saves the life of her son Scout, and the two women become friends. Soane invites the women of the Convent to the wedding reception between her nephew K.D. and Arnette.
Arnette Fleetwood: Arnette comes to the Convent first as a pregnant teenager. She first claims she's been raped, and later she asks the women of the Convent to help her lose her baby. She ends up giving birth to her child prematurely at the Convent, but the baby dies.
Sweetie Fleetwood: She is the mother of several children who are born with congenital birth defects. In the middle of the novel, she walks through a snowstorm from Ruby to the Convent (17 miles), and then has fevered delusions about the women of the Convent. Later, she tells her husband Jeff Fleetwod that she had been abducted by the women of the Convent.
Billie Delia / Billie Cato: Billie Delia comes to the Convent after a vicious fight with her mother Patricia, where her mother had come close to killing her (Patricia had struck her daughter with an iron). She spends some time recuperating at the Convent, then decides to leave Ruby altogether. She works in a nearby city in Oklahoma, and she is the one who brings the traumatized Pallas to come stay at the Convent. As a member of the Best family and as a lighter-skinned Black woman, she and her mother Patricia have been understood as outside the mainstream of the Ruby community. She has been stigmatized as overly sexual because of an incident that took place when she was a child.