THE OTHER SLANT: Did New York magazine paint a cynical and suspect portrait of the beloved Toni Morrison? Close friend and Princeton Prof. Claudia Brodsky says yes.
It caught us by (sweet) surprise when the April 29th issue of New York magazine included a full-length profile of Toni Morrison. True, her new novel, Home, was about to drop come May 9th. And true, she’s a literary heavyweight: the recipient of both the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature and the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. But how often have you read a lengthy profile of an octogenarian black woman novelist in a general interest magazine?
As we read the article, however, it became evident that Boris Kachka’s piece (“Who’s the author of Toni Morrison?”) was no ordinary retrospective. Instead, it was a subtle, but clear challenge to Morrison’s place in literary posterity. After ten novels and numerous accolades, Kachka’s perplexity over Morrison’s true identity, popularity and endurance seemed odd.
The Slant reached out to Claudia Brodsky, Morrison’s close friend and Princeton colleague, who was extensively cited in the story, to get her take. In Brodsky’s view, New York magazine painted an inaccurate and cynical portrait of Morrison, one that made her seem duplicitous, scheming, and unworthy of her success.
So, what’s your beef with Kachka’s article?
For starters, he uses a string of animal adjectives and verbs to portray her, freely dehumanizing her from the very start of the piece. He writes: “The author growls, purrs…and barks.” A whole other host of adjectives could have been used to describe a human and articulate voice: resonant, deep, thoughtful, melodious, mercurial, expressive, soft, laughing–words applicable only to humans. On the other end of the spectrum, she is an inanimate, weathered piece of stone. He writes: “Her face is polished in places and fissured in others, like the weathered stone of Mount Rushmore….” Had Kachka never interviewed or looked in the face of anyone over 80? Yes, they may have wrinkles unlike stones; and yes, their skin can also amazingly enough be smooth, too! Kachka told me that he has a B.A. in English from Columbia University. Hasn’t he read Percy B. Shelley’s “Ozymandias“? Beware the comparison to a talking stone head and what one brings upon oneself in making it! Everything he wrote was so cynical and made Toni seem suspect.
Remember these lines from his article? “Brodsky…is never at a loss for words–except when I ask her why Morrison’s difficult novels became so explosively popular. ‘I’m actually gonna think for a minute,’ she says. ‘No one’s asked me that question.’ After more than a minute, she says, ‘If she were not a black woman, then you would say, obviously, the work.'” The deletion of my long measured response following that purposefully prefatory comment — a response designed carefully to follow down and root out every cynical thread woven into its formulation in the first place — made it seem like I was hesitating because facing a “tough” question, from a “tough” interviewer. Instead, the question’s outright bizarreness, to put it nicely, made me pause in considering how best to answer an already openly biased interviewer. Did anyone ask an admirer and acquaintance of Gabriel Garcia Marquez (or Thomas Mann or T. S. Eliot) how he managed to be both difficult and popular, let alone go on to win a Nobel Prize? This was an obvious comparison, among others, to make. But my naive desire to correct rather than dismiss the interviewer’s suspicions, while obviously misplaced, prevented me from responding in such an openly confrontational way — nor would doing so, evidently, have helped. He knew what he thought and I am not sure why the interviews were necessary at all.
When we first spoke, you had a strong reaction to the sentences that read: “…Morrison fought unapologetically for the importance of considering racial politics in literature and of bringing marginalized American forces and shameful American secrets into the cultural mainstream. No one benefited more from her bold stance on the barricades of inclusiveness than Morrison herself.” Why did that last statement set you off?
It sends a chill through my body. It epitomizes the suspicious angle taken throughout his piece. He makes that statement in the declarative tense, as if it were indeed a causally engendered fact, and the quality of Morrison’s writing had nothing to do with her popularity. But the fact is her writing–its burnished craft, continually innovative nature, and fusion of historical experience and imaginative language into fiction in stories about subjects no one had regarded at all, let alone imagined as subjects of imaginative fiction, are the reasons it appeals to readers worldwide regardless of their race, class, gender and nationality. Did anyone dramatically imply in print that Gabriel Garcia Marquez spearheaded magic realist fiction so as most to benefit from it? Also, all that business about her creating a person named Toni Morrison that she, Chloe Wofford [Morrison’s birth name], the real person, is manipulating, is absurd.
But Morrison herself makes the distinction between Chloe and Toni in the interview. She says, “People who call me Chloe are the people who know me best….Chloe writes the books….I still can’t get to the Toni Morrison place yet.”
All that Toni meant is that anyone of any note or fame has a public and a private life. They have to protect themselves. Because she has this widespread cultural valence, she knows she’s especially prone to being misconstrued, misquoted and lied about. Toni never says she has two identities–the very idea of which promotes the idea of duplicity and a double, always partly false, life. And in Kachka’s description, she is both the puppet and the puppet master, which means that ultimately no real person is there! To make that into a double identity is cynical. These are the larger problems with the piece, but he got smaller details wrong too.
Like the day it was announced that Toni won the Nobel Prize. Kachka said I found Toni dancing alone in her office, but that’s not true. That inaccurate detail was grotesque because it had a minstrel show quality to it and made her seem self-celebratory. When she found out that she’d won, her assistant called me up and asked me to come to Toni’s office. I arrived, passed the throngs of reporters, walked in and said: “I told you so.” For years, I had been telling her that she’d get the Nobel Prize. But she’d say, “Forget about it Claudia, it’s not going to happen.” When I walked in, she cocked her head to the side, threw her arms open as if to say “Who knew?” and we did this really funny slow fox trot for like 30 seconds. It was an adorable, unselfconscious gesture of spontaneous joy. But the way Kachka wrote it plays into his suspicions about Toni: that she was celebrating because she’d fooled everyone, like it was a gotcha-jig. It fed into the idea that she was scheming. You have to understand that the moment she won, she didn’t call someone of notoriety or someone interested in milking the publicity. She called a friend. Afterwards, I walked her to class. She actually taught her writing course moments after winning the Nobel Prize like it was just another ordinary day. Who does that? I told New York magazine all of this and it didn’t appear in the story. It was a really beautiful memory, but the way her wrote it perverted it.
Did Morrison take issue with anything in the piece?
Yes, Kachka wrote that she didn’t have any of her son Slade’s paintings hanging in her house. [Slade lost his battle to pancreatic cancer last year at the age of 45.] She said, “What does he mean there are no paintings by Slade hanging in the house? I didn’t invite him upstairs. Did he expect to be invited upstairs?” She always has paintings by Slade hanging. She felt it slandered implicitly some aspect of her relationship with her son.
Was there anything else she objected to?
She just laughed it off. She laughed! She said “Claudia, you take these things too seriously.”