August 7, 2019

"This style—let’s call it 'Faulknerian,' after its other Nobel-winning master—is heady and clause-dense."

"Long associated with the South, Faulkner’s great theme, it eddies and circles, with an often maddening indirection. The Faulknerian style’s weakest imitators simply view it as a license to slather adjectives and metaphors all over the page. Morrison, who hated seeing her fiction described as 'lyrical' or 'poetic,' had a deeper understanding of Faulkner’s stratagems. In her Paris Review interview (a must for any appreciator of Morrison’s genius), she delivers a brilliant dissection of Absalom, Absalom, a novel that fascinated her: Faulkner, she says, 'spends the entire book tracing race and you can’t find it. No one can see it, even the character who is black can’t see it. … Do you know how hard it is to withhold that kind of information but hinting, pointing all of the time? … So the structure is the argument.' The elliptical nature of Faulkner’s style epitomizes the paralyzed condition of Southern culture: Everything in it gestures toward the one thing it can’t bring itself to talk about. This paradox gives Faulkner’s fiction its power, but for any writer seeking to follow in his footsteps, it leads to a dead end."

From an article at Slate by Laura Miller that I clicked on because of the teaser "How Toni Morrison’s Revolutionary Novels Broke Open American Literature." I wondered what this "breaking open" consisted of. For these words to make sense it would need to be that many other writers followed along. The headline at the article is more modest "Toni Morrison Reshaped the Landscape of Literature/Her novels made moves that no other novelist, black or white, attempted." There's no revolution, no breaking open, no implication that other writers followed on, only that she did something alone. She reshaped, she didn't break. And it's not a military metaphor — revolution. It's a landscape. From front page to inside page, it seems we moved from masculine to feminine. Is that analogous to the difference between Faulkner and Morrison?

Let me read the thing I would not have read without that overheated teaser. Okay. I read it. There's no mention of other writers! I see no argument that Morrison reshaped the literary landscape (or led a revolution). All I'm seeing here is that Morrison put some things on the surface that Faulker "pushed below the surface."

64 comments:

David Begley said...

Oprah liked her. She sold lots of books. Copyright still good. Royalties to her estate.

MikeR said...

I tried reading a Faulkner novel. No interest. I expect I would feel the same way about a Morrison novel, only my teachers never assigned one.
Nobel Prize, you say?

Dust Bunny Queen said...

All I'm seeing here is that Morrison put some things on the surface that Faulker "pushed below the surface."

So no more subtle hinting or gesturing, stepping elegantly around the elephant in the room, forcing the reader to come to the sometimes uncomfortable conclusions on their own. Now just shove the thing into the reader's face.

Ann Althouse said...

Morrison seems to have praised Faulkner: "Do you know how hard it is to withhold that kind of information but hinting, pointing all of the time? … So the structure is the argument." Miller calls this "brilliant" "dissection" but declares Faulkner a "dead end" that Morrison broke through by putting things on the surface, i.e., not doing what was hard. With Morrison safely dead, she has no way to object, but I infer that she would object.

Kevin said...

Okay. I read it. There's no mention of other writers! I see no argument that Morrison reshaped the literary landscape (or led a revolution).

We are living in a time when all great people must be leading revolutions. That’s the purpose of social media, is it not, to lead your friends and followers to some greater state of moral clarity?

Those who merely wish to share keto recipes are being pushed off the platforms.

So, to any writer at any media outlet today, a great writer must have changed other writers.

Even if, like the great Faulkner, their great writing’s greatness comes from it’s inherent resistance to wider adoption.

Kevin said...

Faulkner doesn’t write like that, he THINKS like that.

Teaching people to copy his style is a dead end.

Michael K said...

More identity politics.

traditionalguy said...

So maybe she reshaped southern literature from its skill using forced nuances of the story. Not every writer can be as earnest as Hemingway.

Heartless Aztec said...

There is only one William Faulkner. His writing precluded anyone else writing in the style of...

Ralph L said...

Much incest in Morrison?

mandrewa said...

Faulkner doesn't preach in a single one of his novels. There is no obvious moral message you are supposed to get.

Now that doesn't mean there are not hidden moral messages, but if so they are so well hidden that the reader could miss it.

I think the message you take from Faulkner depends on who you are. Of course that's true for everything. It's just more true for a Faulkner novel.

Part of the genius of Faulkner is that he puts you inside other people's heads. And they are quite different people. Or at least they are quite different than I am.

There are so few authors out there that have done anything comparable to William Faulkner.

I really liked Absalom, Absalom. I share that much with Toni Morrison. And I did not read it as part of some English Lit class, thank God!

daskol said...

Toni Morrison spoke at my mother's small liberal arts college commencement ceremony, and Oprah spoke at mine. Johnetta Cole at my sister's, and Geraldine Laybourne at my brother's. You haven't completed your small liberal arts college education until the heavyset black lady, or her business partner, says so.

daskol said...

After seeing Toni Morrison speak movingly when I was in high school, I read a couple of her books. The Bluest Eye, her first one I think, was very moving and upsetting, and the main character has stuck with me for decades. Poor Pecola.

Shouting Thomas said...

So, we need to exponentially increase the nattering about race.

Yeah, that seems exciting.

We've never done that before, right?

Robert Cook said...

I read a bit of Faulkner in college ("The Bear" and some story involving Flem Snopes, which gave me the opportunity to make a pun on the name "Flem" in my class paper on the story, which prompted the professor's delighted written reaction "Heavens to Murgatroid!").

I found Faulkner's prose almost impenetrable, and have never had any desire to revisit his work.

Robert Cook said...

"So, we need to exponentially increase the nattering about race."

Well, given that the problems of the racial divide in this country remain unresolved, yes.

Fernandinande said...

How I Signaled My Virtue By Fawning Over a Black Authorette.

stevew said...

She wrote in her personal and unique style, which was then widely understood to be very good and entertaining. Yet this is not enough, her writing has to be revolutionary or transformational. Rather a high bar they posthumously demand of her, or are they arguing that her work belongs in the literary canon of the 20th century?

Lurker21 said...

mandrewa said...
Faulkner doesn't preach in a single one of his novels. There is no obvious moral message you are supposed to get.


That's true. It's true of great writers. They rarely preach, and when they do they aren't very effective. Faulkner did provide what people could regard as a morally-charged, mythic atmosphere and environment, from which readers could draw their own conclusions.

That's why people could convince themselves that there was moralistic or humanistic message to his novels -- why Faulkner could convince himself of that -- when it's harder to find one on the surface. And of course, what Southern agrarians found in his writing was not what Northern liberals found.

I don't really think Morrison puts everything on the surface. To me, her novels could be as hard to fathom as Faulkner's, and Miller says much the same thing. Even when it comes to race, is it true that Morrison brings to the surface what Faulkner leaves below, or is it just that readers and society have changed so much that we read their books with different expectations? Race is there in both writers, but we see it differently -- and expect to see it differently.

The slate writer does mention a few writers who are part of Morrison's "revolution," but the article doesn't quite jell. There's what Miller regards as Morrison's aesthetic "breakthrough" and then there is the social revolution bringing African-American women writers to print and public notice. Miller doesn't really connect Morrison's specifically stylistic or formal achievements with the larger social change. I guess the slate piece is typical of the culture now. So much is about race and gender that it's hard to see aesthetics, style, form as anything but subordinate.

Fernandinande said...

She wrote in her personal and unique style, which was then widely understood to be very good and entertaining.

I read a few paragraphs (whole novel is at archive.org) surrounding her description of shoes watching with uncomprehending eyes and it was just bad.

HoodlumDoodlum said...

If there's one thing that Southern writers and people who write about the South are known for it's ignoring race and racial history.
My highest hope is that one day we'll have the courage to have a conversation about that topic. I mean we're currently "a nation of cowards," clearly, but maybe one day we'll be brave.

Temujin said...

Up front I'm admit my cynicism and ignorance to Toni Morrison's work. I've always suspected that she was catapulted up to the stars because of her color and gender. It was simply- her time. Writing novels that translate well into movies starring Oprah does not hurt. She came to in an era where the novels of Faulkner were shoved aside for other more progressive or acceptable authors.

Again- I say this having not read any Morrison.

But I've read Faulkner. There is no one like Faulkner. It's not fair of me to just ignore Morrison's works, then comment on them here like I know what I'm talking about. But...it's a gut feeling I've always had. And early on, when I looked over her books to pick one out to read, they simply did not interest me enough to read.

My wife, who has a completely different liking of books/authors than I do, has read Morrison. Her description was 'Meh'. Unfortunately, that only confirmed my gut. But, I suspect she was a great writer with or without my gut entering into it. And even if she was not my cup of tea, she did what so many of us dream about and never accomplish. I have to consider her great in at least that regard.

Maillard Reactionary said...

AA: "All I'm seeing here is that Morrison put some things on the surface that Faulker "pushed below the surface." "

Maybe if she'd left them alone they'd have floated up by themselves at some point. Lots of things do after they've been submerged for a while.

Sebastian said...

"There's no mention of other writers! I see no argument"

Oh, no! Another misleading prog headline! Say it ain't so!

Howard said...

Comments by strangers in a strange land.

The Cracker Emcee Refulgent said...

Apparently she's never heard of Richard Wright.

Faulkner was more interested in class than race. Or maybe class as race. His mill workers and sharecroppers are profoundly different people than his genteel folk, even when they're on the make.

tim maguire said...

Robert Cook said...
"So, we need to exponentially increase the nattering about race."

Well, given that the problems of the racial divide in this country remain unresolved, yes.


Most of the current "conversation" on race is not productive and I don't see any reason to think more of same will in any way reduce the problems arising from the racial divide.

tim maguire said...

Temujin said...Up front I'm admit my cynicism and ignorance to Toni Morrison's work. I've always suspected that she was catapulted up to the stars because of her color and gender. It was simply- her time

I've always felt that way about Maya Angelou. I only read one Morrison book--Song of Solomon. I thought it was a great book, but for some reason it never inspired me to read another Morrison book.

Shouting Thomas said...

Well, given that the problems of the racial divide in this country remain unresolved, yes.

No, you're wrong... and tacitly lying as Marxists do.

Black inner city culture is screwed up and violent.

That's the problem. Blacks have serious problems, mainly caused by family dysfunction. Only blacks can fix those problems because people are responsible for themselves.

You're a commie, so going straight from A to B is prohibited for you, so this can difficult to understand.

I'm sure, commie that you are, you will return with a convoluted class explanation for why whites are responsible for blacks fucking up.

White Marxists like you offering blacks a scapegoat intensifies their problems, and that's intentional on your part. Your intent is to ratchet up the "racial divide" and you're pretty good at it.

Bay Area Guy said...

Yes to Hemingway
Yes to F Scott Fitzgerald
Yes to John Dos Passos

But, NO, to Faulkner. Much too tedious.

Toni Morrison wrote novels? I keep thinking Alice Walker.

John henry said...

Erskine Caldwell was another southern writer roughly contemporary with Faulkner.

Does anyone read him anymore?

John Henry

William said...

I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn when I was in high school. I liked it very much. It seemed to illuminate and make poetic the kind of problems people of my grandparents' generation faced. I don't know if it was great literature, but it had impact and meaning for those readers who connected with the story. I'd extend the same courtesy to Morrison's books and to the people who found them worthwhile.....I just read the wiki entry for Betty Smith, the writer. She was German-American on both sides of her family. Her father was a drunk, but not an Irish drunk. German drunks are so much less lyrical and poetic than Irish drunks. Her German roots are denied in the novel. The novel takes place around the time of WWI. Being black is not the only unfashionable identity in America.

William said...

I've read some Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor. You can see the talent, but all the characters seem to have problems that I've never encountered.

Andrew said...

For some reason, Faulkner's The Bear worked for me. It was very powerful.

As I commented on the other thread, the only Morrison I can recall reading was Tar Baby. It was okay, and had good moments, but it wasn't anything striking or exceptional. I certainly wasn't blown away by genius.

What turns me off to her is the hype about being an "important" novelist. Her work isn't allowed to speak for itself. Instead, we must throw rose petals at her feet. "Behold, the Sage has spoken. Why aren't you genuflecting?" Same with Angelou.

Both Morrison and Angelou have admirable life stories, and have said some things worth quoting. "Life hacks," if you will. I have no problem if people are inspired by them. But great literature? Not really.

If any critic or professor, especially a white man, were to say that Morrison, or Angelou, or Alice Walker, was overrated, would they be able to keep their job? I doubt it.

Tom T. said...

Maybe I was too young when required to read her, but I found her too opaque and self-consciously writerly to be anything more than a slog.

She tends to be emasculating toward black men, by the way. The boy who was breast-fed until he was 14, the dentist who became addicted to ether. I haven't seen any black men writing retrospectives about her.

rcocean said...

I never liked faulkner till I listened to him on audio-books. Then his crazy, convoluted language seemed poetic and beautiful. Only a great writer could write so badly. By which i mean, he breaks all the rules and still wins. Because he's a genius.
One good thing is that while Hemingway spawned a whole generation of Hemingway-copy-cats, not many people copied Faulkner. They knew they couldn't pull it off.

My favorite so far is "Absalom, Absalom", "Light in August" had some good parts, but too many negative characters.

rcocean said...

This article Its shows the bankruptcy and dullness of liberal journalists. Lets write about a black woman and her admiration for a white southerner. Pathetic.

Howard said...

Yes, I quite agree. This article triggers my ideological tripwires bigly

whitney said...

Faulkner is the worst. Three pages to describe a broken pane of glass. Unbearable

Robert Cook said...

Shouting Tom:

I think you have had a bit too much caffeine this morning...not to mention the DMT.

Oso Negro said...

The negrandizing of Toni Morrison is to be expected. It would be nice if people could shut the fuck up about race for just a short while, but that in itself is viewed as a racist sentiment.

traditionalguy said...

Well at least Faulkner's books are short.

readering said...

I read As I Lay Dying for school. I think I will pass on the great TM.

Andrew said...

After reading the comments I was considering, who among the great writers do I actually enjoy reading the most? The answer: Charles Dickens.

Ralph L said...

I much enjoyed Faulkner's short stories when I was young and more patient, same with Joyce's "Dubliners," which I couldn't put down fast enough a year ago. But Saki and Father Brown still hold up.

Shouting Thomas said...

No, Cookie, the Mensheviks are as dangerous as the Bolsheviks.

I don’t buy your protestations of good intentions. That’s always been a lie.

Maillard Reactionary said...

whitney said: "Faulkner is the worst. Three pages to describe a broken pane of glass. Unbearable"

Unbearable, I can believe, but don't say he's the worst until you've read "The Spy" by James Fenimore Cooper.

Mark Twain's takedown of Cooper is hilarious. But Twain was a great writer.

The Cracker Emcee Refulgent said...

"not many people copied Faulkner. They knew they couldn't pull it off."

Cormac McCarthy's first four novels await you. And they're all tremendous.

mccullough said...

Toni Morrison couldn’t overcome Faulkner’s influence.

Lurker21 said...

I never read Erskine Caldwell, but his books were big sellers in paperback. You could find them for sale in drug stores and bus and train stations. People bought them for what they thought were the dirty parts. Apparently he was more of a sensationalist, and people didn't find the depths in him that they found in Faulkner.

Some Faulkner is more accessible than his other works. There's a distinction between the very experimental novels like The Sound and the Fury or As I Lay Dying and other novels that are easier to read. And when his novels deal with a "social issue" like race, it's easier for people to wade through the abstraction and experimentalism.

Faulkner could allude to mythic or folkloric strata that gave his novels depth and significance. There was always the war to brood on - flags in the dust, the past that isn't dead and isn't even past. That living past is something we've largely lost. More recent writers try to replace that with race and gender. When that's been assimilated, what's left?

Andrew said...

Out of curiosity, I Googled "Toni Morrison overrated." That led me to this wonderful take down of Beloved.

http://dgmyers.blogspot.com/2009/10/most-overrated-novel-ever.html?m=1

Sample quote:

"Yet Beloved cannot be discussed apart from Morrison’s fumbling for a distinctive rhetoric. The Swedish Academy praised her stylistic experimentation in awarding her the Nobel Prize: “She delves into the language itself, a language she wants to liberate from the fetters of race.” Well, maybe. But you know the saying: when you find yourself in a hole, stop delving. Here she is describing Paul D’s entrance into Sethe’s Cincinnati house. He must pass through a “pool of pulsing red light” to get in: “Walking through it, a wave of grief soaked him so thoroughly he wanted to cry. It seemed a long way to the normal light surrounding the table, but he made it—dry-eyed and lucky” (p. 9). Morrison’s technique might be characterized as literalizing stock language. If you can mention a “wave of grief,” she can say that it soaks you. But then she nods or the effort of linguistic distinction proves too tiring, and so the light “surrounding the table” (was there a skylight? A pendant lamp? An angel?) is, um, “normal.” Is there a norm to indoor light?"

The comments are fun too.

rcocean said...

Faulkner gave a great Nobel Prize speech. Better than Hemingway or Steinbeck. Other than being a drunk, he's seems to have been an OK fellow.

rcocean said...

I don't mind J.F. Cooper at all. Yes, he's starchy and pompous at times. But he was writing for a different age. mark twain wrote some good things: Prince and the pauper, huck finn and tom sawyer. I'm not really impressed with the rest of his Long-fiction. Joan of Arc, the novel he was most proud of, was unreadable.

He was basically a humorist, who tried to be a very serious fellow, and failed. He just wasn't that smart or original as very serious fellows go. His long winded autobiographies were notable for his conventional superficial thoughts on pretty much everything.

Marc said...

"She tends to be emasculating toward black men, by the way. The boy who was breast-fed until he was 14, the dentist who became addicted to ether. I haven't seen any black men writing retrospectives about her."

This insight seems worth looking into, particularly in view of the lamentable collapse of 'the' Black family etc etc in so many places. Am I not seeing criticism written by Black scholars etc because they don't write about Morrison, or because I have not looked in the right places? I may go look to see what what's his name, Ta-Nehisi Coates, has written.

vanderleun said...

Morrison is a minor writer. If she had been white she would be more minor still.

tim in vermont said...

“I can believe, but don't say he's the worst until you've read "The Spy" by James Fenimore Cooper. “

The Spy was an incredibly influential novel. It was read by novelists and much admired by other novelists who appreciated that he had done something new. Of course you wouldn’t want to drive cross country in the first motorcar built or anything, but find a novel like “The Spy” written before it.

tim in vermont said...

“Faulkner doesn't preach in a single one of his novels. There is no obvious moral message you are supposed to get.”

Hemingway said that writers who write about politics die just like any other writer, but their corpses stink more. In For Whom the Bell Tolls, he obviously had sympathy for the Republicans, that’s Spanish lingo for communists, but he wrote about the war in an unblinking way that got him in trouble with the communists. They threatened him that his reviews were going to suffer if he kept it up, He told them to fuck off.

I remember reading all of Faulkner’s novels on summer home from college, but honestly, I don’t remember too much about them except falling asleep on summer afternoons in a hammock in the back yard and dreaming about things like “jonquil thunder.” I still love looking at old county courthouses in old cities, I blame Faulkner.

tim in vermont said...

The Spy: a Tale of the Neutral Ground was James Fenimore Cooper's second novel, published in 1821 by Wiley & Halsted. This was the earliest American novel to win wide and permanent fame and may be said to have begun the type of romance which dominated U.S. fiction for 30 years. - Wikipedia

I am not recommending it, unless you are some kind of literary archeologist, but just sayin’.

tim in vermont said...

That’s what “transfigured American literature” means, BTW.

tim in vermont said...

Twain’s making fun of Cooper was hilarious, I admit, but in a way, it would be like Newton making fun of Kepler.

JMW Turner said...

Still, Twain is a giant in American Literature
and a favorite of mine simply because of his magnum opus "Huckleberry Finn". Not every pleasurable read is necessarily High Art and Noble Prize material. Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe interior monologue in The Big Sleep and Farewell My Lovely as well as James Elroy's hard boiled crime steam of conscience in L.A. Confidential and The Cold Six Thousand are excellent examples of well written crime literature.

Jeff said...

rocean said of Mark Twain "He just wasn't that smart or original as very serious fellows go."

I beg to differ. Twain's review of the Book of Mormon is both hilarious and very intelligent. It should be required reading for everyone.

Jeff said...

And while we're recommending authors, I think any woman who wants to understand how men think should read the Travis McGee novels of John D. MacDonald.

tim in vermont said...

"He just wasn't that smart or original as very serious fellows go.”

Ha ha ha ha ha! Thanks for the laugh. It’s not the things Twain said explicitly that made him a great writer though. His art isn’t really reducible to a powerpoint, but you are right about Cooper. He’s hard to read in the modern age, but I still enjoy reading him from time to time.