Wednesday, August 07, 2019

RIP Toni Morrison, a great writer of any colour

American author and Nobel laureate Toni Morrison has died, after what her family calls a "long well-lived life". She was 88.
She was a great author, that much is undeniable. However, most of the accolades and eulogies after her death seem to revolve around her writing of the black American experience, particularly about slavery and its consequences. But surely that is not what made her writing great? She was not the first to write about black lives, although she was maybe the first to bring them, and particularly black female lives (and even more specifically, young black female lives), to a mass multicultural audience, and this is indeed an achievement worthy of celebration. But this, it seems to me, is not the same achievement as the quality of her writing - her use of language and her gift for piecing together a good compelling yarn - which reaches a level of greatness regardless of the social and political import of her subject matter. She was a great writer, not just a great black writer.
That said, to claim, as Dionne Brand does in today's Globe and Mail, that Ms. Morrison "was the greatest writer in English of the 20th century and the 21st", and that she "changed the texture of English itself" (whatever that might actually mean), is a clear case of excess and hyperbole. James Joyce changed English literature, as did Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, Samuel Beckett, and a (very) few others; hardly any individuals since Shakespeare can be said to have changed the actual language. Toni Morrison didn't really change literature or the language, but she used it very well for her own purposes.
So, let's celebrate her life and her art. But let's not wander off into the realms of, well, fiction.

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