But before winning the Pulitzer, it was snubbed at the National Book Awards, prompting 48 black writers and critics to sign a letter of protest to the New York Times. It was probably a counterproductive move, ammunition for a range of detractors—from canon-hugging neocons to black contrarian Stanley Crouch, who called it a “blackface Holocaust novel”—suggesting the accolades were affirmative-action tokenism run amok.
“It’s hurtful,” Morrison says now. She remembers that the Times reported the Nobel, the first for an American-born author since 1962, as “a controversy—a controversy!” Morrison saw it differently, of course. “I felt profoundly American, flag-waving,” she says, “but you’re never out there as somebody from Ohio, or even as a writer. Because all that is clouded by the box you’re put in as a Black Writer.”
Brodsky, with her brusque New York twang and quadruple-espressos, 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.” After another minute, she brings up “Mr. Jeremy Lin. Anything that’s just not there, all of a sudden, this complete craziness happens to people who just never existed. Then it’s, ‘We’re gonna hold back his injuries so we can sell more tickets.’ And this guy is just gonna get refuse dumped on his head for the rest of his life if, after playing for a month and a half in the NBA, he doesn’t again beat Kobe Bryant by 38 points. You know what I mean?”
Brodsky’s apologia is for both Morrison’s success and its aftermath. Even as her sales and status have held strong, Morrison’s books have ceased to qualify as news. She says she was lucky to be working on Paradise when she won the Nobel—to avoid the writer’s block a friend calls “the Stockholm curse.” But critically, at least, she did succumb. Neither Paradise nor her next novel, Love, met the bar raised by Beloved and Jazz (never mind the Nobel Prize).
Both Philip Roth’s American Pastoral and Don DeLillo’s Underworld came out in 1997, the year Paradise did. Both addressed historical eras and themes, as Morrison does, but both spoke directly to contemporary anxieties in a way that Paradise did not. Roth and DeLillo were nostalgic for an old American consensus and alarmed at its disintegration, and both used voices resonant with modern paranoia and neurosis. In contrast, Morrison still seemed to be in cross-racial dialogue with the same long-dead Modernists on whom she’d written her thesis in the fifties.
It must have galled Morrison that James Wood’s long takedown of Paradise in The New Republic fell under the headline “The Color Purple,” alluding to Alice Walker’s pulpy southern black chronicle. Comparisons to Walker and Maya Angelou bother her, not only because they put her back in the Black Writer box but also because she feels demoted. “The first book of Maya’s I really enjoyed, and Alice has written at least one, maybe two books that I admire a lot,” she says. But “they’re very different writers, very, very different from me.” How so? “Well, one self-edits and one doesn’t.”
Morrison and Walker do share a link: Oprah Winfrey. After starring in the blockbuster movie adaptation of The Color Purple, Winfrey was just becoming a talk-show megastar when she optioned Beloved in 1988. In the decade between the deal and the movie’s release, she started a book club and included Morrison’s books. She also began touting a succession of self-help mentors. Morrison was arguably the first author Winfrey devoted her starmaking power to—and probably the most ambivalent. She told friends she didn’t want Beloved to be a film, and she prayed Oprah wouldn’t play the lead. Oprah did, and it was a notorious bomb, which Morrison didn’t like. (Now she denies ever being apprehensive about the movie.)
Morrison’s ambivalence spilled over recently when Oprah broached the death of Morrison’s son. During her last month of TV shows last year, Oprah invited her “most memorable guests” back to share “life-changing lessons.” Still in mourning, Morrison consented to be flown into Chicago on a private jet and put up at the Four Seasons. But she bristled when Oprah suggested the show would help her get “closure” on Slade’s death. “Don’t ever say that word,” Morrison said. “There’s never closure with the death of a child.” She says now that she was happy to discuss her son, but not in detail. “There’s no language for that”—especially not the language of closure. Oprah is “a generous woman,” she says, “but I did want to say—the guarantee of happiness? What is that about?” Certainly nothing that Faulkner or Woolf had anything to do with.