Success. When the idea is broached to Toni Morrision, it brings the slow but firm shaking of her gray and black waves. "Success is a wonderful substitute for real life," she says. "If you don't have a real life, success is good to have. But if you have a real life, you don't need that. It will never subsititute for comfort, friends and love, and doing something you respect. I would really be hurt if suddenly everyone hated my books. But what would really be awful, if I was a person the people I loved didn't want to be around."
Right now she has the company of success. Toni Morrison is the queen of the blitz -- two hours on Cavett, a cover of Newsweek, scores of store autograph signings, the front pages of key literary reviews, a two-day schedule in Washington, talking about her new novel. "Tar Baby."
This attention comes rarely for a black writer, though Morrision had a preview taste with her last novel, "Song of Solomon," which won the National Book Critics Award. At 50, she telegraphs the secure strength of intellect and sensuality. She speaks softly so people will listen carefully, laughs loud but doesn't fluster. When the silk slips away from her decolletage, she doesn't notice.
In Morrison's novelistic world, she has created what she calls a village literaute, the civilization that exists underneath the white world. People in this village are also wrestling with the emergence of urban and rural values, they dream, they believe in myths, they are violent and funny.
In "The Bluest Eye," Pecola Breddlove dreams of having blue eyes, a trait that does not save her from her father's alcoholism and rape, her mother's abandonment and her own decline to madness. Milkman Dead, a character of "Song of Solomon" searches for his past and has his eyes opened to a history of culture, unhappiness and death through his aunt who had no navel, Pilate.
With her four novels, Morrison has aimed for the clarity of her story's chorus, and provoked two major responses. One embraces her as a truly American voice. Her critics feel her intertwining of myth and violence is forced and excessive.
Her supporters wonder if all the acclaim is a prelude to pulling her down. The question the use of the words "Black Magic" with her picture on the Newsweek cover, and wonder if it is a subtle put-down implying that black folks can't do it alone. "I couldn't imagine what they were going to put on that cover, they experimented with things like, 'Lady Sings the Blues,' I thought maybe, 'Tar Baby at 50' -- they would say anything. So when they came with something as innocuous as 'Black Magic,' I was thrilled to death. They had so many infinite, awful possibilities," says Morrison. . . . "The business of having magic associated with me as though it weren't cold, clear talent, I understand the response to that. There were some reviews of my book that said, in effect, 'this is an important, vital book, in spite of itself.' I was very amused. It was like saying the tiger lucked up on its prey, it's too stupid to know that it's a tiger.
"I have always tried to establish a voice in the work of a narrator which worked like a chorus, like what I think is going on in the black church, or in jazz, where people respond, where the reader is participating. So the problem is always how do you get that feeling, which I call black writing, which is not dropping 'g's, it's much more subtle than that -- the way people do it in churches, the way you do it in jazz concerts, the way you say, 'yes,' 'amen,' get up and move. So whoever is up there is not working alone," says Morrison.
"Tar Baby," the reason for all the current attention Morrison is enjoying, is a complicated tale of the lives of four couples, three black and one white. Jadine, a black who has had the best of American and European integration, is the "tar baby" of the title. When Son, a runaway Florida boatman, walks into the Caribbean paradise that is the novel's primary setting, all ot the character's values and preceptions come into sharp conflict.
Morrison's voices come from the small town of Lorain, Ohio, where her family of former sharecroppers and coal miners gave her a sense of self and storytelling. She read the Russian novelists but also heard the legend of black people who could fly. In the early 1950s, she studied English at Howard University. Then she taught English at Texas Southern University and Howard, and worked as an editor in Syracuse, N.Y. For six years she was married to a Jamaican architect and now lives alone with her two sons in a restored boathouse in New York. She is presently a senior editor at Random House.
Morrison learned her lessons on life and literature from her ancestors.
"When they would put eviction notices on our houses, my mother would tear them off and throw them around. The point was she always thought there was something you could do about the situation. She wrote letters to Franklin Delano Roosevelt about the food. She always addressed the problem with great grandeur. Also an incredible joie de vivre," says Morrison. Her family "found so much that was funny and laughable . . . I remember the arguments were funny, they would quarrel about who grew up in the smallest town . . . they relished each other's company."
Her success, she feels, is collective; that her story is linked to the fate of black writers, particularly black women. "My dream is that one season they will have five black books, by five black women, all at once." And she feels no guilt about her success, being "the one" heralded in a season in which only four or five works of fiction by blacks will be published. "I never feel guilty. I am not ashamed. I can only help if I can write very distinctive black books, that are commercial successes, that means -- it is possible."
In part, she feels, the dismal status of published black writers is a result of demand and economics. "Publishers sell books to people who buy books. They are between 40 and 60, and white, and are women. Once you have what the record industry has always had, a black, buying, aggressive consumer, the publisher does not care who buys his books, as long as they are there. So we can say let's publish more black books. I published Henry Dumas, lots of press. I never sold over 2,000 books. He is beloved, and he's dead so he's not competitive. I published four of his books, every one of which lost $10,000. So I have already cost them $50,000. Now I can't continue to do that."
The question of her voice as a black writer has been a difficult one. "In 'Song of Solomon,' I used a very meandering, folk-taley, quiet, sloppy [voice]. You never knew at any moment what the most important of the details were . . . [With] this book I got very ambitious, very avant-garde and used the world of natural things. It caused some a great deal of misadventure among the critics, all of whom hate it," she says, laughing heartily. "Also, they think I am dumb, so I get a lot of instruction in the reviews. But I wanted to make the witnessing of these people [in "Tar Baby"], the comments, come from the natural world, so that bees are curious, avocados open and disapprove, the trees get angry. So you have the sense of being watched all the time. There is always a presence, not necessarily threatening but curious. That is the sense of communication between the 20th-century group and the ancient world . . . They [natural things] are the chorus," says Morrison, and they are her identity, her artistic embrace of the rituals of African and Afro-American art forms.
But if success hasn't brought her any public satisfaction, it has brought her a personal freedom. "I realy always wanted to be an adult," she says quietly. "That means growth, taking on responsibilities, stop bitching about it, always. What that means is I am grateful in being in a position where I can choose my responsibilities. That is freedom." She feels that people are sometimes awed at the range of things she does. "My great-grandmother, my grandmother did really complicated things, they were in life-threatening circumstances, really. I ought to be able to write a few little books."