The first question is: Inasmuch as the 1988 Pulitzer Prizes have yet to be awarded, why are four dozen Afro-American writers issuing a public complaint about Toni Morrison's failure to win one? The second: Are prizes really so important -- "keystones to the canon of American literature" -- that it is necessary to make a scene over Morrison's alleged mistreatment at the hands of those who award them? The third: Since the suggestion has been made that Morrison has failed to win a major prize because she is black, are we now to understand that she should be given one ... because she is black?
These and any number of other questions, few of them pleasant, are raised by the two documents published in yesterday's issue of The New York Times Book Review and widely discussed in various other publications and broadcasts last week. The first of the documents is a somewhat hysterical letter by poet June Jordan and University of Pennsylvania English professor Houston A. Baker Jr. lamenting the "shame" and "national neglect" suffered by Morrison and the late James Baldwin because of the failure of each to win either a Pulitzer or a National Book Award. The second is a "Statement" signed by these two writers and 46 others that begins:
"Despite the international stature of Toni Morrison, she has yet to receive the national recognition that her five major works of fiction entirely deserve: she has yet to receive the keystone honors of the National Book Award or the Pulitzer Prize. We, the undersigned black critics and black writers, here assert ourselves against such oversight and harmful whimsy."
The sincerity of those who signed this statement is not open to question, nor is the dignity with which they, as black writers, "urgently affirm our rightful and positive authority in the realm of American letters"; their willingness to speak out as a group is heartening evidence of their self-esteem and their determination to be accepted, as well they should be, as legitimate and important contributors to American literature. But however much we may sympathize with their feelings and their desire for recognition, we must not let this blind us to the rather less attractive implications of their protest.
It comes 2 1/2 months after the 1987 National Book Award for Fiction was presented not to Morrison's "Beloved," one of the five finalists, but to Larry Heinemann's first novel, "Paco's Story." The decision had been reached by a 2-to-1 vote of the jury, one member of which was the prominent Afro-American novelist Gloria Naylor, whose name was conspicuously absent among the signers of the current protest. According to a report last week on public radio, Morrison was "devastated" by this disappointment; the statements in The New York Times Book Review, with their deeply felt praise for Morrison, appear designed as much to ease this "devastation" as to protest the "neglect" she ostensibly has suffered.
But the truth is that it's a form of "neglect" virtually any other writer would kill for. Like all of Morrison's previous novels, "Beloved" was the recipient of extravagant, indeed excessive, reviews, and it spent a number of weeks on the best-seller lists. It was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award; it may well be among the three finalists recommended to the Pulitzer board by the fiction jury, though I have no inside knowledge to that effect. By any reasonable standard it has been a great success, one that Morrison and her claque should be applauding rather than bemoaning.
Yet here we have Morrison "devastated" at her failure to win an award and her admirers issuing a thinly veiled suggestion that this failure was due to racism on the part of the American literary community. Nothing could be further from the truth, and it is time to put the canard to rest once and for all. The plain fact is that over the years Morrison has if anything been the beneficiary of the literary community's good intentions. Literary people in the United States tend to be humane and liberal in outlook, if not always in practice, and to search out opportunities to express these sentiments. Morrison, who writes eloquently and powerfully about black life and history, has provided precisely such an opportunity; it has been seized over and again by publishers, reviewers, other writers and ordinary readers.
There are millions of black Americans with ample grievances about discrimination, but at least in literary terms Toni Morrison most emphatically is not among them; she is in fact among the privileged few, not merely as a nationally celebrated author but also as an editor at one of the country's most respected publishing firms, Random House. Nobody is out to "rob" Morrison of awards. She "lost" the National Book Award not for racial reasons but because one juror felt passionately about "Paco's Story" and managed to persuade another juror to that view; she "lost" the Book Critics Circle Award (which in fact she had won a decade earlier for "Song of Solomon") because there was stronger support within the organization's board for Philip Roth's "The Counterlife" (to which the award ultimately went) and Tom Wolfe's "Bonfire of the Vanities."
The point is so basic that belaboring it is ridiculous, but here goes anyway: It is possible to make a literary judgment without making a racial judgment as well. It is possible that two groups of judges can meet, quite independently of each other, and decide that certain books by writers who happen to be white are "better" than a certain book by a writer who happens to be black -- and that their decisions can have nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with race. It is even possible that when the Great Juror in the Sky comes to make the final decision, the one for all eternity, she will decide that "Beloved" is not as good a novel as "Passion Moon Rising," by Rebecca Brandewyne.
When it comes to judgments about books -- or chocolate-chip cookies, or movies, or musical compositions -- anything is possible; Toni Morrison is the victim, if that is how her admirers choose to see her, not of racism but of possibility. To suggest to the contrary is merely to muddy the waters, to raise an issue that is entirely irrelevant and to impugn the motives of honest people who tried, as best they could, to reach honest decisions under difficult circumstances.
To say this is not to deny that black writers have suffered discrimination or that some have been given insufficient recognition; certainly it is an oddity, and a literary if not racial injustice, that none of the country's most prestigious literary prizes managed to find its way to James Baldwin, though we do well to remember that in other ways he was much honored in his lifetime. But Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe never won Pulitzers; neither did Flannery O'Connor or John Dos Passos. The giving of awards, like life itself, is imperfect, and many deserving books have gone without honor; but race has nothing to do with it, and to suggest as much is nothing except dangerous self-delusion.