The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How not to mourn a beloved author

When we reduce writers like Toni Morrison to a series of inspirational quotes, we miss the things that made them great

Nobel Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison, pictured in 2008 at the Four Seasons Hotel in Washington. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

When the great author Toni Morrison died in August, the world responded with a familiar public ritual: the online sharing of her most popular quotes. Sen. Kamala D. Harris tweeted: “Something that is loved is never lost.” Sen. Bernie Sanders chose: “If you are free, you need to free somebody else.” Rapper Common, actress Kerry Washington and Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke all went with: “You wanna fly, you got to give up the s--- that weighs you down.” News outlets (including The Washington Post) offered compilations of favorites like “You are your best thing” and “If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.”

If you didn’t already know who Morrison was, you might have imagined the world was mourning a celebrity self-help writer, rather than a Nobel Prize-winning novelist known for the idiosyncratic, Gothic richness of her prose, and whose preoccupations were the most gruesome and traumatic episodes of American racism. You would certainly never have guessed that Morrison was famed for writing unflinchingly and graphically about torture, infanticide, incest and child abuse, or that her books are full of uncensored rage at the monumental crimes of white people. The Toni Morrison mourned in August was a comforting, folksy, wise-woman figure who was only concerned that everyone believe in themselves and chase their dreams.

Of course, Morrison is not alone in receiving this treatment. Maya Angelou’s career has been almost completely buried under cherry-picked inspirational quotes such as: “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.” And although there’s an aspect of race and gender to this phenomenon, there is no absolute protection in being white and male. Kurt Vonnegut, whose books’ most persistent message was that life is meaningless and death inevitable, is popularly remembered by the mawkish catchphrase, “Babies, you’ve got to be kind!” The bleak, nihilistic works of Samuel Beckett — a typical character description from his plays is “has no legs and lives in a dustbin” — have been boiled down to a chipper exhortation to “Fail better!”

Maya Aneglou taught us how to talk about ourselves

There are even some quotes that are apocryphal. We can all agree that the poster-ready Morrison gem, “Something that is loved is never lost,” generally attributed to her novel “Beloved,” is satisfyingly wisdom-shaped and truthful. However, it doesn’t really appear in any book by Morrison or any interview or speech with her available online. A similar quote (“Nothing loved is ever lost or perished”) does appear in a poem in Madeleine L’Engle’s book “A Ring of Endless Light,” and it’s all too easy to imagine how this sentiment might have seeped from one beloved female author to another. The public imagination turns all great authors into one cozy, folksy character dispensing facile and comforting sayings, as if all world literature were just raw ingredients for the next edition of “Chicken Soup for the Soul.”

It may be tempting to treat the counterfeit “Something that is loved is never lost” as a gotcha moment and indulge in mocking laughter of Harris’s staff for being taken in. But there’s something insidious about these distortions, even when they don’t involve blatant errors. Take the popular quote: “Wanna fly, you got to give up the s--- that weighs you down.” Out of context, this seems like common-sense advice about giving up your emotional baggage. In context, as spoken by a character in Morrison’s novel “Song of Solomon,” it refers to the need to renounce one’s attachment to material things — “life, safety, and luxury” — for a higher cause. It’s also noteworthy that flight is a central theme in “Song of Solomon,” which ends (SPOILER ALERT) with the main character taking “flight” by leaping off a cliff. It’s left to the reader to decide whether he has killed himself or escaped into the mythical flight of his ancestors. The implication is that, for black people in America, the only real freedom has historically been in the mythical imagination or death.

Obviously, Morrison’s intention was not to inspire anyone to jump off a cliff. Rather, the quote lives in a complex fictional world where there are no easy formulas; where even the wisest characters can be crushed by the atrocities of racism; where the distinction between right and wrong has become murky. Like all great literature, it leaves us to grapple with the profound difficulty of life, rather than soothing us with simple answers.

To some, this kind of distortion may seem like one of the more harmless side effects of fame. Is it so terrible if people imagine Toni Morrison said a simplistic thing she didn’t say? If you repackage “Wanna fly, you got to give up the s--- that weighs you down” as an encouraging morsel of wisdom, isn’t it still just a harmless morsel of encouragement? After all, as David Foster Wallace said (in the easy-listening commencement speech “This Is Water,” the source of many of the quotable quotes by which he is remembered): “The fact is that in the day-to-day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life-or-death importance.”

I read books by only minority authors for a year. It showed me just how white our reading world is.

But Toni Morrison didn’t win the Nobel Prize for dispensing banal platitudes; she got it for writing scabrous, gorgeous, complex books like “Song of Solomon.” It is not only disrespectful to her, it is unhealthy for us to sand down her words until they tell us what we want to hear — not least because Toni Morrison had real wisdom to impart. This is especially true when we include implications with which she publicly disagreed. For instance, the problem with Harris’s “Something that is loved is never lost” is not just that Morrison didn’t say it, but that Morrison’s work is explicitly about how, through the bad choices of the powerful, people can lose everything they love, and this loss can echo through generations. Multiply this distortion by all the authors who were ever memorialized with massaged, out-of-context quotes, and it begins to seem less like an honoring of literature than an Orwellian campaign to erase its influence. Meanwhile, you can easily mourn a writer’s death without the use of quotable quotes, as former president Barack Obama did in his memorial tweet for Morrison: “Her writing was a beautiful, meaningful challenge to our conscience and our moral imagination.”

Of course, we all need comfort sometimes, and if repeating “Something that is loved is never lost” makes you feel better, there’s nothing wrong with that. But you can only really comprehend Morrison’s legacy by reading her books. And whenever we’re honoring the memory of a writer, the least we can do is respect what they actually wrote.