Toni Morrison Beats Updike Without Steroids (Plus Late React)

Maybe fiction is dead after all. Several hundred literary worthies were gathered up by the New York Times and asked to name the best work of fiction over the past 25 years, and the winner was – Toni Morrison, that is, her book “Beloved.” Books by John Updike, Philip Roth and Don DeLillo got most of the votes after that for literature’s version of MVP.

I’m only half kidding about Morrison being the death of fiction because I only read half her book. This happened over at the local library when I found myself browsing “Beloved” and found it quite okay, but not sensational. So I read about half. I couldn’t finish because I can’t seem to go for sentences that refuse to stop. It’s called style, I guess, or maybe it’s called Faulkner.

(This piece – judging by the e-mails I’ve been getting -- has already attracted the attention of conservatives who know that, alas, only PC LIT would be given any consideration. First, of course, we need to find novelists who adhere to no agenda but simply shoot for the truth. Good luck on this errand. Forgive the plug, but check out THE BATHSHEBA DEADLINE, the novel I’ve got running on, to find out what I mean by Bypass journalism and Bypass literature.)

The crowning of Morrison is actually good news. Sometimes it seems that Updike, Roth, DeLillo are the only writers we’ve got. (I’m tempted to say survivors.) At this rate, we won’t be needing any libraries or book stores, save for a shelf here and there for the works of Updike, Roth, DeLillio, and now, thankfully, Morrison. No one else need apply.

Is there cronyism, incest, vanity and backslapping in this business, the same people endorsing the same people over and over again? Is it something like a family business? (Think Pulitzer, and even those Nobel prizes for Literature, where it seems the same people, usually liberal, keep the locks and the keys all to themselves.) Don’t look at me. I don’t even know where they meet, these people. Where’s the club? Perhaps we’ve got something like the Priory of Sion going on.

But there’s a gatecrasher out there who goes by the name Karl King Wenclas who delights in smashing literary idols. He runs an organization called Underground Literary Alliance ( where he and fellow non-members of the establishment go out (mostly, it seems, from Philadelphia to New York) and disrupt literary patty-cakes.

Here’s part of ULA’s mission statement, or, at least, part of the lament: “American literature has become professionalized, elitist, art-destructive, meaningless, corrupt, soulless, and just plain crazy sick to look at.” Who can argue with that unless you’re Updike, Roth, DeLillo, and now, thankfully, Morrison?

Coincidentally, this MVP (okay MVW, for Most Valuable Writer) competition was being run at about the same time that Barry Bonds was chasing Babe Ruth and, if you ask me (yes, I know you’re not) there’s something like this going on here as well, namely – can anyone out there beat Hemingway, American literature’s Babe Ruth?

I know Hemingway does not meet the 25-year timeline, but I am not constrained by timelines or by anything, since I was not invited to the party, and deservedly so, since I, and a million others out there, are not Updike, Roth, DeLillo, and now, thankfully, Morrison. (Of course this is sour grapes among writers with no names and who operate like Mexican immigrants who do the work other Americans don’t want to do, and get paid wages below minimum.)

So it’s actually all about finding the next Hemingway and Hemingway, as we know, got it all done while drunk and chasing after women. He did not use steroids and neither, as far as we know, does Morrison, so for that alone she is the right choice. Say this for Morrison. She is somewhat deserving, for “Beloved” is somewhat original, if originally Faulkner.

Roth has been writing the same novel over and over again (Canada’s Mordecai Richler was the much-improved, far superior and real Philip Roth) and reading Updike is like eating Chinese; you’re never satiated. You hunger for the depth and recklessness of Dostoyevsky. DeLillo is good but using the same rhythm line after line, page after page, can get tiresome, even annoying.

How come Bukowski didn’t make the cut? He qualifies within the 25-year timeline. I can think of 100 others who should have been contenders. Remember Kafka? Now, yes, but during his life, nobody did. Kafka would never have made any list while he was alive, writing and struggling.

Toni Morrison is no Ernest Hemingway. The next Hemingway may be out there, like the Lamed-vovnik that Andrew Schwartz Bart chronicled so wonderfully in his novel “The Last of the Just,” about the 36 men and women who hold up the world through their righteousness.

Trouble is, we don’t know who they are (in fact, in their saintliness, even they don’t know who they are), and we may never know, busy as we are with Updike, Roth, DeLillo, and now, thankfully, Morrison.

(Late word: The NY Times runs a Forum, a blog actually, along with its piece “What Is The Best Work Of Fiction Of The Last 25 Years” – and the reaction has been heated and almost unanimously against the choice of “Beloved.” The Times has been running this feature for more than a week, possibly because it has generated so much attention. E-mails protesting the choice keep pouring in from people who read books, heaven bless them. True, we all have our favorites, and the discussion should be literary, which is often the case. But, a backlash could be setting in against our trend-setters for falling so instinctively for PC LIT, and that’s the good news.)

Note these words from JFK speaking at Amherst College: “It may be different elsewhere. But in Democratic society – in it, the highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may. In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation.” Amen