Toni Morrison — Good, but never simple

Author Toni Morrison illuminates concepts of virtue, and its opposite:

“Expressions of goodness are never trivial in my work, are never incidental in my writing. In fact, I want them to have life-changing properties and illuminate decisively the moral questions embedded in the narrative,” she said.

“It was important to me that none of these expressions of goodness be handled as comedy or irony, and they are seldom mute. . . . A satisfactory or good ending for me is when the protagonist learns something vital and morally insightful and mature that she or he did not know at the beginning.”

A true exploration of goodness demands a thorough examination of its opposite, Morrison argued. The author, who won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1988 (for her book Beloved), said that she has never “been impressed by evil,” and that she is “confounded by how attractive it is to others and stunned by the attention given to its every whisper, its every shout.”

“Evil has a blockbuster audience,” she said, “goodness lurks backstage.”

But there was a “rapid, stark” shift away from such endings in the wake of World War I, as writers confronted a catastrophe “too wide, too deep to ignore or to distort with a simplistic gesture of goodness.” In Faulkner’s “A Fable,” which tells of trench warfare between German and American forces, “evil grabs the intellectual platform and all of its energy,” said Morrison.

Goodness hasn’t fared well since. Through portrayals of grief, melancholy, missed chances, and personal happiness, authors depict their versions of evil. “It hogs the stage,” said Morrison. “Goodness sits in the audience and watches, assuming it even has a ticket to the show.

If that wasn’t enough, she offers some writing wisdom in this 1993 interview with the Paris Review.

Did you know as a child you wanted to be a writer?

No. I wanted to be a reader. I thought everything that needed to be written had already been written or would be. I only wrote the first book because I thought it wasn’t there, and I wanted to read it when I got through. I am a pretty good reader. I love it. It is what I do, really. So, if I can read it, that is the highest compliment I can think of. People say, I write for myself, and it sounds so awful and so narcissistic, but in a sense if you know how to read your own work— that is, with the necessary critical distance—it makes you a better writer and editor. When I teach creative writing, I always speak about how you have to learn how to read your work; I don’t mean enjoy it because you wrote it. I mean, go away from it, and read it as though it is the first time you’ve ever seen it. Critique it that way. Don’t get all involved in your thrilling sentences and all that.

Belonging

It is not possible for me to be unaware of the incredible violence, the willful ignorance, the hunger for other people’s pain. I’m always conscious of that though I am less aware of it under certain circumstances—good friends at dinner, other books. Teaching makes a big difference, but that is not enough. Teaching could make me into someone who is complacent, unaware, rather than part of the solution. So what makes me feel as though I belong here out in this world is not the teacher, not the mother, not the lover, but what goes on in my mind when I am writing. Then I belong here and then all of the things that are disparate and irreconcilable can be useful. I can do the traditional things that writers always say they do, which is to make order out of chaos. Even if you are reproducing the disorder, you are sovereign at that point. Struggling through the work is extremely important—more important to me than publishing it.

(h/t Atul Gawande for the first, Open Culture for the second)