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Black Prizes, Black Prospects

February 14, 1988|RICHARD EDER | Times Book Critic

When the 1987 National Book Award, one of our major literary prizes, went to Larry Heinemann's "Paco's Story" instead of, as widely predicted, to Toni Morrison's "Beloved," it caused a fair stir among those people in New York who publish books or write about them.

No real damage seemed to have been done, except to feelings. If you are a teacup, tempests are what you do for excitement. The New York world of letters does resemble teacups in a few particulars: circularity, coziness, brittleness and as an occasion for gossip.

Three weeks ago, however, things turned harder. The New York Times printed a statement by 48 black writers, along with a letter from two of its signatories, June Jordan and Houston A. Baker Jr. Both the statement and the letter were fervent tributes to Tony Morrison. In addition, the letter noted that James Baldwin had recently died without ever winning either the National Book Award or the Pulitzer Prize. And the statement notched the comparison tight. It deplored the "oversight and harmful whimsy" that has so far denied the same prizes to Morrison.

Subsequently, the authors have said that the statement and the letter were simply their own prize to Morrison. Despite their implication of unfair treatment of black writers, they were not meant to be an attack on the Pulitzer and Book Award juries, let alone an accusation of discrimination. And they were not intended to influence the 1988 Pulitzer, which will be awarded this spring.

Whether you believe all of this or not, there is nothing wrong with lambasting judges. All literary prizes are necessarily a mixture of oversight and whimsy, in the sense that there is usually more than one candidate who should win, and the choice, at best, is personal taste. (At worst, and not infrequently, it is politics.) In the case of the Pulitzers, for example, this was as true when the winners were Alice Walker and Rita Dove as when they were Peter Taylor and John Updike. The literary heights are round, not pointed.

Here, since I was one of the three NBA judges--the others were the black novelist Gloria Naylor and the white novelist Hilma Wolitzer--I should state the following: No oversight was involved when we chose five finalists, including Heinemann and Morrison, and none of us felt whimsical when two of us then chose Heinemann and one of us chose another of the five as the winner. The final vote involved neither compromise nor lobbying. Whatever uncertainties any of us had about who should be No. 1--there were some--these were resolved by each of us alone, and on the night shift.

I regret the air of mystery that hangs over the preceding paragraph. But the three of us agreed from the start that, in the event of a 2-1 vote, we would not disclose the identity of the runner-up or who voted for whom. As to race considerations, I can only say that none of us bent either backwards or forwards.

Sometimes, of course, not bending means you get clipped on the head. In this case, the target was Gloria Naylor. There was a rumor around New York that she had not voted for "Beloved," a rumor that John Leonard saw fit to spread when he wrote in Newsday: ". . . Most of the protesters also know who voted how on the NBA judges' panel, which means they know that beautiful black sisterhood is not invariably abiding." June Jordan, who teaches at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, wrote Naylor that it would be "embarrassing and morally elliptical" for her to take up the month's residency in creative writing at Stony Brook that had been arranged. Naylor replied, in effect, that she would not go where she was not welcome. For the reason already stated, I may not say whether the report of Naylor's vote was true or not, but it hardly matters. Intellectual intolerance has an obstinate resemblance to itself.

The broader question raised by the letter and statement, and by the debate that followed, is more interesting than these particulars. To suggest that writers should be recognized as speaking for a race or a community so that if Morrison fails to win a prize, all blacks fail with her--to suggest this is to raise a deeper question. Do writers write, or should they write, as the voice of a particular community or of a particular communal experience? To the first formulation, we may tend quickly to say no; or rather, to say that such writing, however forceful, is genre writing and is limited by definition.

But put it the second way. How else does anyone write? There was a bit of Western culture that Shakespeare stood upon when he composed his plays. Matthew Arnold's humane and troubled sensibility may seem to us today, even while affecting us, the voice of a remote tribe on--Hugh Kenner's term--a sinking island.

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