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The 'Dictatorship of Mediocrity'

July 07, 1991|JACK MILES | Miles, Times book editor on leave until October, 1991, is president of the National Book Critics Circle.

A ghost of controversies past returned to haunt me recently, a reminder of the day in 1987 when I attacked a woman of Asian color for promoting a woman of African color against my own favorite, pale male. Larry Heinemann's novel "Paco's Story" had then just defeated the smart-money favorite, Toni Morrison's "Beloved," for the National Book Award. Michiko Kakutani, fiction critic of the New York Times, denounced what she saw as a miscarriage of literary justice. I wrote in The Times Book Review that "Beloved" was a good book but "Paco's Story" a better one. There was a little more to it than that, but not much more.

Why bring this up now? Because Toni Morrison's failure to win the 1987 National Book Award has been a strikingly neglected fact in a controversy over critic Carol Iannone that over the past three months has embroiled the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Modern Language Assn., the American Council for Learned Societies, PEN American Center, People for the American Way, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post and such fourth-estate heavies as William F. Buckley Jr., Garry Wills, George Will and Norman Podhoretz.

Last March Iannone wrote an article in Commentary magazine, disparaging at some length Charles Johnson's "Middle Passage," the winner of this year's National Book Award for fiction. "Though Johnson's larger ambitions are noble," Iannone wrote, "it is hard to take his prize-winning book seriously as literature." Johnson is black. The other four NBA nominees included two Latinos, a Filipino and a white.

Iannone thought they were all third-rate, nominated not because of their merits but because of their minority-group membership. As for the one white, well, Joyce Carol Oates' "Because It Is Bitter and Because It Is My Heart" is all about "the life of a wondrous black boy . . . wasted on account of a totally worthless sleazeball of a white." It was that subject, Iannone suggested, rather than the literary merits of the book that won Oates her slot.

Iannone didn't stop with this year's alleged beneficiaries of literary affirmative action, however. She harked back to Alice Walker, whose "The Color Purple" was awarded the 1982 National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize. "The amazing honor accorded to it seemed less a recognition of literary achievement," Iannone wrote, "than some official act of reparation, in this case to the black woman in her capacity both as author and as literary character."

And there were other unjustly celebrated blacks, she said: "Around the same time, another black woman novelist, Gloria Naylor, won a National Book Award and an American Book Award for an even less accomplished novel, 'The Women of Brewster Place,' and in 1987, a group of black writers demanded and obtained the Pulitzer Prize for Toni Morrison's novel 'Beloved.' " Collectively, these cases proved to Iannone that American literature had become a "democratic dictatorship of mediocrity."

Memory is so selective when you've got an agenda. It's true that Toni Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize for "Beloved," but it is also true, as noted above, that, to the great shock of many in New York publishing, she was denied the National Book Award. Which decision reveals more?

Yes, a group of blacks took an ad in the New York Times calling on the Pulitzer Prize judges to make amends by awarding Toni Morrison that prize. But when have the white male powerhouses of American newspaper publishing ever deferred to writers of any kind, much less black writers? "I can summon spirits from the vasty deep," Shakespeare's Owen Glendower says. "So can I. So can any man," answers Hotspur. "But will they come?"

In a backhanded, insultingly condescending compliment to Johnson, Iannone says that he "holds the profoundly heterodox belief that black artists should be allowed to write as individuals rather than as 'spokesmen for the race.' " If this is heterodoxy, who are the black writers who defend the orthodoxy? Find me a black writer who believes that he or she should not be allowed to write as an individual. Neither Naylor nor Walker nor Morrison would espouse that position.

This year's National Book Critics Circle Awards are highly relevant data for the question of whether a dictatorship of mediocrity guarantees honors to minority writers. I would note first that the NBCC Awards are the most representative literary awards in the country, much more so than the National Book Awards.

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