Sunday, July 3, 2011


E. Ethelbert Miller asks this question: "In her book, Charles Johnson in Context, Dr. Linda Selzer mentions the significance of you winning the National Book Award in 1990. Do you view Middle Passage as your major work?"

One of the problems with asking a philosopher a question is that he's likely to answer you with another question. He'll ask you to define your terms. No doubt this tendency is what makes philosophers so annoying and exasperating to other people. (And why the Athenians put Socrates to death.) It's not that I intend to be annoying. Instead, I just have to endlessly ask questions because the language we use in discussing literature often seems (to me) to be so unexamined, so riddled with presuppositions, and the lack of critical thinking.
 Does a major national award make a novel a major work of fiction? Does the "recognition" of the book by a prize do that or does the book being "major" arise from the quality of its content? (And should politicking and favoritism among the judges for the prize be considered?) Would the book be "major" if it hadn't won a National Book Award? For example, why didn't my friend, the late Chicago novelist Leon Forrest, receive a major literary prize for his highly praised, 1,135-page Joycean novel Divine Days? What about all those National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize winning works that have long been out of print and forgotten? Were they not "major" after all, then?

 I recall being interviewed by a reporter when I retired from teaching two years ago. She asked what I would be working on. I ticked off a couple of projects, and she  said, "No, I mean what big things are you working on?" I paused for a moment to rethink my reply, then mentioned a couple of other projects that seemed to please her because apparently she thought they were "big."

All of this reminds me of a story told once by Nobel Prize author Isaac Bashevis Singer. He said a friend advised him to stop fooling around with short fiction and write something difficult, like a novel. Upon hearing this, Singer said he stepped slowly into his study and, returning, brought back reams of paper, hundreds of revised pages. "So you have started a novel," said his friend, pleased. But Singer, shaking his head, sighed, "All this is to get one short story."

The view from inside the creative process, where an artist lives, strikes me as being rather different from outside, or the vantage point from which general readers and literary critics view that process. (I once startled a lawyer friend one morning in Seattle when, as we were talking, I mentioned I'd tossed out 3,000 pages for Middle Passage---his assumption, I realized, was that the book he'd read was a first draft and just sprang whole cloth from my head with no revision necessary.) When a serious artist works on something---be it a story, novel, essay, drawing, screenplay, poem or what have you---he or she invests the same energy and focus during the creative process in whatever project is at hand. Each book can be compared to, say, his children, and like any good parent, he would be loathe to describe one child as "major" and other as "minor." 

The fact that I've been publishing steadily since 1965 causes me to pause when asked, "Is Middle Passage your major work?" Back in my student days, when I wrote six novels in two years, the fourth, fifth, and sixth books in that series were intended to be a 1,000-page trilogy---that's the kind of project that springs from a young man's ego-driven nisus to create what others would see as being a "big," "major" work. Obviously, there is a great deal of foolishness in thinking that extravagance necessarily equals excellence. An alternate way would be envisioning and executing a work of crystalline purity, poetic compression, and focused, emotional power free of remplissage or literary padding.  
Another fact that causes me to pause is a lifetime devoted to studying Buddhism and Buddhist art, and 31 years of practicing meditation. Because the easy categories we use uncritically---"major" and "minor," "big" and "small" strike me as being as dualistic as the terms "good and bad," "right and wrong." They are relative, often arbitrary, and always problematic once we start poking at them. For an artist continually at work, moving from one creation to another, these labels and categories are simply meaningless. And for a Buddhist artist, "more" is often "less," and the artistic virtue one strives for is simply a direct, intuitive insight into truth.

 I'm not sure if these reflections answer the simple question Ethelbert placed before me. Is Middle Passage a "major" novel? Let me conclude by just saying it quite possibly is if you, the reader, say so. It's 21-years-old now. Old enough to vote. Old enough to have been read by two generations of readers. Let's give it fifty years---approximately three generations---and revisit the question then.

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