Slate’s Audio Book Club: Young, Dumb & Full of Come

Tayari Jones takes umbrage with this Slate Audio Book Club podcast on Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Apparently, the commentators (led by Meghan O’Rourke) had a conversation about the book in a cafe. But instead of discussing the book’s literary qualities, they instead aired prejudicial grievances.

I’ve listened to a portion of the podcast and I have to agree with Tayari. After a rote plot summary that feels lifted from Cliff’s Notes, one of the participants says:

“I have to admit that I came to it after not having read it since it came out with enormous prejudice. And I actually thought that I’m going to hate this book, it’s sentimental, it’s going to be this overly contrived kind of political piece of propaganda — you know, with politically correct text. And I was really ready to hate the book. Especially with the Times voting it number one in the past twenty-five years, which I think is a dubious vote. But when I actually read the book, I myself, alone in a room, without thinking about these things, I was surprised by how good it was and that there are certain things about it that I think are quite extraordinary.” (Emphasis added where speaker added emphasis in audio.)

These words come from Katie Rolphe, the only member of the trio who had read Beloved before. But Rolphe’s preconceived notions not only reveal a profound ignorance, offering a perception on a book that she hasn’t yet read (reportedly for the second time), but a distressing backwards attitude completely at odds with any meaningful text analysis. Morrison has written “politically incorrect text.” (What does this mean exactly? That an African-American novelist has written a book? That the words are somehow lesser not because of narrative beefs or discordant aesthetic sensibilities, but because they chronicle African-American life?) She is surprised by “how good it is,” as if her Caucasian hands might be sullied by holding a book written by one of them uppity niggers and that African-American writers, as a matter of course, can’t write jack.

There are also some strange phrases here (“overly contrived kind of political piece of propaganda”) completely incongruous with a critic who has previously read the book. I think it’s more likely that Rolphe is full of shit and that she had not read Beloved before at all. Rolphe confesses later that she remembers liking the book when it first came out, but that she was caught “in a haze of my own political correctness.” Huh? One likes or dislikes Beloved based on one’s own literary sensibilities, not because a book is deemed Great or Correct or Because the Book is Written by a Token African-American Author. Is Rolphe confessing here that she goes along with the crowd? At the risk of generalizing here, I’ve encountered this loudmouth type before at book clubs. For whatever reason, they always seem to bring the potato salad.

Stephen Metcalf then adds his two cents: “It’s unclear when a book like this gets the kind of accolades and sort of wins the public prestige sweepstakes to the degree that this one has. Whether that lowers the bar or raises the bar for the book in some ways — it sort of does both in a peculiar way, in the sense that you don’t think it could possibly live up, that it is a hype job, that it was sort of an act of racial and class restitution to award these prizes to Toni Morrison, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. And the bar slowly sort of lowers and lowers and lowers until you think it just can be good at all. And I do think it’s a considerably better book than I had maybe expected when I picked it up. At the same time, judged against other books and other authors that have gotten that degree of attention and praise, I think it’s really a conspicuously lacking work of art. And in the end, I find it unconvincing. And unpleasurable, I should say also.”

I should say also. Notice how Metcalf is quick to condemn the book without citing a specific example from the text. Notice how he too is ensnared in the notion of what he thinks the book is in advance as opposed to what he has thought of the book after he has read it. He comes to the book, believing it to be “an act of racial and class restitution,” as opposed to viewing it as a work of literature with strengths and weakness he can decide upon for himself.

I continued listening to this podcast with an admixture of curiosity and horror, wondering if these so-called “critics” would deign to engage in anything even close to critical thinking. It was not to be.

O’Rourke then moves the conversation away from prejudices and promises to read a selection from the book. Great, I thought, now they’ll be able to respond to Morrison’s text and I’ll be able to here where these folks are coming from. But instead of reading from Beloved, O’Rourke reads (I kid you not) from Morrison’s opening preface!

“Hmmm,” says O’Rourke, sounding like she may have a touch of ADD. “There’s a lot packed in there.”

Indeed. Rolphe, like an eager beaver undergraduate whose chirpy voice is more attuned to a pep squad than a classroom, brings up the obligatory tie-in to The Sound and the Fury, without bothering to name a single character or a specific association. Has she even read Faulkner? Can she even track the book’s many perspectives (which she merely describes as “frustrating”)? She seems incapable of naming a single character or passage from Faulkner to establish any meaningful association. It may as well be shallow cocktail party banter.

Metcalf then jumps in, noting that he has written a piece for Slate about what he liked and didn’t like. “What amazes me about that preface is how Morrison’s own words there condense my ill feelings toward the book so beautifully.” What the hell does this have to do with the damn novel? Why should one’s critical acumen be sullied by an author’s personal introduction (generally written with the lay reader in mind, not the literary critic)?

Metcalf’s chief objection to the book is that “the sense of history felt so abstract.” And at this point, I Alt-F4ed the player, realizing that listening to any more of this nonsense would dull my mind. And if I wanted to lose brain cells, I preferred to do it through heavy drinking.

I’m sorry that I was only able to last a few minutes longer than Tayari, but I have to wonder, based on this audio exemplar, just how far the standards of critical thinking have fallen. Even on a casual level, this is jejune. Big time. Hell, get Scott and I liquored up on Stoli and, however incoherent our words and arguments, at least we’d still refer to the goddam text.

[UPDATE: Powell’s Lewis was able to get to the thirteen minute mark — a new world record. Is there any brave litblogger or reader out there who can get all the way to the end?]


  1. What a load of rubbish. That book is popular because it’s a goddamn masterpiece! These people wouldn’t know fine literature if it smacked them over the head like a set of used Louis Vuitton luggage. Fucking right it’s politically incorrect – it’s about slavery! Should it be accessible and kind and fuzzy and feature a white protagonist?

    The end of the Slate article offends me:

    “Beloved is indeed a work of genius. No other American novel of the past 25 years has so elegantly mapped the psychobiography of its ideal reader.”

    There is nothing contrived about that book. It was not written to manipulate a target audience. It was not written for Oprah and her followers, which the author seems to be suggesting. Hell, I don’t know that Morrison wrote it for anyone but herself. It’s not exactly an easy read.

    “Beloved, meanwhile, is a historical novel that doesn’t feel grounded in history.”

    If you know anything about slavery, you don’t need all the details of it hashed out and explained to you so you’re transported to that time. Even if you don’t know much about it, if you have patience and empathy, the book explains it quite plainly. Of all the books I’ve read about slavery, and I’ve read a lot of them, none have broken my heart like this book.

    It just boggles my freakin’ mind that these people have jobs critiquing literature.

  2. Also, less someone read my angry rant and think, “I read the book and didn’t like it” – as you stated Ed, “One likes or dislikes Beloved based on one’s own literary sensibilities, not because a book is deemed Great or Correct or Because the Book is Written by a Token African-American Author.” Which is so true, and should be true of any book.

  3. I wonder if these crazy kids at Slate would believe that, say, War and Peace won its popular acceptance as being ‘good’ because it was a “political piece of propaganda.” No? What about any of Phillip Roth’s six (!) novels that made the list that Katie Roiphe found so dubious?

    Oh, right. It must only be that a female black writer’s novel would be the one that can’t earn its high esteem.

    To me, the dialogue (at least your summary of it–I haven’t listened) goes to show that many people–even those supposedly trained as lit crits–are afraid to honestly talk about books. It’s easier to rearrange the books in the supposed literary canon. Text itself is scary. People want to sound smart.

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