Why Toni Morrison Left Publishing
Dan Sinykin on Black Editors, White Publishers, and Beloved
Commercial book publishing was (and is) unbearably white. In 1971, when Toni Morrison became a trade editor, about 95 percent of the fiction published by the big commercial houses was by white authors. By 2018, that number dropped only to 89 percent. One of the only other black women working as an editor, Marie Brown, started the same year at Doubleday. Black women faced bias along axes of race and gender, making Morrison’s extraordinary accomplishments all the more astonishing. She began her career in publishing as a textbook editor for L. W. Singer in Syracuse, a Random House subsidiary. On a visit a couple years later, Bob Bernstein—observing that “African Americans were not just underrepresented in the business; they were practically nonexistent”—promoted Morrison first to the scholastic division then to trade editor for Random House at the New York City headquarters.
She pointedly acquired black writers for what was an extremely white list. “I wasn’t marching,” she told Hilton Als. “I didn’t go to anything. I didn’t join anything. But I could make sure there was a published record of those who did march and did put themselves on the line.” She was unsentimental and unsparing. For an internal report on a manuscript from Black Panther Huey Newton, she recommended that Random House “delete some of the truly weak essays, edit all” and argued that “the Panthers and their prose should be given the benefit of editing and thus be shown in their best light.” Along with Newton, she published nonfiction by Muhammad Ali and Angela Davis; in terms of fiction and poetry, she published Toni Cade Bambara, Lucille Clifton, Leon Forrest, June Jordan, and Gayl Jones. She managed to make a little headway against the whiteness of the house’s list.
Her situation as a black woman at a very white press, though, was fraught. It was fraught within the house, where she had to contest entrenched white supremacy. It was also fraught outside the house, where her black peers might see her as a sellout. Some did. Morrison published poetry and fiction by Henry Dumas, a black writer who had been murdered by the police in 1968. His poems had circulated in the black press, including Black World, before Morrison published his collection Play Ebony, Play Ivory. Her edition didn’t acknowledge the prior publications. Editors at Black World were displeased. The executive editor wrote to Morrison to say that he was “more than a little offended.” A week later, Morrison received a letter from her friend Carole Parks, a Black World editor. She wrote, “it’s not just that you have given people absolutely no inkling that a Black publication gave Dumas his first national exposure. It’s that you have at the same time added to the myth that Black genius would languish unappreciated were it not for some white liberal or far-sighted individual like yourself.” Parks accused Morrison of being interested in herself and her “already prestigious career.” Morrison responded that she had been deeply hurt. She asked, “Perhaps I should leave white publishers to their own devices?” She said she would miss her friendship with Parks.
In the meantime, Morrison became a star novelist. She published her first novel, The Bluest Eye, with Holt, Rinehart in 1970. When Robert Gottlieb, Knopf editor, learned that the author of The Bluest Eye worked in the same building, he brought her in house and became her editor for the rest of her life. She dedicated her late masterpiece, A Mercy (2008), to him. She published her second novel, Sula, in 1973, writing to her friend James Baldwin for a blurb, which he gave. “I love the quote just as you wrote it,” she replied. “Perfect and unad-copyish.” In the same letter, she lamented that she couldn’t be the one to publish his latest novel, If Beale Street Could Talk. “It is so beautiful that I wanted to cover it, touch it, promote it, be knowledgeable about it—you know become an If Beale Street Could Talk groupie.” After publishing her third novel, Song of Solomon, in 1977, she felt she needed more time to focus on her writing. She began coming into the office one day per week and doing the rest of her work from home.
In her last years as an editor, Morrison helped lead the chorus of those calling to take up arms against conglomeration. In 1981, Morrison delivered the keynote address at the American Writers Congress to an overflow crowd of three thousand. Writers today, she said, “are held in contempt—to be played with when our masters are pleased, to be dismissed when they are not.” She argued that the pomp of the 1970s, the big auctions and the author tours, masked the damage conglomeration had done: “the vitality in the arts which promoters like to talk about is false. Beneath the headlines of blockbusters and bestsellers, underneath the froth of the book fairs, something is terribly wrong.” She preached, she declaimed. The audience erupted frequently in cheers and applause. “The life of the writing community is under attack,” she said, sounding not unlike Stephen King in The Dark Tower. “Editors,” she said, turning to her day job, “are now judged by the profitability of what they acquire rather than by what they acquire, or the way they acquire it. Acceptance of the givenness of the marketplace keeps us in ignorance.” She closed with revolutionary rhetoric. “We are already at the barricades, and if there is one resolution that emerges from this congress, it is that we choose to remain at the barricades.”
She resigned from Random House in 1983. “Leaving was a good idea,” she wrote in the preface to her next novel, Beloved (1987), “The books I had edited were not earning scads of money.” She quietly blamed colleagues who were less than supportive of her list. “My enthusiasm,” she wrote, “shared by some, was muted by others, reflecting the indifferent sales figures.”“Editors are now judged by the profitability of what they acquire rather than by what they acquire, or the way they acquire it. Acceptance of the givenness of the marketplace keeps us in ignorance.”
She threw herself into Beloved, which would become her greatest success. It was based on a news clipping she’d included in The Black Book (1974), a work of experimental collage. Margaret Garner escaped slavery in 1856 by crossing from Kentucky to Ohio with her four children. When slave catchers caught them, Garner killed her two-year-old and tried to kill the others rather than have them returned to slavery. Morrison transposes Garner’s story onto Sethe, her protagonist, and sets Sethe’s story after emancipation in Sethe’s house, which is haunted by the dead child, known as Beloved. It is a novel about the haunting afterlives of slavery. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988, helped Morrison win the Nobel Prize in 1993, and has become the most widely held U.S. novel in libraries and one of the most written-about U.S. novels in scholarly journals. It influenced the priorities of African American literary studies for the coming decades.
By Morrison’s account, Beloved is also about publishing. This is, on its face, a ludicrous claim. The novel is about chain gangs and slave catchers and trauma. It features no editors, no publishing houses. Yet Morrison confesses that publishing is at its center. In the novel’s preface, she writes:
“A few days after my last day of work, sitting in front of my house on the pier jutting out into the Hudson River, I began to feel an edginess instead of the calm I had expected. I ran through my index of problem areas and found nothing new or pressing. I couldn’t fathom what was so unexpectedly troubling on a day that was perfect, watching a river that serene. I had no agenda and couldn’t hear the telephone if it rang. I heard my heart, though, stomping away in my chest like a colt. . . . Then it slapped me: I was happy, free in a way I had never been, ever. It was the oddest sensation. Not ecstasy, not satisfaction, not a surfeit of pleasure or accomplishment. It was a purer delight, a rogue anticipation with certainty. Enter Beloved.”
“I think now it was the shock of liberation that drew my thoughts to what ‘free’ could mean,” she adds. Morrison is saying that leaving Random House enabled her to feel, in her body, a freedom that she could project back onto emancipation from slavery. She describes the first moment of freedom for Sethe’s mother, Baby Suggs, in much the same way. “Something’s the matter,” Baby Suggs thinks. “What’s the matter? What’s the matter?” She sees her hands as her hands. And she feels “a knocking in her chest, and discover[s] something else new: her own heartbeat. Had it been there all along? This pounding thing?” It was the oddest sensation.
Acknowledging the possibility of exaggeration, let’s follow Morrison’s thought. Beloved describes the thrill of freedom, but also insists that freedom is contaminated by the haunting of slavery. Among the degradations that haunt Sethe, she was coerced into complicity with racist writings. A villain named schoolteacher—uncapitalized—dehumanizes Sethe by forcing her to submit to his pupils’ scrutiny as they write down, in parallel, her “human” and “animal” characteristics. Sethe returns to this traumatic event, remembering the observation. She also remembers, and is haunted by, the fact that she made the ink that schoolteacher and his pupils used. “I made the ink,” she says, toward the end of the novel, “He couldn’t have done it if I hadn’t made the ink.”
Beloved is an exquisite work of art, terrifying and beautiful. It does everything. One of the things it does is allegorize the publishing industry for a black woman who worked as an editor at a major house for sixteen years, who fought for black writers in a sea of whiteness, who was more or less accused by other black editors of being a race traitor. Morrison, defending herself to Carole Parks, wrote that she didn’t have a career, she just had work. It is a story of coercion into white supremacy. I made the ink. But it is also a story about the exhilaration of freedom. Morrison ended her preface to Beloved by emphasizing the connection, making sure readers feel the sensation of a heartbeat that is hers and Baby Suggs’s both: “I husband that moment on the pier, the deceptive river, the instant awareness of possibility, the loud heart kicking, the solitude, the danger.”
Dan Sinykin’s Big Fiction: How Conglomeration Changed the Publishing Industry and American Literature is available from Columbia University Press.