I am sure I made the same point when I reviewed Toni Morrison’s collected nonfiction last year, but reading a well-known fiction writer’s nonfiction, especially as it bends toward literary or cultural analysis is fraught. On the one hand, I think that a writer’s vision of fiction (as a reader) is often passionate and alluring, but when they wander into analysis and interpretation is often falls apart. My point here is that Toni Morrison’s does not fall apart. In one essay she mentions AS Byatt and the two writers share a few connections. They began writing about the same time and while both write with joy and sharp irony, both are seen as capital “S” serious. And both have PhDs that inform their analysis. There’s plenty of other writers who have this as well: Iris Murdoch (in philosophy), Jane Smiley, and when those writers are in that milieu something generally good comes out of it.
The context for this book, which looks to investigate the nature, role, and essence of “Blackness” as it’s been portrayed in American literature is the early 1990s, amid the rise of cultural studies and theory-driven criticism. These essays approach American literature with the same kind of respect and affection that Edward Said approaches English literature in his work Culture and Imperialism as something that greatly informed his reading as a child, and a subject worthy of incisive criticism now.
And because so much of public discourse on culture seems to be 30 years behind academic discourse, I think that new readers to her work will find a framing device and lens to look back cultural products of their youth and beyond and find useful tools of analysis.