Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Toni Morrison’s “Sweetness” was originally published in the February 9, 2015 issue of The New Yorker.
Click for a larger image.

Click for a larger image.

Disappointingly, The New Yorker has chosen, this week, to publish an excerpt from Toni Morrison’s forthcoming novel God Help the Child. I’m almost always against publishing excerpts from novels as short fiction, and this week’s offering is no exception: what we have here is an underdeveloped something or other that, in my case, has turned me off of the eventual novel.

I did have hope after the interesting opening, even if the prose itself felt like the marketing copy from the back of a YA novel (for the record, I do like YA books, but I don’t usually like their marketing copy):

It’s not my fault. So you can’t blame me. I didn’t do it and have no idea how it happened. It didn’t take more than an hour after they pulled her out from between my legs for me to realize something was wrong. Really wrong. She was so black she scared me.

What follows is a short — mercifully short — rundown of a mother’s distress that her daughter came out with black skin when she herself was “light-skinned, with good hair, what we call high yellow, and so is Lula Ann’s father. Ain’t nobody in my family anywhere near that color.”

Her distress is a horrible result of systemic racism, an immensely important topic that Morrison has handled well in the past. Here, though, the segment we read is a jumble that crosses several years.

Commenters last week didn’t like Elizabeth Harrower’s “Alice” because they didn’t think Harrower did enough showing but rather told. I disagreed, and I’d hold this piece up as my example of when a story is mostly interested in rifling through a bunch of events with little description and nuance.

Am I just in a bad mood? I admit I’ve never really gotten on with Morrison’s style; though this feels nothing like her work, usually rich — to my taste, overly so — in imagery and metaphor, I have to wonder if I walked into this one expecting little and giving it little attention once it met my low expectations.

I look forward to your thoughts.

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By |2015-02-02T02:29:39-04:00February 2nd, 2015|Categories: New Yorker Fiction, Toni Morrison|Tags: , |31 Comments

31 Comments

  1. Lee Monks February 2, 2015 at 5:30 am

    That excerpt is Harlan Coben-esque.

    I always see Beloved on all the ‘great novels’ lists and feel that I didn’t get it when I read it years ago at Uni. I certainly didn’t understand the reverence for it, and I really wanted to and felt at fault. I always mean to go back and try again.

    I think putting a shard of a new novel in there instead of a story is purely a sales move. It’s a bit of a shame.

  2. Jan Wilkens February 2, 2015 at 12:32 pm

    I do appreciate Morrison’s style but I really had to work hard at it. There is an excellent interview where Bill Moyers asks her great questions about the characters and conflicts in her work. In the interview she asserts ideas about her philosophy about what she calls, “the master narrative”. It is her position that ALL American social and economic issues had their roots in the practice of slavery. It’s an interview worth finding and watching because it gives a deeper insight into what she was able to accomplish in “Beloved.”
    I agree completely with both Trevor and Lee that the decision to publish an excerpt of a novel is disrespectful to the readers who come to expect a great short story. We all know the difference between a novel and a short story and an excerpt is NOT either of those. It’s marketing pure and simple. I suspect that because February is Black History Month, the NYorker wanted a piece that reflects both writer reputation and diversity.
    I however, am also disappointed when they publish a work from a great writer that was recently “discovered” and I see that of as a waste of an opportunity to publish a great and polished piece.
    The IBSinger story and the Shirley Jackson story were several edits away from good…not great stories.

  3. lucid consciousness February 5, 2015 at 11:55 pm

    Seems like you’re just in a bad mood. Also, her distress is a horrible result of colorism, not “systemic racism”, as you put it. Black people cannot be racist.

  4. Trevor Berrett February 6, 2015 at 10:34 pm

    Please explain.

    Regardless, I don’t see how your definitions apply here. Her fears are often in place because of the racism she had experienced and that she’s seen others experience, from people who are not black.

    Also, please help me understand why there’s anything in this story. I don’t believe it is simply that I was in a bad mood, but if so, and you have any insights into what I missed, I’d love it if you shared them.

  5. lotusgreen February 7, 2015 at 7:36 pm

    As always, posting before I read what’s above.

    What? After last week’s “Alice” by Elizabeth Harrower, Mom demanded equal time? Please. Do the editors at the New Yorker allow their glasses to slip down their noses when a writer of fame walks in the room? This, like Tom Hanks’ spaceship, is cringe-worthy.

    This story is saying, Once you hear my whole story, you’ll understand me, you’ll understand how I was right, and how I am still right. Um…. no. No, I will not. No, I do not.

    In fact, as of this moment I’ll follow your daughter’s exceptional example and leave you the heck alone.

    –Lily

  6. lotusgreen February 7, 2015 at 7:41 pm

    Lee, I think you’re being unfair to Harlan Coben.

  7. Trevor Berrett February 7, 2015 at 8:59 pm

    I enjoy our constructive disagreements, Lily, but it is nice to be in agreement too :-)

  8. lotusgreen February 7, 2015 at 9:46 pm

    :^D Yeah, I was thinking that as well.

  9. Christian February 8, 2015 at 2:24 pm

    Sweetness is a supportive foreshadowing to the April release of Morrison’s forthcoming novel, God Help the Child. This work addresses issues of childhood trauma, internalized racism, and skin privilege. I think you are confused by claiming this to be an “underdeveloped something or other” and “jumbled”. It seems to me this is more a stylistic choice, which provides insight, and character development. I think it is actually helpful some audiences to read this short story before the full novel is released. Clearly, there is a lack of understanding. However, there is still time for folks to unpack their own prejudices, racism, and traumas. Use this as a learning.

  10. Christian February 8, 2015 at 2:27 pm

    *Use this as a learning opportunity.

  11. Lee Monks February 8, 2015 at 4:41 pm

    Quite probably! Sorry, Harlan…(does Eric Van Lustbader work better maybe?).

  12. lotusgreen February 8, 2015 at 5:30 pm

    Now I think perhaps you’re actually doing a disservice to Morrison herself. ;^)

  13. Lee Monks February 8, 2015 at 5:48 pm

    Ok, ok…let’s say Lisa Scottoline.

  14. Lee Monks February 8, 2015 at 5:57 pm

    I think I’ll stop insulting Toni Morrison now: clearly this piece is a poor example of her work.

  15. lotusgreen February 8, 2015 at 6:50 pm

    If there’s anything I’d prefer not to say, it’s “Lisa Scottoline.” Actually, this may be the first of any Toni Morrison I’ve ever read. Sadly, and redundantly, it’s also the last.

  16. Roger February 8, 2015 at 10:36 pm

    I thought this held some promise as some kind of satire where Morrison is providing us with a black narrator/main character who has treated her own daughter in a cruel and even racist manner, to protect her from white racism. But then we don’t get anywhere, either with the satire (assuming that satire is intended) or anything else, like the heartbreak that this mother and daughter have doubtless experienced.

    I’m also one who doesn’t like it when TNY runs novel excerpts in the limited space they allot to short fiction. But some excerpts work better than others. I recall years ago first discovering Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude as a result of an excerpt in TNY that read like its own outstanding story. This excerpt, by contrast, is meager enough to disappoint any reader, whether a fan of Morrison or not, and whether a supporter of novel excerpts or not.

  17. Dan February 9, 2015 at 12:48 am

    When I saw that this week’s story was going to be by Toni Morrison, I was really happy because I’ve very much enjoyed her novels. When I saw that she has a novel coming out this spring, I despaired because I am so very tired of novel excerpts in the New Yorker. I ranted before reading it that with the tens of thousands of short story writers working just in the U.S., how is it that one of the very few mainstream publications still running short fiction has, in the last three weeks, published a story that lay in a drawer for 40 years, a story by a guy who’s been dead for ten years, and now a novel excerpt?!

    I speculated a couple of weeks ago that the Bellow piece had remained unpublished because it was so unfinished. Unlike many of the readers here, I thought the Harrower piece was brilliant–one of the better stories I’ve read in a while–but still.

    And now this. The chronology was confused, but I didn’t get the sense deliberately so. I know Morrison plays with perspective and time, but this felt more like the result of the novel-to-story adaptation process. And the sarcasm at the end bothered me (where the narrator says, “Now she’s pregnant. Good move, Lula Ann.”) Up to this point, the narrator seemed so humorless and self-righteous, albeit unreliable, that the sudden change in tone seemed unearned.

    Finally, the ending: Illuminated by last week’s discussion of the classic “showing versus telling” debate, I see the ending of this piece as all telling, but not in the way that Trevor favors. It just feels like maybe the next chapter, or the rest of the novel, may convey what is truncated and telegraphed in the last couple of paragraphs.

    Definitely looking forward to Triesman selecting a genuine short story by a little known writer.

  18. Dan February 9, 2015 at 1:08 am

    Oops. Bad proofreading. Treisman, not Triesman.

  19. Trevor Berrett February 9, 2015 at 2:04 am

    I think you are confused by claiming this to be an “underdeveloped something or other” and “jumbled”. It seems to me this is more a stylistic choice, which provides insight, and character development.

    Christian, I don’t mean stylistically jumbled, I mean substantively jumbled. I agree that can sometimes yield to insights, but I don’t see it here. Perhaps you could expand on what you’re seeing.

    Also, I’ve gotten a few comments in the moderation bin that I didn’t feel contributed to this conversation at all, so I didn’t approve them. I’m not going to approve an all-caps diatribe on racism in America unless it also discusses this story.

  20. Lee Monks February 9, 2015 at 5:17 am

    “Clearly, there is a lack of understanding. However, there is still time for folks to unpack their own prejudices, racism, and traumas. Use this as a learning.”

    Classic ‘my favourite author is getting some heat’ petulant riposte, there. ‘Oh, they’re simply racist.’ Poor stuff. Such a stance inherently debilitates your comment, Christian. The ‘lack of understanding’ you cite is actually ‘failure to defer correctly to icon of letters, content be damned’. It’s not nice when your literary heroes take a drubbing, but use this as a learning.

  21. Lee Monks February 9, 2015 at 5:21 am

    Lily: do try a Morrison novel instead. It would be a shame for this to put you off. Plenty of people I know love Beloved and maybe that would work a whole lot better for you.

  22. lotusgreen February 9, 2015 at 6:15 pm

    Looking at Beloved, I find, “Winter in Ohio was especially rough if you had an appetite for color.” Yes, I’ll reconsider. Thanks, Lee.

  23. Trevor Berrett February 9, 2015 at 6:37 pm

    I’m glad to hear it, too, Lily. While I’ve never loved Morrison as much as others, I do not think this piece is at all representative of her best work.

  24. Erica G February 10, 2015 at 2:16 pm

    I love Morrison’s work, but I don’t think a short story allows enough space for the way in which she writes- she slowly develops the characters and draws you in. I can see how Beloved may have been tough for some readers to get through- there is a certain ghostly/voodoo vibe to much of that book- something that some readers may not want to suspend disbelief for, but if you can, you will experience the deep emotional trauma that the characters go through as a result of the era they live in. The Bluest Eye is more straight forward and a much easier read. If you don’t “love” her style then you may not ever be a fan, and I think that’s ok. I never really cared for Hemingway’s detached style of writing- I couldn’t engage emotionally, because the writing was more like reporting, even when the mother and baby die in a Farewell to Arms, the main character just leaves the hospital and walks back to his hotel – you know he’s devastated (he must be), but Hemingway never describes his feelings. ANYWAY, I agree that the New Yorker should stick with actual short stories in this section and forgo “celebrity” writers (sorry Tom Hanks).

  25. Sean H February 12, 2015 at 3:36 am

    I couldn’t disagree more with the majority regarding the quality of the prose. Morrison renders the first-person narrator’s voice pretty damn brilliantly. It’s not YA or crappy mainstream fiction, it’s accurately portraying an uneducated woman’s perspective. I admit that I do agree regarding the New Yorker’s choice of a novel excerpt over a short story, and I also agree that it’s well-trod territory for Toni, but her stylistic choices are clearly that, choices, and wise ones at that. The fine balance an author has to find in rendering a less than eloquent character in a way that is elegant and articulate without sounding the wrong notes is a high degree of difficulty maneuver and one well-executed here by Morrison. As an advertisement for the novel I find it a success. As a standalone piece I too would have preferred a story.

  26. L. Meagle February 12, 2015 at 11:31 pm

    I was relieved to find this blog because I was questioning my own sanity. How could I not like a Toni Morrison story? How could it be shallowly characterized, cliche, and dare I say it, utterly disappointing? It was all telling, no showing at all. It wouldn’t have made it through an MFA workshop in this condition. That it’s a novel excerpt might explain these deficiencies, or it may just be a bad novel. That would make me really sad, but no one is above writing a bad novel, not even a Nobel laureate, so we shall see.

  27. lotusgreen February 13, 2015 at 2:34 pm

    Anyone who reads the novel, I’d love to hear your reactions. Was this short excerpt redeemed? Or was it merely an example of the whole wretched thing? And what, if anything, that means.

    –Lily

  28. Ken February 14, 2015 at 9:58 pm

    I concur with the negativity above and agree with all of it. I have read Beloved and think it’s a great great book. The point about needing to get into the voice of a work, something a short story can’t be allowed the temporal luxury to do, is a good one. I can’t say I’m interested in any more of this woman, but maybe it works as a novel. As a short story, I’ll say that it makes Tom Hanks look good.

  29. Greg February 15, 2015 at 9:46 am

    I agree 100% with you Sean! Well said.

  30. Grant February 19, 2015 at 4:10 pm

    I agree. I don’t really know what to make of this story. Knowing that it’s a novel excerpt helps me put it into context, and maybe makes me want to judge it a little less harshly…but I was expecting something a lot better when I saw that Toni Morrison had a story in the NYer. This is more of a character study/monologue than a story, and though you can glean a lot about the character from this excerpt, it just feels flat and mailed in. Can’t believe I’m saying this about Toni…but not super psyched to read the novel after this.

  31. maorka May 20, 2016 at 8:55 am

    Glad I found this blog. I always enjoy the fiction and This Week in Fiction interviews. I too found this story somewhat cliched and was surprised it was written by such an acclaimed author. But I was unaware it was an excerpt and it’s probably unfair to judge a piece of a larger whole.

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