Charles Johnson, author of Middle Passage and Dreamer: "In l965, a Book Week poll of 200 critics and authors judged Ralph Ellison's novel Invisible Man,


Books Quarterly: Them's Fightin' Words!

What book have you fought about, and why?

Charles Johnson, author of Middle Passage and Dreamer: "In l965, a Book Week poll of 200 critics and authors judged Ralph Ellison's novel Invisible Man, which won the National Book Award in l953, to be 'the most distinguished single work' of the postWorld War II period, and the one most likely to endure. Ellison was the first black American to win that award. I was the second 37 years later, and I used my acceptance speech to deliver a tribute to Mr. Ellison, who was in the audience. That tribute was a deliberate act, one intended to honor one of the most important American novelists of the 20th century, whose high aesthetic and intellectual standards were very influential on me when I began writing fiction. And it was also my rebuttal to those severe critics of Ellison—the Irving Howes and the Amiri Barakas—who believed in the l960s that a black American writer should have only one subject (race) and one theme (victimization)." John Marshall, co-owner of Open Books: A Poetry Emporium: "One of our regular customers from the old Open Books (when we were a general bookstore) came in and asked for a fiction recommendation. I asked her, had she read any Flannery O'Connor? She hadn't, but was interested. I described O'Connor as one of the best short-story writers of the 20th century, but cautioned the customer about the kind of difficult world O'Connor presents. The woman bought a copy of A Good Man Is Hard to Find. Two days later, though, she came back, embarrassed and troubled. She wanted to return the book—but not for a refund or store credit. It seems that O'Connor disquieted her so much, she just wanted the book out of her house. Sherman Alexie, author, screenwriter, poet: "Leviticus, because right-wing Christians completely misquote it and take it out of context so often that it makes me sick. Sure, it says that homosexuals should be put to death, but it also says that adulterers, pagans, tax men, divorced people, cheats, swindlers, thieves, etc. should be put to death. In fact, every single human being on the planet fits into one or more of those Leviticus groups destined for capital punishment. In other words, metaphorically speaking, we are all sinners. Hell, those right-wing Christians wouldn't know a metaphor if it came up and kicked them in the ass. (Although I think that might be a simile I just used.) Hemingway, because wimpy white male professors love to read him and think that they could be Hemingway if only they could retire early and move to Idaho. And Pound because he was Fascist jerk who wrote wonderful poems." J.A. Jance, author of Breach of Duty: "I fought with my husband about A Dog's Life by Peter Mayle. I said our dog Boney could write a better book than Mayle's dog!" Matthew Brogan, executive director of Seattle Arts & Lectures: "I first read Wuthering Heights as a college student and found it overwrought and melodramatic. But a few years later, in graduate school, I met a lot of people who loved the book and thought it was one of the most important English novels of the 19th century. Many of these people became my friends, and since I respected their opinion, I decided that maybe I had just been too young (or stupid) to appreciate the book. So I read it again—and again I disliked it. A few years later, I tried once more with the same result. In the end, I decided that there was something hopelessly flawed about either me or the book, and I was willing to believe it was me as long as I didn't have to read it again. Harris Levinson, editor of Crab Creek Review: "I read Lucy Grealy's Autobiography of a Face because my colleague teaches it at Vashon High and had recommended it as an insightful study of the complexities of physical appearance. I recommended it to my friend Nikki, who shot down my assessment. Grealy, despite her numerous encounters with surgeons' knives, never captured Nikki's sympathy. Nikki is going to be a nurse—and she will be first-rate—but don't expect her to cut you much slack just because you're whining a little louder than everyone else in the ward." Nancy Rawles, teacher and author of Love Like Gumbo: "I stopped by the Frye Museum after visiting St. James Cathedral with a couple of friends (also African-American), but I can't say I was impressed enough to go back. What I hadn't counted on was Little Black Sambo so prominently displayed in the museum shop. Somebody explain this to me. I asked for the book buyer, and she informed me that Little Black Sambo is quite popular with the Frye's visitors. Go figure. I've read the book and I can't imagine why it appeals. I think if it weren't for the caricature drawings, it wouldn't have lasted a year. The story is pretty nonsensical, and I don't need any excuses about how it's supposed to be about East Indians and not my people. I don't know any East Indians who have it on their shelves." Lisa Michaels, author of Split: A Counterculture Childhood: "I was back-and-forthing with a few people about In Cold Blood. Is there such a thing as a nonfiction novel? If so, to what degree could such a work tamper with events and still be called true? Capote did tons of research and interviews, but he still made parts of it out of whole cloth. You could say none of this matters—that it's all just literature—but in fact I think most readers are interested in knowing what is true and what is not. Something changes in the way we read when a text makes a claim to truth—the connection to actual subjects gives us the feeling we might be learning something, not about human nature in the abstract, as we do when reading fiction, but about the very strange and particular shape of real lives. Monkeying with a reader's expectations in that regard does seem cheap." Rebecca Brown, author of The Dogs: A Modern Bestiary and Gifts of the Body: "I've argued about the work of Gertrude Stein—to get people to read it and take her seriously as a literary writer. And I've argued about all of my own books—to get people to read them and take me seriously as a literary writer." Charlotte Watson Sherman, author of Touch: "I fought over the film version of Beloved at a dinner party and was outnumbered by folk who preferred the escapism of How Stella Got Her Groove Back. 'I didn't understand it,' was one of their rallying points. The other: 'I didn't read or understand the book.' My teenage daughters didn't have to do as many mind contortions to understand the film as did those adult guests: I believe they, like millions of other Americans, didn't want to understand the film, or deal with the painful psychic and emotional wounds of slavery that haunt us to this day. Toni Morrison has been the only writer to capture the unspeakable horror and brutalization of slavery and its effects on our psyches. What's so hard to understand about that?" Lesley Hazleton, author of Driving to Detroit: On discussing Henry James with Jonathan Raban, author of Bad Land: "It's almost a Jamesian scene: two European writers living in America arguing about an American writer who lived in Europe. One, the aesthete, admires James; the other, the vulgarian, prefers his brother, William (Varieties of Religious Experience). I, of course, am the vulgarian." Nancy Pearl, director of the Washington Center for the Book: "My biggest arguments are with the committees that choose the American Library Association's Notable Books of the Year, the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, and National Book Critics Circle Award. Philip Roth's Sabbath's Theater won the National Book Award in 1995. What a mistake! That angry, whining, misogynistic, self-indulgent novel should not have won—the award should have gone to All Souls' Rising by Madison Smartt Bell or Edwidge Danticat's Krik? Krak! It really makes me furious when authors win their awards for the wrong books. I'm thinking especially of Jane Smiley's 1992 Pulitzer for A Thousand Acres. Her novellas and short stories, The Age of Grief, or even Ordinary Love and Good Will, were much better. And Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove—it's a good story and an energetic book, but the best book of 1986? I think not.

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