This Week in Literary History: Feb. 15-21
Recognizing the births of Toni Morrison, Richard Ford, and more
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The Transgressiveness, or Not, of Richard Ford
By Andria Kennedy
"One of the goals of my understanding of being a writer is to be at war with conventional wisdom, to be at war with the received notion of how things are. To be transgressive - at least in your brain, so that you might dream up something different from how things are supposed to be - is pretty useful."
Richard Ford made the statement, and he altogether holds himself as transgressive, in both his life and his writing. It's an ironic - and comical - stance for a man who draws his inspiration from his real life and the world around him with every project he undertakes.
Ford's works include his 1995 Pulitzer Prize and Pen/Faulker Award, Independence Day - the second in his "everyman" Frank Bascombe series. Bascombe sprang from Ford's experiences as a tepid sportswriter, as well as his personal observations of the real estate industry. When he wrote, Between Them, published in 2017, he drew on his notes and memories of his parents.
And in his most recent short story collection, Sorry for Your Trouble, he reflected on his love for and time spent in Ireland. However, Ford denied an Irish undercurrent to the book. "The book is not an attempt in any way to define anything Irish or uncover anything Irish," Ford said. "It was just to fit out the stories in a way that was recognizable and plausible."
Yet Richard Ford's ancestry is Irish, and the title comes from a common phrase most Americans would fail to recognize (while their Irish counterparts see it immediately). Officially, though, Ford stated he stole it from Frank McCourt's book, Angela's Ashes.
When pressed for that undercurrent, Ford dodged the question. "I'd want the reader to think the language was apt," he said. "And I'd want the reader to think the stories had expanded what it's possible to think. But truest of all, I want a reader just to read all the words in order, and after that think what he or she might."
Not the most transgressive thought process in the world - for a writer or an individual.
At his core, though, Richard Ford is no more than an accomplished writer - despite his self-deprecations. "Thoreau said a writer is a man who, having nothing to do, finds something to do. I was a man with nothing to do," Ford said.
Of course, his view on short stories versus novels runs transgressive to most contemporary authors, one disjointed opinion that holds.
"Why is it that everybody thinks these short stories are so hard to write? I actually never really thought that was true," Ford said. "I think the long years of a novel, and all of the many more words that you have to corral and put in their right places, constitutes quite a bigger challenge than writing a [short] story."
Not that he's sticking to the shorter format. Though he initially claimed Bascombe's story had come to an end, the current pandemic's granted Ford plenty of time with "nothing to do." He's started another installment entitled Be Mine.
"I've tried to retire, I've really tried," Ford explained. "I've proclaimed loudly and boringly that I'm not going to do this anymore. But I couldn't find anything that I like to do better."
Ford says the words, but are they spoken as a writer, or coming from his transgressive nature? It's an interesting quandary for his readers to ponder.
Born on Jan. 16, 1944, in Jackson, Miss.
The Time a Legend-to-Be Helped an Icon Produce an Autobiography
By Andrew Sanger
When Random House scored the rights to Muhammad Ali's autobiography in 1970, they knew they had struck gold. At that time, Ali held an unparalleled level of worldwide fame (or infamy, considering his conflicts with the U.S. government) and was already widely thought of as one of the greatest athletes of all time. The book was a surefire hit. All Random House had to do was find the right editor to help pull the project together.
Initially, the job fell to Charles Harris, a pioneer in publishing works by Black authors and the man who had secured Ali's book contract in the first place. However, Harris decided to leave his position at Random House to help jumpstart the country's first Black university press at Howard University. The job fell instead to Chloe Ardelia Wofford. Wofford had recently published her first novel, The Bluest Eye, under the pseudonym Toni Morrison.
Before arriving at Random House, Morrison received her B.A. from Howard University, M.A. from Cornell, and had taught writing at Howard and Texas Southern University for nearly ten years. She joined Random House's team in 1965 as the first Black woman to hold a senior editing position in the fiction department. Despite her fiction background, the publishing house decided that Morrison would be the best woman for the job when it came to Ali's book.
The autobiography was to be a compilation of Ali's memories and musings on his life and career, as collected and written up by journalist Richard Durham. Unfortunately for Morrison, she had to deal with more than Ali's unfiltered thoughts. Morrison contended with Ali's overbearing manager, Jabir Herbert Muhammad, who fought to censor anything that could cast the boxer in a negative light throughout the editing process.
Muhammad also pushed Morrison to include a story in which Ali threw his Olympic gold medal into the Ohio River, a tale disputed by many people close to the boxer. Morrison later admitted that she felt intimidated by Muhammad's efforts to censor or otherwise alter the book but said that she defied him whenever she could.
In his book on Muhammad Ali titled King of the World, writer David Remnick interviewed Morrison on her experience working with the heavyweight champion. His biggest question was why she took the project in the first place. Sports writing has historically fallen pretty far from the realm of serious literary fiction, which Morrison is best known for, but it was less the sport than the man which grabbed her interest.
"I don't like boxing," Morrison told Remnick. "But he was a thing apart. His grace was almost appalling."
Later in the interview, Morrison reflected on her and Ali's relationship. "Ali was sort of flirtatious, like a boy almost," Morrison said. "When I first met him, he said, 'You know, we can have three wives.' I said, 'Please! I'm old enough to be your mama!'"
The finished book hit shelves in 1975 under the title The Greatest: My Own Story. It was, as predicted, a major seller. But what set the autobiography apart from other great sports titles was how Morrison helped funnel Ali's acute sense of social justice into the prose.
As an unlikely duo, Morrison and Ali were able to weave their talents together to produce a product that reached far beyond the unfortunately small readership of socially-conscious literary fiction. From Ali's religious conversion to Islam to his conscientious objection to the Vietnam War, Morrison did her best to make sure the book pulled no punches when it came to accurately presenting Ali's signature outspoken, boastful, yet intelligent personality.
It wasn't too long after The Greatest came out that Morrison's name became as big as Ali's. She cemented her legacy by publishing her 1987 novel, Beloved, routinely listed as one of American writing's most outstanding achievements. Only a short time after that, in 1993, Morrison received the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Morrison worked as an editor at Random House for nineteen years. She spent the rest of her life writing and teaching until she passed away in 2019 at 88. Her legacy is massive, and her work will undoubtedly be read, studied, reread, and admired for generations.
Born on Feb. 18, 1931 in Lorain, Ohio
Died on Aug. 5, 2019, in New York, N.Y.
Midnight Train to Censorship
By Christine Kingery
The freedom to read whatever we want is a right that we as Americans hold dear. However, the very institutions that tax dollars support can also limit what the public can access. These organizations don’t call it “censorship” but rather choose to describe it as “selecting” what books to put on their shelves.
Let’s say that you read a book that you felt was obscene somehow, and you wanted to make sure it didn’t end up in the hands of impressionable children. What do you do, and where do you go?
You would probably start with your local library or K-12 school. You would submit a “challenge” to the organization to encourage them to take the book off their shelves. Where you live would determine how seriously your library or school would take your challenge. For example, some schools, communities, or states have differing views of religion, gender, marriage, and other controversial topics.
You could then take your challenge up a level, perhaps taking it to your local state university, to the National Library Board, or beyond. In 2019, most people taking up a challenge were library patrons (45 percent) and parents of children (18 percent). They are average people, like you and me initiating the censorship process.
Books are constantly being challenged, even in 2021; novels and periodicals are removed from shelves and schools or denied publication by publishers. The American Library Association’s annual Banned Books Week educates the public about the nuance of censorship, arguing that Americans have a right to free and open access to information. In 2019, the top three most-frequently challenged books were:
George by Alex Gino: often challenged for LGBTQIA+ content and a transgender character;
Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out by Susan Kuklin: often challenged for LGBTQIA+ content and sexually-explicit content; and
A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo by Jill Twiss, often challenged for LGBTQIA+ content and political viewpoints.
Banning books isn’t part of history. There is an increasing trend towards challenging books at literary institutions. In 2019, 607 printed materials were pulled from shelves, a 14-percent increase from 2018.
One of the most public attempts to regulate what goes on our library shelves was the creation of the Georgia Literature Commission (GLC), founded on Feb. 19, 1953. The GLC was a quasi-judicial agency established by the Georgia state legislature to tackle obscenity in a controlled way. During its 20 years of activity, the GLC worked hard to “stamp out obscenity in all of the myriad and insidious forms it took,” which also meant defining and redefining the term “obscenity.”
In 1953 three members were appointed to four-year terms by Georgia Governor Herman Talmadge. The GLC members consisted of minister James P. Wesberry, a newspaper publisher Hubert L. Dyar, and a theater owner named William R. Boswell. Wesberry was the Commission’s face, conducting numerous interviews discussing the logic behind the organization’s actions.
The GLC didn’t have any actual powers of censorship. As Governor Talmadge said, the Commission was “a study agency [to investigate and recommend, with] no powers of censorship nor authority to punish offenders.” All the GLC could do was review literary publications and recommend to distributors whether those books and magazines should be on the shelves or not. It would then be up to the distributors, such as a local bookshop or a magazine stand, whether to carry the publication or not.
While that sounds very friendly, it wasn’t. Distributors that knowingly sold obscene materials were broke state laws, and authorities could use the GLC’s recommendations n prosecuting distributors. In its first press release in 1953, the GLC said, “The Commission was established to aid the local [prosecuting attorneys] in the administering of laws of the state regarding obscene literature.”
Little by little, the GLC became more aggressive as state and federal court cases opened up other avenues for work. In 1956 the GLC had its first ruling concerning a paperback book: an edition of Erskine Caldwell’s God’s Little Acre. However, the judicial system took no further action against distributors of the novel in Georgia. In 1958, the GLC expanded their definition of literature to include periodicals.
By 1960, distributors had agreed to pull more than 119 publications from sale based on the GLC’s recommendations. In the subsequent five years, various court rulings began muddling the GLC’s authority. For example, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in 1964’s Jacobellis v. Ohio essentially made pornography a federal issue rather than a state one. GLC member Hubert Dyar said of this new decade, “We could not get an indictment…on a nude magazine, unless the pubic hair is showing.”
The GLC’s heyday came to an effective end in 1966, when the Muscogee County Superior Court in Columbus, Ga., decided that Alan Marshall’s novel Whispering in the Wind was obscene. However, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the judgment without an opinion, explanation, or comment. The GLC slowly came to a close during Gov. Jimmy Carter’s administration, 1971-1975.
It wasn’t a savvy political move for legislators to vote to close the Commission, so instead, they let the organization fade away. As members died, they weren’t replaced. The GLC’s funding evaporated. The last meeting minutes were recorded on Oct. 9, 1973.
Since the 1970s, books continue to be challenged and pulled from shelves, and courtrooms around the country have continued to consider the challenges of moderating what the public can consume books. In 1982, the Supreme Court issued an opinion in Island Trees School District v. Pico, which stated schools couldn’t ban books based only on their content. That same year, the American Booksellers Association organized a “lock-in” with books that were considered dangerous. The event launched Banned Books Week.
Recent studies have illustrated that banned books disproportionately impact authors and characters from marginalized social groups, as the top three banned books of 2019 show. From 2006-2016, 52 percent of books challenged feature “diverse content”—that is, they explore issues including religion, race, gender identity, sexual orientation, mental illness, and disability. For 2018, it’s estimated that 80 percent of challenged books tell people’s stories from marginalized groups.
The good news is that whenever a book is challenged, sales for those books skyrocket. With the blatant help of organizations like the American Library Association (ALA) and the accidental help of organizations that attempt to ban books, censorship attempts often bring more awareness to so-called controversial books.
Georgia creates the first censorship board in the U.S. on Feb. 19, 1953.
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"Richard Ford: 'I Didn't Finish a Book Until I was 19.'" Kate Kellaway. The Guardian. May 9, 2020.
"Interview with Author Richard Ford: Various Jobs Help Frame Literary Work." Nancy Gilson. The Columbus Dispatch. Apr. 22, 2019.
"Richard Ford's Appetite for the Transgressive." Mike Sacks. Vanity Fair. June 15, 2017.
"Richard Ford: 'In America No One Will Stay Home.'" John Self. The Irish Times. May 9, 2020.
"Richard Ford on His New Short-Story Collection and How Lockdown has Affected His Work." Emily Donaldson. The Globe and Mail. May 13, 2020.
"'If Loneliness is the Disease, the Story is the Cure,' Says Award-Winning Author Richard Ford." The Sunday Edition. CBC Radio Canada. June 19, 2020.
“Toni Morrison’s work with Muhammad Ali foretold a gift for chronicling the black experience.” Kevin B. Blackistone. The Washington Post. Aug. 9, 2019.
“Toni Morrison and the Ghosts in the House.” Hilton Als. The New Yorker. Oct. 20, 2003.
“Remembering Toni Morrison, a Trailblazing Editor.” Radhika Jones. Aug. 8, 2019.
“Toni Morrison.” The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. Encyclopedia Britannica.
Georgia Literature Commission
“Not Censorship but Selection.” Lester Asheim. American Library Association.
“Censorship by the Numbers 2019.” Fact Sheet. American Library Association.
“It’s All Lustful to Me.” Dan Piepenbring. The Paris Review. Feb. 19, 2014.
“Sex and the Censors: America’s First Obscene Books Commission (1953-1973).” George C. Lisby. Flashbak.com. Feb. 21, 2016.
“Banned Books Week: Marginalized Authors and Censorship.” Nandi Prince. City University of New York: City Tech Library. Sep. 29, 2020.
“How Banning Books Marginalizes Children.” Paul Ringel. The Atlantic. Oct. 1, 2016.
“By the Numbers: Banned Books Week.” Jordan Sarti. American Libraries. Sep. 25, 2018.
Notable Literary Births & Events for Feb. 15-21
Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer
A. R. Ammons
Jean M. Auel
Helen Gurley Brown
John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress is published (1678)
Laurell K. Hamilton
Georgia creates the first literature censorship board (1954)
Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique is published (1963)
Alex La Guma
Henry James Pye
Charles Erskine Scott Wood
Jonathan Safran Foer
Richard A. Lupoff
David Foster Wallace
Karl Marx's The Communist Manifesto is published (1848)
The New Yorker publishes its first issue (1925)