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Jazz ()

Nobel Prize Winners (1993)

One of the most lamentable developments in the Arts over the past hundred years has been the replacement of structure and universality by lyricism and individualism.  Artists and authors used to be able to assume that they and their audience shared a Culture which partook of a definite system of values and beliefs.  When we read Shakespeare or look at a painting by Rembrandt or listen to music by Bach, we can feel that we share in the artists vision and we can readily comprehend the fundamental messages that underlie their works.  This does not rob them of their depth or their rich textures--merely think of all the reams of paper that have been consumed in dissecting the character of Hamlet--but it does mean that they are accessible to the general public by reference to our common heritage.

Modernity has replaced such universal art with the subjective, the self-indulgent and the abstruse.  The themes and messages of art are now unique to the artist/author and the audience is expected to study the individual creator in order to try to understand their works.  And since it is no longer important to these artists to convey their meanings, technical proficiency, narrative structure and clarity have given way to idiosyncrasy and abstraction.  Of course, the best illustrations of this revolution came early on in the process; after the intelligentsia accepted James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake (see Orrin's review), Jackson Pollack's paint splatters and musical innovations like dissonance and atonality as legitimate advances in the arts, it pretty much opened the doors to anything.  Once you abandon objective standards for determining value, which the critics largely have done, you lose the capacity to differentiate good art from bad art.  You are left with the oddly bifurcated culture that we see now, where the public shuns the very product that the elites run up the flagpole.  Joyce may be considered the greatest author of the 20th Century, but nobody has ever read either Ulysses (see Orrin's review) or Finnegan's Wake from cover to cover.  There's not a living room in America with a Pollack on the wall and the only Picasso is his Don Quixote, a fairly conventional representational piece which unlike his most critically acclaimed work refers to one of the world's enduring literary masterpieces.  And Classical music has innovated to the point of extinction.  It's time for someone to step in and tell the avant garde that no one followed them and the experiment, having failed, is over.

All of which brings us to Jazz by Toni Morrison.  I didn't hate this book, the way I did Beloved (see Orrin's review).  The central event of the story is once again an incomprehensible murder--this time a middle aged man kills his young lover in order to preserve the feelings their affair has produced.  His wife, upon learning of the liaison, mutilates the corpse; but the two inexplicably resume their married life.  So okay, it's a tad melodramatic and unlikely, but great fiction has been built on such shaky foundations before.  Morrison however seems uninterested in mining any psychological depths or spinning out any conclusions from her basic set up.  Instead the book is sort of a set of bluesy linguistic riffs on Renaissance Harlem, ping ponging backwards and forwards in time, and it does contain some beautiful passages of prose; but to what end?  We never really connect with or care about any of the characters.  We know about the crimes from the word go, so there's no dramatic tension.  Do the periodic phrases of lambent, tumescent prosody really suffice to make the book worthwhile?  I think not.  The beauty of language has fairly little to do with the basic value of a work of fiction.  The Sears Catalogue might sound pretty to some people if read aloud in French, but that doesn't make it great literature.

Here's a little clue for you--when the professional reviewers praise the language but pan the story and the regular readers (at sites like Amazon) say they loved it even though they didn't understand it, it's safe to assume that you've got an author who's skating on reputation and warning flags should go up in your head.  Morrison's Nobel Prize is probably unwarranted by any measure, but it certainly receives no validation from this book.

Response to Orrin's review by Aisha Garner :

Upon reading the anti-Morrison invective posted on the site "In a more just world, Toni Morrison's Beloved would be ignored because it simply isn't very good," I felt compelled to write.  Although I agree that Octavia Butler is one of the best of her genre (as evidenced in Mind of My Mind and Adulthood Rites much more so than Kindred), Morrison is certainly one of the best of her genre as well.  By insinuating  that Morrison is an over-exposed near-charlatan resting on the laurels of an undeserved prize, you are absolutely wrong.

Personally, I take offense to the absurd subculture of self-indulgent, pretentious artists whose parasitic attachments to legitimate art movements result in the erosion of the credibility of art as a whole.  Passing off substandard art in a contrived, gilded package with the "If you don't get it, you're the problem" con is an old and tired trick.

However, more tired is the subculture of art critics who, in their incapacity (or refusal) to see any diversion from the "mainstream" (a codeword for Eurocentric; I wonder if medieval Japanese shoguns would really appreciate Bach?) artform as valid, routinely lacerate dissimilar art in an attempt to conserve a snobbish, exclusionary wet dream of European artistic dominance.  Isn't the whole point of art to expand the audience's viewpoint?  I would ask you to consider that the experience of African-Americans is not "mainstream" and any artist who dares to produce work reflecting this might have the right to demand an open mind from her audience.

Please read my review below, and I hope that you choose to reread Jazz with improved insight:

"In line with Toni Morrison's tradition of superb fiction tomes, Jazz is a work that is too complex to produce a universal interpretation. The genius of Morrison's work is the personal relationship between the reader and the subject matter that her novels compel. Interpretation is purposefully subjective. In Jazz, Morrison manages to accomplish a literary feat: somehow capturing the history, essence, and character of a genre of music and translating it into literature. The novel Jazz, is, like the music, seductive yet melancholy, spirited yet unpretentious, and is a simultaneous diatribe against and celebration of life. Jazz does not attempt to offer a rational explanation of the seemingly bizarre behavior of the main protagonists; instead, Jazz attempts to delve further into the human consciousness, into the concatenation of events which shape (and sometimes warp) the human mind; Jazz attempts to highlight the perpetual change which constitutes life.

Therefore, I had no trouble understanding orphan Dorcas' 'wild ways' and unimaginable selfishness, nor Joe's never-ending 'hunt' for his mother, which culminated in Dorcas' shooting. Like its musical counterpart, the novel Jazz is a work of genius. Would that all novels evoke such a profound personal impact.

Aisha Garner

P.S. Your review of the novel Jazz has an eerie similarity to the critical reviews of jazz as a genre of music during its inception.

Orrin's response to Aisha :

Dear Ms Garner :

Thank you for your thoughtful comments on my reviews of Toni Morrison's novels.  I could not disagree with you more, but I take your point.

Our disagreement boils down to a simple but quite fundamental point : must great Art be universal, or can it be subjectively great ?  I, of course, feel that the question answers itself.  The very term "great" implies universality, that the work is capable of communicating ideas which will speak to, and which concern, the many.  A parochial work which only appeals to the few may be beautiful to those few, but it is not truly great.     If we were to judge Art (or anything else, for that matter) subjectively, we would have no capacity to differentiate among the various works.  Every work of art has been loved by someone, but this can not be the measure of its greatness, otherwise, every work is great.

If Ms Morrison speaks to you then by all means read and enjoy her.  My reviews merely reflect the fact that she will not appeal to people in general.

Thank you again for writing,


Grade: (D)


Toni Morrison Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Toni Morrison
-INTERVIEW: Toni Morrison on Craft, Inspiration, and the Time She Met Obama: Sarah Ladipo Manyika Talks to an American Literary Icon (Sarah Ladipo Manyika, February 2, 2023, LitHub)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: The Genius of Toni Morrison’s Only Short Story: In the extraordinary “Recitatif,” Morrison withholds crucial details of racial identity, making the reader the subject of her experiment. (Zadie Smith, January 23, 2022, The new Yorker)
    -ESSAY: Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” Showed Me How Race and Gender Are Intertwined (KORITHA MITCHELL, 11/10/20, Electric Lit)

Book-related and General Links:
    -Encyclopaedia Britannica: Your search: "toni morrison"
    -Toni Morrison Winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature (Nobel Prize Internet Archive)
    -Anniina's Toni Morrison Page
    -Toni Morrison: A Voice With Wings
    -BIO: Toni Morrison (1931-)
    -PROFILE: Time Magazine Cover Story - 1/19/98
    -Toni Morrision's Page on the African American Lit Book Club
    -Toni Morrison References On The Internet
    -Authors Online: Toni Morrison  (Book Spot)
    -The Web Page of Toni Morrison's "Beloved"
    -The Beloved Project at Hampshire College
    -REVIEW: of LABOR OF LOVE, LABOR OF SORROW Black Women, Work, and the Family From Slavery to the Present. By Jacqueline Jones (Toni Morrison, NY Times Book Review)
    -ARTICLE: Toni Morrison Is '93 Winner Of Nobel Prize in Literature (WILLIAM GRIMES, NY Times)
    -ARTICLE: 48 Black Writers Protest By Praising Morrison (EDWIN McDOWELL, NY times)
    -ESSAY: Critic's Notebook; The Lobbying for Literary Prizes  (WALTER GOODMAN, NY Times)
    -ARTICLE:  Toni Morrison's Novel 'Beloved' Wins the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction  (DENNIS HEVESI, NY Times)
    -ARTICLE: For Morrison, Prize Silences Gossip (HERBERT MITGANG, NY Times)
    -ARTICLE: CHLOE WOFFORD Talks About TONI MORRISON (Claudia Dreifus, NY Times)
    -ESSAY : Transforming the Chain into Story: The Making of Communal Meaning in Toni Morrison's Beloved (Claire Cowan-Barbetti, Janus Head)
    -ONLINE STUDY GUIDE: Beloved by Toni Morrison. (Selena Ward, SparkNotes)
    -REVIEW: of JAZZ By Toni Morrison (Edna O'Brien, NY times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Jazz (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: Michael Wood: Life Studies, NY Review of Books
        Jazz by Toni Morrison
        Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination by Toni Morrison
    -REVIEW: of BELOVED By Toni Morrison (Margaret Atwood, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW:  Thomas R. Edwards: Ghost Story, NY Review of Books
        Beloved by Toni Morrison
    -REVIEW: of Paradise By Toni Morrison (Brooke Allen, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of PARADISE By Toni Morrison (MICHIKO KAKUTANI, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: Patricia Storace: The Scripture of Utopia, NY Review of Books
        Paradise by Toni Morrison
    -REVIEW: of TAR BABY By Toni Morrison (John Irving, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: Darryl Pinckney: Every Which Way, NY Review of Books
        Tar Baby by Toni Morrison
    -REVIEW: of 'Song of Solomon' by Toni Morrison (Reynolds Price, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: Diane Johnson: The Oppressor in the Next Room, NY Review of Books
        Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
        White Rat by Gayl Jones
        Elbow Room by James Alan McPherson
    -REVIEW: of PLAYING IN THE DARK Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. By Toni Morrison (Wendy Steiner, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: In Sweden, Proof of The Power Of Words (JOHN DARNTON, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: Lifting the Memory of Slavery Into the Realm of Myth  (MICHIKO KAKUTANI, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: Toni Morrison, In Her New Novel (Beloved), Defends Women  (MERVYN ROTHSTEIN, NY Times)