The death of acclaimed author, Nobel Prize winner and Pulitzer Prize winner Toni Morrison has sparked a wave of reflections and tributes, each highlighting their unparalleled contributions to black American literature and experience. But as we rightly reflect on the singular nature of her work, it’s important to also remember her as she saw herself: a writer alongside other writers.
In 1981, Morrison gave a Scheduled speech to the Congress of American Writers calling for solidarity among writers in the face of a grim landscape. “We live in an age of advanced capitalism, disintegrating into banditry,” Morrison said at the time. This age “tempts us in games designed by other people.” (The speech was recently referenced in a profile of Morrison in 2015 in the New York Times magazine; the writer Haley Mlotek shared his full text with Jezebel after meeting him while researching the archives of the National Writers Union, a union for freelance and contract writers.)
The writing is often framed in the language of passion – it’s an obsession, a fixation, something almost supernatural – but never works. But it obscures the ways in which writers are supposed to endure a range of exploitative practices for any chance of making a living, and the general precariousness of their jobs.
Morrison spoke eloquently and forcefully of the exploitation that lies beneath the so-called glamor – and the danger of romanticizing the “individualism” of this work while obscuring the material realities that shape the lives of writers:
Romantic and poorly enforced, individualism keeps us indulgent with ourselves. It keeps us in the dark about contracts, money, benefits, rights, how the author-publisher partnership should work, areas that threaten both publisher and publisher. ‘writer. It keeps us in an adversarial relationship at times when such a relationship is counterproductive. Individualism can also make us dependent on the largesse of foundations, grants, scholarships, campuses, cloisters and alms. And if it goes that way, individualism will slow us down, it will take us away from the work that we have to do. The political philosophy of the country marks its love of individualism, the nature of our work makes us appreciate it, the corporate constraint of the industry favors it. But it is not as individuals that we are abused and silenced; it’s like writers.
While Morrison’s speech focused primarily on the publishing world, his lyrics may as well speak to today’s young writers forced to trade their work “for an exhibition”, or writers and editors working full time without pay or benefits.
It’s easy for stockings to normalize or turn into stories of deprivation that have finally paid off. Morrison reminds us that these are lies (emphasis added):
We need protection in the form of a structure: an accessible organization that is truly representative of the diverse interests of all writers. An organization committed to the rights of a few. And we need protection in the form of clarity, a knowledge of the limits of individualism and the private and indulgent suffering it feeds. We need to stop loving our horror stories. Joyce’s Ulysses has been rejected fourteen times. I don’t like this story; I hate that. Fitzgerald burned down and couldn’t work. Hemingway was in despair and couldn’t work. A went mad, B died of misery, C drank himself to death, D was blacklisted, E committed suicide. I hate these stories. Great works are written in prisons and detention camps. Stupid books too. Poverty does not validate work. He insults sensitivities and violates the work.
Morrisson was a figure larger than life; its heritage is just as impressive. But she also saw herself alongside others, in solidarity and shared struggle.. And she called on others to stand by her side: “We don’t need writers as lone heroes anymore,” Morrison said more than four decades ago. “We need a heroic writer’s movement: assertive, militant, pugnacious.