by Ted Gioia

No novel of recent years has been more honored
than Toni Morrison’s  
Beloved. The book received
the Pulitzer Prize in 1988, and was a major reason
for Morrison winning the Nobel Prize in literature
five years later – a distinction
all the more striking when
once considers that only three
other native-born US writers
earned this prestigious award
during the second half of the
20th Century. More recently,
Beloved trounced the com-
petition in
The New York
survey of authors and
critics to determine the best
book of American fiction
during the last twenty-five

But if the Nobel judges love Morrison, college
professors love her even more. The Toni Morrison
Society lists some 150 dissertations on the author,
and enough academic articles to keep a graduate
student in the library for years. I can’t imagine
another novel of recent years assigned by more
teachers in more classrooms. Do a Google search
on “Beloved” and “syllabus,” and take a look
Beloved is that rarity among contemporary
novels: it was selling by the truckload even before
Oprah gave it her stamp of approval.

Hence, one might assume that
Beloved is the most
canonical of modern novels, if not the foundation
of the New Canon. Yet there is some heavy irony
here, since
Beloved might also be the first book
picked for The Anti-Canon, the novels that upset
the applecart of traditional literary canonization.
As one commentator has noted, Toni Morrison is
the Living Black Female to counter the Dead
White Males who have long dominated literary

Beloved also challenges the ‘old school’ standards
by which novels have been evaluated –- based on
factors such as poetic writing, creative use of
language, metaphor, etc. Yes, you can find these
elements in
Beloved, but they are a little beside the
point. Morrison herself has admitted to getting
“annoyed at people who said there were poetic
things in my writing.” In short, this novel goes
hand-in-hand with post-colonial, post-patriarchal,
post-Eurocentric attempts to restructure not just
the priorities of fiction, but also the ways and
means by which fiction is assessed and

Of course, the language of
Beloved  is poetic.
Sometimes it is animated with the timeless force
of myth and folklore; at other points it stretches
out in longer phrases that circle in on a subject
with Faulknerian indirection. Some of my favorite
passages take on a sweeping Biblical tone. This
final comparison is an apt one. The King James
Bible is also poetic, but if you mentioned that to
the most devoted fans of the Good Book, they
would say that the poetry is a little beside the

For the most part -- as the dissertations and
articles makes clear -- Morrison’s readers look to
her fiction primarily for the many ways in which
it grapples with the issues of race, gender, sexuality
and power. Morrison infuses each of these factors,
moreover, with several layers of history, not just
the antebellum and postbellum time periods in
Beloved is set, but also the earlier history
raised in the book’s epigraph “Sixty Million and
more,” referring to the black Africans who died
in the Middle Passage. This past haunts the story,
in a novel in which there are many hauntings,
many ghosts hovering on the margins or moving
into center stage.

All of these factors are set in play through the
character Sethe, the protagonist of
Beloved, a black
woman of extraordinary power. She is the "one
who never looked away," as her daughter Denver
describes her at one point in the book, and Sethe's
fierce independence is the catalyst that sets off key
elements in the narrative. Sethe nearly dies in her
attempt to escape to freedom from the Kentucky
plantation incongruously named Sweet Home,
and join other members of her family in Ohio.
The plot hinges on decisions she feels compelled
to make, above all on how much she is willing to
sacrifice not only to gain her own emancipation,
but also to prevent her children from falling under
the yoke of forced servitude.

Morrison's narrative is enriched by the round-
about way in which she unfolds this tale. The
novelist once described to an interviewer her
fascination with the "moments of withheld, partial
or disinformation" in Faulkner's
Absalom, Absalom!,
and to some extent her storytelling here is similarly
indirect. The central tragedy of
Beloved is hinted at
almost from the novel’s start, but only in the
sketchiest manner. Gradually Morrison circles in
on the key elements of her plot, as a vulture circles
on its prey, and with a tension that is heightened
by the non-linear structure of her account.

Morrison adds another twist by mixing magical
and realistic elements into her story. As a result,
some readers have tried to link her writing to the
magical realism of
Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Yet
you could also look at
Beloved as a post-colonial
The Turn of the Screw, only here the "extra turn" of
the screw is a much larger haunting that echoes
down the generations – so much so that, as Sethe
sees it, nothing ever dies, and the future is often
"a matter of keeping the past at bay." In truth,
echoes of many different strains of the American
literary tradition – Southern Gothic, slave
narratives, the macabre tales of the supernatural–
can be traced in the pages of

Not everyone has bought into the canonical
status of this work. Stanley Crouch has argued that
Morrison's writing is too often interrupted by
"maudlin ideological commercials" and that
"reads largely like a melodrama lashed to the
structural conceits of the miniseries." Crouch's
comments are (as so often with this critic)
thought-provoking, and deserve to be part of the
on-going debate and discussion surrounding this
novel. On the other hand, trying to purge
melodramatic and ideological elements from a
book of this sort would be like trying to get the
bloodshed out of a war novel, or the fight scenes
out of a Jackie Chan movie. One suspects that
these very elements have contributed in no small
part to the success and appeal of this author.

In the final analysis, the importance of this book
is no longer a matter of good or bad writing, and
perhaps never was. For twenty-somethings and
thirty-somethings, this is the book that spurred
them into dialogues on race and gender and other
thorny issues that still haunt our national debate
just as the ghost of
Beloved haunts Morrison's
novel. As such, this book will continue to loom
large over current day American fiction. And it is
testimony to the strength of the "canon" that it can
(once again) make room for such an anti-canonical
work, and even give it a prized place at the head
of the table.
by Toni Morrison
Click on image to purchase
The Year
(click here)
conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction
Welcome to my year of magical
reading.  Each week during the
course of 2012,  I will explore an
important work of fiction that
incorporates elements of magic,
fantasy or the surreal.  My choices
will cross conventional boundary
lines of genre, style and historical
period—indeed, one of my intentions
in this project is to show how the
conventional labels applied to these
works have become constraining,
deadening and misleading.

In its earliest days, storytelling almost
always partook of the magical. Only
in recent years have we segregated
works arising from this venerable
tradition into publishing industry
categories such as "magical realism"
or "paranormal" or "fantasy" or some
other 'genre' pigeonhole. These
labels are not without their value, but
too often they have blinded us to the
rich and multidimensional heritage
beyond category that these works

This larger heritage is mimicked in
our individual lives: most of us first
experienced the joys of narrative
fiction through stories of myth and
magic, the fanciful and
phantasmagorical; but only a very
few retain into adulthood this sense
of the kind of enchantment possible
only through storytelling.  As such,
revisiting this stream of fiction from a
mature, literate perspective both
broadens our horizons and allows us
to recapture some of that magic in
our imaginative lives.

The Year of Magical Reading:

Week 1:
Midnight's Children by
Salman Rushdie

Week 2:  The House of the Spirits by
Isabel Allende

Week 3:  The Witches of Eastwick
John Updike

Week 4:  Magic for Beginners by
Kelly Link

Week 5:  The Tin Drum by Günter

Week 6:  The Golden Ass by

Week 7:  The Tiger's Wife by Téa

Week 8:  One Hundred Years of
Solitude  by Gabriel García Márquez

Week 9:  The Book of Laughter and
Forgetting by Milan Kundera

Week 10: Gargantua and Pantagruel
François Rabelais

Week 11: The Famished Road by
Ben Okri

Week 12: Like Water for Chocolate
Laura Esquivel

Week 13: Winter's Tale by Mark

Week 14: Dhalgren by Samuel R.

Week 15:  Johnathan Strange & Mr.
Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Week 16:  The Master and
Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Week 17:  Dangerous Laughter by
Steven Millhauser

Week 18:  Conjure Wife by Fritz

Week 19:  1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

Week 20:  The Hobbit by J.R.R.

Week 21:  Aura by Carlos Fuentes

Week 22:  Dr. Faustus by Thomas

Week 23:  Orlando by Virginia Woolf

Week 24:  Little, Big by John Crowley

Week 25:  The White Hotel by D.M.

Week 26:  Neverwhere by Neil

Week 27:  Alice's Adventures in
Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Week 28:  Fifth Business by
Robertson Davies

Week 29:  The Kingdom of This
World by Alejo Carpentier

Week 30:  The Bear Comes Home
by R
afi Zabor

Week 31:  The Color of Magic by
Terry Pratchett

Week 32:  Ficciones by Jorge Luis

Week 33:  Beloved by Toni Morrison

Week 34:  Dona Flor and Her Two
Husbands by Jorge Amado

Week 35:  Hard-Boiled Wonderland
and the End of the World by Haruki

Week 36:  What Dreams May Come
by Richard Matheson

Week 37:  Practical Magic by Alice

Week 38:  Blindess by José

Week 39:  The Fortress of Solitude
by J
onathan Lethem

Week 40:  The Magicians by Lev

Week 41:  Suddenly, A Knock at the
Door by Etgar Keret

Week 42:  Cloudstreet by Tim Winton

Week 43:  The Obscene Bird of
NIght by José Donoso

Week 44:  The Fifty Year Sword by
Mark Z. Danielewski

Week 45:  Gulliver's Travels by
Jonathan Swift

Week 46:  Harry Potter and the
Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling

Week 47:  The End of the Affair by
Graham Greene

Week 48:  The Chronicles of Narnia
by C
.S. Lewis

Week 49:  Hieroglyphic Tales by
Horace Walpole

Week 50:  The View from the
Seventh Layer by Kevin Brockmeier

Week 51:  Gods Without Men by
Hari Kunzru

Week 52:  At Swim-Two-Birds by
Flann O'Brien
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Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

Links to related sites
The New Canon
Great Books Guide
Postmodern Mystery
Fractious Fiction
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Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
Los Angeles Review of Books
The Millions
Big Dumb Object
SF Novelists
More Words, Deeper Hole
The Misread City
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SF Signal
True Science Fiction
Tor blog

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