The Jan. 19, 1998, cover of TIME
By Lily Rothman
April 21, 2015

American author Toni Morrison isn’t exactly new to the writing game, but her latest book, God Help the Child, which arrives on Tuesday, is still a first in its own way. The book is being billed as Morrison’s first to take place “in our current moment” rather than in the past.

Looking back at Morrison’s career, the decision to set God Help the Child in modern times gains an extra level of meaning.

Morrison’s novels have always addressed issues that mattered to modern readers, despite their sometimes distant setting; as the Nobel-winner told TIME in 1998, when she and her novel Paradise were the subject of a cover story, most the questions she got from fans were “anthropological or sociological or political” rather than literary. And raising those questions, especially about race and gender, was part of her mission as a writer.

But, TIME noted, some of her critics found that she distanced herself from the answers by focusing on the past:

The debate about where Morrison ranks among the other American laureates will probably simmer for years. Does she belong with Steinbeck and Pearl S. Buck, authors whose earnest social concerns and novels now strike most critics and readers as passe? Some reviewers have found Morrison’s novels overly deterministic, her characters pawns in the service of their creator’s designs. Essayist Stanley Crouch says Morrison is “immensely talented. I just think she needs a new subject matter, the world she lives in, not this world of endless black victims.” But for every pan, Morrison has received a surfeit of paeans: for her lyricism, for her ability to turn the mundane into the magical. In the Nobel sweepstakes at the moment, Morrison looks to be a lot closer to William Faulkner, whom many critics regard as this century’s greatest American novelist, than to Buck and Steinbeck.

Whether God Help the Child receives pans or paeans, that chronological distance won’t be to blame.

Read the full story, here in the TIME Vault: Paradise Found


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