Reprint of Article posted in vulture.com by Boris Kachka
Morrison at a previous event. Photo: Dimitris Legakis/Corbis
Watching Toni Morrison accept the National Book Critics Circle's Lifetime Achievement Award last night, bookended by standing ovations, wheelchair-bound but undiminished in a shimmering silver dress and jaunty grey beret, was a little like watching Bruce Springsteen perform a nostalgia gig at the Stone Pony. She's an arena player, the only living American winner of the Nobel Prize for literature. To see her in the New School's auditorium (elegant and spacious as it is) on the night of the NBCC awards (influential as they are) is to be reminded that book critics are most excited not by their collective power, but by their ability to surprise — even upstage.
The 84-year-old novelist began her speech with the same comic bravado she brought to a recent appearance on The Colbert Report. After the poet Rita Dove introduced her by invoking Athena and orchids ("the queen bees of the flower world and you'd better not mess with them"), Morrison said, "Rita, that was beautiful. And true." But then she remembered the humbling experience of publishing her first novel, The Bluest Eye, to a critical reception she found "slight, indifferent, even hostile."
The tendency in 1970 was to group all African-American books together, often in a single review spanning several genres. Only one critic had bucked the trend, reviewing The Bluest Eye with the seriousness it deserved. That was John Leonard, who launched Morrison’s career and kept it burning with his personal enthusiasm. He was one of the founding members of the National Book Critics Circle, which gave Morrison her first big award for Song of Solomon seven years later.