Review: How Elizabeth Hardwick taught a young Black critic to read, write and laugh
What do you do when you suddenly realize that your life is in danger? You write a best seller that makes history. You get an Oscar. The book takes you places that no literature has before. It makes you a star, it makes you a hero, it makes you an institution.
It’s not like that for Elizabeth Hardwick, or for any writer for that matter. She was one of the least known when her novel, The Bell Jar, came out in 1958. She was in the process of being fired by her book club publisher when the novel appeared, and she never received any acknowledgement of her own work. Her books sold for little more than the price of a cup of coffee. She had little access to a network of readers in mainstream outlets, and she had the talent to write just the right book, that would make her a star in the book world.
So when her novel was first published in America, and her first novel, The Changeling, translated into French, the publisher’s initial marketing plan for the novel was to focus on the fact that she was a Black woman. They made a big deal of her. In The New York Times, for example, the reviewer went so far as to call the novel “the most important book by an African-American woman since [Virginia] Woolf’s [Orlando] or [Gwendolyn] Williams’s.” The novel was hailed as a breakthrough book by mainstream reviewers, and the novel was one of the best sellers in the country.
Then, after a couple of years, the book lost its momentum, and the novel became a footnote in literary history. When a couple of her critics wrote about the book, their complaints weren’t so much about the book itself, as they were about the fact that she wasn’t a writer. They were angry with her for not writing “their” kind of books. They were annoyed with her for not writing anything at all, and they had a good point. Her novels were pretty damn good, but she wasn’t writing the books, not exactly.