Terry McMillan | Critical Review by John Skow

This literature criticism consists of approximately 8 pages of analysis & critique of Terry McMillan.
This section contains 1,429 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Interview by Terry McMillan with Wendy Smith

Critical Review by John Skow

SOURCE: "Some Groove," in Time, Vol. 147, No. 19, May 6, 1996, pp. 77-8.

In the following review, Skow discusses McMillan's literary success and the wide popularity of her fiction.

News flash: Terry McMillan's big-bucks new novel How Stella Got Her Groove Back is a silly wish-fulfillment fantasy that barely qualifies as beach literature. Heroine Stella Payne is a beautiful, single, "forty-bleeping-two-year-old" black investment analyst who, though sexy and rich, hasn't had a date in months. Tired of waiting for a black prince to materialize in a paid-for Lexus, she flies to Jamaica on vacation, meets Winston Shakespeare, a tall, golden-brown, bashful 20-year-old assistant cook at a resort hotel, falls in love, and brings him back home as a live-in souvenir.

Correction to news flash: Stella isn't fantasy after all. Author McMillan, 44, single, renowned for griping raucously about no-account African-American men in her bestselling 1992 novel Waiting to Exhale, flew to Jamaica on vacation last June and fell in love with tall, golden-brown, bashful, 20-ish resort hotel employee Jonathan Plummer. They now live together, happily ever after, in McMillan's big house in Danville, California. "I don't anticipate us being together for the rest of my life," says the reflexively blunt author, "but right now it works and it's good for him and it works for me and I don't care what anybody thinks … Men have done this bleep for years. Nobody ever says anything about them and they marry chicks young enough to be their daughters."

McMillan may be—in fact, no question, she is—a better story than her latest book. As the first wildly successful black pop novelist, she is, as they say, looking good, an attractive woman of about 5 ft. 7 in., taking her ease in an oversize white sweatshirt, jeans and sneakers after a morning photo shoot. For the moment, turbulence is below the surface, but as McMillan's longtime agent Molly Friedrich says, "You don't meet Terry, you experience Terry. She's truly a force of nature."

The former writing teacher (Stanford, University of Wyoming) is also a force of corporate profit. Her first two novels were modest successes; her third was Waiting to Exhale, which swept the nation's bedrooms, beaches, hair salons, reading groups and rush-hour subway trains, selling almost 700,000 hard copies in the process and 3 million more in paperback. Numbers like these would have drawn any publisher's attention, of course. The fact that an African-American author was writing about vivid characters with whom many black women could identify had the added effect of proving to booksellers that there is a sizable, previously ignored market for semisoapy black fiction—just as the $67 million gross for last year's film version of Exhale proved there is a sizable market for semisoapy black movies.

All of which has set the table for McMillan's staggering $6 million boodle from Stella (that's the figure she divulged at a black writers' conference in Brooklyn, New York, in March). Viking is printing 800,000 hard copies of the book. Book-of-the-Month Club bought the novel two years ago, as one of its main selections, sight unseen, before it was even written. The movie rights for Stella have also been sold, for an undisclosed seven-figure bundle.

Given all that, her toys are not particularly gaudy. She owns a black BMW, a silver Mercedes and a navy blue Toyota Land Cruiser. A pool, of course. And she just moved into a larger and fancier house with, among other refinements, egg-plant-colored leather tiles on the office floor. All perfectly normal for a medium-to-big shot in the entertainment industry, and she grumbles when reporters mention that she, or her characters, live high. "What's their point?" she asks. "All these white people write about people in their books having money. What is the problem with us having a little bit? Why are they so bleeping surprised? What is the big bleeping deal?"

Considering the edge of anger that cuts through her conversation—she can get steamed in several directions within the same five minutes—it may be surprising that McMillan writes only glancingly about racial and feminist issues. Stella, in the new novel, is shocked at the bitter poverty in remote parts of Jamaica. And she does advise her sister that the way to stop black kids from gang-banging is to make them listen to The Autobiography of Malcolm X in the third grade. But it's the roiling currents among family, friends and lovers that McMillan is most comfortable writing about.

For the moment, however, the temporarily semiserene author has put aside her caricatures of black men, who in Exhale were lampooned as triflers who were generally around at bedtime, ooh Baby, but not a good bet for breakfast and a bleeping certainty to be bleeping gone when there were bills to be paid and kids to be reared. She gets along well, she says, though at a distance, with her 11-year-old son Solomon's father, whom she never married (and who sued her unsuccessfully for an unflattering characterization in her second novel, Disappearing Acts). She grew up as the eldest of five children in a troubled, hardscrabble household in Port Huron, Michigan. Her father was alcoholic and abusive, and her mother Madeline, working as a maid and in an auto factory, raised the kids mostly on her own. Madeline is the recognizable main character in McMillan's first novel, Mama; it's not hard to guess that she was an important source of her daughter's grit and directness.

There is no denying that McMillan's success has changed the industry by proving that there are eager buyers—lots of blacks, lots of whites—for African-American pop fiction, and not just high-end literary novels like the work of Toni Morrison or Alice Walker, who have had best sellers, but also glossy page turners that owe a thing or two to Jacqueline Susann. Ken Smikle, publisher of Target Market News, a Chicago-based trade magazine that focuses on black consumers, credits McMillan with "dragging the industry kicking and screaming into what has become a very lucrative situation." The numbers: between 1990 and 1993 the amount of money African Americans spent on books increased 48% (while book buying by whites increased only 10%). Among the beneficiaries are a number of successful, recently published writers, including Connie Briscoe, whose Big Girls Don't Cry (HarperCollins) is a somewhat earnest black-businesswoman-makes-good fable, and E. Lynn Harris, author of And This Too Shall Pass (Doubleday), the story of a gorgeously muscled N.F.L. quarterback coming to terms with his homosexuality.

As for McMillan, the most self-revelatory writer in the world—this week, anyway—she grouses that "nobody would dream of asking Toni Morrison who she is sleeping with." Later, her Jamaican friend Plummer, a slim, amiable fellow who studies hotel management at Diablo Valley College, pokes his head into her cluttered office. He admits that he is "flattered" to be the model for Stella's Winston Shakespeare, though "I don't really read books." "But he will," says McMillan, "or else he's moving." Laughter all around.

It's a dubious sort of good luck that the publication of her slightest and fluffiest novel has brought McMillan her greatest reward. The new book starring "Winston" burbles along cheerfully but lacks the satirical bite of Waiting to Exhale. There isn't much to the story, which amounts to woman meets boy, gets boy, with no second act, so the author will have to crank up some misery if she carries out her plans to write the screenplay. You can't have a movie without conflict.

How critics will ultimately judge McMillan is a good question. Will she turn out to be, like Danielle Steele and Judith Krantz, just one more queen of the steamy, scented stuff that the publishing industry calls "commercial"? It's possible. But so far McMillan has not written formula glop. And most of the time her chapters, though they can rank nearly as high as Steele's and Krantz's in breathy descriptions of dressing, undressing and furniture, have a brassy realism that saves them from the trash bin. And even though peace has broken out in the author's life, with the usual corrosive effects on a satirical viewpoint, the reader suspects that there are more battle communiques to be written in the ancient and always up-to-date war between the women and the men.

Stella, in Stella, picks up a copy of Exhale, reads 50 or 60 pages and drops it with the offhand comment that "I don't know what all the hoopla is about and why everybody thinks she's such a hot writer. Hell, I could write the same stuff she writes." Sure, Stella; in your dreams. Which are what pop novels, even largely autobiographical ones, are all about.

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This section contains 1,429 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Interview by Terry McMillan with Wendy Smith