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Sunday, 12 January 2020

A riff on “dead white men”

1/ Whenever someone criticises the Western canon for having too many “dead white men”, I’m amused. You’re talking about the Western canon—it was mostly white men who had the opportunities, mostly white men who had “a room of their own” (as Virginia Woolf put it), so naturally it’s mostly the works of white men that dominate the Western canon. 
2/ The “problem” with the dominance of the Western canon is that readers, including me, sometimes forget that other cultures too have great classic books worth reading. 
If you want real diversity, the thing to do is to read classic works from other cultures that have stood the test of time, not to expand your reading by only reading books by (contemporary) female and/or non-white writers in the West. 
3/ Not all countries are equal when it comes to literature. 
4/ Whenever someone says that books by “dead white men”, or books about “white experience” in general, are irrelevant and unrelatable to them, I’d like to ask how they think the works of Tolstoy or Melville or Dickens or Gogol or Nabokov are relevant (in that sense) to me—a Vietnamese girl brought up in Vietnam and Norway, and now based in the UK. 
5/ Whenever someone says that books by “dead white men”, or books about “white experience” in general, are irrelevant and unrelatable to them, I’d like to ask why they think the works of those “dead white men” are translated into multiple languages, and read and beloved around the world. Go talk to the non-Western tourists visiting the Bronte Parsonage Museum or Dickens Museum or Maison de Victor Hugo, for example. 
6/ Whenever a teacher says that books by “dead white men”, or books about “white experience” in general, are irrelevant to students of colour and should be removed from the curriculum, to be replaced by books reflecting students’ experience, I think that teacher should stop teaching. 
7/ You don’t have to attack “dead white men” to praise female and/or non-white authors and call for diversifying the reading list. 
8/ Stop saying “decolonise the bookshelf”—it’s meaningless and dumb. 
9/ Stop telling others to diversify their reading if you only read books originally written in the English language. 
10/ New writers have the perfect right to take an existing work as a starting point to create a new one, but if you write a feminist or “diverse” version of a classic novel, your work should be judged on its own artistic merit, not on how many boxes it ticks. 
(Also, please don’t say that you’re taking a classic book and making it relevant to today, the arrogance is embarrassing). 

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This is a good read: 
https://quillette.com/2020/01/07/the-national-book-foundation-defines-diversity-down/
This is the opening paragraph: 
“Last month the Huffington Post published an essay by Claire Fallon entitled “Was this Decade the Beginning of the End of the Great White Male Writer?” Fallon celebrated the notion that white men are losing their prominence in contemporary American literature and that the best books being published in America today are being written by a wider variety of authors than ever before.” 
Kevin Mims, the author, then says: 
“Are contemporary National Book Award (NBA) winners and nominees a more diverse lot than those of previous eras? Actually, no, not unless your only criterion for diversity is skin color or ethnicity. By any other measure, the authors honored by the National Book Foundation over the past decade are a surprisingly homogenous group. Almost all of them are products of what has come to be known, among supporters and critics alike, as America’s “MFA Industrial Complex.” They all tend to matriculate at the same elite colleges, acquire advanced degrees in English or Creative Writing, and then go on to teach in the same circle of elite schools.” 
I don’t want to quote much, because the article should be read in full. The main point is that Kevin Mims looks at NBA winners and nominees throughout history: compared to the winners and runners up in Lisa Lucas’s era, earlier honourees were a lot more diverse, in terms of class, background, education, and also political views. More importantly, many of their books became cultural landmarks: Gone with the Wind, From Here to Eternity, Invisible Man, The Adventures of Augie March, The Catcher in the Rye, The Caine Mutiny, The Old Man and the Sea, East of Eden, Giovanni’s Room, Atlas Shrugged, The Ginger Man, Lolita, The Haunting of Hill House, Goodbye Columbus, etc. 
In contrast: 
“Over the past decade, the National Book Foundation has honored works of fiction such as Great House, I Hotel, So Much For That, Binocular Vision, Refund, The Throwback Special, The Association of Small Bombs, and a lot of other books whose authors not one in 10,000 Americans can probably identify. Decades from now, when people look back on the Lisa Lucas era at the National Book Foundation, they may see a whole lot of ethnic diversity and not much more—except for a lot of forgotten and out-of-print titles.” 

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To make it absolutely clear and prevent strangers from twisting my words, I’ve never said only “dead white male” or “white male” authors could be great.  
I think we all should read widely. Expand your reading. In fact, this year I’m intending to read more books by female authors and more books from countries with which I’m not very familiar.  
Currently on my TBR list are Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, and Orhan Pamuk’s My Name Is Red.
Now excuse me, I’m going to get back to Mansfield Park, to read about “white experience” to which I can’t relate.

4 comments:

  1. The word that always cracks me up in this formulation is "dead." Maybe it was meant to be funny.

    As if I am one to talk. But I count 27 books by living authors that I read this year, which is more than I had realized. Not bad.

    Some of the criticisms in the article, while true, are simple reflections of demographic change. Now a third of adult Americans have a college degree. In 1940 it was less than 5%! Today's equivalent of Hemingway and Porter would go to college. It's a big, lasting social change.

    I fear the complaint about prize-winners not being such famous books says something about the decline of literature in American culture. I doubt the prizes can do much about that, either.

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    1. That's a good point about demographic change.
      I also saw this comment below the article:
      "Nearly all my writer friends are well off, but not through their writing; the material comfort enables them to indulge in writing. He seems to ignore how class plays into this all, and money. Before, writers were far more upfront about writing to make money; Robert Graves wrote his historical fiction to make money so he could write his poetry, for instance. University educations were not relevant because they were irrelevant to 97% of people. Poverty as writers seemed more possible because most people were poor anyway. Also, male writers had their wives or mistresses support them emotionally and materially. This model just doesn’t exist anymore.

      Now, if you are not well off or supported by a wealthy partner or a selfless wife, and have to (gasp) work, you cannot find time to write (I write only a few hours a day, after work). You can’t go to prestigious retreats for 3 weeks in January. You cannot go to prestigious conferences. University jobs give you that time, give you money, and give you an automatic community in a field in which - like many fields - connections and shmoozing is extremely important, and you need an MFA to teach in a university.

      So people get the MFA so they can have a career that pays so they can write and publish; or they get the MFA because they come from wealth and don’t have to worry about a practical job. Very few people can afford to write a literary work that may take 5 years to write and that probably won’t sell. If you don’t have the connections through the university - NOT through the MFA - it makes it harder to win prizes and get published. This is NOT so for commercial fiction, eg bestsellers that people read on the beach or in book clubs; these books can be written by anyone, and because they have a chance to make a lot, people are willing to risk the time and publishers are happy to take them. For instance, I went to a wonderful talk by Lisa Scottoline, a bestselling author–she spoke about how she had an awful divorce and was a lawyer, but couldn’t find time to be with her young daughter, so she decided to try being a writer. She wasn’t even thinking of a hoity-toity writer who wins awards. She was thinking of selling books to put food on the table. So she did.

      So partly to do with economic forces, the literary world is now almost entirely populated by university/upper middle class people (classic intellectual bourgeoisie) who, like most university professors now, share the same worldview, very limited life experiences, and lockstep ideology (wokeness), and who have changed the definition of what good literature is into the most small-minded inanities and/or into woke mortality plays."

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    2. Regarding the prize winners, have you heard of those books?
      I haven't, I thought I roughly knew who and what is big in the literary scene today.
      But I guess me not knowing these books says nothing when I rarely read books by living authors.

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    3. Yes, I had heard of the NBA prize winners. Not necessarily before they won the prize. I pay some skeptical attention to prizes. But have I heard of some large percentage of current bestsellers? I couldn't tell you the title of a single James Patterson novel, and there are almost two hundred of those!

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