osewalrus (osewalrus) wrote,
osewalrus
osewalrus

Wherin I Certainly Say Something Stupid Or Offensive to Someone

I should know better, but can't resist. Must be meds wearing off.

My thanks to thatcrazycajun for this this link to a column by Stephanie Ramage called "Academia's Politically Correct Bigotry." The thesis of the article is that classifying books by author, e.g., "African American," "Gay/Lesbian," (and, I suppose, Jewish) is a way of ghettoizing such writers and denying them their rightful place in the literary pantheon.

For my money, this goes in the "simple responses to complex issues." It has some validity to it, but it ignores a lot of how we got here, what people intended, and the uncaring economics of the book industry.

First, we need to distinguish the problem of subject literature and author. A Jewish section of a bookstore should have, I would expect, many writing on issues of Jewish culture. The Idiot's Guide to the Jewish Holidays seems an obvious inclusion. But what about literature? Is designating something Jewish literature pulling it out of mainstream literature? Or is it useful to recognize the subject. Is Leon Uris' Exodus or Chaim Potok's The Chosen "Jewish" literature or just plain literature? Or can it be both? If we place it (along with Portnoy's Complaint I suppose) in the Jewish Literature, and put some of C.S. Lewis' works, like Narnia, in Christian literature because they deal with Christian themes and imagery, are we providing a helpful subject heading about the type of literature or unfairly stigmatizing these works as not quite "real" literature but literature only by courtesy?

Perhaps more importantly, however, it is important to remember how categorization of many of these fields arose before we so casually dismiss them. The idea, back when people fought these battles in the 1960s and 1970s (and then again for recognition of gay/lesbian in the 1980s) was to provide an imprimatur of recognition of a unique voice from a unique community. That just as we had German literature or French literature we had African American literature or Women's literature in which writers from these communities wrote things of significance and quality that spoke to the unique concerns of the community of the author. It was not to trivialize or marginalize Jane Austin by identifying her as a woman, or Ralph Ellison by identifying him as African American, but to say to a world that preferred to ignore these differences that these were people with a distinct and unique message as much as Flaubert spoke to French society of the 19th Century, or Dickens to England. After all, does it trivialize James Joyce to consider him an Irish writer and a writer of Irish literature?

Perhaps more to the point, the original drive to establish departments and categories of literature were intended to emphasize that the few widely known examples were not outliers, but part of a lengthy tradition containing many names known before only to those familiar with those traditions. After all, the argument went, if we can talk about Gothic literature as a school with numerous lesser known practitioners than Shelly, or Spanish art as including more than Picaso and Dega, should we not also recognize the cultural contribution of women and African Americans or other groups for how their viewpoints differed from others in the same society based on their different socio-economic status? This opens the door not merely to the handful of well known giants, but to those on whom they drew for inspiration and who were part of the same tradition, sitting side by side with the more well known dominant tradition.

Certainly times change, and what were once marks of pride and recognition can become rigid categories that divide and exclude. Proceed a generation or two and we find young writers and academics resiting rigid orthodoxy and fearing, rightfully, that it has become easy to place people in cubbyholes based on gender or race or sexual orientation. Worse, the nature of both academic publishing and commercial book publishing tends to reenforce such divisions. It is so much easier to place an author by race or gender or sexual orientation than by reading the work of the author. Academics look to people like themselves, and departments open the way to tenure for specific avenues of study that satisfy the faculty. If you want to study the contributions of Asian women to American literature, then why not push the student to Women's Studies where "that stuff" gets done, and where sympathetic professors may be more likely to take an interest and grant tenure along such lines? And for publishers, who fill bookshelves the way agribusiness fills orders, it is just easier to say "we have shelf space Gay/Lesbian rather than Young Adult, why not market your coming of age story that way."

None of this goes to whether I think such classifications are a good idea or not. As always, I think "sometimes yes, sometimes no, because it is complicated." I would object to clearing the SF shelves of Octavia Butler or Sarah Zettel or Michael Burstein because someone insisted that we classify them strictly by author's race, gender, or religion. But I don't object to putting Herman Wouk in the Jewish Literature section, even for such non-Jewish works as the Caine Mutiny. I am not always consistent, and feel enough tribalism to want to claim Wouk and have him recognized as someone like me.
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