Should we judge literature by its ideology and its author’s ethnicity?

April 30, 2020 • 11:00 am

I have to say that Quillette‘s articles are getting distressingly predictable. Although many of them I find ideologically compatible and useful, as they call out the woke and the excesses of the Left, all too often I can tell what’s going to be in a piece simply by looking at its title. I don’t like 100% predictability, and although nearly all websites have their biases, writers like Christopher Hitchens used to surprise us with his takes. You could never quite figure out where he was going to go in a piece, and that was a nice surprise—and made you think. I don’t find that unpredictability in Quillette.

That said, I still think it’s a site sui generis, and much needed. The article below, which complains about the ideological way books are now judged and rated, is a mix: I agree with a lot of it but disagree with some of the predictable parts.

Click on the screenshot below to read it. The author, Elena Shalneva, is identified as “a London-based journalist, writing about books, film, and culture. Her work has appeared in Standpoint and City AM. She has published several short stories, and is currently completing her first collection. She is also guest lecturer at King’s College London.”

Shalneva has some valid complaints. One is that, increasingly, books seem to be judged and given prizes not on their literary merit, but on the ethnicity of their authors (minorities and women good, white bad) or on their subject matter (woke or Left-wing subjects good, other subjects bad). I think she has a point here, and one example is the awarding of the 2017 Royal Society Investment Insight Book Prize (a prestigious award for general science writing) to Cordelia Fine’s Testosterone Rex, a book I found tendentious, flawed, and inferior to some of its competitors. But it had the advantage, as did the 2019 book winner, of aiming to be a corrective of sexism and misogyny in science. Ed Yong’s fine book, I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life, didn’t stand a chance against Fine’s book, for sexism trumps microbes.

I note that the 2019 winner is among these lines as well: Caroline Criado Perez’s Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men (I haven’t read this one, and it did get good reviews). One could make the case that the prize has become ideologically slanted, with “woke” books having a greater chance of winning.  At least that’s what Shalneva says about one of the world’s most prestigious awards for fiction—the Man Booker Prize:

When I learned that the 2020 International Booker Prize was going ahead in spite of London’s lockdown, I rejoiced at the organisers’ resourcefulness and resilience. But then I began reading the posts about this year’s prize on the Booker website and my enthusiasm dwindled. Surveying press responses to publication of the shortlist, the organisers spotlighted the Guardian‘s observation that nominee Marieke Lucas Rijneveld is only 28 years old, “identifies as male and uses the pronouns they/them.” The New York Times, we are told, had noted that four of the six shortlisted nominees are women, and the Sydney Morning Herald had informed its readers that one of these women is a refugee who fled to Australia from Iran. A separate post made mention of “such enormous themes as intellectual freedom, sexual identity, political unrest, and loss.” I find it unfortunate that the literary industry, eager to advertise its diversity credentials, panders to the media’s obsession with secondary considerations such as choice of subject matter and author identity, rather than focusing on essential considerations such as talent and literary merit.

Yes, she does have a point here.

Shalneva goes on to argue that while one’s life experience can inform a work of fiction (viz., Moby Dick, Youth), a book doesn’t achieve greatness by conveying the author’s experience alone. Nor is an author required to have “lived experience” related to a work of fiction (viz. anything by Cormac McCarthy, Pat Barker’s The Regeneration Trilogy, and so on—all these examples are mine). Her implicit message is that ethnicity or “lived experience” alone does not a great novel make. The problem of “author not of the right ethnicity to write” particularly plagues adult fiction, whose publishers now employ “sensitivity readers” to vet books for RightThink and cultural appropriation.

Shalneva highlights NickDeLano’s response to a tweet from Vox:

Shalneva also links to her own response to the Vox emission, as well as to that of advice columnist Amy Alkon:

There is a grain of truth in Shalneva’s reactions, but it sounds a bit harsh to me. For one thing, you could make a good case that Virginia Woolf, Mary Ann Evans (“George Eliot”), or Katherine Mansfield were better writers than Coetzee.  You don’t have to read just one writer to the exclusion of others.

As for reading more books by people of color, I’ve done just that, and precisely because I wanted to learn more about the black experience. I just finished Richard Wright’s Native Son, a work of fiction, but also his autobiography Black Boy, and it’s clear how much Wright’s own experience fed into that great novel. I don’t think any white writer could have written Native Son—or, for that matter, Ellison’s Invisible Man. Now those books aren’t great simply because their authors were black, but their author’s ethnicity was a prerequisite for their greatness. I believe there are some experiences that only a member of a certain group can have, and that, combined with the writer’s talent, produces a synergy that can yield great literature.

I’m sure you can think of others. Shalnevo argues that Oliver Twist doesn’t rest on “lived experience” because it “was not written by a Victorian orphan”, but is she aware that while Dickens’s father was in debtor’s prison, Dickens worked in a “blacking factory” ten hours a day, pasting labels on bottles of shoe polish? Nobody has doubted that some of the themes of his work, and his sympathy for the downtrodden and abandoned child, came from this experience.  And during that period, Dickens was in fact an orphan. As the World History Project notes—correctly, I think:

For more than a half century, students of Dickens have emphasized the crucial importance of the traumatic period in his life when his parents suddenly removed him from school and their middle-class, more-or-less genteel environment, made him live apart from the family, and forced him to work at Warren’s Shoeblacking factory and warehouse. As Walter Allen points out, this experience had crucial influence on (1) the writer’s emphasis upon orphans and abandoned children, (2) the self-pity that permeates many of his works, and (3) their fairy-tale plots:

The blacking factory episode does not account for Dickens’s genius, but it does, I believe, explain some of the forms his genius took, and it throws light on much that is otherwise baffling both in his art and his life.

Again, you needn’t have worked as a child laborer to have written a book about it, but the greatest book about it just happens to have rested on such experience. That’s not a coincidence.

This is why I think that it’s the combination of artistic talent and “lived experience” that had made for some of the world’s greatest fiction. But although the former is required, the latter isn’t. But it helps! That’s why many writers do extensive research for their novels. In this light, I think Shalneva’s tweet about Coetzee appears mean-spirited and, implicitly, wrong. I chose to read Ellison and Wright because of the combination of their talent and their identity. I wanted to find out what it was like to be an African-American in the Chicago of the 1920s.

And surely there are many great works of literature about which we don’t know because they haven’t been translated into English. How many of those works will thrill us and change us because they acquaint us with what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes?

Finally, Shalneva suggests a fix for the tendency to rate books by the ethnicity or gender of their authors or by the ideological compatibility of their subject matter:

A writer capable of prose with this kind of elemental force should be rewarded and rewarded generously. A writer who isn’t, should not. Artistic vocation is a privilege, not a right, and handing prestigious awards to mediocre fiction is of benefit to no-one, irrespective of the author’s identity or the social importance of the themes they write about. It is therefore my firm belief that the Booker Prize (and all other major literary prizes) should be judged blindly. I am aware that this will create practical problems (and that it will ruffle some feathers). But overcoming such problems is surely within the capabilities of the clever people responsible for judging the Booker Prize. Admittedly, this won’t prevent authors being nominated for tackling fashionable subject matter. But if the panels wish to avoid accusations of bias, it would at least help to re-establish literary merit as the pre-eminent criterion of worth rather than privileging authors for their sex or race. And assessing merit is the reason such awards panels exist, after all. Isn’t it?

Well, in principle this is a good idea, but in practice how can already-published works be judged blind? (Perhaps editors for publishing houses can vet them blind.)

Yes, I agree that assessing merit is the reason awards panels exist, and they shouldn’t bias their awards by the genes of the author or the subject of their work. But in practice some works of great merit result from a stupendous talent transforming their own experience, and presenting it to us as another way of looking at the world. After all, isn’t one of the principle boons of literature that it helps us see the world from another person’s point of view?

39 thoughts on “Should we judge literature by its ideology and its author’s ethnicity?

  1. I started reading science fiction in the 70s. I read books because they were interesting. I knew little about the authors and did not care about them. I did not know Samuel Delany (Dhalgren, Babel-17) was black or gay until decades later. I read Ursula K. LeGuin because she was a great writer not because she was a woman. When she died, it seemed really odd to me that she was always referred to as a “woman science fiction writer.” I did not know Orson Scott Card was a Mormon when I read his early books.

    When I reread their books now, I think about these things but I am glad I did not know/think about them at the time.

    1. I did not know Samuel Delany (Dhalgren, Babel-17) was black or gay until decades later.

      I’ll admit with some authors it’s hard to suss them out from what they write. But Dhalgren was pretty “open book” (pardon the pun). Card’s Mormonism shines through in Seventh Son (1987 – two years after Ender’s Game…I believe only his third major book!) and is absolutely, blindingly obvious in Memory of Earth (1992) and that series. Heck, that’s basically the book of Mormon, rewritten.

      But I don’t think those sorts of “your character is like you” or “draw from what you know” stories are the issue here. I think the concern is more that the awards are starting to select between “what you knows” based on political slant rather than writing. Card is a good example, since he’s conservative. The worry is that conservative lived experiences will be seen as not as worthy of award as liberal ones, regardless of quality of writing or story.


      Sci-fi has always been about using futuristic fiction to talk about today’s society. However, my own experience with it (about the same time frame as yours) is that putting the story first tends to create great reads, while putting the social point first tend to create a lot more dreck. Which, circling back to the original post, is probably part of what Shalneva is concerned about; awarding the dreck because of the social point it makes.

      1. Some things are obvious if you look for them but, as a teenager, I didn’t think or care to look for them. I am glad that I was young and naive when I first read many books. Rereading them can give me a different pleasure that maturity brings.

        I agree that greatness comes from combining the plot and the social commentary.

  2. Well, in principle this is a good idea, but in practice how can already-published works be judged blind? (Perhaps editors for publishing houses can vet them blind.)

    Well, and perfect doesn’t have to be the enemy of good here. Give the reviewers copies that have no author name and no bibliographic information on said authors, and ask them not to look that stuff up until their reviews and final vote/selection is submitted. It’s by no means true blinding, but it may help.

    I expect there’d be some unwillingness to do that. Nobody wants another Million little pieces issue – i.e., they’d be afraid some inauthentic, misrepresented ‘lived experience’ book might get through due to either the story’s power or excellent writing, and then the awardees would be seen as chumps.

  3. I like the idea of judging the prize blindly. But what if it is awarded to an author whose novel perfectly captures the experience, say, of an immigrant living in Brexit Britain and when the books are unblinded, it turns out the author is not an immigrant. Surely the judges can’t run that risk!

  4. I entirely agree with you on this Jerry. Your final sentence gets right to the heart of the matter.

    I do understand Shalneva’s criticisms and largely agree with them but I think she has allowed irritation to push her into overstating her criticisms. The irritation is warranted, I think. But there is a difference between vetting art for the purposes of assessing its qualities first by the artist and only secondarily by the quality of the art itself and picking from a selection of fine art for pieces by artists with certain characteristics because you want the experience of seeing from their particular perspective.

    I do agree with her that prizes should be awarded blindly, or as close to it as can be contrived. Even if that is only strong enforcement of clearly stated rules firmly admonishing judges and organizers from any consideration or discussion of the authors.

    1. When I survey the fruits of most modern art, I wonder about: “the quality of the art itself”.

      Most of it seems a pose. Or, as Tom Wolfe put it: The painted word. If you have to explain a work of by tagging it with an “ism”, then it has failed in its task of communicating.

      1. I think I know just what you mean. I agree. Much of it does indeed seem like a pose. I think much of it is a pose. Based on my time spent immersed in the art scene I’d go so far as to say that I know for a fact that it is. And pretentiousness is positively rampant. But that’s just people doing what they can to try and be what they want to be. Most art produced will range from mediocre to pure dreck. Even from better artists. But there are jewels. Relatively rare but plenty of them because there are so many artists making so many attempts.

        It’s hard to figure out exactly what about a given piece of art makes us like it, or not. There’s the chronic war between the Concept is all camp and the Artistic Skill is all camp. It’s pretty obvious that the best art is a great concept masterfully executed. But what, exactly, makes us like it?

        A rare critic among art critics, Clement Greenberg, said . . .

        “Esthetic judgments are given and contained in the immediate experience of art. They coincide with it; they are not arrived at afterwards through reflection or thought. Esthetic judgments are also involuntary: you can no more choose whether or not to like a work of art than you can choose to have sugar taste sweet or lemons sour. (Whether or not esthetic judgments are honestly reported is another matter.)”

        I wonder what his thoughts on free will were? I tend to agree with him, but I concede there is more to it than that. For one example, sometimes a piece can grow on you over time for various reasons. But, I think that 90% + of the gibberish you hear from the “art crowd” about a piece of art are post hoc rationalizations that have more to do with being seen as being one of the ones who gets it than by anything else.

  5. They always tell you, write what you know, so it seems likely that people with experience in a particular milieu would represent it better, assuming they are good writers. Lots of people have lived experience, but can’t put a short story together, let alone a novel. At the same time the argument that you have to live it to know it undercuts the rationale for reading about different people in the first place. Either you can learn about other people, and potentially write about them, or you can’t, and, if that’s the case, why read about them? There’s an old saying, Don’t judge a book by its cover. We shouldn’t pre-judge books based on the sex or color of the authors or where they come from or who their parents were, unless we think those things override any potential quality in their output. Then we are just arguing politics, like the Nazi and Soviets.

  6. Judging blind is an admirable goal, but it won’t always be possible. After all, Hilary Mantel has won the Man Booker Prize with the first two books in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy and there is a lot of speculation about whether she will achieve an unprecedented treble with the newly published third volume.

    Mantel’s trilogy also bucks the lived experience aspect, though again I couldn’t argue that very many great authors started by writing about what they knew even if, as in the case of George Orwell, their later and more imaginative works were far better.

      1. Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety, about the French Recolution, was brilliant. I also really liked her A Change of Climate, which takes place in Africa.

        1. I’ll second the recommendation of A Place Of Greater Safety.

          The Cromwell books are written in a very particular style (2nd person, present tense) but she was already doing that in the 70s when she wrote APOGS.

          Haven’t read Cromwell 3, but Cromwell 2 was even better than Cromwell 1 so hopes are high.

  7. “Artistic vocation is a privilege, not a right,”

    While I can see how this claim might apply to having a driver’s license or even having health insurance, I can’t for the life of me grok what Shalneva means when applying it to “artistic vocation.”

    Having an artistic vocation is neither a privilege nor a right; as the term “vocation” suggests, it’s a calling, one that the callee can ignore at the risk of lifelong lack of fulfillment or accept at the risk of lifelong self-deception. Anyone aspiring to be a great writer must decide 1) whether their gift is commensurate with their aspirations (talent is cheap), and 2) whether the sacrifices likely to required of them in terms of social interactions, personal relationships, family dynamics, etc. are worth the risk of failure—or, for that matter, success.

    This is true not just of writers but, I think, of those who aspire to be truly great in any field of endeavor—e.g., athletes, musicians. Where privileges or rights come into play in the equation is beyond me.

    Beyond the above, I totally agree with our host’s take on this thread.

    1. I understood the phrase as its author intended, I think, and agree with it. I understand your interpretation too. I agree, believing or feeling that you have a strong calling to be an artist doesn’t have anything to do with privilege or rights. But being recognized by other people and peers as being an especially good artist (rather than having and prominently displaying currently in vogue ideological beliefs), and all of the benefits that come from that, that is a privilege and not a right.

      Being able to pursue it is a right we should all be granted. But receiving high acclaim and or high financial reward for it is a privilege. One that should be earned on the merits of the art, not given to a mediocre artist for other reasons.

      Perhaps vocation is not the perfect word to have used, but I think it works okay. It is commonly used to mean the much more mundane trade or type of employment at least as often as the more passionate life’s calling sort of meaning.

    2. Vocation: ‘it’s a calling, one that the callee can ignore at the risk of lifelong lack of fulfillment or accept at the risk of lifelong self-deception.’

      Ye gods! that’s brilliant.

  8. To push things to absurdity perhaps all books should be published with the pen name ‘Anonymous’ plus a numeric identifier?

    Although I rather expect authors with an already well known name and following (Nora Roberts, Stephen King, for instance) might object. I also expect that some of the Woke would resist too… how are you going to be able to signal your virtue if you can’t identify the ‘worthy’ writers?

    1. The objections of successful authors would not be unreasonable either. In a World where books are published anonymously, whether or not a particular title gets sold becomes more of a lottery. If someone has worked hard to establish a reputation for the excellence of their work they would be foolish to not want to use that reputation in promotion of their subsequent work.

  9. For many writers, ‘lived experience’ means that they create a protagonist who is largely based on themselves. It is an interesting question whether this always results in good literature.

    In his book ‘James Joyce and the making of Ulysses’, the painter Frank Budgen (who was a friend of Joyce in Zurich and Paris) points out that most self-portraits of artists are less than first-rate because they can’t see their own rear views. He suggests that there is an analogy in writers’ self-portraits, and observes that Leopold Bloom, who is imagined from the outside, is a more rounded, and believable, character than Stephen Dedalus, even though the latter is based on JJ himself.

    I must say that I personally value creativity above the ability simply to recapitulate things that have happened to an author.

  10. I agree. Quilette has some good articles, but the genre of “meritocracy” is predictable and repetitive. “Woke culture” has many aspects that are more interesting but are never explored.

    Instead, Quilette reacts to the “woke” (so-called) climate by bringing a “minority” author to set meritocratic slogans against “diversity” slogans of the “woke”. This is quite boring. There is no interesting angle, because it reacts to a “woke” ideology that is decidedly un-intellectual. For instance, “cultural appropriation” is wrong because “woke” opinion leaders (or brigades of bullies) say so. People internalise this with some vague intuitions about colonialism and theft, not because someone made a persuasive argument. At best, the ideology can manifest itself briefly in hot take manifestations of those intuitions. Or in this case, “diversity” is required and good, because …

    But no argument was made, there’s nothing to discuss. Many tried to divine what “woke” interlocutors could have meant, but have been unsuccessful.

    The problem for the libertarian Quilette argument is that the free market works just fine, as they themselves will always insist. The meritocratic argument can be applied to the award itself. If the award is given away based on ideology and not merit, then the award will come to signify ideological alignment and not excellence, and if that’s deemed worthless, the award’s meaning will deteriorate accordingly. So, what’s the problem — to Quilette and likeminded libertarians?

  11. I thought it odd that John Banville, a prose wizard of supernatural talent, didn’t receive a Booker until 2005, for his 14th novel “The Sea”. I couldn’t help suspecting that “The Untouchable” (1997) was not even shortlisted for this British award because in this novel Banville, an Irishman, had nailed down the cultural character of Britain just before and after WWII so authoritatively.

    As far as “lived experience” is concerned, I don’t believe that Homer had any direct experience of the Trojan War.

    1. And Shakespeare was not a part of the Danish Royal Court (to take but one possible example of experiences he did not live).

  12. My answer to your headline: No.

    It never enters my head to do that. Or about music, etc.

    Seriously, I couldn’t care less what your “identity” is. Tell me a good story. Play/sing me a good song.

    And no, I will not be politically correct in my choice of books or music and I will never feel guilty about that.

    Art is all about aesthetic choice. And that cannot be dictated. Beauty is in the eye of beholder. À chacun son goût.

    Get off my lawn! 🙂

    1. Identity may be the last refuge of the transcendental idealism we call Romanticism. Look in and you’ll find and find comfort (and chaos) in what we used to love to look out at and find sublimity and personal meaning in: the heavens.

      As a meme, identity is gradually losing its reality, thanks to neuroscience. As Alex Rosenberg has written,

      ‘There is no first person point of view.’

  13. To go from personal experience, these days I tend to avoid authors who blatantly ‘preach’ to the readers.

    I’ve also found a blog reviewing ‘hard boiled’ action fiction where they’ve started covering ‘women & minority’ authors and what they are finding is that in their preferred field at least, they are no better and definitely no worse than the white male authors, simply less represented.

    The blog ‘Paperback Warrior’ is linked below.

  14. As a lifelong (and long-lifed) reader who was taken to the library by her mother to select books every couple of weeks when she was able to read but not yet able to write her name, I do not usually select books on the basis of author’s names, country of origin, color or lived experiences. I look at titles. I read a few pages of the book. If it captures my interest, I continue. If I find that an author maintains my interest in one book, I may go on to read more/most of the works of that author. In many cases, the quality of a particular author’s works is not uniformly excellent. There are some that have that amazing talent. If I encounter one of these, I will try to read everything that author has written. And, for the most part, it has relatively little to do with the author’s lived experiences, but the quality of imagination, writing ability, and language abilities.

    To go back to Orson Scott Card, early on he wrote several books that dealt specifically with Mormon females. Prior to that, he also wrote dramas, etc., specifically for the Mormon Church. He wrote several science fiction books I enjoyed enormously; others I didn’t like at all. It is relatively unusual for an author’s oeuvre to be consistently excellent.

    But, on the other hand, for example,I have never read a “bad” book by Oliver Sacks.

  15. Interesting that Jerry mentioned Hitchens here because, it’s clear to me that many of Quillette’s contributors are Hitchens admirers/wannabes, his name and work are referenced quite a bit there, and his writing style is often imitated.
    I do agree that they often lack the Hitchensian willingness to buck convention but there have been the occasional surprises.

  16. “The problem of “author not of the right ethnicity to write” particularly plagues adult fiction, whose publishers now employ “sensitivity readers” to vet books for RightThink and cultural appropriation.”

    Should this refer to young-adult fiction rather than adult fiction?

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