Howard University about to dissolve its classics department; Cornel West and Jeremy Tate object

April 24, 2021 • 10:45 am

You might remember my post back in February reporting how a Princeton classics professor, Dan-el Padilla Peralta, was trying to dismantle “classics” studies not only because they concentrate on white thinkers, but also, he claims, undergird racism and white supremacy. I objected, as did Andrew Sullivan and many others.  But I expect to see further dismantling of “classic studies” on similar grounds as universities throughout the West become more woke.

Classics, of course, involves the study of ancient Greek and Roman literature, and, as I’ve mentioned, ancient Greeks and Romans didn’t have a notion of “whiteness”. Yes, they had slaves, but most of those slaves were also white. The implication that the ancients were racists in today’s sense is simply wrong, and a horrible reason to get rid of classics departments.

But go they will. The latest is at the historically black Howard University in Washington, D.C. As the Washington Post reported a few days ago, the University is on the verge of dissolving its Classics Department:

The decision to dissolve the department comes after a three-year review of Howard’s academic programs, said Alonda Thomas, a spokeswoman for the university. Officials determined the classics department, which does not offer a major, could be disbanded and its courses dispersed to other academic units, “which will allow the university to function more effectively and efficiently,” Thomas said.

Is that the real reason? I doubt it. There’s more:

A handful of classes taught within the division will be absorbed into other liberal arts departments, university officials said.

The decision has left students and professors scrambling to save the department, saying Howard is the only historically Black university with a classics department. A spokeswoman for the university did not immediately confirm that.

The department apparently has eight professors, four of them untenured. Those four will be let go, while the tenured profs disperse to other departments.

You can see the department webpage here, and their offerings are not insubstantial. Although there is no major in classics, there are minors in Classical Civilization, Latin, and Ancient Greek, and a fair number of courses. Surely at least half those courses will vanish as half the department is fired. And it’s sad that the only historically black university with a classics department will be depriving black students of the chance to study the ancients. Does it really matter if they were “white”? Isn’t the content of their character more germane?

Among those objecting to the department’s disbanding are Cornel West and Jeremy Tate, who wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post calling the department’s loss a “spiritual catastrophe” (click on screenshot below to read their op-ed).  And nobody is going to criticize West and Tate for being white supremacists! Here are their mini-bios from the article:

Cornel West is a professor of the practice of public philosophy at Harvard University and serves on the board of academic advisers of the Classic Learning Test. Jeremy Tate is the founder and chief executive officer of the Classic Learning Test.

And you probably know that West, who’s black, has long been an anti-racist, Leftist, socialist, and “radical democrat”, and has written extensively decrying segregation and inequality. Tate is white, and the Classic Learning Test is a new test designed to replace the SAT as a standardized test, though all standardized tests of that sort are probably doomed. The staff of the Classic Learning Test looks fairly multiracial, for what that’s worth.

But on to the short editorial.

West and Tate note at the outset that both Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, Jr. found solace and inspiration in thinkers like Socrates, Cicero and Cato. And then they give their reasons for opposing Howard’s decision. They soft-pedal the white supremacy trope because they’re not trying to be divisive; rather, they want to emphasize why classics is important for everyone, including African Americans:

. . . . today, one of America’s greatest Black institutions, Howard University, is diminishing the light of wisdom and truth that inspired Douglass, King and countless other freedom fighters. Amid a move for educational “prioritization,” Howard University is dissolving its classics department. Tenured faculty will be dispersed to other departments, where their courses can still be taught. But the university has sent a disturbing message by abolishing the department.

Academia’s continual campaign to disregard or neglect the classics is a sign of spiritual decay, moral decline and a deep intellectual narrowness running amok in American culture. Those who commit this terrible act treat Western civilization as either irrelevant and not worthy of prioritization or as harmful and worthy only of condemnation.

Sadly, in our culture’s conception, the crimes of the West have become so central that it’s hard to keep track of the best of the West. We must be vigilant and draw the distinction between Western civilization and philosophy on the one hand, and Western crimes on the other. The crimes spring from certain philosophies and certain aspects of the civilization, not all of them.

Note that “Western crimes” is a euphemism, surely, for both racism and colonialism. But they consciously have decided to avoid connecting classics with racism—a wise decision.  Although there’s a bit too much emphasis on “spirituality” in the editorial—West is a Christian—the authors rightly decry the utilitarian nature of modern education while at the same time urging blacks to engage with the intellectual rigor of the Classics:

The Western canon is, more than anything, a conversation among great thinkers over generations that grows richer the more we add our own voices and the excellence of voices from Africa, Asia, Latin America and everywhere else in the world. We should never cancel voices in this conversation, whether that voice is Homer or students at Howard University. For this is no ordinary discussion.

The Western canon is an extended dialogue among the crème de la crème of our civilization about the most fundamental questions. It is about asking “What kind of creatures are we?” no matter what context we find ourselves in. It is about living more intensely, more critically, more compassionately. It is about learning to attend to the things that matter and turning our attention away from what is superficial.

Howard University is not removing its classics department in isolation. This is the result of a massive failure across the nation in “schooling,” which is now nothing more than the acquisition of skills, the acquisition of labels and the acquisition of jargon. Schooling is not education. Education draws out the uniqueness of people to be all that they can be in the light of their irreducible singularity. It is the maturation and cultivation of spiritually intact and morally equipped human beings.

Students must be challenged: Can they face texts from the greatest thinkers that force them to radically call into question their presuppositions? Can they come to terms with the antecedent conditions and circumstances they live in but didn’t create? Can they confront the fact that human existence is not easily divided into good and evil, but filled with complexity, nuance and ambiguity?

This classical approach is united to the Black experience. It recognizes that the end and aim of education is really the anthem of Black people, which is to lift every voice. That means to find your voice, not an echo or an imitation of others. But you can’t find your voice without being grounded in tradition, grounded in legacies, grounded in heritages.

h/t: Greg

New letter from Adam Gopnik in our “ways of knowing” exchange

April 1, 2021 • 10:00 am

Adam Gopnik has written his third letter (the sixth between us) in our continuing exchange on the topic shown below (click on screenshot to see all the letters, but then scroll down on the site to “Letter 6” to see Adam’s latest.

You may want to read my last letter (Letter 5) in conjunction with his latest one.

Adam defends his views on Darwin and argues that he’s not, as I suggested, projecting his own views onto writers like Dickens and Trollope. (I didn’t argue that; I said he picked from the smorgasbord of literature just those views that he found congenial to his own, and labeled those as “knowledge”). He then begins what will be an interesting discussion: do music and abstract painting give us “knowledge”? His view is “yes, they do.” I doubt I’ll agree!

I’ll respond after I get back to Chicago, and that will be my last contribution. Adam, in his fourth letter, will get the final say.

Some may feel that this is a futile exchange and the issue can never be settled, and of course I didn’t expect a lot of agreement. But my own view is that there has to be a place where the arguments about “ways of knowing” are collected, and I hope this is one such place.

Amanda Gorman’s Catalan translator removed for having the “wrong profile”

March 11, 2021 • 11:00 am

Today I’m just going to report on things happening in a climate of Wokeness. I hardly need comment on them because they’re similar to things that have happened before. Take today’s posts as a documentation of the balkanization of society—and not just in America.

As I reported on March 1, a Dutch translator lined up to put the poetry of Amanda Gorman—who spoke at the Inauguration—into Dutch had to drop out after critics suggested it was inappropriate for a white person to translate the poems of a young black woman.  Even Gorman approved of the translator, who, though they were white (the translator uses plural pronouns), was also “non binary”. Shouldn’t that rung on the oppression ladder count for something in this crazy world? Nope; it’s all based on skin color.

Now it’s happened again. As the Guardian reports, a poet who was to translate Gorman’s work into Catalan was deemed unsuitable because his “profile” (read: skin color and perhaps sex or age) was wrong. In this case the translator was fired rather than quitting in the face of social (justice) pressure.

Click on the screenshot to read:

An excerpt:

The Catalan translator for the poem that American writer Amanda Gorman read at US president Joe Biden’s inauguration has said he has been removed from the job because he had the wrong “profile”.

It was the second such case in Europe after Dutch writer Marieke Lucas Rijneveld resigned from the job of translating Gorman’s work following criticism that a black writer was not chosen.

“They told me that I am not suitable to translate it,” Catalan translator Victor Obiols told AFP on Wednesday. “They did not question my abilities, but they were looking for a different profile, which had to be a woman, young, activist and preferably black.”

Look at all the criteria he had to meet: age, sex, race, and degree of activism! If you read Gorman’s Inaugural Poem, “The Hill We Climb“, which is neither linguistically, intellectually complex, nor subtle, you’ll know that what’s required here is simply a sensitivity to poetry and the ability to translate from one language to another.

Not only that, but Obiols had already translated works from English into Catalan, including Oscar Wilde and Shakespeare—writers that are surely more difficult to tackle than is Gorman.

Obois was supposed to translate “The Hill We Climb” into an apparently standalone version, with a foreword by Oprah Winfrey, when he got word that “he was not the right person”. It’s not clear who made this decision. Obois didn’t go gentle, as opposed to the Dutch translator:

“It is a very complicated subject that cannot be treated with frivolity,” said Obiols, a resident of Barcelona.

“But if I cannot translate a poet because she is a woman, young, black, an American of the 21st century, neither can I translate Homer because I am not a Greek of the eighth century BC. Or could not have translated Shakespeare because I am not a 16th-century Englishman.”

Yes, an obvious point, but a good one. Likewise, Ezra Pound would have been deemed unsuitable to translate old English and Chinese poetry into modern English, but he did a fantastic job: those translations are some of his finest work. Read “The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter.”

You could find innumerable cases of translators who differed in ethnicity, age, race, sex, and so on from their subjects, but who did great jobs. Constance Garnett (1861-1946), an English woman, was and is still famous for her translations of Russian literature, and it was through her translations that I became acquainted with the works of Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Gogol (she translated 71 books of Russian literature, and some of them were big ‘uns!). Her work is sensitive and poetic. But she was neither male nor Russian, so fie with her!

There are only two possible reasons for rejecting a translator in a case like this. The first is purely ideological: you have to find a translator that aligns with the writer for reasons of social justice, perhaps as a form of reparations or literary affirmative action. The second has to do with quality: one could claim that political/racial/sexual alignment is necessary to do a good job of translation. I think that reason has been amply disproven, leaving the first reason—the Woke one—as the only plausible alternative.

If you want more evidence, I propose this experiment: find a black female activist Catalan translator (good luck with that!) to translate Gorman’s poem into English, as well as a number of other translators: young Catalan white women, non-Catalan white women, old Catalan black women, Catalan women who are not activists, Asian women who speak Catalan but aren’t activists, and so on. Then put all the translations side by side in a blind study and see if neutral Catalan-and-English speaking observers, judging by the translation alone, can pick out the one poem translated by the wholly “appropriate” translator. I’m pretty sure that they wouldn’t be able to do it.  And if that failed, it shows that you can’t argue that only the properly aligned translator can do justice to the original poem.  Clearly, the first explanation: compatibility with Wokeness, is more plausible. It’s also ridiculous.

I have yet to see a full explanation from the Translation Cancelers of exactly why differences in ethnicity, age, race, and sex are necessary for an Amanda Gorman translation. They just use the word “inappropriate”.

h/t: Jez

A new letter to Adam Gopnik

February 28, 2021 • 10:30 am

As I wrote about two weeks ago, Adam Gopnik, a well-known writer who’s on staff at The New Yorker, is engaging me in an Internet discussion about “ways of knowing” on the “Conversation” site of Letter. I was going to post only when the exchange—which will involve either three or four letters each—was complete, but I decided that I’d let readers know as each letter goes up.  I’ve just posted my response to Adam, which is my second letter and #3 in the series at the website below (click on screenshot to read). Each week should see a new letter.

The discussion is mostly about literature, where Adam’s expertise lies, and whether knowledge can be discerned from literature alone. But I won’t go into the specifics, as our thoughts will be laid out for all to see. Feel free to comment below, though, and remember, this is a civil discussion between Adam and me, that we’re friends, and that comments should also be civil—even when critical of either of us.

Shakespeare gets canceled

February 18, 2021 • 1:00 pm

Yes, I’ve exaggerated with the word “canceled”, but if English departments were like police departments, you could say that Shakespeare is getting “defunded.” Unfortunately, I am not an expert on the Bard, having read only the most famous of his plays (and all of the sonnets), so all I can say is that he is not just an expert in constructing intricate and absorbing plots, but a genius, probably unparalleled, in the use of the English language. His preeminence is justified, but of course he’s a dead white male, and of course there is Othello (who doesn’t come off so badly, as Shakespeare was no white supremacist), and most of all there’s Shylock.

But crikey, that was the late 16th and early 17th century, and Shakespeare gets off pretty well compared to what were probably the attitudes of his English countrymen.  Nevertheless, he’s being downgraded, and this is expected given the way things are going. The criticism doesn’t seem to mention Shylock because, after all, who cares about stereotyped Jews?

The article below is of course from a conservative venue: the Washington Times. But that doesn’t mean that the quotes (indented) are fake, so if you find a fake one, let me know. Otherwise, I’ll give a few excerpts, as I must take my wintery constitutional before I watch the Mars landing. Click on the screenshot:

So let’s put Shakespeare in the dock. “Mr. Shakespeare, you stand accused of these sins:”

White supremacy and colonization (?):

For the new breed of teachers, Shakespeare is seen less as an icon of literature and more as a tool of imperial oppression, an author who should be dissected in class or banished from the curriculum entirely.

“This is about white supremacy and colonization,” declared the teachers who founded #DisruptTexts, a group that wants staples of Western literature removed or subjected to withering criticism.

The anti-Shakespeare teachers say fans of the plays ignore the author’s problematic worldview. They say readers of Shakespeare should be required to address the “whiteness” of their thinking.

If Shakespeare must be taught, these educators say, then it should be presented with watered-down versions of the original or supplemental texts focused on equality issues.

Elizabeth Nelson, who teaches English at Twin Cities Academy in St. Paul, Minnesota, told School Library Journal that she gives her students Marxist theory when reading Shakespeare’s tragedy “Coriolanus” about the Roman leader.

Toxic masculinity:

Sarah Mulhern Gross told the journal that she delivered “toxic masculinity analysis” to her students reading “Romeo and Juliet” at High Technology High School in Lincroft, New Jersey.

I suppose this is because those Montagues and Capulets who were always quarreling were MEN, ergo the family feud exemplified toxic masculinity.

Being an irrelevant hack:

This is among the most ridiculous of the comments, but remember that Woke ideology rejects the idea of a meritocracy. And Shakespeare, often considered the greatest of English-language writers, is triply bad because he was a white male as well as a great writer, so he needs to be taken down a few pegs. For example:

The School Library Journal, which describes itself as “the premier publication for librarians and information specialists who work with children and teens,” joined the fight this year and offered young adult novels as alternatives to Shakespeare.

The librarians also showcased an essay questioning the contemporary value of the playwright responsible for classics such as “Hamlet,” “Macbeth” and “King Lear.”

“A growing number of educators are … coming to the conclusion that it’s time for Shakespeare to be set aside or deemphasized to make room for modern, diverse, and inclusive voices,” said the essay, titled “To Teach or Not to Teach: Is Shakespeare Still Relevant to Today’s Students?”

“Educators grappling with these questions are teaching, critiquing, questioning, and abandoning Shakespeare’s work, and offering alternatives for updating and enhancing curricula,” it said.

Set aside! Defunded! This reminds me of Professor Philip Ewell, a black professor of music theory at Hunter College in New York, who said this about Beethoven (quoted in the New York Times):

Last April [Ewell] fired a broadside at Beethoven, writing that it would be academically irresponsible to call him more than an “above average” composer. Beethoven, he wrote, “has been propped up by whiteness and maleness for 200 years.”

Check out the link.

And talk about damning with faint praise:

“We believe that Shakespeare, like any other playwright, no more and no less, has literary merit,” wrote Lorena German, a teacher who penned #DisruptingShakespeare and is often engaged in Twitter discussions on the subject. “He is not ‘universal’ in a way that other authors are not. He is not more ‘timeless’ than anyone else.”

You mean that every author is equally timeless? Shakespeare doesn’t speak to us any more than, say, the author of Jonathan Livingston Seagull? All must have prizes!

Well, I’ll leave out the kvetching about wokeness that also permeates the article; the critics above speak sufficiently to the malaise afflicting the humanities. Anyone who can argue that Shakespeare is no more timeless than anyone else must not only argue that he’s revered simply because he was a heterosexual white male, but must also argue that every other author and playwright who ever lived is just as good as the Bard. And that’s just nuts.

The Nobel Prize in Literature goes to Louise Glück, for poetry, and nobody wins the guess-the-Laureate contest

October 8, 2020 • 6:30 am

Rarely does a poet receive the Nobel Prize for Literature (Bob Dylan was the most recent one), but we have one this year, the American poet Louise Glück. The Nobel Foundation’s Press release (very skimpy) is here, and her official Nobel biography is here. The award is ““for her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal”. One excerpt from the biography:

The American poet Louise Glück was born 1943 in New York and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Apart from her writing she is a professor of English at Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut. She made her debut in 1968 with Firstborn, and was soon acclaimed as one of the most prominent poets in American contemporary literature. She has received several prestigious awards, among them the Pulitzer Prize (1993) and the National Book Award (2014).

Louise Glück has published twelve collections of poetry and some volumes of essays on poetry. All are characterized by a striving for clarity. Childhood and family life, the close relationship with parents and siblings, is a thematic that has remained central with her. In her poems, the self listens for what is left of its dreams and delusions, and nobody can be harder than she in confronting the illusions of the self. But even if Glück would never deny the significance of the autobiographical background, she is not to be regarded as a confessional poet. Glück seeks the universal, and in this she takes inspiration from myths and classical motifs, present in most of her works. The voices of Dido, Persephone and Eurydice – the abandoned, the punished, the betrayed – are masks for a self in transformation, as personal as it is universally valid.

Glück is much honored; she also won the National Humanities Medal, a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award, a National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Bollingen Prize.

I have to say that I’m not at all familiar with her work, and, given these encomiums, I should have been (my knowledge of American poetry stops with Sylvia Plath and of non-American poetry with Seamus Heaney). The Nobel Committee gave an excerpt from her work:

Louise Glück is not only engaged by the errancies and shifting conditions of life, she is also a poet of radical change and rebirth, where the leap forward is made from a deep sense of loss. In one of her most lauded collections, The Wild Iris (1992), for which she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, she describes the miraculous return of life after winter in the poem ”Snowdrops”:

I did not expect to survive,
earth suppressing me. I didn’t expect
to waken again, to feel
in damp earth my body
able to respond again, remembering
after so long how to open again
in the cold light
of earliest spring –

afraid, yes, but among you again
crying yes risk joy

in the raw wind of the new world.

As of this writing there’s no video of the announcement, but I’ll post one when it appears.  Here’s Glück reading from her collection Faithful and Virtuous Night, which won a National Book Award.

As for yesterday’s “Guess the Literature Prize” contest, it was again a miserable failure—nobody guessed Glück.  (The favorite seemed to be Margaret Atwood.) What a pity!

A consolation contest: guess the Nobel Prize for Literature

October 7, 2020 • 8:00 am

As I noted this morning, my Nobel Prize Contest was a miserable failure: nobody even came close to guessing any winners of the three science prizes. Ergo, nobody won.

Well, you get another chance. The Nobel Prize in Literature will be awarded tomorrow morning. Guess the winner and put your guess below.

Rules: One guess only, and best to give a single name. In the unlikely event that the prize is shared by more than one person, your guess is counted correct only if you name both people. Since you can win with just one name, best to suggest only one name.

The first person to guess the winner wins the prize, so if you have a likely candidate, best to post the name now.

The contest closes at 7 p.m. Chicago time today.

The Prize will be be a paperback copy of Faith Versus Fact, autographed, made out to you, and bearing an original PCC(E)-drawn animal cartoon with a pro-science and anti-faith message.

Let’s have some entries this time—this ain’t rocket science.

“Now October has come again”

October 1, 2020 • 6:00 am

I’ve put up the words of Thomas Wolfe several times on October 1 (he was born on October 3, 1900, and died of tuberculosis at just 37). This is a repost from exactly ten years ago. The prose is gorgeous and evocative, and of course appropriate to the day.


No writer has captured the color and feel of America better than Thomas Wolfe. From Of Time and the River:

Now October has come again which in our land is different from October in the other lands.  The ripe, the golden month has come again, and in Virginia the chinkapins are falling.  Frost sharps the middle music of the seasons, and all things living on the earth turn home again. The country is so big that you cannot say that the country has the same October. In Maine, the frost comes sharp and quick as driven nails, just for a week or so the woods, all of the bright and bitter leaves, flare up; the maples turn a blazing bitter red, and other leaves turn yellow like a living light, falling upon you as you walk the woods, falling about you like small pieces of the sun so that you cannot say that sunlight shakes and flutters on the ground, and where the leaves. . .

October is the richest of the seasons: the fields are cut, the granaries are full, the bins are loaded to the brim with fatness, and from the cider-press the rich brown oozings of the York Imperials run.  The bee bores to the belly of the yellowed grape, the fly gets old and fat and blue, he buzzes loud, crawls slow, creeps heavily to death on sill and ceiling, the sun goes down in blood and pollen across the bronzed and mown fields of old October.

The corn is shocked: it sticks out in hard yellow rows upon dried ears, fit now for great red barns in Pennsylvania, and the big stained teeth of crunching horses. The indolent hooves kick swiftly at the boards, the barn is sweet with hay and leather, wood and apples—this, and the clean dry crunching of the teeth is all:  the sweat, the labor, and the plow is over. The late pears mellow on a sunny shelf, smoked hams hang to the warped barn rafters; the pantry shelves are loaded with 300 jars of fruit. Meanwhile the leaves are turning, turning up in Maine, the chestnut burrs plop thickly to the earth in gusts of wind, and in Virginia the chinkapins are falling.


Turning literature into ideology: Flannery O’Connor gets cancelled

August 23, 2020 • 1:00 pm

In June I reported that among the books I pried from the university library before it closed was the collected works of Flannery O’Connor, a writer who’s celebrated but whose work I hadn’t read.  After having worked my way through all her short stories and one of her novels, I decided she is indeed among the great anglophone writers of modern times, well worth reading. She’s right up there with Katherine Mansfield, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and her southern confrère Carson McCullers.

Lately, however, as the article from Quillette shown below reports, O’Connor has assumed a bad odor,  (Charlotte Allen is a journalist and writer.) Why? For the same reason nearly everyone, including ornithologists, is getting canceled these days: they are deemed racist. In O’Connor’s case, though, that judgment is not straightforward. Yes, she made racist statements in her private letters, her novels are full of the n-word, and she once wrote (in a letter) that she didn’t like black people. On the other hand, her biographer Angela Alaimo O’Donnell says that her attitude towards blacks was ambiguous and complex—and you can certainly see that in her stories. (I recommend reading “Everything that Rises Must Converge”, which Allen dwells on toward the end of her essay.)

Click on the screenshot to read the piece.

O’Connor’s attitudes toward blacks have been discussed for decades, but what put paid to her reputation now appears to be this essay from the June 15 New Yorker (click on screenshot below), which bears a title similar to the question, “Have you stopped beating your wife?” The author, who had previously written worshipfully of O’Connor and her work, is now on a different tack, and the conclusion of the title question is “Pretty damn racist.” (I’ve read the essay.)

As Allen reports, within a few days after Elie’s New Yorker essay, students at Loyola University in Baltimore, a Jesuit school (O’Connor was a staunch Catholic), demanded that a dormitory named Flannery O’Conner Hall be renamed. The administration caved and renamed the dorm after a black Catholic nun, Thea Bowman.

So be it; this will keep happening and there’s nothing we can do about it. Racism is easy to find in white Southerners of her era and before, as well as in nearly every white person who lived before 1920, whether they lived in the North or South. The question remains and why I’m writing this:  “Well, what comes next?” The best part of Allen’s piece is her argument that the sussing out of bigotry in someone’s psyche should not involve canceling their art.

We already know that schools are very hesitant to teach books like To Kill a Mockingbird and Huckleberry Finn, despite the fact that both books are anti-racist. (In both cases the n-word is used and racist attitudes are evinced by the unenlightened; but that’s apparently enough to doom a book. Racism, it seems, simply can’t be depicted at all.) It’s only a matter of time before people stop teaching Flannery O’Connor because she’s, well, “problematic.” And that would be a great shame, because she’s a terrific and unusual writer well worth your time.

So I’ll give the money quotes from Allen’s essay, and hope that we can take them to heart.

The fact that this debate is taking place at all, however—whether or not Flannery O’Connor was a racist, how racist or not she might have been, whether she redeemed herself from her racism via her writing or grew past her racism morally—is exactly what has gone fearfully wrong. The primary evil of cancel culture isn’t toppled statues or renamed buildings or even destroyed livelihoods. It is that, once cancel culture has come for an artist, it becomes impossible to take that artist’s artistry seriously. In his New Yorker essay, Paul Elie complains that O’Connor’s admirers pass over the issue of her racism in order to focus on her literary gifts: “[I]t’s about protecting an author who is now as beloved as her stories.” Now, O’Connor’s admirers will be obliged to pass over her literary gifts in order to focus on the issue of her racism. Flannery O’Connor will forever have an asterisk next to her name, and that asterisk will be the Racism Question. Henceforth, it will be impossible to give a public lecture about O’Connor, teach a college class, write a critical essay, or adapt her fiction to stage or screen without appending a dreary prologue rehearsing all the arguments about her attitudes toward black people. And in the midst of such arguments, all nuance, humor, characterization, and subtlety in the works themselves gets flattened or lost. This is what cancel culture does: It reduces literature to ideology.

. . . To quote the New Testament, as O’Connor did so often in her fiction, the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life. And there is nothing so literal in its after-effects as cancel culture, mowing down everything in its path in the name of anti-racism or whatever the ideology du jour might be. What cancel culture has just mown down isn’t simply Flannery O’Connor or her works, but our ability to view them through any other lens except that of doctrine.

The only problem with Allen’s essay is that she gets bogged down criticizing O’Connor’s detractors because they never explicitly define “racist.”  Well, you don’t really have to: you can look at her statements, her stories, her novels, and her letters, and judge what her attitudes towards blacks were. If nearly uniformly negative, yes, she’s a racist. O’Connor’s attitudes were apparently complex, and she was trying to wean herself of racism because it contravened her Catholicism (I haven’t read the biography or her letters.)  The stories and novel I have read do not show someone who’s an out-and-out racist. Racism is shown, but can we tell that it’s O’Connor’s, or simply the attitudes of the characters?

But, as Allen concludes (and I agree), we cannot allow the label of “racist” to remove someone from the canon of literature. Were that true, we’d have to give up a great deal of literature, and we’d be the worse for it. After all, it’s not like reading Flannery O’Connor, or Mark Twain, or Harper Lee, will turn people into racists.

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?