I came across this delightful article by Emily Maguire and it got me thinking about so many things.
Like Maguire, I have always read voraciously. However, during the last year of high school I came across a statement (I can’t remember where it was from – probably from some sort of writing guide the more I think about it) which bascially said read the classics early, otherwise you will never find the time.
I took that pretty literally. The first two books I bought with my own money were Pride and Prejudice and Wuthering Heights. Eighteen year old me was a bit meh about P&P – I wasn’t a sufficiently sophisticated reader at that point to pick up on most of Austen’s tongue-in-cheek witticisms. But the relationship between Katherine and Heathcliff was a train wreck and I loved it. My passionate affair with the classics lasted a really long time, and I’m really glad I read so many dead white people at the age I did. I was a baby feminist back in the 90s (solidified when my father told me I shouldn’t use “Ms” as a title because I would be flagging myself as “one of those women who mean trouble”. I am still and always will be Ms. Come @ me patriarchy.) That led me to reading women who caused trouble – Elizabeth Gaskell, Mary Wollstonecraft, Aphra Behn, Virginia Woolf wonderful writers who have been allowed into the canon in the fullness of time.
And reading these women led me to ask myself a number of questions. Why when we hear about Gaskell’s work, is it normally Wives and Daughters or North and South, not her incredibly powerful Mary Barton? For Woolf, it’s always Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, never Orlando. (We also only ever hear about her “incredible patient” husband and never her relationship with Vita Sackville-West). And when Aphra Behn is mentioned, it’s normally Oroonoko rather than that wonderful poem The Disappointment (which is about the inability of her lover to perform). And why are there no “classics@ by people of colour? Why was it “black writing” and not “black literature”? (I hope that has changed, but it certainly hadn’t circa 20 years ago.) And where was the LGBTQ literature?
As Maguire indicates, we need to think about what the Western Literary Canon is and who decides what is in it to determine it’s worth. Of course it’s determined by straight cis white people – men for the most part. Maintaining the fiction of a literary canon allows straight cis white people to not critically look at themselves and also decide who from outside the straight cis white world is eligible to join them.
Fuck. That. Noise.
As long as there are English and Literature departments in universities, someone is deciding what is worth your time and attention. If you are studying, ask yourself why you are being presented with the texts that you are getting. And then ask yourself if there is anything similar by someone with more diverse representation.
But also, read what you want to read! I had a conversation recently with a number of highly educated women (they were all pursuing either a Masters or a PhD) and all of them said they generally only read non-fiction. Who would waste their time on fiction? “Especially science fiction,” one of them laughed. “As soon as there are aliens, I’m out of there.”
As a passionate science-fiction fan for as long as I can remember and a lover of fiction in general, I was absolutely perplexed by this. Especially given how revolutionary and exploratory science fiction has always been. I had recently listened to an excellent episode of Our Opinions Are Correct by Annalee Newitz and Charlie Jane Anders about how science fiction has always been queer so I was able to drop some information for them. I also discussed how fiction generally and science fiction in particular are great ways to explore ideas and get them out into the wilderness because of the demographics of who reads them (white middle class blokes). They all nodded sagely, acquiesced that I probably had a point and then, I suspect, disappeared back into their non-fiction reading lives. I don’t want to throw shade at non-fiction readers – who doesn’t love a good non-fiction book – but it more sounded like this was a Belief that was carried around by this particular set than a statement about how they liked to spend their time.
Unfortunately, especially in this country, the white straight cis male thing also extends to our publishing industry and the books we are marketed. I know I only wrote about this a couple of days ago, but I’m passionate about this folks. Think about what is being marketed to you and the way it is being marketed. Are you being asked to read yet another psychological thriller written by a bloke about something terrible that happens to a woman? Why do you think that is? Are you being marketed diverse experiences? Or only white straight cis ones? (Did you know that most books written by Aboriginal people, no matter what the genre, end up in a section in your bookstore called “Australiana”? The only exception I have seen to this rule is Terra Nullius, which is in the sci-fi section where it should be. Also “chick lit” is not a genre. This is another way that marketing devalues writing by people who are not men.)
At the end of the day, read what you like. It is 100% your choice what to put in your brain. But I absolutely encourage you to give a little “fuck you” to the patriarchy every time you pick up a book.