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4 June 2021

Do we have a duty to read women writers?

Reading shapes our moral sensibility: the literary dominance of white men impoverishes our ethical understanding.

Who’s your favourite author? Maybe Hemingway, Hardy, Tolstoy, or Dickens? Now for a second question: who’s your favourite author who is not a white man?

For many people, the second question is much harder to answer than the first. And that’s not an accident: historically, the literary canon has been dominated by white men, and the contemporary literary landscape is skewed both white and male.

People tend to respond to this information in one of two ways. The first response is one of moral indignation: the literary dominance of white men is taken to be obviously objectionable, and a reader’s preference for male writers a sign of malignant sexism.

[see also: Bernardine Evaristo: The longform patriarchs, and their accomplices]

The second response is a shoulder shrug. Questions of taste, so this response goes, are personal questions. If people like reading work by men more than they like reading work by women, that’s their business. And when it comes to membership of the literary canon, well, that should be determined by literary merit, not by author demographics.

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Of course, if good art goes unappreciated, that’s cause for regret. But it’s not a moral or a political problem; after all, when Van Gough’s contemporaries scorned his paintings, he was unlucky, but not a victim of injustice.

For those sympathetic to the first response, the shoulder-shruggers are apt to appear as naive reactionaries. The shoulder-shruggers, though, are likely not to care: they see the first response as philistinic moralism. With whom should we side?

I think the first response is onto something important. But it is surprisingly difficult to say what this “something” might be.

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One pro-indignation argument might go something like this. “If around 85 per cent of the population but almost 95 per cent of working writers are white, then non-white aspiring writers must be facing racial discrimination. And racial discrimination is clearly a bad thing. Case closed.”

***

But we can’t close the case that quickly. The problem is that it’s notoriously difficult to draw conclusions about discrimination from coarse-grained statistics like those above.

Consider the following example. In 1973, almost 13,000 students applied for graduate school at UC Berkeley. Of the men who applied, 44 per cent were given a place. By contrast, only 35 per cent of the women who applied got in.

This looks like a clear case of gender discrimination, but it wasn’t. The statistics reflect the fact that women systematically applied to courses with greater competition for places than men – departments for which rates of admission were lower across the board.

To be clear: gender discrimination in graduate admissions at UC Berkeley might have been occurring. But its presence was not demonstrated by these statistics. Similarly, racial and gender discrimination may well be rife in the literary world. (I’d be surprised if it weren’t.) But we can’t infer its presence from the statistic above. Just as women disproportionately applied to the most competitive courses at Berkeley, women and people of colour might disproportionately attempt to enter the most competitive cultural arenas.

A second pro-indignation argument looks better. This position starts off by introducing the idea of a hermeneutic resource. A hermeneutic resource is a tool, like a concept or an explanatory schema, that we use to make sense of and communicate our experiences. Unless a society’s hermeneutic resources reflect a wide range of experiences, those resources are at risk of becoming distorted, thus blocking, rather than aiding, moral understanding.

The feminist philosopher Miranda Fricker gives the following example. The concept of sexual harassment did not exist prior to the 1970s. Women who experienced sexual harassment before we had a word for it lacked access to a crucial resource needed to make their experiences – and the moral urgency of those experiences – intelligible to others.

[see also: How should we relate to the work of “cancelled” artists?]

Now if we want our hermeneutic resources to reflect a wide range of social experiences, we should want our literature to do the same. As the black feminist poet and theorist Audre Lorde wrote in a 1977 essay, “it is through poetry that we give name to those ideas which are, until the poem, nameless and formless, about to be birthed, but already felt”.

Put otherwise, by giving a moral and conceptual shape to previously inchoate experiences, literature can expand and enrich a society’s hermeneutic resources. But when literature is dominated by white men, we are likely to end up with a set of hermeneutical resources too narrow to facilitate genuine moral understanding.

The problem with this second argument is not that it gets anything wrong, but that it doesn’t generalise in the right way. Literature is only one male-dominated art form among many: music and visual art are similarly skewed. And intuitively, we should want a general account of what, if anything, is objectionable about such a pattern.

Yet an appeal to hermeneutic resources can’t provide a general account of male domination in the arts. For while it is highly plausible that literature provides us with hermeneutic resources, it is far less plausible that an art-form such as instrumental music will offer us concepts to interpret our experiences. So there is a mismatch between the scope of the moral explanation offered by the appeal to hermeneutic resources, and the phenomenon that needs explaining.

***

Does this mean the shoulder-shruggers win the argument? Not quite: there is still more that the morally indignant can say. In particular, they might point to the problematic connection between artistic production and social prestige.

To understand this connection, it is important to distinguish between prestige and respect. Most people agree that all citizens deserve equal respect – to have their basic interests taken seriously and weighed appropriately. Prestige, though, goes beyond respect: it consists in being widely esteemed or admired.

While you are automatically entitled to complain if you are denied respect, being denied prestige may be exactly what you deserve. In fact, valuing equality is compatible with allowing – and even with valuing – hierarchies of prestige. So the fact that the literary world is home to hierarchies of prestige is not itself a problem: those who value equality can and should allow some writers – ideally, the good ones – to be esteemed more than others.

The problem, then, is not that hierarchies of prestige exist, but the way those hierarchies of prestige interact with race and gender. Those who value equality may be sanguine about some citizens being more esteemed than others. But they should be concerned when prestige is systematically gendered or racialised.

What might it mean to say that prestige is gendered or racialised? To take the case of gender: prestige is gendered when the activities for which esteem is granted are systematically associated with men rather than women. For example, football is associated with men whereas nursing is associated with women; prestige is gendered insofar as footballers are more highly esteemed than nurses.

When prestige is strongly gendered across the board, our social practices as a whole might be thought to express a kind of contempt for women. By saying that men’s stuff is worthy of esteem where women’s stuff is not, our practices rank men as superior to women. And that sort of ranking is clearly objectionable to those of us who care about equality.

***

We now have a few different pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Piece one is the thought that literary success is an important source of prestige. Piece two is the thought that, at present, literary success is coded as male and white. The third and final piece of the jigsaw is the thought that equality requires that our hierarchies of prestige be neither gendered or racialised.

Once we put these three pieces together, we can see what might be wrong with a literary landscape dominated by white men: it is part of a broader social pattern that expresses contempt for other demographic groups.

This is a plausible enough view, but it leaves us with a residual problem. Above, I considered a diagnosis that appealed to hermeneutic resources. But I dismissed that diagnosis as too narrow. This new, prestige-based diagnosis risks being not too narrow, but too broad.

On the prestige-based account, there is nothing special about art or literature. Each is merely one more social practice that we use to allocate esteem, just like sport, business, or academia. Something important seems to be missing from such a picture.

What’s missing is any account of how art and beauty make us feel. When we encounter something beautiful, the philosopher Simone Weil wrote, we “give up our imaginary position as the centre”. We are pulled out of ourselves and into the object; the self, for a second, dissolves.

This, at base, is an ethical experience, one tied to the very possibility of selfless action. Literature and art are not just one more social practice; rather, the experience of beauty shapes our moral sensibility. And this means the question of who gets to make art or write novels is a question of who gets to pull us out of ourselves.

Of course, if we only ever give up “our position as the centre” for the work of white men, we will likely understand selflessness in a way that gives undue weight to them and insufficient weight to others. And to that result, moral indignation seems the appropriate response; shoulder-shrugging just won’t cut it.

Rachel Fraser is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Tutorial Fellow at Exeter College, Oxford. She tweets @rachelefraser.

This article is part of the Agora series, a collaboration between the New Statesman and Aaron James Wendland, Senior Research Fellow in Philosophy at Massey College, Toronto. He tweets @aj_wendland.