I’ve been happy to leave the last post up for a bit. It seemed a bit rich that an announcement featuring a photo of Ann Shin went up the morning that David Gilmour’s remarks about those he doesn’t teach went viral.
I’m choosing not to weigh in on Gilmour’s statements—there are enough trenchant critiques out there, alongside irate Facebook posts and tweets. Instead, what I want to consider is the oft-cited counterpoint that we read and teach authors who are not like us to learn about their worlds. It’s undeniable many read for this reason, and at various historical points authors have utilized our desires to form connections through literature to advance political ends—notably, 19thC anti-slavery activists. But setting aside why people read, there’s also the matter of how authors in general use the stuff of their worlds to make art. The fact is, if we don’t appreciate what it is an author brings to the table, we might miss what they are doing with it, and how amazing that literary transformation is. One version of reading sees authors as educators; another sees us educating ourselves in order to better appreciate authors as artists. Isn’t that part of what studying literature is about? Not just appreciating what is before us, but doing the work necessary to appreciate it.
Forgive me if this is entirely obvious (though many comments I’ve read online suggest it isn’t). But in case this still isn’t clear, it is possible that Gilmour appreciates the literary value of books that reflect his world best, because that is the world with which he is most familiar. Thus he is best capable of appreciating how those authors are treating that world and its literary traditions in literary terms. An inability to appreciate books from different perspectives might be best understood as his failure to engage their traditions, history, culture, etc. For instance, many can read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and know it is a good book. But can everyone fully appreciate not just the story, but what Ellison is doing in literary terms if they don’t know the history, and the African American cultural, vernacular, and linguistic traditions he is drawing upon, deploying, and revising? (Incidentally, Ellison makes this point far better in his essay “The Little Man at Chehaw Station: The American Artist and his Audience.” Just substitute “critic” for “artist” in his analysis.) I can think of dozens of examples ranging from Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan (a more compelling book if you understand the symbolism of the Sikh martyr) to Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day (enriched by knowledge of Gullah traditions). Instructors of literature are professionally obligated to do the work.
Some might say this is an argument against reading books by people outside of our world, if we don’t know their context. This is not my point. If that was the case I’d be arguing against reading Jane Austen, since none of us are Regency spinsters. People are welcome to continue to use literature as conduits to other experiences, whether those be cultural, temporal, geographical, etc.—that’s part of why we read, after all. And if people want to exclusively read stories which reflect their reality, fair enough. My distinction is simply about responsible teaching and literary scholarship.