The slope of humanity. November 1, 2007Posted by Lindsay in Commentary, Criticism, Literature, Philosophy, Writing.
For a long time, I’ve felt it was not just the mark of the greatest literature, but a responsibility of literature, to expand the realm of what human beings consider part of the human condition. That is, to discover the concepts and ideas that make people human, especially if those concepts have not been a theme in prior canonical works. This article from Slate confirms several of my worries about the role of the members of the literary community that guard at the gates — that is, of course, the publishers.
In “The Invisible Lesbian,” Sarah Schulman, a well-reviewed novelist within the gay and lesbian literary community, discusses the difficulties she has had to face in getting her latest novel, The Child, published:
The Child is about a romantic, sexual relationship between 15-year-old Stew and 40-year-old David. Many editors’ letters explicitly pointed to this relationship as the reason for rejection. What troubled the editors was my point of view. I did not come out “against” the relationship. Instead, I was, as one blurber ultimately put it, “objective.”
My perspective on literature is largely couched in a rejection of many of the tenets of the requirement of “universality.” I do not deny the existence of the universal idea, for there are many familiar concepts in literature that are timelessly moving and engaging. What I reject are simplistic notions of the universal, notions that perpetuated, for example, hetero-normative and falsely colorblind critical standards, among other offenses. The universal sometimes purports the fallacious cycle of affirmation and reaffirmation between author, character, and reader — all three are expected to agree with one another emotionally and ideologically in order for the work to be praised for its literary merit. These three players place too much emphasis on the validation they give to one another; just as an author hopes his characters will “ring true” to his or her readers, so, too, do we expect the writer to regurgitate our own beliefs. In schools, children are taught canonical works of literature not just because knowledge of literature itself is an important part of our education, but also because these often canonical works are supposed to espouse or at least embody the ideas themselves that are required for our development. What needs to be imparted is the understanding that the author, character, and reader are all separate consciouses, and an understanding of the necessity of individuality and fallibility of humankind.
Of course, that is not to say that writers should not put “messages” into their works, especially since I consider the task of increasing the realm of humanity to be a message — or, in essence, one such that the message conveyed is: “Empathize with this character, even if you would resist empathizing with him or her had the two of you met in real life.” If there is any defensible universal aspect of literature, I believe this is it.
Furthermore, the methods and reasons that novelists put messages into their works are themselves worthy of study for their artistry. Be it symbolism or extended metaphor, experimental prose, or deep psychological character development, all are elements that pique the curiosity of readers and are entertaining when those intellectual thirsts are satiated.
But it is especially the philosophical and psychological queries that are often addressed in literature that make them great. Put simply, the most demanding readers are curious and broad-minded, and deserve books that reward their intellectual efforts. The reward does not come in validation of the status quo or the successful persuasion to a new line of thinking, but the reader’s recognition that he or she can understand a character despite their differences and perceived flaws. All too often, the word “understand” is confused with “condone” in a variety of discourses. If these words truly are (still) listed as synonyms in the most recent editions of Roget’s, they need to be pried apart for 2008.
Every age makes the mistake of calling itself “modern,” which is as hackneyed (or perhaps timeless?) and false as saying that the world of tomorrow has come today. In fact, they may even be synonymous. It is accompanied by the misapprehension that progress has plateaued, that the slope of the path of humanity has reached zero. Even broad-mindedness is fallible; we must moderate our moderation. But that does not mean ignoring or silencing unfamiliar ideas, but treating them with the same skepticism that we do to the traditional. If even the literary community fails in this regard, then humanity will naturally flat-line.