May 19, 2005

Does the Value of a Work Depend on the Race and Sex of the Author?

Reader and commenter Charles Martin has sent me a link to an amazing, provocative article by Theodore Dalrymple in the NEW CRITERION about a British literary scandal of a few years ago. A book of short stories, DOWN THE ROAD, WORLDS AWAY, by a woman named Rahila Khan, was published by Virago Press and received a fair amount of attention for its convincing, empathetic portrayals of the lives of young Anglo-Pakistani women and young white men in England. Later it was discovered that Rahila Khan was a pen name for someone who was not a young Anglo-Pakistani woman. Virago Press angrily withdrew the book and a controversy ensued.

This is reminiscent of the Sokal scandal of 1996 here in America. Sokal contrived a parody of an unreadably turgid, jargon-ridden postmodernist scholarly article and got it accepted as the real thing by a well-known postmodernist journal. The result was to help discredit postmodernist discourse and the intellectual trends purveyed in that discourse.

But there are important differences that make the Rahila Khan scandal the much more interesting and resonant of the two. To begin with, the author of the stories was not trying to perpetrate a hoax. They are apparently (I haven't read them) well-written, worthy works of contemporary fiction and the author was simply trying to get them published by using a pen name, having previously found that his real name (oops, I've given away his gender!) got him rude rejections. Second, the stories apparently contain genuine insight into the lives of minorities and the underclass, insight earned by the author through direct experience.

Today's amazon sales ranking for DOWN THE ROAD, WORLDS AWAY is 3,307,790.

The episode makes us think about where authenticity is located, and conversely, where bigotry is located. In addition, Dalrymple's article is splendidly written and offers interesting sidelights on other topics as well.

As for the question I ask in the title of this post, the obvious answer, which I'm sure you'll all agree with, is, "Well, not most of the time -- not in a perfect world -- but realistically the members of a social group on average probably have perspectives into that group that nonmembers don't have, and so their perspectives -- given baseline literary competence -- have a sort of added sociological value which is a legitimate factor in a publication decision; but this doesn't mean that nonmembers can't provide valuable insights too. So for example Caryl Phillips, a black Jamaican novelist, has writer convincing and moving fiction about the Holocaust, because he's brilliant and empathetic and has done the research, and there's some white female novelist whose name I forget who has written convincingly about urban African-American life because she has participated in it. I don't know, what am I, the answer man?"

To the related question, "Richard, are you a multiculturalist?" I answer thusly: "This is equivalent to the question, 'Richard, are you a feminist?' To which I answer ringingly as follows: 'It depends what you mean by feminism. If feminism is the belief in equality between men and women, then Yes. (My god, I gave a clear opinion about something!) But if feminism means replacing male hegemony with female hegemony, and throwing ideals of fairness and reason overboard as relics of patriarchy, and seeking female power through whatever means at the expense of every other value, then No.' And so my answer on multiculturalism -- if indeed I were to give such an answer -- would be, 'If multiculturalism means honoring and recognizing and accepting and valuing every culture and its contributions to humanity at large, then Yes. But if multiculturalism means rejecting the very idea of a humanity at large, and replacing white hegemony with nonwhite hegemony, then No.'"

Read the article.