Questions 18 Through 22
Some more questions from Stephen Burt:
18. How often are readers from “marked,” or subordinated, or “minority” subject positions, asked to read as if they were not coming from those positions, to look at a literary work as if we were cisgendered, or male, or “middle American,” or well-off, or white?
19. How often are readers from “unmarked” or majority or until-recently-the-majority subject positions asked to read as if they were not coming from those positions, to look at a literary work as if we were Filipino, or Icelandic, or black?
20. Are the “asks” (or demands) in questions 18 and 19 demands of the same kind?
21. How often are readers unfamiliar with carpentry, or particle physics, or runway fashion, or haute cuisine, or Latin, asked to read as if we already recognized references to those fields?
22. Are the “asks” (or demands) in question 21 demands of the same kind as those in questions 18 and 19?
A charming retired gentleman participated in a novel workshop I taught in the DC area, and during a routine discussion of verisimilitude we debated the importance of authentic detail on the reader’s experience. He’d spent most of his life at sea—career Navy—and assured his fellow workshop members that, love him or hate him, the author of The Hunt for Red October hadn’t spent much time on submarines. This student actually rather enjoyed Tom Clancy’s cold war tomes, although he admitted that in this particular case part of his pleasure arose from sneering at the implausible or inaccurate detail. I declined his offer to peruse his annotated copy of the novel.
When talking with writers of various backgrounds on the question of writing across perceived boundaries (men writing about women or anyone writing about any identity with which they have not chosen to mark themselves) the question of “getting it right” always comes up. As if “rightness” were a commodity easily downloaded from the ap store—an easy to use interface through which you could run your manuscript to make sure you’d pass muster with the cultural police. Now and again I get asked by publishers to be the human version of this still-in-development ap, and I once pissed off a most excellent editor by asking, (mostly in jest) if she was looking for me to give the book “cover.” Not that the book needed it: It was excellent. This editor and I were having one of those archetypical American discussions where we were both pretending that race wasn’t on the table when we both knew very well that it was the only thing on the table. I accepted my slap on the hand (for pointing to and naming Babar), and we moved on.
It’s probably a relief for this editor and others that for the most part this isn’t a problem for publishers. We live in narcissistic times and there’s not a lot of boundary crossing taking place out there. DOZENS of emerging writers over the years have confessed to me that they simply wouldn’t dare trespass in this way. They’ve already gotten had their hands slapped in workshop, thank you very much, and there were plenty of other things to write about.
For me cluster of questions above, borrowed from Stephen Burt’s THIRTY-ONE QUESTIONS AND TWELVE APOLOGIES BY WAY OF A THANK-YOU NOTE FOR THE 2013 VIDA COUNT, demand that we think of the ways in which reading and writing in the age of identity become adjuncts of social science and of translation and of applied literary and cultural theory. I’m specifically interested in the way this plays out in two areas: How the assumptions that undergird these questions play out in terms of who reads what and how it is marketed to them, and the implications of this kind of thinking on writing process.
I’ll discuss those issues in future posts, but a few question of my own related to question 21: How many cookbooks do I have to read in order to become a master chef?