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Archives: VIDA

Questions 18 Through 22

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.

31 Questions: Some Answers

31 Questions: Some Answers

Earlier this year I posted a link to a most excellent piece: Stephen Burt’s THIRTY-ONE QUESTIONS AND TWELVE APOLOGIES BY WAY OF A THANK-YOU NOTE FOR THE 2013 VIDA COUNT, and at the time I promised to write in response some of the questions. Life intervened, but I did want to return to that project, if only because I was so deeply stimulated by the original article. Here’s the first post:

Stephen Burt’s Question #9:

Is it possible to read a piece of literary writing without imagining that the author has an age, or a profession, or an ethnic identification, or a height, or a weight, or a race?

Well, yes, maybe, but which of us has the opportunity to read anything with the identifying information redacted—other than contest judges that is. For the rest of us, the publisher conveniently plasters images of the author on the cover and everything else we want to know is neatly summarized in the biographical notes. The message couldn’t be clearer: A person like you will enjoy reading something by a person like this.

Stephen Burt Has Some Questions

Stephen Burt Has Some Questions

In addition to almost hiring me away from SMU to come back and teach at my Alma Mater, Macalester, Stephen Burt is also one of our finest literary critics, essayists and poets.  I am intrigued with a post  that he wrote for the VIDA blog.  VIDA, founded in 2009, encourages female writers of literature and others to engage in conversations regarding the critical reception of women’s creative writing, and among other projects it has tracked the percentages of women published and/or reviewed in leading literary publications.  In his blogpost, Burt puts pressure on the assumptions that underlie “the count.”

Here are a few questions from the post:

7. Is it possible to read a piece of literary writing without imagining that the author has a gender (perhaps an unusual gender, or maybe two gender or three genders, but at least one)?

8. How do you think the answer to that question (beginning “Is it even possible”) would differ in a language, such as Persian, where neither pronouns, nor noun case-endings, differed by gender?

9. Is it possible to read a piece of literary writing without imagining that the author has an age, or a profession, or an ethnic identification, or a height, or a weight, or a race?

10. Is it possible to read a piece of literary writing without imagining that it has an author?

11. What about cookbooks, hard-news journalism, government documents, furniture-store instructions, math? Must we imagine authors for all those?

The other twenty-five questions are equally engaging.  I’m linking to Burt’s piece today, and then I thought I’d spend the week answering a few of his question myself.  Click on the link below to read the rest of the post.

http://www.vidaweb.org/thirty-one-questions-and-twelve-apologies-by-way-of-a-thank-you-note-for-the-2014-vida-count-by-stephen-burt/

Write What You Know

Cloned

Cloned (Photo credit: Asha ten Broeke)

Like most creative writing teachers I try to be both non-prescriptive and as neutral about content.  Students can and should and do write about the topics of their choice—which further complicates the question of the diversity of our casts of characters.  I know someone who was shamed into diversifying the cast of a novel, and, trust me, that didn’t turn out well. Neither does it minimize my fascination with our pervasive literary monoculture.

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