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Choosing Authors by Identity

Published by marco on

The article Shakespeare Matters (And Always Will) by Scott H. Greenfield (Simple Justice) discusses the idiotic-sounding question of whether it’s OK to read books written by people without considering their identities. That is, the books should stand on their own. We can, of course, consider whether we’ve historically ignored some good books because of racism—and dig these books back up. But there is no reason to discard existing books because they were written by white people (i.e. “switching the signs on the drinking fountains”).

Do readers have to “see themselves” in the writer or story to find it “relevant” to their life and, therefore, be interested and inspired? When you look in the mirror, do you see Hamlet, no matter who you are? Is your sole purpose in reading to find something to hate about literature?”

For myself, the answer is no. Growing up, I never had any idea what authors looked like or who they were or to what clan they belonged. I consider myself lucky that I could enjoy books based on their content. Did it matter that I probably would have said the authors were white or that I’d picture characters as white when the author might have pictured them as black? It really didn’t.

I had no idea that Isaac Asimov was a Jewish Russian expat. I didn’t even think to care. I only found out recently that one of my favorite authors growing up, Samuel R. Delany, is a gay black man. That’s not how I’d pictured him, but nor had it never occurred to me to wonder or care. The same goes for Alexandre Dumas, whom I didn’t even stop to think of as a foreigner much less a negro foreigner. Or Albert Camus, an Algerian French Jew.The same for Robert Louis Stevenson, who I’d actually thought was black until I just looked him up and he’s a pasty Scot. More recently, there’s N.K. Jemisin, who’s won not just a MacArthur grant, but also the identity sweepstakes. Didn’t care then. Still don’t really care now. I like the books.

People are, generally, idiots. They are sheep intent on analyzing the world into simple, concrete, bite-sized categories that their tiny brains can comprehend without undue strain. Anyone who tries to complicate things is the enemy. They are prepared to die on every hill because just having gotten up that intellectual (for lack of a better word) hill was a tremendous amount of work and they are loath to throw any fraction of it away. Simple wins every time. We are no better than the monkeys sitting around the monolith.

“[…] we will become intellectually barren if we deny students great literature solely because it was written by some old white guy who lived in times we deem awful today.”

Yeah, I mean, obviously. But that’s where we’re headed. Because we’d rather just constantly re-learn lessons rather than make real progress. We’re maybe not good at this lesson, but it’s familiar. Our egos are assuaged by our learning it, which is all that matters to most people. We know how to climb this one little hill. Most of us are content to draw a tremendous amount of satisfaction in doing that. What we can’t bear is when someone else climbs a larger, tougher hill. That makes us feel bad. Do people take up the challenge? Do they just ignore that other person’s activity? No. They must be stopped. Conform, sheep.