But wait. Seal says nothing about genre. His only concern is identity, where identity is conceived only in the immutable facts of birth (race, gender, sexual preference). Charles Johnson, for instance, the sole “man of color” on the list, is also a Buddhist. And this fact about him is of at least equal importance—to Johnson himself, to any estimation of his writing. About religious confession Seal is silent. Like many Americans of his age and experience—he identifies himself as a recent college graduate—Seal has learned the lesson well that religion is not worthy of discussion. Or worse. Thus when he says that he is “terrified of becoming one of these narrow readers,” and concludes that Kurp and I “never bother themselves with questions about what kinds of books they’re not reading” (his italics) the word kind exposes Seal as every inch the “narrow reader” he accuses us of being.
In fact, Kurp and I openly bothered ourselves with the kind of fiction we were leaving off our list. We were explicit about the kind. We called it metafiction or “experimental” writing. Because our conception of kind differs from his, Seal fails to notice this. Nor does it seem to occur to him that there is a fundamental difference between reading a book and subsequently recommending it. From the fact that we do not list, say, A Boy’s Own Story or Love Medicine or High Cotton, it does not follow that we have not “really been reading widely in the thirty-year period in question” during which there were “quite a few more books by gays, by women and by men who are not white” (again, his italics).
It does follow, however—and here Seal is right and here also I need to stop speaking for Kurp, who can defend himself—it does follow that identity by birth is a criterion of literary judgment that I thoroughly reject. Understand me correctly, though. As I held earlier on this blog, there is no writing without identity, there is no literature without prefixes. But also: “If there are no writers without identities it does not follow that writers’ only identities are their race and sex.” And even if they were it is not at all clear what it would mean for someone to write as a “white American man.” To describe, say, Vladimir Nabokov and Jeffrey Eugenides in these terms—to consign them to the same category of books that Seal resolves not to read this coming year—is to put their significant and fascinating differences under erasure. And to do this is to commit the same injustice against them that Seal is afraid is being committed against “women of color.”
Several years ago, when the English department at Texas A&M University was rewriting its course descriptions to include more women and men who are not white, a colleague bounded into my office. “Do you know any sixteenth-century woman playwrights?” he asked breathlessly. I didn’t, and he bounded off to find someone who did:
Literature just is a selection of masterpieces. There is no getting around this obstacle. The problem is what criteria of selection you are going to use. To advance identity as the overriding consideration is merely to postpone a solution, because you must still decide what titles from your privileged group to select. The minute you have to choose between books you are in a pickle that appeals to identity won’t get you out of. Practical constraints of time and energy make the selection of masterpieces for reading and casual study not only necessary but forgiving, for given such constraints this narrowness, sir, is no crime. There is an alternative, although it is not likely to be one that Seal is interested in pursuing. It is humanly possible to read everything in a thirty-year period, good, bad, and indifferent, by men and by women, by white men and by men who are not white, by gays and by straights. This is the way of the literary scholar. Within that period the scholar is the very opposite of a “narrow reader,” although outside it, given those damn constraints, he reverts to the ordinary human type—if he has time and energy left over to read anything else at all.
For literary critics there are, as I see it, only two choices. Either the course of intellectual honesty, where a man admits that there are books that are not worth reading, or the course of literary preening, where he pretends to enjoy books because he thinks he should.
Oh, by the way. I have a book to recommend to Andrew Seal. It is by Shelby Steele and it is entitled White Guilt.
* Patrick Kurp and I have been dickering in private, “like boys trading baseball cards,” as he puts it, over what books to include, what to kick off the list. He agreed to give up Fat City; I agreed to retain Peter Taylor. The quotient of “white American men” remains unchanged!