Reflecting on the trolls who commented on a review he had written of James Cameron’s visually stunning and dramatically birdbrained new film Avatar, Jake Seliger ruefully observed that he had forwarded many of them a link to Paul Graham’s clear and instructive essay “How to Disagree.” A few months ago I myself was led to Graham, one of the best web-based essayists, by following a link provided by Seliger (thanks again, Jake!). This time I poked around his site a little further and discovered an even better essay by him on “What You Can’t Say.”
Graham points out that there are moral fashions just as there are fashions in clothing. What they have in common is that they are “arbitrary” and “invisible to most people.” The difference is that, while you stumble upon old photographs of yourself and laugh at your bell bottoms and girl’s-length hair, you rarely do the same when you turn up old letters that you have written.
A moral fashion, on Graham’s definition, is socially acceptable speech and thought. In every age there are certain things that cannot be said; they are mistaken for wrong, when in truth they are merely unfashionable. Since a “conscious effort” is required to “see fashion in your own time,” a test for moral fashion is to examine what you have said in the past that has got you into trouble. Graham calls it “the conformist test.”
A good example from the literary world is the Publishers Weekly list of the Top Ten Books of 2009. It contained no women, which provoked an immediate uproar. Women were excluded from the list, proclaimed the Manchester Guardian, headlining the story. While Louisa Ermelino, speaking for the publishing trade journal, said that the list’s compilers “ignored gender and genre and who had the buzz,” the poet Erin Belieu replied that “when PW’s editors tell us they’re not worried about ‘political correctness,’ that’s code for ‘your concerns as a feminist aren’t legitimate.’ ” On the contrary, what Belieu was announcing—in a code that she was incapable of overhearing—is that it is wrong to issue a book list containing no (or an insufficient number of) women. To do so, especially while claiming to ignore gender, is to violate a taboo.
I was reminded of the trouble that Patrick Kurp and I got ourselves into when we released our list of the Best American Fiction, 1968–1998 at the end of 2008. Andrew Seal was so offended by the “absence of women of color on the list”—to say nothing of the fact that “there are more Philip Roth books (3) on there than books by men of color”—he solemnly pledged, as a New Year’s resolution, not to read any “white-guy-literature” for twelve months.
A year later, he is proud of himself for having kept his resolution. Scott Esposito is proud of him too. What they both fail to notice is that his success establishes little beyond Seal’s literary conformism.
They (and Erin Belieu too) also fail to notice that there are moral fashions in criticism. Nowhere, perhaps, is this clearer than in the discussion of women in literature. In 1854, the New York Times predicted that a good time was coming to women writers in the U.S.:
And, indeed, after the turn of the century the Times found “Women Running Neck-and-Neck With Men in ‘Best Seller’ Race.” During the period of 1895 to 1902, the paper reported, only five of the twenty-eight most popular American books were written by women—Mary Johnston, who wrote two, Alice Hegan Rice, Mary Cholmondeley, and Bertha Runkle—but by 1905 the numbers had turned around: “Thirty books figured on the list for that year of the most popular works of fiction. Of these seventeen were by men and thirteen by women—a higher proportion of the latter, unassisted by male collaborators[,] than in any previous year in the history of American fiction.” The Times treated the whole thing as a friendly competition. Their increasing success “was such as to make the heart of female authors glad,” while male authors were making a comeback on the most recent bestseller list: “apparently alarmed by the encroachments of the weaker sex,” the men had “rallied together.”
A century ago, the number of women on book lists was also tabulated and compared to the number of men, and the sexes were treated as literary blocs, but the fashion was to celebrate women’s proportion rather than condemning it. That it was neither high enough nor low enough, neither right nor wrong, was invisible to almost everyone.