If it is not merely special pleading, the hermeneutics of suspicion—or what Marilynne Robinson more accurately calls the hermeneutics of condescension—can’t apply to just one party to a critical dispute. The suspicious are not more exempt than the suspects. If I must be wary of reading lists that fail to include a sufficient number of women (or blacks or gays or Hispanics or whatnot), then shouldn’t I be wary of lists that include more than enough? If the motives behind the one are impure then the motives behind the other would be no less so, especially since the principle that determines the lists (exclusion or inclusion on the basis of group membership) is ex hypothesi the same in each case.
In a clever comment to my last post, Mel U tries to imagine Dr Johnson’s compiling The Lives of the Poets according to the principle of representative inclusion. But he doesn’t have to imagine it. I was an eyewitness to a similar absurdity (and be sure to read the Amateur Reader’s postscript). Those who insist upon irrelevant standards do not merely humiliate themselves; they contribute to the breakdown of critical discussion, by destroying the good faith upon which it depends.
The whole bother over Dead White Guys’ ascendancy in the “canon” (as if there were any such thing) has been a waste of valuable time and critical resources, because there is more to literary reputation than is dreamed of in race, class, and gender. As J. V. Cunningham taught his classes in the history of criticism many years ago, “It would be indecorous to ascribe a fault to Jane Austen.” Claire Harman expands upon the point in Jane’s Fame, her new study of How Jane Austen Conquered the World. As Barton Swaim put it in his review of Harman’s book:
The demand that writers should be read as representatives of “dominant” or “minority” viewpoints is not an exciting new youthful departure in literary criticism. It is a withdrawal from literary criticism. The time is long past to retire the fatuous and misleading categories of race, class, and gender.