Wednesday, 22 November 2017

English Literature is English Literature?

Another Spinoff article... again not wholly the point of this exercise, more the prompt.
In 2017, it’s pretty hard to mount a defence of whitewashing English literature studies. The novel itself isn’t even a European-born artform – the Indian Sanskrit writers, Arabic writers, Japanese writers and Chinese writers were expanding the scope of the novel centuries before the first major European novel, Don Quixote, came along at the start of the 16th century. If we’re willing to accept that English is the lingua franca of the world while acknowledging the role of colonialism in spreading it, then it’s even harder to dismiss the artistic outputs of non-white peoples.
Brannavan Gnanalingam is just plain wrong here. The task is piss easy. And the reason for this is that Gnanalingam is insistent about talking about English literature studies. I can understand the notion that what is called "English" is really just Literature. It doesn't accurately describe my experience of it as a subject but I can understand it. I can understand that we can use Literature broadly and therefore not include works from the "canon" because, well, what is the point of studying words if you can't use them differently to everyone else? Sure the man on the street thinks, "Ah, Literature, pretentious crap" but that doesn't make him right. Or, more to the point, he is not who defines Literature. What I can't understand is combining the two into English Literature and then suggesting that people read some stuff in translation. I mean, why is that English Literature? It isn't from England.* It isn't even in English if we want to take English Literature broadly. Thus, the defence is piss easy... the vast majority of writers of English Literature were "white".

Now, we might say that Gnanalingam addresses this argument even though being apparently blind to it with that stuff about globalisation. The problem here is that if you stop to think about it for a moment you realise it doesn't change anything. English has only been a lingua franca for 300 years tops. And to be honest I'd put it more like 150 years. The reality is that the British Empire might have been the biggest for longer than that but it wasn't really the undisputable top dog except for a brief period in the second half of the nineteenth century until close to WWI. Certainly not scientifically... ever noticed how German sounding a lot of those famous scientific names are? Well, that is because they spoke German and there's a bit of a correspondence. Of course, this does mean that there would be substantial output in English from non-white authors, right? Well, no.

It's all very well to talk about the recency of the novel in Europe. It's not so hot to talk about this without recognising the significance... when did the novel become a mainstream Thing in the English speaking world? How much education in English did colonised peoples get? How culturally influential was the metropole? And from what points in time? The reality is that there is a reason all of the famous English novelists were born after 1750... it's that the English novel reached its ascendancy in the Victorian era. Except not as we'd know it. These novels were generally serialised. Or, in other words, the graphic novel is more like Dickens than The Luminaries. Which is probably making you wonder how exactly Gnanalingam defines novel. I don't know. Probably weirdly, by which I mean "not a book containing a single fictional(ised) narrative of a substantial length". The first novel is far less clear cut than that quotation above suggests... or Wikipedia is being mangled. The point is that this argument ultimately reduces to the same point as above... the pool of writers in English* is overwhelmingly "white".

To deliberately seek out non-white English literature is to miss the point. It is not a survey of English literature. It is a shopping expedition aimed at finding particular items. It is "blackwashing" or "colourwashing". It is presenting a subject as being of a different broader character than it is/was. At least in the broad case. Naturally in specific areas such as "post-colonial writing" the demographics differ. (Although how post-colonial a text written in a coloniser's language can be is a question I can't comment on.)

There is nothing wrong with Gnanalingam's erstwhile purpose. If you're into pretentious reading lists you might as well explore a whole bunch of options. The trouble is this fixation on English Literature. If it appears at first glance that the English profession is the best qualified to speak on such matters this evidence forces me to dispute this. If Gnanalingam has a coherent preamble** it is only accessible to those who have similarly fallen so far down the rabbit hole. His article is completely incomprehensible or really, truly moronic. I don't believe it's the latter. I think it's just that Gnanalingam has written for a lay audience without making the slightest adjustment for our benefit.

*Where does this leave Thomas More, I wonder?

**In the url you will find "seven-easy-ways-to-make-your-own-reading-a-little-less-white". That is coherent. And with the popularity of listicles, entirely sufficient. It's everything that Gnanalingam includes before the list begins that is written for some other (and despicable) audience.

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