Monday, January 23, 2012

"Beloved" pilloried

Toni Morrison's "Beloved" has been removed from the programme of an advanced English literature class, in a high school in Michigan. The reason is that two parents complained the book was 'simplistic pornography'. Now, I wonder why in this school they let parents who don't know anything about literature take decisions as important as what their children should and should not study. It took a committee to decide that "Beloved", the most important work of a Nobel Prize laureate, should remain in the programme!

One of the parents claimed that "Beloved" contains 'gratuitious language, violence and sex acts that provide no historical context for the reader'. It is evident that Barb Dame, the mother in question, doesn't know the history of her country (or perhaps she is a rather insensitive person), because you clearly cannot say that the violence in the book (rape, whipping, murdering, the hanging of slaves etc) has nothing to do with the history of black people in the USA. The sex acts in the novel have a highly metaphorical meaning: they stand for the difficulties that black people in America experienced regarding normal, healthy love relationships. Starting a family in the wake of the horrors of slavery, when fathers and mothers were bought and sold and children were born only to live a life of suffering, is what lies behind some of the acts in the novel.
Rita Dove
Another thing they complained about was the language in the book. Although the book is usually described as stylistically complex and poetical, Matt and Barb Dame complained that the lexical level of the book is only suitable for a fifth grader (10-11 years old), thus comparing the book to Roald Dhal's "James and the Giant Pea", a popular children's book.

Personally, I think this is racist and it makes me think of a similar piece of news. A couple of months ago a review of an anthology of twentieth-century American poetry written by Helen Vendler caused a stir and a fierce debate on the American canon. The anthology, according to Vendler, includes too many black poets (the editor is in fact Rita Dove, a distinguished African American and a poet). Skimming over her other controversial claims, Helen Vendler observes that the poems chosen by Rita Dove are often 'of rather restricted vocabulary'. As if complicated words made good poems and simple words could not. Now, that black American writers sometimes use a relatively simple vocabulary compared to that of their fellow white writers is a fact. They do this on purpose, of course. It is part of their political agenda. African American theorists like bell hooks and Alice Walker have pointed out that. That Rita Dove has chosen accessible poems (except when the choice was inevitable, as for T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land") is simply the result of her taste. Every anthology is the result of one's sensibilities regarding literature. 

Harold Bloom
Nobody nowadays takes anthologies as the Gospel truth. The time when Harold Bloom could choose 26 authors - all male but for Austen, Dickinson, Eliot and Woolf - and decide they were the Western canon is gone, thank God. That time, nonetheless, is not that far away ("The Western Canon" came out in 1994). Personally, I think it is ridiculous to annihilate every form of canon, because without some shared authors, what would we talk about? It would be a discussion between deaf people. At the same time, I think one should be free to value some writers and dislike, or even discard, some others. A fine balance is hard to find, I agree, but nothing come easily in literature criticism.     

Read the full review here and Rita Dove's answer here. Also have a look at this long but interesting article appeared on The Australian, where I got the reference to Harold Bloom and his canon, a topic that was buzzing in my mind for a while. I have many more things to say about Vendler's article (what about those infamous statements about Gwendolyn Brooks?), but I'll save that for another time.


  1. And then if you break Bloom's choices up by period, they begin to look balanced. E.g., check the male\female ratio of his choices for English-language novelists, or U.S. poets.

    "Deciding" which writers were in the Western Canon is definitely not what that book is doing.

  2. @Amateur Reader (Tom): thanks for pointing out my mistake. I should never write posts too quickly and rely on memory.

    I find Harold Bloom's book very ethnocentric. He chooses 13 English-speaking writers out of 26, declaring that they are representative of the Western canon. By doing so he assumes that Western culture is monolithic, when in fact it changes from country to country and so does the canon. An Italian intellectual wouldn't have made the same choices. In fact, he wouldn't have seen the influences in that way. Inserting an Italian, a Spanish and a Russian author (or one or four women) in the list isn't the point. It's his view of literature that troubles me. He sees greatness as an objective thing and he has a hierarchical, patriarchal view of literature. He dismisses movements and theories he dislikes with authoritative statements.
    I'm not saying that we should throw Harold Bloom down the cliff, but that his point of view is outdated, but that's just my opinion. By opening the canon one is not forced to destroy the rest. We will always cherish Shakespeare and Tolstoy.

  3. Are there critics you recommend who avoid Bloom's problems, who have a non-hierarchical view of literature but still make distinctions between better books and worse (or maybe that's the hierarchy)?

    It's OK if your recommended critic is not in English. Maybe someday!

  4. By non-hierarchical view of literature I mean precisely that, trying not to say authoritatively who is a better or worse writer and why. For that all poststructuralist critics I think are helpeful. In general, they all try to criticize the assumption that there are absolute truths about the world. But then, I am only at the beginning of my exploration of this topics.