Here is an interesting question for readers. Dr. Boli asks it partly to provoke an interesting discussion, but also because he simply does not know the answer.
He will begin with the background. Suppose, hypothetically, you walk into a bookstore looking for a famous novel called Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin. You go to the fiction section, and it isn’t there. Nothing by Mr. Baldwin is there. So you ask a helpful bookstore clerk, who informs you that James Baldwin is kept in the African-American Fiction section, and points in its general direction. You find a place marked African-American Fiction, but you still find no James Baldwin. So you find another clerk, who informs you that James Baldwin is kept in the Gay-Lesbian-Bisexual-Transgendered African-American Fiction section, which is over there next to the Electrical Wiring for Persons with Hispanic Surnames section.
This experience is a bit off-putting. You were looking for Go Tell It on the Mountain because it was a very good novel; you ended up being pushed into a back corner of the bookstore whose message seems to be “James Baldwin writes pretty well for a colored homosexual.” It makes Dr. Boli want to pull his own beard out by the roots. Does James Baldwin need this sort of handicapping?
But on the other hand—for there is another hand—
Many years ago, Dr. Boli found a late-1700s copy of The Female Quixote by Mrs. Lennox on a book-sale table. He spent his 25¢ and was rewarded with one of the most charming books he had ever read. It was his own little secret for many years: a novel that deserved to stand with the best of the eighteenth century—with Fielding and Sterne—and a novel that clearly foreshadowed the style of Jane Austen, who almost certainly read it. Yet no one else knew about it.
Then came “women’s studies” programs at universities. Now, Dr. Boli has always had a strong distaste for the idea of “women’s literature.” Even if one were to argue that women’s accomplishments in other fields were debatable (which Dr. Boli would not argue), surely the field of literature is one where the sexes are demonstrably equal. Anyone who said that Jane Austen writes pretty well for a girl would deserve the contempt that would be poured on him by readers with taste. Jane Austen writes like an angel sent by the heavenly powers to show us how fiction is done.
Yet it is true that there has been unreasoning sexism in literature, and perhaps the most telling demonstration is the fact that Mrs. Lennox was neglected for two centuries while books by less talented male writers sat comfortably on the “classics” shelf of your local bookstore. When the “women’s literature” professors went searching for representative works by female authors of the eighteenth century, they came across Mrs. Lennox (perhaps having read that Dr. Johnson thought she was brilliant, thus judging a female writer by a man’s opinion of her, and proving something very amusing about themselves), and they snatched her out of her obscurity. Today it is possible to walk into any well-stocked bookstore and buy a copy of The Female Quixote, well-edited and attractively bound. The same thing has happened to numerous other deserving female writers, who have been rescued from the neglect of decades or centuries by the need to fill women’s-literature courses with reading material. But for “women’s studies,” these writers would have remained inaccessible to all but the most determined or the luckiest readers. Thus Dr. Boli himself has benefitted from the rise of “women’s studies” in a very concrete way: he has a pile of good books to read that he never would have discovered otherwise.
So here is the question to which Dr. Boli does not know the answer:
Is this categorization of literature by race and gender identity good or bad for literature as a whole? Does it relegate otherwise good books to ghettos from which they can never escape into the main stream of literary culture? Or does it bring to the attention of the literary world good books that would otherwise be neglected?
Dr. Boli’s instinct is to say that good literature is good literature, and should not be judged by the race or sex of the writer. On the other hand, he is not such a fool as to believe that we now live in the best of all possible worlds, where racism and sexism are dead. So he does not know the answer to the question, and invites opinions from all and sundry.
Here is the listing for The Female Quixote from Dr. Boli’s Eclectic Library:
The Female Quixote; or, the Adventures of Arabella. The second edition, revised and corrected. London, 1752. —A thoroughly delightful novel, a favorite of both Fielding and Johnson, that is at last getting some of the attention it deserves. There is a persistent rumor that Dr. Johnson himself wrote the last chapter; at any rate, he regarded the author as one of the best novelists of his age.