Literature was to be judged by its literary skill and, absolutely, by its enforcement of humanistic, humanitarian and egalitarian valuesd
Years after I had been at that spired and inspired place, I was asked by a journalist “what, in one sentence, was the most valuable thing you learnt at Cambridge?” I don’t know whether it was out of deep insight or simple frivolity that I spontaneously replied: “I leant that one poem is better than another.”
I think, gentle reader, that at the time I was dedicatedly against what I thought of as “subjectivism”. I was determinedly of the opinion that there were objective truths and that people who thought they could interpret reality as they chose were misguided and would come, somewhere else, to grief.
Arrogant? Yes, but the conceit was born of my dedication to the literary school of criticism founded by F.R. Leavis, whose books I read and lectures I attended at the university. His contentions were epiphany -- a watershed in literary criticism. He and his disciples (Yes! It was something of a cult of exclusivity) formulated criteria whereby literary works were analysed and judged. Leavis’ critical appraisals used the tools of language -- is a metaphor vivid? Does it appeal to the senses? -- to assess whether a novel, play or poem, deployed literary skills to set bare the complexities of human emotion and champion the right, in humanitarian rather than religious terms, to moral being. This would lead a Leavisite to champion works such as Madame Bovary, Middlemarch and, though he didn’t know it, Satyajit Ray’s Charulata.
Leavis, controversially, formulated a “canon” of English literature. Through several books he attempted to explain why one novelist was “better” than another, why one writer’s work enhanced the progress of human values, whereas another titillated the reader with plot and even acute observation.
What wasn’t present in the critical stance of the Leavisite school was any political bias. Literature was to be judged by its literary skill and, absolutely, by its enforcement of humanistic, humanitarian and even egalitarian values.
But times change. Leavis, in his great and lasting works championing writers, didn’t include even one Black or Asian novelist or poet. He probably was unaware that they existed. Today, gentle reader, an academic sends me notice of a book about an “alternative canon”. It’s an appreciation of books by Black and Asian writers and I am told that my books are part of it.
Wow! Good! But then I think I must examine this “canon”. I would be flattered to be anywhere near Joseph Conrad or V.S. Naipaul, but who are these “greats” with whom I share a register? Do they measure up to what I meant when I said to the questioning interviewer: “One poem is better than another?”
And so, I progress, gentle reader, to a confession. This entire, perhaps boring, semi-literary discourse was prompted by a recent literary intervention by a person called Rachel Adamson, who is member of an organisation called “Zero Tolerance”. This organisation is, laudably, a charity that works to end men’s violence against women.
Adamson’s chosen weapon to further this cause is a critique of a very popular children’s book called The Tiger Who Came To Tea, by Judith Kerr. All my children have had copies of the book and have enjoyed the story in which a tiger invades a mother and daughter’s family tea and eats up everything. Then daddy comes home, finds the food gone and takes the family for a feast at a restaurant — that’s how I remember it.
Here’s what the linguistic warrior Adamson says: “We know that gender stereotypes are harmful and that they reinforce gender inequality, and that gender inequality is the cause of violence against women and girls, such as domestic abuse, rape and sexual harassment.”
All good. But then Adamson needs to say how she will oppose this gender stereotyping and alights on this particular children’s book. Adamson questions “why the tiger is not female or gender neutral”.
I think even Adamson must know that the ideology of gender neutrality has not hit the tiger species. And does she really want to prove that a female tiger’s abject greed overrides her sisterhood with the mother and daughter whose tea she invades and devours?
For myself, I have no doubt that there are no scientific, statistically valid, epidemiological or other means of resolving the nature/nurture debate. Are women born to be baby carriers and therefore have instincts and predilections different from men who have evolved as hunter gatherers? Or is that whole historical-anthropological-genetic landscape a manufactured illusion? Have all the cultures of the world which repress women or delegate to them a particular role been part of some eternal male conspiracy?
Today’s world should be dedicatedly for the equal socio-political, educational, occupational status of men and women. It goes without saying -- though it needs to be said in Afghanistan today and in most countries. There will be, as there was and is around the world, a movement of women who work towards it.
I genuinely doubt that attacking the content of books such as Tiger, and even the works of Enid Blyton, will in any degree assist this cause. Are these writers inspired by nature, describing in fiction what they see and invent — or are they victims of biased nurture?