Roundtable: Intersectionality, Part 1

Paul Witcover

What ground does intersectionality leave a critic to stand upon? If every judgment is provisional, and brokered by blinkers we may or may not be aware of wearing, and, even if aware, are unable to remove but merely to acknowledge, then no judgment is inherently more valuable or true than any other — and by extension, no work of art is inherently “better” than another — I mean in any kind of critically meaningful sense. They are all equally grist for the mill. I must disagree with this rather post-structuralist view. Writing is about more, it seems to me, than seeking out some kind of Planck length of marginalization and celebrating an identity so diverse as to disappear into a particulate cloud. Who then are we writing for? Those whose multiplicitous identies share areas of intersection with our own, as in some vast Venn diagram? Or are we writing to educate those too blind to see us as we perceive ourselves to be? I can’t speak for others, but I know I try to cast my net as widely as possible. And I’m far more interested, both as a writer and a critic, in the artifact as a self-contained system, and then as part of a larger literary ecology, than I am in the man or woman who produced it.

Siobhan Carroll

[…] no judgment is inherently more valuable or true than any other — and by extension, no work of art is inherently “better” than another […]

I’m not sure I buy this. Identities are shared, after all. My awareness of my Canadian reading biases does not prevent Canadians from voting for a “best book of the year.”

But it does, to my mind, mean two things: first, this self-awareness makes it easier for me to understand why the British voted for a different book; second, it also periodically causes me and my fellow Canadians to reevaluate how we read and what we read for. If we as Canadians pride ourselves on being multicultural, for example, than why, in evaluating books, do we dislike those featuring Sri Lankan-Canadians and prefer those featuring white-bread cannibals from Toronto? (This is an entirely hypothetical example, btw. Really.) It’s these moments of cognitive dissonance that criticism tries to flag.

Individuals and communities evaluate art all the time. But the standards by which art is judged change over time, as the community changes. Writers, as producers of art, enact and reflect on these changes, even if their action is merely that of refusing to alter the way they write. And criticism is the art of trying to describe what one sees happening.

Rachel Swirsky

Ditto Dora, Nora, Kathleen, both Karens, Siobhan… probably a couple other people, too.

I apologize if I’ve got this wrong, but I’m hearing different reactions to the topic from, broadly, women and POC on the one hand, and white men on the other. Broadly.

I’m wondering if white men are feeling a pressure in this discussion, as if intersectionality is trying to push white men’s perspective out of reading and writing?

Separately, but perhaps relatedly, Coffee and Ink did an analysis on one of our recent discussions (on breakout genre work) and noted that while both sexes mentioned male authors more than women authors, women named female authors twice as often as men did. (Women mentioned ⅓ female writers; men mentioned 1/6 female writers.) Also, I think she said only 3 of us mentioned work by non-white writers.

Clearly, we are (in aggregate, both locally on this list and socially as a subculture) already approaching our reading with a racialized and sexualized lens. Also, clearly, that lens advantages white people and male people. Coming to the table as a woman or a POC changes your perspective some (see: 1/3 versus one 1/6), but I think education about social justice (including intersectionality, since identities in a single individual can’t be neatly split out, and group identities can only be properly addressed if one is aware of inflections in the group identity) can help make one more aware.

Nisi Shawl is the one who posed this question. A prominent (and smart and awesome) white, male critic criticized her award-winning collection Filter House “lifeless” and said that it would keep readers “from more worthy books.” The stories “are dead on the page and forgotten soon after they are read.” While he qualifies some of his statements as personal opinions, he also says this, “While I find it easy to believe readers will experience Shawl’s stories in different ways—such is the case with any basically competent fiction—I cannot imagine how a reader who is sensitive to literature’s capabilities and possibilities could possibly say these stories offer much of a performance.”

He cannot imagine how a sensitive reader could disagree.

This is not only an incorrect statement, but a racially loaded one. Yes, it’s true that critics are entitled to be wrong from time to time. Chacun a son gout. But there’s a context here, one in which black women’s writing has been historically viewed as keeping people from reading more worthy books.

People can obviously disagree on the value of books, but the idea that no sensitive reader (and here, again, the statement is racially charged; who’s the audience of this book? Who is being dismissed as not sensitive readers? Not white men.) could like the book is demonstrably false. The critic’s lens is not only narrow enough that he doesn’t see the value in Nisi’s writing himself (which, hey, maybe just isn’t his bag), but that he can’t imagine any other reader of value disagreeing.

I don’t mean to open old wounds or say that the critic is a bad person or anything awful like that. As I recall, he handled the whole situation in a super classy way. I’m not going to name names or link to older posts because my point isn’t to criticize one individual for having said something unfortunate, but to point out that this stuff exists and keeps existing.

Likewise, it’s not my intent to impose value judgments on anyone who’s on the list as a person. I know these issues get fraught and that sometimes rebuttals are taken that way.

I’m not sure how much of what I’m saying is in debate per se. I get the sense most people on this list agree that sexism and racism exist. However, there seems to be some pushback against the ideas of intersectionality and post-structuralist critique, and my intended point is that social justice that includes intersectionality is a tool to address the ways that racism and sexism creep into our reading, writing, and discourse.

And, if it’s not clear, these tools are meant to affect things in aggregate. Not to convince critic X that Nisi Shawl’s writing is awesome sauce. Not to make sure that every reader has a quota of favorite books by ladies as well as gentlemen. But to even things out across the field so that work about disabled dark girls is as likely to be judged on its own merits as work about fit white boys.

[…] no judgment is inherently more valuable or true than any other — and by extension, no work of art is inherently “better” than another […]

I’m not sure I buy this. Identities are shared, after all. My awareness of my Canadian reading biases does not prevent Canadians from voting for a “best book of the year.”

Also, there’s a misunderstanding of both the term intersectionality and the current state of social science. Things do not exist in a binary on/off state. All cultural relativism is not Margaret Mead refusing to treat indigenous people who get snake bites. It’s not “there is an objective, Platonic truth” or “well, fine, then everything may as well be true, and dogs will marry cats!”

Things can be interpreted subjectively and have an objective component. See intersubjectivity. These ideas are important to the practice of modern social science.

Kathleen Ann Goonan

Interesting post, Rachel!

Here is another breakdown: Critic and writer. Add to “critic” academician.

These are vastly different hats. When I write fiction, the last thing on my mind is fitting myself into a mold that critics or academics will find handy. We all write from a different space and for different reasons. When I look at best-selling “popular” literature (which is not, in my index-o-meter, “literary” literature), I find that there are few burrs of individuality to slow the reader down or throw them out. Each particularity we add, in terms of fine focus, character/background, or words that are not in the vocabulary of a fourth-grader, throw out readers by the thousands. Poems, one of the most intensely individual forms of writing, have the least readers. Dissonances (Ornette Coleman), nuances of bitterness (caffeine, chocolate) gratify some and are, well, dissonant and bitter to others.

I denied this in my early career, but I believe now that what I write and how my writing is packaged, as science fiction, represent demographic mismatches that limit my audience. Those who might like my work don’t know that it exists. And, as a jazz musician/radio show host asked me in an interview, how many people like jazz and science fiction?, both acquired tastes. Add layers of literary complexity and I am left with few stone fans. And we all know that grown men and women who read all the latest “literary” books have a run-fast-and-hide reaction to science fiction.

I used Dawn in my recent science fiction class, along with Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, The Lathe of Heaven, The Diamond Age, The Female Man, Neuromancer, and Zendegi. Dawn and LOH were the easiest to read, and I think that Dawn was the most illuminating/alien in terms of new ideas for my class–the novel that most enlarged the thought-cities of my students. Butler made this easy; even the white males in my class could see themselves in Lilith’s human dilemma and in her human resolve.

When I write criticism, exams, and academic papers, I look at work from the opposite end of a lens. I make small; I parse; I do not create. I might see new connections, or help bring to birth new connections in the minds of others, but each form of writing/thinking is different.

It is indeed a part of the present system that a single editor or critic’s voice can limit or expand our audience, and that the result of our art is often heartbreak. This is not new or limited to any kind of culture. Think Van Gogh, Melville, an infinity of writers of color and/or women, throughout history. Popularity in the arts is a fire fed by a fickle wind. In my opinion, we are at the beginning of literature. Our choices grow daily. It is only recently that women had wide access to education.

That fire, and that wind, is why we are all working so hard. Artists have compulsions that are unique to our tribe, and there is no guarantee (think: The Red Slippers) that we will not be dashed on the many reefs through which we sail. We repair the craft, mend the sail, and set another course (which may be as deluded as the others, but at least we are moving) as long as we still have the strength to do so.

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