LETTERS:Self-scrutiny for white males

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From Mr Nicolas Walter Sir: The smug condemnation of extreme forms of "political correctness" is easy but not all objections to sexism and racism in literature can be dismissed as mere political correctness. There is something much more serious at stake.

It is disingenuous to pretend, as Mark Lawson does ("Fugitives from the book police", 31 January), that John Updike is merely recording or reporting white male middle-class attitudes which happen to be offensive to women. The point is that, if he doesn'tshare them, he makes such a good show of doing so and he expresses them so convincingly that it reinforces them (cf. Amis and Larkin and Osborne). I suspect that even the most skilful and sensitive of such writers and their admirers simply don't know orcare how nasty they really are. Similarly, when critics take for granted the status of Dante and Shakespeare, and all the other sacred cows of the Western canon, they don't realise just how unpleasant these writers can be, however "classic" they may also be. It is "politically correct' nowadays to condemn them for sexism and racism, but it has been "critically correct" for generations to commend them without questioning too closely what they actually said about painful issues or really how they said it.

Art shouldn't be monotonously positive; but neither can it be morally neutral. One of the most unpleasant aspects of Western culture is precisely its inability to distinguish between aesthetics and ethics, and one of the most unpleasant aspects of the British media is the ability of journalists to muddle the two. Mark Lawson warns that "edgy self-scrutiny may soon extend to white male writers approaching the subjects of gender and race". I should think so. About time, too.

Yours sincerely, NICOLAS WALTER London N1

1 February