Fugitives from the book police

White male writers increasingly risk a tap on the shoulder by the expon ents of political correctness `Misogyny is the most ruinous accusation; graver even, perhaps, than plagiarism '

Mark Lawson
Sunday 23 October 2011 07:01

I have never really believed in political correctness. By that I don't mean that I disapprove of it, but rather that I have always doubted its existence. Any cultural censorship that had occurred in modern times - of crudely racist or sexist language or recruitment policies, for example - seemed to me beneficial. The rest - all those stories of inner-city schoolchildren singing "Baa Baa Green Sheep" and Shakespeare being thrown off American literature syllabuses as a "dead white male" - sounded like the defensive hyperbole of the old political and academic establishments. Three experiences in the last week, however, have shaken my scepticism. The first was a chilling and brilliant book by Harold Bloom, America's most prominent professor of literature. The Western Canon is the literary critical equivalent of the Michael Douglas movie Falling Down: the howl of a man pushed too far. Bloom alleges that what he calls a "School of Resentment" in US universities is stripping syllabuses of the traditional canonical writers - from Shakespeare and Dante onwards - in favour of moremodern works by non-male and non-white writers. "All aesthetic and most intellectual standards are being abandoned," writes Bloom, "in the name of social justice and the remedying of historical injustice."

This might be taken for a merely American extremity, were it not for this weekend's news that a book commissioned by the Oxford University Press from the right-wing historian and former Sun columnist John Vincent has been rejected by the firm after the manuscript was found to lack "gender-inclusive language", and to have omitted acknowledgement of "the energy and the `rewriting' of history which has followed the involvement of women as historians".

Personally, I would do almost anything to avoid reading a book by John Vincent, but the whole point of this debate is the tolerance of opinions or social groupings (in this case, right-wing historians) of whom you disapprove. What really pushed me over the edge on this subject, though, was my most painful experience in my life as a reader: the growing realisation that the novelist I revere above all others, John Updike, is coming under the scrutiny of the book police. He stands charged with "misogyny", the most ruinous accusation a contemporary male writer can face; graver even, perhaps, than plagiarism.

Political correctness as an influence on the writing and study of books must now, it seems, be taken seriously. And Harold Bloom's next book contains a warning paragraph that should be etched on the brains of anyone entering this debate, from whatever side. He makes clear that those who support the study of the classical canon because of its supposed "moral virtues" - here the English reader inevitably thinks of successive Conservative Education Secretaries and their national curriculum English syllabuses - are guilty of a right-wing political correctness as flawed as that emanating from the left. Much, even most, great literature is not, as Bloom points out, morally improving or "affirmative" in its images of people or society.

It is in this respect that John Updike stands as an emblematic example of external ideological pressures on writers. Assaulted in the first half of his career by the moralistic right for "obscenity", and in the latter half by the moralistic left for "misogyny" and "racism", he has been tapped on the shoulder by both great constabularies of the modern book police.

A white protestant American male, Updike writes in what, to many current academic critics, is an "irrelevant" or "redundant" tradition. His fiction is generally written from a male perspective, and frequently concerns sexual pursuit and betrayal. Reviewing Updike's new collection of short stories, this newspaper's Natasha Walter condemned his "thorough-going misogyny", while Rachel Cusk in the Times sniffed at his "ravenous, slightly repellent masculinity".

Well, the middle-aged American men in the new collection are indeed generally contemptuous of feminism and lecherously terrified of female sexuality; and Harry Angstrom, star of Updike's brilliant Rabbit quartet is, without doubt, one of the most repellent masculine characters in literature. But these facts are a result of Updike's genius rather than a negation of it. He is a social historian, whose books are a record of the male white middle-class generation to which - for better or, in the modern view, worse - he belongs. The equivocations of such American males towards reformed sexual politics are a part of cultural history, and he reports them. The stories in the current book are elegies, and elegies, by their nature, are rarely "affirmative" towards modernity.

In case this defence is regarded as mere testosterone confederation, I should mention that among my other favourite novelists are Muriel Spark, Margaret Atwood, AS Byatt, Hilary Mantel, Carol Shields, Alison Lurie and Anne Tyler. It seems to me apparent that the most fully imagined characters of each of these writers are the female ones. Their male protagonists are often, to my mind, idealised New Men, or demonised old ones. Yet this does not worry me. You read a novelist for a distillation of their experience and perspective, not a template for a gender utopia.

The Western Canon is most concerned with the effect of book policing on reading and teaching of literature, but impact on writing is also inevitable. Bloom's most influential idea as a young critic was what he called the "anxiety of influence": the way that a writer incorporates, or transforms, earlier authors he or she has read. But Bloom, as an older critic, has isolated a new, creative neurosis, although he has not named it.

The central obstacle to composition will be, for current writers, not the "anxiety of influence" but the "anxiety of ideology", the fear of social blasphemy, literal or metaphorical. Already, post-Rushdie, no writer commences on a paragraph, fiction or fact, about Islam without a reining-in of the imagination or vocabulary. Without anything comparable to a fatwa, but merely as a result of the spraying of fashionable air-fresheners in the cultural atmosphere, the same edgy self-scrutiny may soon extend to white male writers approaching the subjects of gender and race.

Perhaps I am unusually wimpish or guilt-ridden in this respect but, correcting the proofs of a novel at the weekend, I found myself more than once considering alterations to emphasise the distance of the author from the more lurid views expressed by characters. Defending Updike here from accusations of misogyny, I dread the easy cry that it is only my own hatred of women that blinds me to his sin.

Perhaps we white males merely resent the end of our hegemony. But when the great Bloom, after a lifetime's exemplary devotion to literature, describes himself as "a literary critic in what I now regard as the worst of all times for literary criticism", he should be listened to.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments