Yale Students: Shakespeare is Better Than Maya Angelou, Honestly

Australia’s national women’s soccer team – hotly tipped for a medal at the Rio Olympics – has  been thrashed 7-0 by a team of under-15-year-old boys.

Students at Yale University have petitioned their English Department for a change of curriculum. They want fewer “white male authors” and more contributions by “women, people of color and queer folk”.

Does anyone want to hazard a guess as to why I’ve linked these two stories?

Yes, that’s right. It’s because I am sexist, racist, homophobic pig.

Also because I am a shameless elitist.

I actually believe that whether you’re talking international sport or you’re talking about literature then it is quality – not how many gender or diversity boxes it ticks – that should be the criterion that counts.

What this means, in practice, is acknowledging that Shakespeare is better than Maya Angelou, English literature is better than Nigerian literature, Pride and Prejudice is better than Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Paradise Lost by straight dead white male John Milton is better than anything by lesbian Poet Laureate Carole Ann Duffy (or indeed, probably, by any other lesbian poet in history, ever, including Sappho) and that all women’s sport (apart from showjumping, the only one where girls can compete with boys on equal terms; and possibly women’s beach volleyball) is basically a waste of space.

This doesn’t mean, as far as sport goes, that women should be discouraged from playing it. On the contrary, anything that gets women out of the designer shoe and hand bag emporia, away from internet victims’ groups and onto the playing fields where they can work off the rage, bitterness and insecurity which would otherwise be vented against men has got to be a good thing.

Plus, if any of our daughters were to become a top international sporting champion (which by the sounds of it is pretty easy, if you choose something like football: you just need to shift a spherical object vaguely in the right direction with your foot, taking care to avoid any 15-year old boys) then obviously it would be fantastic news because they’d probably make enough to pay for their own weddings instead of asking their impoverished, long-suffering parents to stump up.

That apart, though, there really isn’t much to be said for women’s sport. As a hobby, yes. But not as a thing to be taken seriously at an international level. Not even tennis where, frankly, they grunt very unattractively, the rallies go on for way too long, and the hottest looking ones almost never make it to the highest levels.

As for women’s football (soccer, for you Americans), I really can’t put it better than my old friend Rod Liddle who wrote in The Sunday Times this week:

“Women’s football is rubbish and any pub side, provided that its team members each possessed a Y-chromosome, would beat the United States, the women’s world champions, 7-0 even if the blokes were pissed and quite possibly if they were paraplegic…”

Not so long ago this would not have needed to be said. Apart from being considered ungallant, it would have been redundant because until really quite recently the only people who even knew that there was such a thing as international women’s football would have been the players themselves — and perhaps the half dozen people who came to watch in the empty grandstands.

Now, suddenly, we have to pretend that women’s competitive sport is a thing. Is this because, thanks to training and selective breeding, we have developed a new super-race of females who can suddenly play football as dextrously, quickly, powerfully and grippingly as men? Er, no.

And the same rules apply, I’m afraid, to literature.

No amount of special pleading or enlightened thinking is going to change the fact that historically white straight men have punched way, way above their weight in the literary sphere and continue to do so today.

Sure there has been – to use the Yale petition’s charming turn of phrase – the occasional example of literature produced by “women, people of color and queer folk”. I give some examples below.

Women

Jane Austen is my favourite. Maybe the most perfect novelist, so long as you’re not after anything too sweeping and epic.

George Eliot is pretty key, too, in the 19th century novel canon, though she can be a bit worthy.

And before those, it’s useful to mention Aphra Behn – not that anyone ever reads her, but you need to drop her in to keep the female profs happy.

More recently, there is

Patricia Highsmith – one of my favourite thriller writers (though I’ve sometimes wondered whether this is because, being a lesbian, she thinks and writes like a man. See also: Mary Renault)

Also I’d like to give special mention to

Zoe Oldenbourg whose novels about the Crusades – especially The World Is Not Enough – are possibly the greatest ever historical novels after War and Peace.

Ayn Rand can’t write for toffee and definitely shouldn’t be studied by literature students – but her politics are just fab.

Obviously there are many more women I could include on this list, but won’t in order to cause greater annoyance among the kind of people who want to get annoyed by this sort of thing.

“Queer folk”

Homer, being an Ancient Greek, almost certainly swung both ways – or would have done had he been a real person rather than a construct.

Christopher Marlowe, too, was probably a bender – unless he was joking when he wrote “all they that love not tobacco and boys are fools.”

Oscar Wilde, though a married father of children, is also rumoured to have dabbled with homosexuality.

WH Auden, Stephen Spender, Christopher Isherwood – yup, all queer folk.

“People of Color”

Hmm. I’m not an expert here. But I’ve suspicion that if you were to make a rigorously honest list of the greatest authors of all time, based on their literary merits, there probably wouldn’t be a “person of color” in the top 100.

And this wouldn’t be crass racism or anything like that. Simply an acknowledgement of the fact that for various pretty obvious cultural and historical reasons, literature was – even as late as the mid-20th century – largely a white heterosexual male’s game. Since most serious literature courses and most serious universities stop at the mid-20th century, this raises a pretty insurmountable obstacle for the “we really should study more ‘people of color'” argument.

So, back to that Yale petition. There’s a thoughtful, well-written article on the subject in – of all places – Slate by Katy Waldman. She is, dare I say it, way too intelligent and subtle to be writing for Slate. And her defence of the canon – Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, Pope, Wordsworth, Eliot, etc – is a wise and good one.

She makes the point that the canon is the building block from which all modern literature has emerged:

The canon is what it is, and anyone who wishes to understand how it continues to flow forward needs to learn to swim around in it. There is a clear line to Terrance Hayes (and Frank and Claire Underwood, and Lyon Dynasty) from Shakespeare. There is a direct path to Adrienne Rich (and Katniss Everdeen, and Lyra Belacqua) from Milton. (Rich basically says as much in “Diving into the Wreck.”) These guys are the heavies, the chord progressions upon which the rest of us continue to improvise, and we’d be somewhere else entirely without them.

She argues that truly great writers transcend their identity to create meaningful art for everyone:

I want to gently push back, too, against the idea that the major English poets have nothing to say to students who aren’t straight, male, and white. For all the ways in which their particular identities shaped their work, these writers tried to represent the entire human condition, not just their clan. A great artist possesses both empathy and imagination: Many of Shakespeare’s female characters are as complexly nuanced as any in circulation today, Othello takes on racial prejudice directly, and Twelfth Night contains enough gender-bending identity shenanigans to fuel multiple drag shows and occupy legions of queer scholars. The “stay in your lane” mentality that seems to undergird so much progressive discourse — only polyamorous green people really “get” the “polyamorous green experience,” and therefore only polyamorous greens should read and write about polyamorous greens, say — ignores our common humanity.

She gently points out – how did the morons she’s addressing even get into Yale? Does it not have some kind of competitive entrance testing? – the serious shortage of works by women, people of color and queer folk in ages past:

But even if you disagree, there’s no getting around the facts. Although you’ve written that the English department “actively contributes to the erasure of history,” what it really does is accurately reflect the tainted history we have — one in which straight white cis-men dominated art-making for centuries — rather than the woke history we want and fantasize about. There are few (arguably no) female poets writing in Chaucer’s time who rival Chaucer in wit, transgressiveness, texture, or psychological insight. The lack of equal opportunity was a tremendous injustice stemming from oppressive social norms, but we can’t reverse it by willing brilliant female wordsmiths into the past. Same goes for people of color in Wordsworth’s day, or openly queer people in Pope’s, or …

And I totally love her conclusion:
 The canon of English literature is sexist. It is racist. It is colonialist, ableist, transphobic, and totally gross. You must read it anyway.

 

With all this I agree. In fact there’s only one tiny thing I disagree with her on. Where she says:

 I am not arguing that it is acceptable for an English major to graduate from college having only read white male authors or even 70 percent white male authors.

 

No, I’m sorry Katy — and all you special snowflake Yale literature undergraduates — actually it is totally acceptable for an English major to graduate from college having only read white male authors or even 70 per cent white male authors. If you’re studying literature, you’re studying literature, not identity politics.

Firstly, short of Jane Austen — and a few others: see above — you really wouldn’t have been missing that much.

Secondly, if you’d read the right male authors, you really would have read the best works of literature which have ever been written.

And that is surely the point of studying literature, isn’t it? It’s the quality of the writing that counts not the identity of the author.

Yes I agree it’s bad luck, dashed bad luck, for the equality and diversity mob that Maya Angelou has never written anything close to even Shakespeare’s worst play. But it’s a literary truth all the same.


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