Traditional Ideas of Literature and Discrimination in the Contemporary World

Today in my women writers class, our instructor posed a question for us. I’ll attempt to quote her as best as I can here, “What is the difference between literature and crap? There are a lot of people that would argue to you that what we are reading in this class is crap. Alcott isn’t literature, she just wrote novels. There are many more people that would tell you that we don’t need a class on women writers, that this class is worthless and a waste of your time.”

I didn’t realize that I’d said it out loud at the time, but I was thinking, “She must have been talking to my husband.” then my instructor looked at me directly and said, “What was that?” So.. I repeated it and her eyes went wide and then she continued on with the discussion. After class I was pulled aside and she talked to me about what my husband thought.

I told her that my husband felt that the class was sexist. She said, “That’s interesting.” We talked a bit more about how I loved the class, and what my husband’s primary idea was. His argument is that any time you bias against a group of people for any particular thing they have in common, be it their gender, color of their skin, religious preference or what have you, you’re discriminating. Whether that discrimination is for their benefit or not is a moot point, because in singling out one group you leave out everyone else. This is regardless of the intention behind that discrimination. So in essence, he feels that if discrimination is wrong, then it’s wrong, period. Doing it to help people of one race or gender over another get jobs is wrong, giving money to churches of one faith over another is wrong. No matter how you slice it, it’s wrong. His solution is simply to not discriminate. “Don’t make us read Faulkner when Wollstonecraft’s writings hold so much more meaning and value.” he said.

I’ve been stewing on this ever since. What is the difference between literature and crap? What is the answer for the overwhelming fact that men have been favored in the past so heavily over women that literature classes swarm with the writings of men, and all but ignore those few brilliant women in our history that were actually able to get published?

I think that I agree with him in essence, that discrimination in any form is inherently wrong. If all of humanity is created equal, then it’s equal. His solution, however, is not as easy to implement as he thinks. Our society is still in a period of transition. I do not feel that racism and sexism are as prevalent as they were even 40 years ago. What I do think, is that those attitudes are still common enough in our society and so ingrained in our methods of teaching and our way of thinking that it is difficult to get past what is so essentially a part of who we are as a culture. For example, my husband would never admit this to anyone else, but he’s envious of my ability to write as I do. He has a hard time accepting that this is my talent, this is what I do and it is a part of who I am. He wishes that he could do it as easily as I can.

I think he has a hard time realizing that I have a talent in terms of the traditional concept of the word. Talent, for so many of us means art, music, dancing and writing. But there are other talents. He has his own gifts, I certainly could never make a computer dance the way he does. It’s not my gift. His view of the world tells him that there is nothing that he cannot accomplish if he chooses to do so, so it makes his life difficult to see someone do something that he can’t. It’s hard for him to get past sometimes, but every day, he tries.

I think that’s what we as a society need to do. We need to spend some time every day, trying very hard to accept that we are not perfect. There are some things we can’t do that other people can, but these talents and gifts have no basis in race or gender. They are unique to the individual, and everyone has their own talent.

The problem is, as things currently stand, it is going to be a hard road to eradicate what is simply human nature. We classify things, and categorize them and separate them into their own, neat little piles. What was literature a hundred years ago is still literature today because it has been literature for so long. Right now, there is precious little room to change those concepts and ideas that are simply a part of being human, but with time and effort, we can change it. When we do, we won’t need a class on women writers. Mary Wollstonecraft will be taught in high school literature classes and Faulkner… well.. who needs Faulkner anyway?

The difference between my concept and my husband’s is that mine takes more time. I think that it is necessary to account for the fact that human beings have a very difficult time with the idea of change and of acceptance of things that they do not understand, or desire for themselves, but do not have. I also think that our society has evolved dramatically in the past hundred years and that evolution is absolutely incredible and a testament to what we can do if we try. It’s taken a hundred years to get there, but now at the dawn of the 21st century we are living in a world where I can write this to an audience of people who have never seen my face. Me, a woman, is writing this. And you, whoever you are, are sitting there reading it in the comfort of your own home. I didn’t have to struggle or beg a publisher, or bribe him with enticements born of my feminine wiles. All I had to do, was sit down in front of my computer and type it.

Isn’t that amazing? In 1905, no one ever could have imagined a world where something like this could happen. Had I been alive in 1905, my life would revolve around my husband and children and I would never have been able to share my thoughts with you, or have my feelings and opinions be worthy of consideration beyond my own home. I never would have written this essay, and you would not be reading it.

It’s amazing, how far the world has come in so short a span of time. Literature will get there too, but it’s going to take time.