I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about storytelling in the last month. I’ve been thinking both about the useful powers of story, and also about the negative powers of story. Why? There’ve been things in the news lately (ahem, Woody Allen) involving the depiction of the lives of storytellers, which have consistently not taken into account the capacity of storytellers to revise their own narratives in order to create a Socially Palatable POV. In the case of American audiences, that POV – the one most of us learned from not just the world around us, but from literature too, is the point of view of The Hard-Working White Man Who Means Well. Never mind that the events being discussed actually often don’t fit that narrative at all. Precise storytelling can make people believe unquestioningly in a narrative full of omissions and excisions.
I’ve been thinking about how this happens, culturally, how we end up with a culture wherein a certain set of stories & protagonists seem immediately plausible and valuable to us, while another set of protagonists and stories do not. Because I’m primarily a fiction writer myself, I’ve been thinking specifically about storytelling in written form, and how it influences thought and perceptions ongoingly.
For many of us, the highschool Great Literature Curriculum is our first experience of Story as Literature, and thus as ”Valuable Story.” These are the books from which we first learn that there are certain kinds of stories that will last forever. These are the books from which we first learn about the things that matter in a story, about tragedy and about narrative power.
The default definition of Great Literature on the High School Curriculum Level (which is all many of us ever get – and then operate according to – these things have weight) is that the “Valuable Stories” are Stories Told By Straight White Men, About Straight White Men.
Don’t believe me? Let me make a list for you. If you’re American, you could probably make the same list. I’m talking about the public high school curriculum. The classic version, as most of us know, contains a list of usual suspects, not all American, but all white men:
ASSIGNED READING: Great Books
- Of Mice & Men (1937) & The Grapes of Wrath (1939) – John Steinbeck (1902-1968)
- The Old Man & The Sea (1952) - Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961)
- The Great Gatsby (1925) – F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940)
- A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) – James Joyce (1882-1941)
- The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) – Mark Twain (1835-1910)
- The Scarlet Letter (1850) – Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864)
- Lord of the Flies (1954) – William Golding (1911-1993)
- Animal Farm (1945) – George Orwell (1903-1950)
- The Catcher in the Rye (1951) – J.D. Salinger (1919-2010)
The median age of the above-list of authors when the above-listed books were published was about 40. So, here we’ve got a list of books written by nine 40ish white men, all native English speakers, all from America and the UK, born between 1804 and 1919, all dead now.
Three of the books actually have the word “Man” in their titles.
The entire list was written prior to the Civil Rights Movement.
Depending on your highschool, you might also have gotten:
- Fahrenheit 451 (1953) - Ray Bradbury (1920-2012)
- To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) – Harper Lee (1926- ), the only book on this list written by a woman, and also the only book on this list written by someone who is still alive.
MAJOR CHARACTERS OF COLOR
- Jim in Huckleberry Finn. He’s a runaway slave. There are many, many ways this book fails to depict anything close to full humanity for Jim, who, though a sympathetic character, is also totally minstrelized, mocked, and abused by Huck.
- There’s also Santiago in The Old Man & The Sea, or so you might think – the book is set in Cuba. However, Santiago is a Spanish immigrant from the Canary Islands to Cuba, has blue eyes, and is not Latino.
- If you add To Kill a Mockingbird, there’s Tom Robinson, a black man, who is accused and convicted unjustly of rape. He’s subsequently shot and killed.
MAJOR FEMALE CHARACTERS
- Of Mice and Men has Curley’s Wife, who never gets a name, and is entirely made of Sex & Ego. Lenny kills her.
- Grapes of Wrath has Ma Joad (fierce, gritty, and positively-depicted) & Rose of Sharon (shallow, self-absorbed, and ultimately most important for the fact that she is lactating).
- Gatsby has Daisy (shallow, self-absorbed and a destroyer of men’s lives) Jordan (aloof & frigid) and Myrtle (cheats on husband and subsequently dies).
- Portrait has Mary Dedalus, Stephen’s mother, who is mainly a vector of argumentative religion, and Emma Clery, Stephen Dedalus’ beloved, but she’s a shadowy character, and we never see much of her, beyond just that she is beautiful. There are also a bunch of nameless prostitutes.
- Huck Finn has the Widow Douglas, who is Huck’s civilizing influence and mother figure, but mostly an instiller of rules and religion.
- The Scarlet Letter is the only book on this list which has a female protagonist, and that protagonist is Hester Prynne. The book’s entire plot, of course, revolves around the epic, many-year punishment for her adultery (never mind that she thought she was a widow), and her quiet dignity and honor in not disclosing the name of her partner.
- Animal Farm has two female horses, Clover (the slow-witted and motherly mare who has lost her figure giving birth to foals), Mollie (the white mare, who is cowardly, self-involved and vain), and a goat, Muriel, who can, at least, read.
- Catcher in the Rye has several female characters in the form of nameless prostitutes (ahh, the nameless prostitutes of Great Lit), but there is also Sally Hayes (conventional, shallow, “phony” and according to Holden, vain, though pretty), and Holden Caulfield’s little sister Phoebe, who at 10 years old is, with Ma Joad, one of the few unambiguously positively-depicted characters on this list – but since she’s ten, she can’t do anything but ride a carousel. Her influence on the action is very limited.
- Fahrenheit 451 has several female characters. Clarisse, a 17-year-old girl who is curious, interested and spurs the narrative, but who gets kills by a speeding car. Mildred, the protagonist’s wife, who is shallow, self-absorbed, and betraying, and two of Mildred’s female friends, who are representatives of badness and anti-intellectualism in the novel.
- To Kill a Mockingbird has a female narrator, the only one on this list. She’s a little girl, Scout. The hero of To Kill a Mockingbird is, however, is Scout’s father, Atticus Finch, a brilliant white lawyer who defends Tom Robinson.
MAJOR LGBT CHARACTERS
- Ahh, right, there are exactly zero LGBT characters in any of these books, or at least none that I can remember. Can you?
SO. Why does this matter? Why do I keep muttering about it?
What would it be like, what effect would it have, if Americans were raised on a public high school curriculum of Great Literature written by and about someone other than Straight White Men? Would it matter? (Spoiler: Yes.) (Spoiler: Fuck yes.)
In my imagined scenario, in which a high school kid gets raised on a curriculum of Greats who are not The Usual Greats, I’m not talking (necessarily) about a kid being raised as a reader, nor even as a writer. I’m talking raised as a person. For a lot of people, the lit stops here, after high school. Tons of people never read novels again, but most people read the ones on that list.
If you’re many people, your concept of “Valuable Story” in written form stops here too, with a list of novels by and about only straight white men. All of our story consumption, particularly formative story consumption, has a ripple effect into our news-cycle awareness, our understanding of hierarchical roles, our tendency toward social activism, and everything else that constitutes a functioning rather than a fucked society.
The excision and omission of other narratives results in a version of America in which the only universally acknowledged “Valuable Stories” are the ones by and about the ruling class.
If the primary “Great Literature” “Valuable Stories” in a society are the ones written by and about the ruling class, then all other stories – whether fact or fiction – end up influenced by that same dynamic, when editors decide what else to publish, when newspapers decide who to feature, when news is reported from one angle, and not another. When television shows are created, and contain only upper class white people. When movies are made and there are no gay heroes. When movies are made, and they’re full of black villains and white heroes. When all the Oscar contenders are movies starring ensembles of powerful straight white men changing the world, and/or suffering in their dead-end jobs, working hard, and never getting what they clearly, given their literary status, deserve.
A deeply skewed list of Great Literature helps to create all those things.
It helps to create disasters in the world too: Our perceptions of crime, for example, get skewed to the protagonistic innocence of the ruling class. This results in things like election apathy and economic collapse, voters voting against their own interests in order to support narratively trustworthy white male POVs. Even if said white men are actually lying, cheating and stealing. It results in rape victims being perceived as ruiners of the lives of promising young men, as happened in Texas, rather than as innocent victims of violent crime.
These things are not minor things. This is a discussion of literature, and of story, but stories are simultaneously the products of society, and the creators of societies. They influence policy. To Kill a Mockingbird is constantly cited as an inspiration by powerful white men interesting in working on social justice, but it also contains a narrative in which a young black man is unjustly accused, unjustly convicted, and murdered. Where is the Great Lit on that list in which a young black man is a ferocious social advocate and lawyer…and not only doesn’t get accused of rape, but doesn’t die?
Where is Of Mice & Women? Where is A Portrait of The Artist As A Young Trans Man? Where is The Great Gonzalez? I know I sound like I’m joking around with those titles, and I am, a little bit, but I’m also rather certain that these books are being written. There is another version of Great Lit, and it’s not being taught in highschools. It should be. A version in which humans are trained to see things from only one narrow point of view is neither rational, nor useful.
(A brief woeful anecdote regarding hunger for major female characters, as a teenager in Idaho: I first read Lolita (1955), because I thought it would be Great Lit from the point of view of a girl, instead of from the POV of Humbert. I was ready! I was willing! It was not what I thought it would be! I learned a lot about Humbert, and only a little about Lolita (12, sexually “precocious” seductress “nymphet,” dead at 17 giving birth to a stillborn daughter) and ultimately I wound up tossing the book across the room, feeling betrayed by Nabokov. I felt it should have been titled Humbert Humbert (& More Humbert). Also, perhaps unsurprisingly, I continue to feel that this novel’s nearly universal Great Lit categorization helped along a bunch of bad narratives culturally, narratives which continue to recur in our depiction of rape victims, teenage girls, and women in general.)
So. What would it be like if you skipped the classic Great Lit books and replaced them with equivalent works written by and about women, people of color, and queer people?
I asked Twitter for thoughts on Great Lit Written by People Other than Straight White Men, and lots of names came in:
Aphra Behn, Zora Neale Hurston, Frederick Douglass, James Baldwin, Djuna Barnes, Mina Loy, Lady Mary Wroth, Eliza Haywood, Marie de France, Christine de Pizan, Julian of Norwich, Anne Askew, Marguerite de Navarre, Alexandre Dumas, Mary Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Naomi Mitchison, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Samuel R. Delany, Ursula K. LeGuin, Maxine Hong Kingston, Naomi Shihab Nye, Louise Erdrich, Sherman Alexie, Maxine Hong Kingston, Richard Wright, Yusef Komunyakaa, Amos Tutuola, Fae Myenne Ng, Sylvia Plath, Audre Lorde, Rita Dove, Li-Young Lee, Sharon Olds, George Eliot, Oscar Wilde, Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, Octavia Butler, Gayl Jones…
(I have followers from all ends of the genre and form spectrum – as is probably fairly obvious! Poets on there too. That was just with a speedy ask late at night.)
People will disagree on what’s Great – but keep in mind where your notions of “Great” might have come from. This is also wildly abbreviated. It’s just a few things rather than a ton. The difficulty in constructing a curriculum of Great Books from a pool of books which have been ever-othered, is that I’m sitting here, staring at a long list, and feeling overmatched. There are so many Great Books, so many possible versions of this curriculum. This is just one to show that it’s not that hard to quickly construct a list of books that are not only completely different in terms of protagonists and authors, but also ambitious, socially conscious, and revolutionary. They are stylistically unique, literarily viable, and contain stories in which Straight White Men are not the only characters with agency. They vary politically, and are not perfect (the above accepted “Greats” are not perfect either). Would I stand behind all these books as The Ones Which Must Be Read? Not necessarily – but I wouldn’t stand behind some of the ones above either. I consciously kept the list to a “classic” list, rather than to newer writers, because I wanted to echo the “works that have stood the test of time” structure of the above list. That said, this means my below list is completely missing trans writers, and I’d love to do something about that. There are always more, and more, and more things to add to a list like this. It’s part of the fun of making one.
This is just a list of possibilities, and like all short lists, it’s blatantly full of gaps and omissions. It’s not because I’m not trying – it’s because it’s short, and only a random list. I’d love to see yours. The comments are for your own lists and additions. I look forward to them.
ASSIGNED READING SPEEDILY REVISED: Great Books Like The Usual Great Books Except Not
- My Ántonia (1918) - Willa Cather (1873-1947)
- Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) – Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960)
- The Awakening (1899) – Kate Chopin (1850-1904)
- Orlando (1928) – Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)
- Everything That Rises Must Converge (1965) – Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964)
- Go Tell it on the Mountain (1953) – James Baldwin (1924-1987)
- Nightwood (1936) – Djuna Barnes (1892-1982)
- Native Son (1940) – Richard Wright (1908-1960)
- Tell Me A Riddle (1961) – Tillie Olsen (1912-2007)
All errors above, particularly those of calculation, totally my own. Again, I’d love to see your lists of required reading in the comments…