Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Intelligibility and literary ranking

I'm always finding serendipity at play in my reading, which I gather holds true for most people who do much reading. Yesterday I reported on Ursula Le Guin's remarks on having to learn how to write from a woman's point of view and the flurry of remarks that followed. And so this morning, when I read a piece by Allison Flood in the Guardian about the evaluation made by 81 international critics chosen by the BBC of the best British novels (of all time) and how strikingly different this list was in its rankings from those produced by UK critics, I naturally homed in on this paragraph about the list:

It also, as the BBC points out, features a strong showing from female authors. Unlike other recent lists, including the Observer’s, women writers dominate the top 10, and books by women make up nearly 40% of the total 100 novels on the list. Speculating as to why this might be, Hephzibah Anderson writes for the BBC that “Britain’s literary landscape appears to be a good deal more female to outsiders than we ourselves appreciate”, and suggests that “so many generations of women writers have found themselves to be doubly outsiders – by virtue of both gender and creative calling – that their observations appeal to other outsiders”.

In my view, given my preoccupations with the politics of intelligibility, this last sentence is key and must be considered when one either makes or reads lists ranking literary quality. It is so obvious to me that every time a new list comes out my main response is likely to be skeptical simply because this factor is almost inevitably ignored when each new list is flourished. In this case, precisely because the list does not follow the hegemonic critical stance, that factor is noted to explain the apparent discrepancy in rankings between the presumed experts on British Literature and the "outsiders." The presumption underlying this need to explain is, I hope, obvious.


1 comment:

Rebecca said...

I know of one English woman who moved to Mexico where she was a very respected painter in Mexican artistic circles. When she died, her British family was quite surprised at her fame. I don't think the Anglophones are as open to women as women as other parts of the world might be. And Lord Chesterfield's comment to his son that "Women are Children of a larger growth" shows up in the culture still. The best artists seem to be at some remove from their cultures, but not too far removed -- and not direly poor, either.

This makes me wonder what a list of the top French novels by established French critics would look like. This is one with some women on it, though I'm not sure how it was compiled: http://qwiklit.com/2013/06/01/le-mot-juste-25-great-french-novels/ And this is one of books that have been award winners in France that have or haven't been translated into English: http://frenchculture.org/books/news/award-winning-french-novels