"To be alive is to be vulnerable": Literature and Human Experience

Education without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make man a more clever devil. - CS Lewis


When I examine my own book collection, which has been pared down to my favorites and “books I will re-read” in the past couple of years due to moving cross-country and cross-world, I turn up a not-so-surprising result. Without double-counting, of the six dozen books I own (that’s 72 for you less mathematically inclined), only 12 are by female authors. If we do count doubles, that only gives me about eight more books on the female side, as I own multiple copies of the first Harry Potter, in different languages (and, it should be noted, many of those translations are done by men).


We are fed, through our acceptable literature study and through marketing, a steady diet of literature by dead white men. And I love literature – I wouldn't have a degree in it if I didn’t – but I was amazed to think back on my literature experience and realize how quickly I gravitated to male literature simply because we had read almost nothing else in school.


I asked, at the end of my last post, what sort of authors you read in school. This question was also posed on facebook, and the responses were enlightening.


With my American friends, the literature read skewed heavily male – male authors writing about male things. The common books were The Great Gatsby, The Crucible, Hamlet, Animal Farm, and Death of a Salesman. Several authors appeared multiple times, though different works were studied – Twain, Shakespeare, Steinbeck, and Hemingway. The only major female author of note was Harper Lee, whose one novel – To Kill a Mockingbird – is considered a work of Great American Literature.


My friend Deb had the most diverse list, with a lot of contemporary female authors right alongside the dead white guys: Things Fall Apart, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Beloved, and The House on Mango Street. But her list was unusual, contrasting lists from both Americans and foreigners that were dominated by male names and male themes.


My own list is similar:


Ninth grade, I remember reading Lord of the Flies, Of Mice and Men, and Romeo and Juliet. All men.


Tenth grade, we read Macbeth, short stories by Ray Bradbury, A Separate Peace. All men. This, luckily, was also the year we read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.


Eleventh grade, we read Huck Finn, The Scarlet Letter, Death of a Salesman, and The Great Gatsby. I recall that we had book projects where we had to select a book from a list and read it, and that was the year I read Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead (terrible book, by the way). Summer reading included In The Lake of Woods by Tim O’Brien and The Color of Water by James McBride.


Twelfth grade, we finally got to Hamlet. We also read North of Hope, Heart of Darkness, The Things They Carried (to this day, this is one of my favorite novels) and lots and lots of poetry, which had a more balanced male-female ratio. Again, we had a list of several books we could choose from – I recall reading 1984 by Orwell.


This is just going by books that I can remember (with the help of my friend Bryan, who went to the same high school and took many of the same classes). Bryan is currently a high school English teacher (or, is at least waiting to be hired as one on a permanent basis), and he offered this observation: Literature, in many ways, especially with female authors, has become a vehicle for learning vocabulary, not for discussing actual issues or themes present in the literature. So even when students encounter an author like Emily Dickinson, what they take away from it is that she wrote in “near-rhyme,” not that she broke down walls in poetry, offered interesting observations on the human experience, and wrote one of the most beautiful poems in the English language (“I’m nobody…”).


This is symptomatic of a much larger problem with education: rather than studying literature for the sake of literature, learning how it expresses human experience, how the reader connects with the author and vice versa, how the author uses words to highlight narratives of human life, we quantify it, test it, and standardize standardize standardize. And the unfortunate thing that happens when we allow such standardization to trickle in to the humanities is that we discuss examples of techniques, rather than how ‘x’ book expresses an experience different from our own. And when you’re looking solely at technique, vocabulary, and style, it’s no surprise that the codified canon of classics would be used in the classroom, and that this canon would be mostly male, as female authors weren’t allowed to publish under their own names until relatively recently.


With the focus on quantification and vocabulary, it makes it far easier to gloss over this idea: A literature focus on human experience that draws from mostly male authors (and a few token females) would show an immense gap in this coverage of life. In other words, with a male focus and a quantification method of assessment, it is less obvious that an entire view of human life is missing.


If men and women are raised on a diet of male authors as the “legitimate” authors to study and are presented with them not as a discussion of human experience but instead as a means to an end, should it surprise us when “male writing” is the preferred form?