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Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to editor@pnreview.co.uk

This item is taken from PN Review 105, Volume 22 Number 1, September - October 1995.

Editorial
Index on Censorship devotes the bulk of its first 1995 issue to a feature entitled 'Gay's the Word in Moscow', concentrating on censorship, marginalisation and the brittle new liberalism in Eastern Europe and beyond. It's an even-handed account, democratic in the sense that some of the material ts chosen (Judging from the quality of the translations) on the grounds of its subject-matter, and not because of its quality as writing, as achieved witness. It is as though the act of declaration is sufficient, at least at the outset: raise a flag and see who shoots at it, who follows it out of commitment, compassion or mere tolerance.

With the emergence of literatures from recent, or recently articulate, or recently defined, or recently galvanised groups, at what stage - if at all - does the'question of literary appraisal arise? In the United States, one tried strategy is to separate out the emerging literature, creating a separate discipline of 'Gay Studies', proposing alternative theories of valuation and validation. The exercise is increasingly conducted within a separate University department or sub-department of Gender Studies or as a branch of Cultural Studies. In some places a 'critical discourse' has evolved with a prescriptive vocabulary, with decorums in relation to gender presentation and definition, and spedal complexities of critical nuance surrounding issues such as 'outing' and the tragedy of AIDS.

Similar separatist impulses have led to the formation of Hispanic-American Studies, with their own departments, programmes, and evolving orthodoxies. A precursor of this trend is the movement of the 1960s to separate out Black or Afro-American studies, and then Women's Studies. What is initially a corrective impulse becomes an academic verity. The impulse can as readily be literary-political as ethnic- or gender-based: the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets are a recent instance of political-aesthetic criteria insisting on separation and fragmentation, as are the New Formalists, in a very different spirit.

Each emergence is preceded by a struggle, sometimes in the streets, sometimes merely on campus, and that struggle is consolidated into a defined party or interest group. There is intellectual vigour and vision in such beginnings, a sniff of cordite, and the promise of a wider imaginative franchise. The revolution consolidates itself in the notoriously assimilative liberal academic establishment which tolerates not only the contained revolutions but the new limitations and intolerances they propose and sometimes impose on those who flock to them, an ideological paradox peculiar to our culture. Something is gained by the revolutionaries, if not always by their successors for whom issues of resistance and definition are scaled down to enforceable rules of correct conduct, public attitude and expression.

Does there come a point at which groups that properly pull away from what they perceive as a homogenising 'main stream', and create their own necessary space for development, can negotiate an accord with that 'main stream', adjusting its terms, giving it and their congregations the wider freedoms that may be available? Or will writers or critics who have found the revolution enabling be regarded as treacherous if they move away towards the 'main stream'? In an age of insistent academic and critical division, is there indeed a 'main stream' to which the individual can tend, or is the tide out and our literary culture now one of meandering rivulets in a sea-abandoned estuary?

Damage can be done - the damage of ghetoisation - to a writer whose work is narrowly assodated, in readers' minds, with a single interest group. But damage can also be done by the polemics of that group if it seeks to lay claim to, or to disclaim, an errant spirit. I have heard it said by a lecturer in post-Colonial literature that Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy presents an image of India tailored to European and American readers and that Seth's approach falsifies the actualities of his informing culture. Such a view is a way of discounting or diminishing Seth's achievement: it also seems to me untrue, given the complexity of the work and of Seth's own informing culture. I have heard a woman writer described in seminar as a 'male identified female writer', a charge as vague as it is devastating, like calling a Black writer an Uncle Tom or a pre-Stonewall homosexual writer 'non-affirmative' or, conversely, in Christopher Isherwood's provocative (affirmative?) term, a 'propagandist'.

The writing of Adrienne Rich is a positive paradigm of what can occur more widely, of how a period of distance and definition frees an individual to re-engage the 'main stream', question its terms and radicalise certain zones of language and critical discourse. What is found there: notebooks on poetry and politics (Virago, £10.99) is not her best critical book, but it shows how far she has gone, and come back, changed; and how she changes dialogue in ways which - if attended to - adjust the perspectives of those who have little in common with her radicalising experience.

At a certain stage a writer may come to need the 'main stream', or the 'main stream' come to need that writer. At a certain stage the fragmentation of discourse - unless we are to become a literary culture of warring tribes-will have to issue in engaged rather than passive tolerance, in dialogues which do not lead to assimilation or homogenisation but definition, qualification, and the kinds of respect which enlarge critical, political and imaginative freedom. That stage may only be reached by individual writers whose rebellion is not abandoned, whose radicalism is not tempered, but who have completed their task and made of their struggle a second nature, a generous instinct out of which their work, which becomes our literature, grows.

This item is taken from PN Review 105, Volume 22 Number 1, September - October 1995.



Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to editor@pnreview.co.uk
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