Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Exclusion is a choice | Bias in "Best of" lists

Several days ago, Catherine Taylor published an interesting review of Boyd Tonkin's 100 Best Novels in Translation, pointing out and critiquing the fact that in a list spanning the years 1600-2000, Tonkin had included only 14 novels by women writers in translation. Then, a few days later, Sawad Hussain tweeted Tonkin's defense of this imbalance: "One of the hot topics was the eye-watering lack female authors in the '100 Best Novels in #Translation' . Boyd said that we had to take into consideration the centuries of systematic exclusion of women from the institution of publishing, leaving him with not much to choose from.. He said that he would have had to skew the project to the 2nd half of the 20th century in order to get a good amount of female authors in translation to choose from."

Hussain continued by asking: "But my question is, even if, women in translation have been marginalized, doesn't that mean the books that DID [...] make it through, have probably been interrogated to a FAR high degree than any male authored novel at that time, and so, the work is maybe...possibly...more than likely...of a higher calibre and should have been considered? #womenintranslation @translatewomen"

Tonkin's response - and Hussain's dismantling of it - both seem fairly reasonable. Tonkin acknowledges that women writers have long been marginalized and removed from the canon; this in itself seems like progress. But as Hussain points out, it is very easy to poke holes in this argument. Women have long been marginalized, it's true, but their novels have thus had to pass significantly more stringent tests in order to be considered canon-worthy.

Tonkin's second argument - that he would have had to prioritize the second half of the 20th century in order to achieve a more gender-balanced list - also fails to pass muster. Since, as we all know, women did not simply begin writing after 1950 but rather have been writing fascinating, important, and worthy novels since literally the beginning of the novel-writing tradition itself (hello The Tale of Genji),  it seems rather unlikely that Tonkin would really have had to skew the list any more than I imagine it already is. Moreover, Tonkin even displays bias in drawing the definitions of his list - why, indeed, should the novel be judged only from the 17th century, when the first novel (written shockingly enough by a woman... in translation!) was written in the 11th? And given how biased translations are in general in terms of actually rediscovering lost classics, wouldn't he have been better off giving more weight to the brilliant women of the 20th century that he ultimately passed over for no apparent reason?

Here's that blunt truth: Exclusion is a choice. I'm not saying that it's easy to make a list of 100 Best Novels in Translation with 50% women writers and have it fully align with the standard canon, because it isn't. In fact, it's impossible, because the canon is inherently exclusionary. But when crafting a new canon, isn't the whole point to be introducing and promoting new and diverse works? If in creating a new list of titles in translation, you fail to give space to exactly the writers that would be surprising and exciting for a diverse readership, what exactly are you achieving?

Tonkin claims that he couldn't include more women into his list because of existing bias. He's right that bias has long existed and has shaped the canon extensively, but he is absolutely wrong to have let that guide his own choices without more serious criticism or active effort. His response to criticism further demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of why the canon is so problematic, so entrenched, and so ultimately pointless, and why attempts like his to "redraw" it end up so disappointing. As noble as his recognition of the problem is, it's simply not enough. We can do better.

I suppose we'll just have to make our own list.