a journal of modern society & culture

High Court of Literary Correctness

Russell Jacoby

The following is a riposte to an editorial published in the New York Times by Ruth Franklin which can be read here.

Prosecuting Judge, Ruth Franklin

Opening Statement

This court has had a busy season, and the next few weeks promise to be even busier.

Last week we dealt with the case of the biographer of Philip Roth, and by extension Mr. Roth himself. Several allegations have been made that his biographer, Blake Bailey, maltreated, perhaps raped women. While these are only allegations, this court has confirmed that Mr. Bailey approved of Mr. Roth’s plan to date an actress (Ali McGraw). This is troubling. Why should a novelist date an actress? And why should a biographer approve of such an action? Bailey’s assent already puts into question his objectivity. Moreover, Mr. Roth’s ex-wife has detailed various of his transgressions. With their compromising personal histories, neither Mr. Bailey nor Mr. Roth can be objective when discussing women. This shows in Bailey and Roth’s uncomplimentary description of a woman’s genitalia. Mr. Roth, of course, can describe male genitalia. This court, however, will not accept his negative pronouncements on female genitalia and other topics about which he is not qualified.

The court has ruled that Mr. Bailey’s biography should be withdrawn from public circulation, and that Mr. Roth’s books should only be available to readers who successfully pass a certified sexual sensitivity course. In this decision, the court has been consistent. Last week we considered several books of Theodore Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss). He also wrote in an uncomplimentary mode on subjects about which he was not qualified. (Dr. Seuss, in fact, was

not a doctor.) His 1947 McElligot’s Pool maligned indigenous people, the Inuits, as well as creatures with which we share the earth—fish—by depicting so-called Eskimo-fish. Mr. Geisel neither visited the Intuits nor possessed knowledge of fish they ate. The late writer Oliver Sax, this court could note, was a real doctor who cherished fish—in his case gefilte fish—and would never countenance aquatic insults. We ruled that McElligot’s Pool should no longer be available.

The court has not yet decided on the case of the American Poultry Association v. Mr. Geisel. The Association has charged that Green Eggs and Ham harms poultry-growers and their families and should also be withdrawn. A farmer’s daughter stopped attending school after bullied about her father’s allegedly yukky green eggs. A University of Oklahoma poultry expert testified that green eggs do not exist. A biographer noted Mr. Geisel did not like eggs, which may explain his ridicule of them. A decision will be forthcoming.

It is hardly news to observe that these authors—Mr. Bailey, Roth and Geisel—are white males and do not reflect the demographics of the world, even the United States in which white males are a minority. Studies have shown that 71.7 % of biographies are written by white men and 87% are about white men. This is an obvious injustice. Most people are not white men. Therefore, most books should be written by non-white people about non-white subjects. Ideally authors and their subjects should quantitatively correspond to their presence in the society. Indeed, it is possible to go further. Books are written by people, but most creatures are not people. While humans dominate the globe, numerically they constitute only .08 % of sensate beings. For homo sapiens to 100% monopolize book-writing compounds ecological injustice. Instead of humans, usually men, presuming to write about animals, publishers should support the reverse. In a more equitable world a man such as Jack London would not write a book about a dog (White Fang), but a dog would write a book about a man.

Biography like all writing benefits from a multiplicity of perspectives. While the court does not want to essentialize, backgrounds essentially determine how we see the world. Mr. Roth’s controversial attitudes towards race and women are rooted in his own life growing up in Newark New Jersey. To obtain less disrespectful attitudes publishers should encourage a diversity of perspectives and heed the identity of writers, who could speak positively on subjects they know. An Inuit from Nome Alaska, a Black farmer from Boonville Arkansas or a Jewish woman from Baltimore Maryland would bring to the table less offensive perspectives on fish, eggs or female genitalia.

These are just introductory comments for today’s proceedings, the case of Franz Kafka. Next week we take up Henrik Ibsen, Gustav Flaubert, and Jonathan Swift. The charges against Mr. Kafka parallel other charges this court have recently considered. They can be quickly summarized. Mr. Kafka in his writings presents a negative perspective on human relations that is rooted in his unsuccessful life in Prague, Czechoslovakia. He worked unhappily in an insurance office, regularly visited brothels, and never managed an on-going relationship. His last partner was half his age. His plan to open a caf  came to naught. His doleful writings ill affect readers, especially vulnerable adolescents. His stories testify to a lack of diversity in his approach to life. His biographers are male and cannot be objective. Plaintiffs demand that the writings of Kafka and his biographers should be withdrawn or restricted. The court will take testimony after a fifteen-minute recess.