It doesn’t really explain the paucity of black or other non-white authors, either. I hear there’s a lot of black people in America.
But Charles, we’re talking about the West going back 3,000 years, not just America in the last few centuries.
Yeah, but in fact such lists, while containing a smattering of titles that go back that far, and that get as far out as the outer boundaries of “the West” (which apparently, given the ideological slight-of-hand that goes into defining that peripatetic bit of real estate, get out towards Iraq, except not when there are Muslims there). But in reality they tend to be slanted very heavily towards the last 400 or 500 years of literature (Great Books of the Western World samples heavily from the Hellenes, tosses in a couple of Helenistic writers and a couple of Roman writers for good measure, and then traverses almost 1,000 years of history between Volume 16 and Volume 19 with only four authors covered — Augustine, Aquinas, Dante and Chaucer — so that the next 40 volumes, out of a total of 60, can be spent on covering the most recent 500 years.) Given the typically expansive coverage of modern authors, and given the typical tilt of such lists (when prepared by English-speakers) towards works in English, I think the argument that black American, or other non-white authors, simply got crowded out by all the historical and geographical expanse is correspondingly a lot weaker. If you have 40 very large volumes’ worth of space to devote to the last 500 years, and more than half of that specifically devoted to English-speaking authors, I would be very surprised if a selection based on quality or influence, did not make at least some room for some of the excellent black American authors who have written in that stretch of time and space (or Latin American authors, for that matter, or any number of other Westerners who seem to be typically missing from this kind of list).
In this case, the alleged problem is the left-wing statist criticism that the lists are “mostly” DWEM. … My problem with the criticism (not the list) is that, instead of focusing on the quality of specific works as you are suggesting, the focus is on some sort of equitable proportional representation by race and sex.
Well, maybe; that’s one way of looking at it. But I think a more charitable way of understanding the criticism (and one which happens to line up better with what radical literary critics have usually said, when I’ve encountered them) is not that they’re after some kind of statistical proportion between the authors on the list and the demographics of the general populace, but rather that they have many specific very good authors in mind, who typically don’t show up, and who the critic thinks are being excluded, in spite of the quality of their work, because the compilers of the list are blanking out large demographic groups. (Presumably that’s usually because of ignorance or indifference on the part of the critics, rather than conspiratorial bigotry; they don’t include works that they aren’t aware of or don’t care about. But what the compilers of such lists tend to make themselves aware of, and to care about, is not innocent of American racial or sexual or national politics. It may well be true that Zora Neale Hurston hasn’t had much effect on Mortimer J. Adler’s life; but the question is whether that’s because of her qualities as an author, or because of the kind of life he has led.)
On this reading of the complaint, the idea is not to force some kind of purely demographic proportion, but rather to criticize the ignorance or willing blindness which the disproportions are a symptom of.
Of course, I’m talking about serious literary critics here, not necessarily about (for example) school curriculum committees. I’m sure there are lots of those that threw Chinua Achebe onto the reading list solely in order to avoid complaints from black or white Leftist parents, without the administrators having bothered to give much a damn about how good his books are.