The Political Factors of the Critical Reception and Endorsement of Minority Authors
In short, the success of Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) authors has so far rested on three pillars: the authors’ choice of “fashionable themes,” publicity that exploits preconceived ideas about minorities, using genre and aesthetic features associated with BAME fiction. Finally, there also is the fourth, political factor: critical endorsement is contingent on politically-correct attitudes that privilege Western liberal and literary traditions.
A Blog Article by Izabella Penier.
With regard to West-centric cultural, social and political expectation, BAME writers have adopted different political positions that enhanced or diminished the authors’ profiles and critical reception. Rebecca L. Walkowitz divides BAME fiction into three categories depending on the authors’ stance vis-à-vis the political and/or literary establishment. In her opinion, there are
- novels of minority culture (e.g., Hanif Kureishi) that ask uncomfortable questions about the sort of society the British want to live in;
- critically acclaimed novels of multiculturalism (e.g., Salman Rushdie, V. S. Naipaul, Zadie Smith, Monica Ali) – “[t]hey address the mix and clash of cultures,” argues Ledent (2016, p. 250) but are characterised by optimism about the vistas of multiculturalism;
- novels of transnational comparison (e.g., Caryl Phillips) describing the alienation of BAME characters (their sense of separateness and the prejudice they experience) instead of unproblematically endorsing multiculturalism.
According to Walkowitz, the only authors who have been unreservedly embraced by the literary establishment (and achieved popular success) were the authors belonging to the second category. They represent a conciliatory standpoint on the legacy of the British imperialism and are highly appreciative of the achievements of multiculturalism. Rastogi, speaking about the female authors classified by Walkowitz to the second category, claims that they focus on the topic identity rather than racism or economic exploitation, they “deploy humour and satire as a tool for social commentary” (Rastogi, 2016, p. 84). Like Smith’s White Teeth, they “articulate experiences of ethnic community across a swathe of time” and focus on “tensions between immigrant parents and their British children” (Rastogi, 2016, p. 86). Ledent (2016, p. 242) aptly points out that White Teeth “portrays an idealised image of what liberal minds wanted contemporary London to look like.”
As Rastogi rightly observes, the political agenda of such novels is in stark contrast to the first generation of BAME female authors (e.g., Beryl Gilroy, Buchi Emecheta, or Joanne Riley), who denounced patriarchal and racist conditions that impinged on the lives of immigrant women of colour. Drawing on David Ellis, Rastogi argues that, for example, “Riley’s novels did not receive enough critical recognition, as they [did] not contain … redemptive potential … where the success of the central characters [could] be read as a signifier for the progressive liberalisation of the society’” (2016, p. 82). These novels, in my opinion, can be described as immigrant social protest fiction. They fit neatly, I think, into the first category as described by Walkowitz.
It is worth noticing that both Smith and Ali are alumni of Ivy League universities, like the agents, editors and critics who appraise their works. As Irenosen Okojie (2014) has provocatively argued, their Oxbridge education granted these BAME authors an insider status. Their careers followed similar trajectories as those of their great male predecessors, Rushdie and Naipaul, who also had strong educational links to the British establishment. Knighted by the Queen, “[t]hey have fully embraced the culture of literary celebrity and have participated actively in the construction of myth that has developed around them: either as the colonial outcast who made it to the centre or as the threatened intellectual protected by the West” (Ledent, 2016, p. 242). All of them, Rushdie, Naipaul, Smith and Ali, managed to ingratiate themselves with the publishers and critics through emphasising their appreciation of the western culture and adoption of high-brow (post)modernist aesthetics. Their careers prove that class, education and the authors self-chosen position near the centre of the literary establishment regulate which writers are published and canonised.
For the writers at the other end of the spectrum: Phillips, D’Aguilar or Jackie Kay canonisation “was less smooth,” as Ledent upholds (2016, p. 248). These writers have working-class roots and militant, nonconformist perspectives. Their “trajectories did not take them from the margins to the centre, but rather they have frequently and voluntarily gravitated towards the sidelines,” emphasises Ledent (2016, p. 248).
BAME fiction is moulded, mediated and exploited by the exigencies of literary production. The novels’ critical reception and commercial success (or lack of thereof) yield essential insights about diversity of the literary canon. They also shed light on the publishing industry and the literary establishment which are made of editors and critics who are culturally illiterate and need to develop “cultural vocabularies” to deal properly with minority texts (Osborne, 2016, p. 14).
Written by Izabella Penier
Edited by Pablo Markin
Ledent, Benedicte, 2016. ‘Other’ voices and the British literary canon. Osborne, Deirdre (ed.) Cambridge companion to British black and Asian literature (1945-2010). Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, pp. 241-255.
Okojie, Irenosen, 2014. Black British Writers: We’re More than just Zadie Smith and Monica Ali. The Guardian < https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/mar/23/black-british-writers-more-than-zadie-smith-monica-ali > [Accessed 08.03.2019].
Osborne, Deirdre (ed.), 2016. Cambridge companion to British black and Asian literature (1945-2010). Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.
Rastogi Pallavi, 2016. Women’s fiction and literary (self-)determination. In Osborne, Deirdre (ed.) Cambridge companion to British black and Asian literature (1945-2010). Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, pp. 77-94.
Walkowitz Rebecca L., 2009. The post-consensus novel: minority culture, multiculturalism, and transnational comparison. In Rober L. Caserio (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to the Twentieth-Century English Novel. Cambridge University Press, pp. 222-37.