Literary crimes

Paul Greenberg excoriates a literary crime:

Theodore Dalrymple, M.D., devotes his article in the current issue to a literary scandal that wasn’t one. It seems that in the 1980s a feminist publishing house, Virago Press, put out a book (“Down the Road, Worlds Away”) by one Rahila Khan. In a series of short stories, she told about the lives of Muslim girls and white working-class boys who are thrown together in a certain kind of hardscrabble English neighborhood. It sounds like a finely written, sensitive book.

So? Well, it turns out that Rahila Khan was the pen name of the Reverend Toby Forward, a Church of England vicar who was reared in just such unlovely surroundings in the cities of the English Midlands, and so knew what he was writing about.

The professional feminists were not pleased. And when Virago Press found out the author’s identity, its literary judgment of his/her work (“hard-eyed realism and poignant simplicity”) no longer mattered. He was the wrong sex. Virago Press destroyed all copies of the book it had on hand (thus making the remaining ones quite valuable), and demanded that he return his advance and pay the printing costs.

I’m glad to say that the Reverend Forward has done nothing of the kind. Indeed, his story would make any sensible observer ask just whose conduct is scandalous here.

Why didn’t the vicar submit the stories under his own name? Well, he’d already had some experience along those lines. When the Rev. Toby Forward sent the stories about working-class boys to the BBC, he got a less than polite brush-off. When he submitted the stories about the girls as the work of Rahila Khan, the response was warm and encouraging. Lesson learned.

This is the sort of thing I mean when I refer generally to feminists being stalinists, as opposed to the literal Stalinism of Betty Friedan, a youthful supporter of the Soviet dictator before turning her attention to writing fiction about the mythical Patriarchy.

For all that they are publishers, organizations like the Virago Press are anti-literary. To successfully create a convincing character that is not autobiographical is one of the heights of literary achievement; we honor Dostoevsky for giving us a glimpse into the mind and morality of a murderer, we do not disdain him for failing to have had the good taste to kill someone in order to lend credibility to his right to write on the subject.

The identity police of literature, like all totalitarians, wish to control human thought and behavior. It is this, more than their execrable and reliably unreadable prose, that makes them so loathesome.