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The TLS and the egregious she

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Wednesday, Dec 6, 2006

I’ve had an on-again, off-again relationship with the Times Literary Supplement for several years now. I first encountered it when I was roped into housesitting for one of my English professors, and it seemed like the kind of publication you’d subscribe to if you were going to take the belletristic life seriously (not recommended). This cycle then ensued and has since repeated itself several times: At first I find the range of books covered interesting, and I think how well-rounded it’s making me to be reading reviews of biographies of 17th century naval geniuses and overviews of minor authors like Ronald Firbank and round-ups of the latest work in analytic philosophy or what’s new on the rare-manuscript auction scene or what have you. And the stuffy, priggish tone of the magazine is amusing at first—it can found in its most concentrated form in the NB column in the center pages, where the editors mock recent publishing trends, hold court on punctillos of usage, and report haughtily on trivial yet erudite diversions—cataloging translations of an “untranslatable” Beckett poem, for instance. I always get laughs reading this, but sometimes they are nervous sniggers of relief that I can still recognize a distance between my own attitude and the proud pedantry on display there.


But reading it week after week (it starts to feel like a Sisyphean task to keep up with each issue) starts to weigh on me, and I start to wonder why I ever renewed my subscription. Usually it starts when I notice one too many A.S. Byatt appreciations, or I get exasperated by a series of reviews of textbooks and anthologies and books about botany. but what clinches it is my noticing a piece of tut-tutting on the letters page from some academic whose peacock feathers have been ruffled by a reviewer and who now feels the need to do some score-settling.


Sir, – Since Lucy Beckett admits to having found my book Being Reasonable About Religion confusing, perhaps I may correct a couple of inaccuracies in her review of it (November 10). First she complains of “one page of unexplained symbolic logic”. In fact, the four short logical formulae I give on page 147 are all explained quite straightforwardly. Second, she twice charges me with “relativism”. The Vatican is always thundering against relativism, but it refrains from identifying anyone guilty of it, and Lucy Beckett, whose loyalty to Rome is shown by her recommending a recent papal encyclical to my readers, apparently imagines she has detected a culprit.


Sometimes the correspondent, with simmering outrage at the affront to his honor and dignity, usually offers a terse defense (Sir,—I am grateful to Frederic Raphael for correcting my quotation from the Martin Scorsese film, The Departed, in my review of October 20. With first-run movies, one can’t always cite exactly, unless privy to the screenplay—and this would compromise the viewing experience in innumerable ways”) or a condemnation of some misstep, which is only fair because a surprising number of reviews turn on a paragraph that comes near the end, after the obligatory lengthy summary, where the reviewer takes the author to task for some petty oversight in research (”... would have been surprised to see his name spelled Lee rather than Leigh…”, etc.) or for typos and things like that. It always seems utterly beside the point to point these things out, but then the TLS probably considers itself the journal of record for these kinds of mistakes, a home for this kind of academic umpiring, the place where the errata can be noted and scored. It depresses me that extremely smart people spend their formidable mental powers worrying about this stuff, about whether Wordworth was two years older than Coleridge or vice versa, whether they were falsely accused of reversing the numbers on an address where someone was supposed to live, or some such unimportant fact. I begin to feel myself swinging over to the other side of the reactionary pendulum and see why liberal arts academics are regarded as impractical ivory-tower cuckoos, and maybe if they were disciplined by market forces they would be investing some of that considerable human capital elsewhere.


But this time what has me irked is this snotty piece of sexist complacency and entitlement from the editors in the NB section:


When we get round to updating the TLS Reviewer’s Handbook we intend to confront the issue of the non-gender-specific personal pronoun. What to do in a sentence like “As the reader turns the page, he finds that…”? Use “he” or “she”? Use “they”? Or the egregious “she”? The last is the choice of the lily-livered male and the sexist female. Whereas a non-gender-specific “he” in this context means “the human race in general”, sanctioned by centuries of use, the common reader naturally takes “she” to refer only to females.


You see, women are exceptions to the general rule that only men are worth considering and would be reading and participating in public life in general. Using she to refer to a random person is “egregious” not only because tradition (“Centuries of use” also “sanctioned” the horse and buggy and the slave trade—perhaps we should never have tried to alter those practices) and nature (it’s perfectly natural to be jarred by an egregious she in our book-review reading—who let her out of the kitchen?) tell us it is odd, but because it would be so unlikely that a woman would be doing something worthy of public notice. Maleness is the default status of the “human worth mentioning”. Women’s experience is always exceptional, peculiar, other—not quite human in the abstract. And if you are a man who undermines this fundamental natural fact of the invisible omnipresence of the masculine, you are a “lily-livered” pansy, possibly an egregious she in disguise. I am glad the TLS has taken the time to straighten this out.


Are pronouns the most pressing front in the feminist struggle? No. But when you bear down to the minutiae the TLS likes to preoccupy itself with, you can see how sexism roots itself in small things and attempts to branch out from there and spread as a flourishing of simple common sense. This argument makes plain the petty concerns of antifeminists, who are willing to write out of everyday public life an entire gender for all of history just to prevent their having the odd stumbling moment of confusion in their idle reading.

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