Natalie Solent

Politics, news, libertarianism, Science Fiction, religion, sewing. You got a problem, bud? I like sewing.

E-mail: nataliesolent-at-aol-dot-com (I assume it's OK to quote senders by name.)

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Wednesday, May 25, 2005
The meaning of a work of literature is intrinsic. JEM writes:
I'm not sure that a discourse on biblical scholarship is relevant to meaningful consideration of the Rahila Khan/Toby Forward/Virago saga.

If Mr Forward was not a vicar but a social worker or dustman, would this discussion ever have strayed into matters eisegesic, exegesic or even hermeneutic?

If the author of the Merchant of Venice had been a Italian Jew rather than an English Protestant or indeed entirely unknown, would it really have changed the intrinsic meaning and value of the work? I think not.

What do we really know about Homer? At the end of the day does it matter? Such works as the Odyssey would remain a great work no matter what we do or do not know about its author.

I was first confronted with a discussion in this general catagory when I came to study Hamlet in school at about thirteen or so, and was expected to write an essay setting out what Hamlet's thinking was as he uttered his famous soliloquy. My objection that the question was meaningless because Hamlet was a figment of Shakespeare's imagination and so by definition could not be thinking anything was not popular in the English department at my school.

This confrontation merely confirmed my determination to concentrate on a scientific career where as a general rule, if something walks like a duck, quacks like a duck and looks like a duck, then absent contradictory evidence it is a duck.

Therefore I disagree fundamentally with Harry Powell. The Rev. Forward did not change meaning by misinterpreting himself to Virago. The meaning of this work, or any other, is intrinsic to the work itself. Full stop. Everything else is highfalutin' hot air.

By pulping his book, Virago is as guilty of an act of 'racial' censorship as the Nazis ever were. But that should be no surprise. Political correctness, called Gleichanschaltung back then, was a Nazi invention after all.

And what's more Virago have exhibited a lamentable lack of self-deprecating humour. Which is no surprise either.

As with Mr Powell's comments, I partly agree and partly disagree with this. I am nearly always interested in learning more about an author even though I firmly believe that it is the glory of fiction that one can (albeit imperfectly) use it to walk a mile in another's shoes, and that a work of fiction should be judged in its own right.

What I think happened with Down the Road, Worlds Away was that Virago
bought and published the book 50% because it was good (they would have been ashamed to have poor material published under their imprint), 25% because the author appeared to be an authentic voice of the Muslim community saying things that Virago hoped the Muslim community would say, and 25% because it demonstrates their non-racism to have some minority names on the list of authors. If asked, Virago would have liked the public to believe that they were publishing it 60% because it was good, 40% because it portrayed life among the marginalised Muslim community and 0% because the author had a Muslim name. (Of course my ludicrously exact numbers are just tools for getting an idea across, but you know what I mean.)

For their part the members of the public who bought the book would, I think, have claimed to have bought it with their motives split 60/40/0 but, again, would actually have bought it 50/25/25. This unspoken conspiracy between publishers and readers was wide open to be exploited by Forward. Yes, he did misrepresent himself - I do not know whether explicitly or implicitly - but few condemn George Eliot for pretending to be a man in order to get published in the conditions of her day, so few should condemn Forward for doing what it takes to get published in ours.

Most observers agree that his stories were good. (In Virago's case, they had better!) The interesting question is, were they an authentic portrait of the British Muslim community of the Midlands? Forward thinks yes. Dalrymple thinks yes. I would be interested to know what Midlands Muslims think, althought there is the perennial difficulty that intellectuals who comment on such things are highly unusual people in any community. The question is complicated by the fact that Rahila Khan's portrait of the Muslims living in the Midlands included the implication that this community had produced her. It had not. Has it produced anyone like her?