Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Why we should resist the urge to classify everything

Recently James Kelman has been letting off steam about the fact that genre fiction outsells literary fiction and is far more likely to be reviewed in the so-called literary supplements of the newspapers. But both he and many of the people commentating on his criticisms seem to have a curiously simple-minded approach to the literary vs. genre debate. Literary is deemed to be automatically more virtuous or ‘good’ because the author is not subject to any external demands or limitations in terms of style or content, and genre is the bad guy because it apparently doesn’t question or subvert the readers’ expectations. But how much ‘literary’ fiction does actually subvert, or at least stretch, those expectations? And how much of it seems to be in thrall to style, at the expense of content or plot? Many writers sneer at so-called ‘plot-driven’ genre. But just what is wrong with plot? Why are books with more character development than plot lauded over genre?

Writers don’t just write genre fiction because they want to sell. They write it because they have something to say that can’t be fit into the expectations of literary fiction. Despite what Kelman et al. say, literary fiction regularly excludes from itself books whose quality of writing, or ‘style’, certainly justifies their inclusion. It does so because it’s uncomfortable with the subject matter. For example, Margaret Atwood says her books are not science fiction, because the latter only addresses what has not yet happened. This arbitrary definition gives the lie to literary fiction being less rigid in its expectations than (other) genre.

Caster Semenya’s plight may read like a science fiction novel, but it’s real.
Until her story hit the news, I assumed that females were created by two X chromosomes being present in the foetus, and males by one X and one Y. But this is not so. It seems that a person’s sex is a complex physical phenomenon which arises from an interaction between chromosomes and hormones. In order for the chromosomes to have the expected effect on the development of the organism, they need to be supported by the relevant hormones, in the right quantities at the right times.

For example, a person with XY chromosomes can only develop as a male if their body is receptive to the androgen hormones. If they have a condition known as androgen insensitivity syndrome, they will develop as a female, despite the presence of a Y chromosome in their bodies. So, while most people’s sexes are straightforward to categorise, a minority exist on a continuum in between the two most common ‘extremes’.

It seems to be impossible to decide ‘objectively’ the point on this continuum at which ‘female’ can be differentiated from ‘male’, without asking the person concerned what sex they feel they are. That is why Caster Semenya is undergoing psychological tests, as well as physiological ones.

This sort of psychological test sounds depressingly similar to those foisted on gay people in the past, but at least it may give Caster some input into the decision that the IAAF are going to make about her sex.

Classification of people (and of writing) is all well and good if it gives us genuine insights into the world. But if classifications make our thinking too rigid and become uncoupled from reality, then we should learn to live without them.

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