Literary Privilege - may we all be so lucky

Literary privilege is committing to your favorite authors without regard for anything but your own enjoyment and edification. I am literarily privileged. I chose to study Italian in college because I loved it. I chose to write about Giovanni Boccaccio, one of the 14th-century great men of Italian literature, because I loved his texts and felt drawn to them. I was free to make both of those choices without overthinking the path they put me on. Meanwhile, I have watched from the outside as other literary fields wrestle with representation and inclusivity in their own respective canons. I, having elected to study Boccaccio and medieval literature, could freely choose whether to care about that debate or not. Who was I now to raise my hand and object to Italian literature’s white man problem? No one would hold me responsible for solving it, or even for addressing it. If I so desired, I could have carried on loving Boccaccio and writing exclusively about him, never looking up from the text at the real world in which I was reading it.

Everyone deserves this kind of literary privilege, and I wish I could give it to them. Here, have a series of one hundred tales about love and sex and pranks and the emotional range of the human spirit, and let yourself enjoy it and be challenged by it. This could have been the course description for the first graduate seminar I taught at Harvard, on Boccaccio’s Decameron. Perhaps not surprisingly, the permission we gave ourselves to read and enjoy the texts also gave us the freedom to discuss the parts of them that made us uncomfortable or that clashed with the vision of Giovanni Boccaccio that we wanted to have. These discussions then pushed us to read with intent and curiosity, to see if we could answer the tough questions that kept arising. We liked him and felt kinship with his narrator and his characters, and we wanted to read his frequent allusions to the agency and autonomy of his avowed female reading audience as inspiring early feminism. But was that a legitimate thing to do? The space to explore these questions without the weight of the world on our shoulders comes from literary privilege.

I wanted to believe that my literary privilege could take me where I needed to go in the world. I lived an examined life, enriched by the books I read and the questions they made me ask. My doctoral dissertation, for all its focus on a big monolithic white author, had steered itself onto a more inquisitive path: why have readers and critics overlooked so much of what Boccaccio wrote in his life? Why is the rest of his output always and only compared to the Decameron? I didn’t fully realize the implications of this question until I was actually preparing my research to be taught in a classroom and discussed with college students, and generally justified as a worthwhile pursuit. What I was really asking was this: why do some books become famous and remain that way while other books that are just as good get overlooked? Part of the answer at least lies in the privilege of the literary, scholarly class, which in Italy was for many centuries comprised of men, generally of European descent, who had access to intellectual resources that others did not. We are free to love Boccaccio and Dante and Petrarch when we do not have to fear being erased by them, and not all of us are in that position.

I am well aware that Italian whiteness is a concept that many would fight me on, and I am not going to litigate it here, although I do plan to write more about the parameters of the debate in future posts. White supremacy in America is culturally specific to some extent; Italy’s constitution does not, for instance, specifically contain language within it that slices and dices the personhood of broad swathes of its population. Italianness, however, another idea I have written about and continue to write about, has also been wielded as a political weapon against immigrants and against children of immigrants born on Italian soil. Italianness, even if we do not consent to call it whiteness, is about bloodlines, and the cultural products it proudly showcases – its art, literature, and cuisine – have been drafted into a scheme to protect those bloodlines from the intrusion of others. Objecting to the characterization of Dante and Boccaccio as white men on the grounds that Italianness does not equal whiteness is, I think, deliberately missing the point. 

I think there is still hope for us all to attain literary privilege someday. If that is to happen, however – if the world is to be a place where everyone would enjoy hearing me expound on the complexities of Boccaccio’s literary philosophy, just for the intellectual stimulation alone – then the perpetuation of Boccaccio’s fame and that of his white male compatriots cannot continue to align with the erasure of difference. Part of why white supremacy is so hard to address is because it survives on the fear that if we, the privileged class, give more (of anything: healthcare, representation, literary recognition) to people of color, there will be less for white people. In the case of literature, that’s bullshit. I hesitated to object to Italian literature’s white male problem for so long in part because I had bought a stake in one of its biggest white male pillars in selecting my field of research. He was part of my identity, and as I have said, I loved him. I didn’t want to give him up. And, of course, I didn’t have to. In the 2017-2018 academic year, I taught three courses: a seminar on Boccaccio and Petrarch, a course on humor in literature across time, and a course on the literature of migration. Focusing on contemporary literature and prioritizing women writers and authors of color, as well as alternative narratives of Italianness did not make me any less of a medieval scholar; I think it actually made me a better one.

These are preliminary reflections on something I have only begun to explore and research, and one of the things I want to do on this site is take my time, brood a little, sit in discomfort, and write about that process.