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THE OPENING – BOOKS, POETS, & WRITERS podcast
If you enjoy listening to talk about books, ideas, and poetry, and to voice recordings of some great literature – then this is the podcast for you.
Photo by Luca Micheli on Unsplash
It’s an audio series with an edge – featuring great books, poems, words, and voice recordings. The podcast also offers news and updates on Dennis’s various projects and activities.
What Is the Podcast About?
Dennis’s podcast talks about classic works within the Western literary canon. It focuses on particular books, poems, or book passages, discussing some of the basic information about the writers, key themes, and ideas. It presents some analysis and discussion, but features voiceover narrations at the front and end of the podcast. The podcast will also give news and brief updates on Dennis’s creative and work projects or the worlds of writing and voiceover as they relate to literature, the arts, and culture.
Why this Podcast?
Dennis wanted to create a podcast that could combine his two main interests – literature (poetry, fiction, and the world of writing) and voice acting and reading stories out aloud.
A Podcast for Our Strange Times
A key motivation behind this podcast was Dennis’s sense of literature in the West being under assault by a strange form of philistinism which seems to reduce all art forms and social phenomena into kinds of power relations.
What’s being referred to here is identity politics, of course. Identity politics refers to the intense politicisation of people’s demographic categories. Lurking at the root of it is the notion that group identity – a person’s race, gender, or sexual orientation – constitutes the most important, essential aspect of their being. According to this narrow way of looking at the world, a person’s individual complexity is much less important than their membership within a group identity. A person’s particular race, gender, or sexual orientation is the determining aspect of their entire existence, and it dictates their political beliefs, social attitudes, and essential characteristics.
Crucially, it predetermines where they belong on the ‘intersectional’ hierarchy – the interconnected social categorisations which dictate the extent to which they are deemed to be victimised by society.
Politicised Literature & the Arts
What does all of this, you might say, have to do with literature and the arts? It’s a good question. The unfortunate fact is that these spheres – usually associated with aspiration, the imagination, and liberation – have been almost completely taken over by identity politics. Terms such as ‘decolonising literature’ or ‘decolonising the canon’ have become as commonplace nowadays as ‘decolonising the curriculum’ has in the educational institutions. The idea that Western literature and the arts need to be ‘decolonised’ is taken for granted not merely in university English departments but also in the worlds of publishing and the arts.
On the face of it, the notion of ‘decolonising literature’ would seem to be a laudable, morally worthwhile ambition. Who doesn’t want to see an end to prejudice and injustice? Who doesn’t want to see equality spread throughout the world? The idea has an immediate appeal.
Writing + Voice Over + Power
But we need to question this all-too-ready and all-too-easy linking of ‘decolonising’ with literature. When we think carefully about the actual meaning of these two terms, it becomes quite obvious that they belong to two very different categories or realms of activity. Yet most contemporary academic and educational institutions, as well as government departments and businesses, take it for granted that the two terms go together.
As the education researcher Alka Sehgal Cuthbert puts it in a recent discussion (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DtleS7Nprc0&t=1431s), the key assumption here is that the power relations of decolonisation have an “isomorphic relationship” to relations found in literature, education, and other forms involving the transmission of ideas. Literature and the arts are assumed to operate in exactly the same way and reflect exactly the same relationships as political and economic power. According to this way of seeing things, literature and the arts cannot help but be tools of oppression.
Writers “Staying in Their Lanes”
This assumption results in the situation we have now in the publishing industry and in Western literature: an atmosphere in which writers and artists are exhorted to “stay in their lanes,” that is to write only about experiences directly related to their own demographic. The novelist Joyce Carol Oates complains about the difficulty of writing honestly about the issue of race in America now since writers have to soften or censor their language in order not to offend the Twitter mobs who police writing for any language which flouts politically correct dogma.
Male writers are commanded to “confront toxic masculinity” almost as if it’s a condition of their right to get published. Writers who happen to be white, meanwhile, are peremptorily warned that they “should be afraid to write diverse characters.” We’re living in a literary, artistic, and media landscape in which we are constantly exhorted to remember the importance of “representation” of different forms of intersectional identities, yet are also required to accept representations of masculinity that are often crudely diminished and emasculated.
The Rise of the Sensitivity Readers
Over recent years, we’ve seen the rise of so-called sensitivity readers. These are readers, usually belonging to an ‘intersectional or minority identity, who are specifically hired by publishers to give feedback on how books can more correctly represent ‘intersectional’ characters. Advocates for these sensitivity readers speak of the “expertise” they have from their “lived experience.” The term “lived experience” is one of those terms that the ideologues of identity politics culture have borrowed from a realm that has little to do with the arts and applied willy-nilly to media and literature as if it’s an empirical fact. The term originally dates back to 19th century philosophy and was used in a very precise way to distinguish the human sciences from natural sciences (Blackwell Dictionary of Western Philosophy, 2004, p. 391).
The Revenge of the Sensitivity Readers
Not surprisingly, a number of cases have recently emerged which clearly show the crudely censorious and revisionist nature of these new tendencies in literature. Penguin announced that “sensitivity experts” had removed or rewritten certain sections and words used in Roald Dahl’s children’s novels in order to avoid possible offence to modern readers. Gender neutral terms had been adopted throughout the books. The James Bond novels of Ian Fleming and Agatha Christie’s detective classics have met a similar fate.
The Harsh and Judgemental Axe
There are of course many defenders of this Orwellian practice of revising the literature of the past and of “decolonising” literature. But there’s no doubt that many writers are now self-censoring and meekly striving to avoid the presence of what may be deemed to be microaggressions in their work.
It’s really hard for writers to predict where the harsh and judgemental axe of identity politics may fall. In 2018, a poet named Anders Carlson-Wee had his poem “How-To” published in The Nation. But he was quickly forced to issue a public apology after being charged with the crime of “ableism” for writing about someone described in the poem as a “crippled” person and for also having the temerity to write in black American vernacular. Carlson-Wee is white, and so his actions were “problematic.” He had forgotten to “stay in his lane.” The online page on which the poem appears now carries The Nation’s apology for the “pain [they] have caused to the many communities affected by this poem.”
The charge of “Ableist language” is of course absurd. Carlson-Wee’s poem is a work of literature, not a sociological report. Yet we are now living in times in which writers and artists are expected to carefully curate their work to ensure that it doesn’t offend any of the diverse “communities”.
The Arts Are Not Commodities
And this underlines the central flaw in the simplistic thinking of identity politics arts: literature and the arts in general are not commodities like raw materials. They are not simple mirrors held up to reflect social reality. As Alka Sehgal Cuthbert puts it, they’re “constructed out of human intellectual and imaginative efforts.” They synthesise our culture’s insights, unconscious desires, and generalisable ideas. The “truth” they convey is not some journalistic or statistical truth. Neither is it a truth that’s obliged to bend its knee to ideological pressures to present edifying stories that make all communities feel comfortable and “represented.”
Dennis has always been deeply suspicious of all the talk about “representation” and “being seen” that’s become so fashionable nowadays in the media and in the arts. It seems to him as if people are expecting from literature and the arts what they expect from politics or a company boardroom – the advocacy for their personal interests by an agent acting on their behalf.
It seems empty and meaningless to Dennis. As a child, when he first started reading, his imagination wasn’t ignited by a desire to “see himself” reflected in the books he was reading. It was ignited by his discovery of language and its capacity to expand his imagination and his range of sympathies, taking him far beyond the familiar and evoking worlds of stories and difference.
Reigniting the Wonder
And that’s really what Dennis’s podcast is all about. It’s his attempt to re-ignite the wonder of language and imagination contained in great books and great poetry. He believes that all of us have had a similar primal experience of the magic of words and language. A time when we discovered language’s power to combine various aspects of the world in new and surprising ways. A time when we first discovered the power of stories and poetry to join our interior world with outer worlds. This is what literature at its best can do for us – it connects us with the many and vast realities outside of us.
That’s what’s lost if not also being actively destroyed in reductive, philistine notions of so-called “decolonising literature”. It’s a nonsense. This ideology of so-called anti-racism and anti-oppression only results in reducing literature and human possibility, winding up re-racialising our world. It fixes people into essentialised group identities. It tells black people, for example, that Shakespeare and Dante are not for them because these figures are not black, they’re white. This new, supposedly tolerant ideology currently corrupting our culture doesn’t liberate, it imprisons; it doesn’t create a more cohesive and tolerant society, it sows deeper and more intractable divisions based on essentialized identities and resentment.
Elemental Ways of Knowing
For Dennis, poetry and literature have always represented openings, primal ways of connecting with realities that lay outside of ourselves. His podcast is about using great books and poetry and his voice – the human voice – to recapture these elemental ways of connecting.
A BRITISH MALE VOICE BASED IN CANADA, BUT ACCESSIBLE TO THE WORLD!
The dennislmlewis blog
Be inspired, engaged, entertained, and informed as you read this blog with tips and advice about writing, content marketing trends, and voiceover, curated lists of content creation tools and resources, occasional profiles on inspirational figures, and updates on Dennis’s professional and personal development as a content writer and voiceover.