In reading a novel, any novel, we have to know perfectly well that the whole thing is nonsense, and then, while reading, believe every word of it. Finally, when we’re done with it, we may find – if it’s a good novel – that we’re a bit different from what we were before we read it, that we have been changed a little (1969, p. 3-4).
This is something I’ve become really interested in, how literary texts shape readers’ perceptions – despite or even because of being fictional. With linguistic representation my main interest I wonder: ‘Can fiction help to promote inclusive language use?’
Thanks to activists, linguists and researchers there has been amazing progress over the past forty years. Formal language, in particular, is decidedly less androcentric today. However, everyday language use can lag behind – and male terms, such as ‘guys’ (‘Hey guys’) and ‘man’ (‘man-made’, ‘craftsman’ among many others) still predominate in speech.
So, how can literary texts help with this?
As Le Guin says, not only do we ‘believe every word of it’, we are altered by the process of reading. Therefore, fiction might be a useful tool to promote change. Narrative theorists and researchers explore this premise. Wolfgang Iser, for example, argues that communication is a central role of fiction. As he states, ‘fiction is a means of telling us something about reality’ (1978, p. 53).
However, this is not a one-way interaction. According to Iser, the reader ‘participates in producing the meaning’ (1978, p. 74). That is, readers build the story world with the narrative rather than simply receiving it. And they do so with reference to their own knowledge, beliefs and social contexts. This dialogue, Iser suggests, ‘enable[s] us to see that familiar reality with new eyes’ (1978, p. 181).
And moreover, it can help to shift pre-existing opinions and convictions. As Iser argues, ‘our past still remains our experience, but … in the course of reading, these experiences will also change, for the acquisition of experience is not a matter of adding on – it is a restructuring of what we already possess’ (1978, p. 132). Consequently, encountering a literary texts can have a profound impact on readers.
Building on this understanding, I'm proposing that literary texts which engage with the issue of linguistic representation can help to promote inclusive language use. By allowing readers to experience the issues with dominant practices and/or the possibilities of more inclusive alternatives, I believe fiction can sensitise readers and thereby lead to wider linguistic change.
Come and help me try this out! Just get one of the books below or any other that engages with the issue, read it together with your friends, family, work colleagues… and explore:
- The language used in the novel (especially the nouns and pronouns)
- What kind of characters you imagine and why this might be the case
- How the language used in the novel compares to everyday language
And then post what you thought, discussed, learned! Also, please post any recommendations you have for other novels which engage with linguistic representation!
Ancillary Justice (Ann Leckie)
The Cook and the Carpenter (June Arnold)
The Daughters of Egalia (Gerd Brantenberg)
The Kin of Ata Are Waiting For You (Dorothy Bryant)
The Left Hand of Darkness (Ursula K. Le Guin)
Woman on the Edge of Time (Marge Piercy)
Happy reading :)
Iser, Wolfgang (1978). The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Le Guin, Ursula K. (1969). The Left Hand of Darkness. Reprint, New York: Ace Books, 1976