Fiction The Khajiit Murders

The Khajiit Murders – Chapter 19

The Queen’s Speech

Deirdre paced back and forth atop the steps to Dragonsreach. Where was Brelyna? Many minutes had passed since she had sent her friend and adviser inside to find Jarl Hrongar. They could hardly begin this speech without him receiving the queen.

Pic of the steps to Dragonsreach
The steps to Dragonsreach

The crowd massing on the steps below her was growing impatient as well. The people had come out to greet the queen’s procession as it entered the city, then followed it through the Plains and Wind districts, swelling in numbers all the while. Judging by their shouts and cheers for both Deirdre and Lydia, they were ready to hear how the Breton necromancer had been caught. But now those cheers were turning into grumbles. Deirdre also noticed the smaller numbers of people on the edges of the crowd with impassive, even hostile looks — some of those who’d made sport of the Khajiits in their prison camp, no doubt. She had no chance of winning that group over, she knew; but the speech needed to begin before the naysayers could influence those still open to her message.

Everything was set for the speech: the three jarls arrayed behind her; Svari and Garrold standing nearby, ready to give witness to the Breton’s confession, if needed; Kharjo, the one whose testimony had put them on the right track, and who had physically apprehended the culprit; Ralof, standing next to Kharjo, Ri’saad, and J’zargo in a demonstration of goodwill between their two peoples; the bodies of the two Khajiits who had been the Breton’s first victims; and the head of the Breton himself, thrust on a pike, leering over the crowd. That last was the sort of thing Nords loved, and Deirdre was willing to give it to them if it made them more receptive to her message.

Now they awaited only Jarl Hrongar to greet them, as protocol demanded. That, and Elisif, whose whereabouts were a mystery. They had planned to meet her here and present a united front to Hrongar.

Deirdre stopped her pacing only when Lydia placed a hand on her shoulder. “Should I go in and see what’s taking so long?”

“No, I’m sure Brelyna will be back soon, one way or the other.”

“Maybe I should just introduce you and get this thing going,” Ulfric said.

Deirdre pondered the notion. As much as she valued the symbolism of Hrongar bending the knee to her in front of his people, she couldn’t risk losing the crowd. Too many of her future plans were riding on the success of the appeal she was about to make. If it went over as well as the speech in Windhelm, then she was well on her way to uniting all of Skyrim behind her vision of what the realm could be.

Just then the doors of Dragonsreach opened and Brelyna stepped out, smiling broadly as she approached. What could she be so happy about? It certainly wasn’t her success with Hrongar — the doors clanged shut behind her with no sign of the jarl. Of course there was the proposal J’zargo had made to Brelyna that morning, and Deirdre was happy for both of them. She’d even promised them their own house in Solitude. But surely Brelyna knew how serious this speech was; she wasn’t the sort to walk about with her head in the clouds when so much was at stake.

“You were in there longer than I expected.” Still Brelyna just smiled. “And?”

“The jarl just has a sense of the dramatic.”

That seemed an odd description for Hrongar, as straight-forward a Nord as there ever was. But Brelyna didn’t explain further, walking over to stand next to J’zargo and looking expectantly toward the doors.

Now they opened again and Elisif emerged, Falk Firebeard at her side and the rest of her entourage following. Good! Maybe Elisif would explain what was going on. At least the crowd was quieter now, seeing this activity on the landing above them.

Elisif approached and knelt. “Greetings, my Queen,” she said in a voice that carried across the crowd. She rose. “And congratulations on capturing this murderer. Haafingar Hold is in your debt, as is all of Skyrim.”

“I accept your thanks, Jarl Elisif,” she replied. Then, in a lower voice: “Where’s Hrongar?”

Elisif just smiled as enigmatically as Brelyna had, then went with Falk to stand near the other jarls, though as far away from Ulfric as space allowed.

What was going on? Deirdre could not understand it.

The doors opened again and out stepped two of the jarl’s personal guards. And behind them came not Hrongar but his brother, Balgruuf, now wearing the jarl’s circlet.

Deirdre gasped, and looked over at Brelyna. “You could have told me.”

“What, and ruin the surprise? Balgruuf would have my head.”

There was no time for explanations, as Balgruuf had now arrived at the edge of the steps, to thunderous applause from the people. He knelt before her. “Greetings, my Queen, our hold is in your debt.”

Pic of Jarl Balgruuf

He rose and Deirdre didn’t know what to say, she was filled with so many questions.

“I’ll explain later. But first we have speeches to give, eh?”

He turned to the crowd and raised his hands for silence. “People of Whiterun! We are gathered here to learn how our high queen captured the true culprit in these terrible murders, and also about her plans for our great realm. But first, a little about the events of this morning. As you may know, my brother lost the support of every part of Whiterun Hold.”

The crowd responded with resounding boos and cries of “down with Hrongar!”

“This morning, he agreed to give up the throne peacefully. For the time being, I will resume duties as jarl, until a new regent can be named.” Here he looked over in Deirdre and Lydia’s direction with a knowing smile.

“My first order was to release all those Hrongar unfairly imprisoned. Reparations will be made, and the outstanding bills Hrongar ran up will be paid. With that, I hope we can put this sad episode behind us, and I beg your forgiveness for ever allowing it.” Balgruuf paused as cheers of approval swept across the crowd.

“But now it is time to turn to the more important business of the day. I present to you Jarl Ulfric of Windhelm, who needs no introduction.”

Ulfric received an enthusiastic response from at least half the crowd. “People of Whiterun! I come before you in support of our High Queen’s project to forge a new Skyrim! We have won our independence, but threats remain, as these recent events have shown. We must stand strong and united in the face of them, and that means putting aside our divisions!”

This remark received polite applause at best, but one lout standing on the edge shouted, “What happened to Skyrim is for the Nords, eh?”

Ulfric gave a wry smile. “Yes, that is what I used to say, but our queen has shown me a new way. Skyrim can be for all people who pledge loyalty to this great realm. I have tried to enact these principles in Windhelm, and our hold is only the better for it.”

He went on to detail some of the improvements: the greater commerce, reduced crime, decreased poverty, and freedom for all to visit whatever parts of the city they pleased. It may have come as a surprise to the Nords of Windhelm, and even to the jarl himself, but life was better for all when none were ground down by miserable living conditions, ill-treatment by the majority, and neglect by those in charge. Now, Nords who tired of the fare in their regular taverns could receive a welcome in the New Gnisis Corner Club, where they could sample something more exotic than their usual mead. What wasn’t to like?

The crowd applauded, and Deirdre saw many talking over Ulfric’s points with something like approval. After such an introduction, it was tempting to think there was little for her to do in her own speech. After all, she now had five jarls standing with her, showing solid support to the crowd; only two remained who opposed her outright. But more than counting votes in a potential jarlmoot, Deirdre wanted to win the hearts and minds of the people.

Pic of a crowd in Skyrim
A crowd gathers for the Queen’s speech
(via the Populated Cities mod at Nexus Mods)

She began with the part she knew they’d most heartily approve: the end of the murders and the apprehension of the culprits. She pointed to Damien’s head. “There! There is your real killer, a Breton, not a Khajiit.” The crowd cheered.

She outlined how he’d often poisoned his victims before turning his thralls loose upon them. She pointed to the bodies of those thralls, naming them as Damien’s first victims and declaring them innocent in the crimes their dead bodies had been forced to commit. The crowd murmured with approval.

Next she pointed out Kharjo. “Without this brave Khajiit, we might never have captured the Breton and secured his confession.” The crowd responded with only polite applause. She pointed to the two mages. “And without Brelyna and J’zargo, the Breton would still be on the loose.” Again just a smattering of applause. This might be harder than she’d thought. Now for the real enemy.

“But the Breton himself was only an instrument. And who was behind him?”

“The Thalmor!” came shouts from several in the crowd.

“That’s right, the Thalmor. We drove them from Skyrim, yet still they persist in opposition to our independence. Disappointed in their three attempts on my life…” Thunderous boos for the Thalmor forced her to pause here. “…they tried a new method — to turn our own hatreds and fears against us. Are we going to let them get away with it?”

Enthusiastic “nos” rang out from the jarls behind her and here and there in the crowd, though many remained silent.

“I said, are we going to let them get away with it?”

“No!” the crowd cried in unison.

“And how are we to stop them from using such tactics again? By remembering that we are one people of Skyrim, whether Nord, Breton, Dunmer, Khajiit, or any of the other races of Tamriel — and yes, even including the Altmer, as long as they pledge loyalty to our realm. For I tell you this, we cannot fight Altmer bigotry with our own bigotry, we cannot fight hatred with more hate. We must put down our prejudices on all sides, and stand together against a common foe.” She paused to let that sink in, then continued in a quieter voice.

“There may come a time, and not too far off, in which we face open war with Summerset. And on that day, we will need every ally, both within Skyrim and without, standing at our side. So I ask you, people of Skyrim, are you ready to stand together to face a common enemy?”

“Hear, hear!” and “Aye!” rang out in a chorus of approval.

“Yet victory on the battlefield is not enough.”

“That’s right!” someone shouted. “We also need victories at sea!”

Deirdre smiled. “Yes, very likely. But what I mean to say is, even that will not be enough. To have true, lasting peace, we must begin with our own hearts.” She paused and took a deep breath; this was the tricky part.

“And now I would speak directly to my Nord brothers and sisters.” She paused again, looking around at the mostly Nord faces in the crowd, summoning as much benevolence in her own expression as she could muster. “I know we are a better people than the face we showed the world in wrongfully imprisoning the Khajiits.” It may not have been literally true, but if she convinced them it was, maybe they would begin behaving that way.

“We must root out the hatreds the Thalmor sought to exploit and replace them with respect and honor, if not with love. We must treat our neighbors just as we ourselves would be treated. We must remember that whoever seeks to sow hatred and discord among the people of Skyrim, that person is no friend of our realm. And we must redress the wrongs committed against the neighbors we so often call outlanders.”

Again she paused to let this sink in. There were no cheers, but the crowd murmured to themselves. It seemed to her they were fairly considering the merits of these points.

“My fellow Nords, I know we can do this. And how do I know it? Because my brother Ulfric has already shown that we can. Together, we will create a Skyrim that is a light for all of Tamriel! A light that will shine so bright, even the Altmer will have to put aside their bigotry, joining the rest of Tamriel, not as masters, but as equal partners in the common good.”

The applause that followed seemed genuine, but not as hearty as she would have liked. She paused for another breath, taking a drink from a flagon Lydia held.

“The task will be difficult, I will not deny it. But we are the people of Skyrim, after all. Together, we defeated the dragons, not once, but twice. We threw off the shackles of the Empire and the Aldmeri Dominion. And together, we’ll create a stronger, more unified Skyrim, one that is ready to face all threats. One that will become a beacon of hope for all of Nirn. And now I ask you, people of Skyrim, are you with me?”

Deirdre didn’t know whether it was the flattery of their egos, the mention of the recent victories, or the sense of shared purpose she was trying to create, but the response was immediate, and intense. “Yes!” and “Aye!” rang out, echoing off the new stone walls of Dragonsreach.

As the shouts began to wane, she asked again, using the power of her Voice to be heard above the crowd, “Are you with me?” Even more enthusiastic shouts of agreement. “I can’t hear you down in the Wind District! Are you with me?”

The steps on which they stood, made of stone though they were, shook with the stamping feet and thunderous shouts of the people.

“Now go forth,” she said when it was quiet once more. “Return to your work and your homes, but also remember to welcome a stranger, befriend someone not of your own race, and help those less fortunate, especially the poor refugees among us. For peace and prosperity truly begin at home.”

With that, the people began filing back down the steps, and Deirdre turned to her friends and the jarls. “Well, how did I do?”

Lydia practically bowled her over, rushing over to her and wrapping her in a hug. She didn’t need to say anything else. Brelyna hugged her next, her eyes brimming with tears. “I’ve never heard you put that so well. It really is a new day in Skyrim.”

J’zargo stood next to her. “Queen Deirdre has many new followers, deservedly so,” he said, dipping his head. “You have touched this one’s heart.”

Ulfric was next. “Enough of that false modesty,” he said gruffly. “You know you did well. You won them over as I never could.”

The other jarls took their turns congratulating her. Then Ri’saad and Kharjo came over. “This one thanks you,” Ri’saad said. “Your words will make life for Khajiit in Skyrim easier.”

“And how are you faring in Helgen?”

“Well, and better. Much remains to be done, but we already have temporary shelter in place. And more travelers come down from the pass every day.”

“And Kharjo thanks Queen Deirdre as well.”

“No, it is I who must thank you. I meant what I said. You first identified the culprit, then kept him alive long enough to confess. All Skyrim is in your debt.”

Kharjo just dipped his head in acknowledgment of this praise.

“And what will you do now? Return to Helgen with Ri’saad?”

“Yes, Kharjo still owes Ahkari and must continue working until his debt is paid. But then this one will return home.”

Deirdre’s eyebrows went up. “I get the feeling you’d return home immediately if you could.”

“Yes, Skyrim is cold for a Khajiit, and the warm sands of Elsweyr call to this one.”

“Then Skyrim’s treasury will pay your debt to Ahkari, however much it is. It’s the least we can do. Although, I hate to lose you.”

Kharjo dipped his head again. “Kharjo thanks Queen Deirdre. Skyrim is a warmer place for Khajiit in your presence. And perhaps we will meet again.”

“I look forward to it. And perhaps that will be sooner than you expect.” She gave him a wink that left her friends with perplexed looks.

Ri’saad and Kharjo left and now Ralof was beside her. “Just think, a year ago you were a terrified lass running from a dragon. And now look at you.”

Deirdre laughed and punched him playfully in the arm. “Terrified lass, eh? I seem to remember you running pretty fast that day as well, or was that some other Ralof?”

“No, but seriously, that speech! I’ve never heard anything like it. The people are on your side, and Skyrim is more unified than I’ve ever seen it.”

“I’m glad to hear it, because I’ve got a plan to propose, to all of you, and if it’s going to work, Skyrim must be strong and unified indeed.”

“A plan, eh?” said Balgruuf. “And I have one for this jarl-regency until my son is old enough to take it on.” He winked at both Deirdre and Lydia. “A feast is being laid out in the dining hall. Why don’t we retire to my council chambers and sort it all out while the meal is prepared?”

“Jarl Balgruuf, of all the many things that have made me happy on this day, at the top of the list was seeing you step out that door with the jarl’s circlet back where it belongs. I can’t imagine anyone I’d rather see on that seat in Dragonsreach.”

“Maybe you could if you knew how my bones ache and my mind wanders. But come, let’s discuss it over a flagon of mead.”

But the mead and the talk would have to wait, because now more of Deirdre’s friends were approaching from the dwindling crowd: Aela and Vilkas, Avulstein Gray-Mane, Arcadia, and even Alfhild Battle-Born. “Come down and join us in the new Bannered Mare, if you get a moment,” said Avulstein. “Ysolda runs it now, and she’d be glad to see you, and Lydia.”

Pic of the Bannered Mare
The Bannered Mare

Last were Gerdur and Hod, the latter looking rather tired and leaner than usual.

“Thank you for coming all the way from Riverwood,” Deirdre said after greeting them.

“Oh, we surely would have come just for your speech, but we were already here.”

“What, more business in town?” Ralof asked.

“No, that bastard Hrongar put Hod in jail when he came to collect his debt last week. By the time I found out, you’d already left for Riften.”

“By Talos, if only I’d been here,” said Ralof, gripping his axe. “Where is he?”

“Now, Ralof,” said his sister, “remember what Deirdre said about cultivating peace in our hearts.”

“She didn’t say anything about one Nord giving another a good thrashing.”

“Relax, lad,” said Balgruuf, “I’ve already taken care of my brother. Once he stepped down, I had him thrown in jail. He’ll spend the same number of days there as did those he imprisoned, when added all together. It should come to several months. Hod, I hope you’ll find that a just ruling.” Hod nodded. “And of course, you’ll be paid the debt for the lumber you’ve provided, and something more for your lost work. And beyond that, would you like to join us at our feast?”

Gerdur looked at Hod, who shook his head. “No, we thank you, but we just want to get back home to Riverwood. Maybe we’ll get to know Deirdre’s Khajiit friends better along the way.” They said their farewells, then the queen’s party turned to enter Dragonsreach.

Once settled around the large table in the center of the council chambers, Deirdre turned to Balgruuf. “So, let’s hear this plan. Mine could take longer to discuss.”

pic of the council chamber/war room in Dragonsreach
Jarl Balgruuf’s council chamber

“As I said, I’m too old for this jarl business. Yet it will be more than a decade before Frothar is ready to take over. What we need is someone the people look up to, view as a hero even, tough but fair, one who will hold them together, but also keep them in line when the inevitable bickering arises.”

He was looking across the large table at both Deirdre and Lydia, seated close together. “That’s really quite flattering, Jarl Balgruuf, but my plate…”

“Slow down, lass… my Queen, I mean. You’re right, your plate is too full already. No, I mean Lydia, of course.”

A murmur went around the table, and Lydia herself looked stunned. “Me? I’m a soldier. What do I know about being a jarl?”

“Oh, I’ll be around to advise you, and what you need to know you can learn in a few months. It’s mostly collecting taxes and settling disputes. The people will accept your decisions. Tough but fair, like I said.” He looked directly at Deirdre now. “That is, if the queen can spare you as the head of her personal guard.”

Deirdre was still too stunned to speak.

Lydia looked over at her, then back at Balgruuf. “We’d have to move here together. You can’t expect us to live apart. And that means moving the queen’s seat of power.”

Balgruuf gave a sly grin. “From what I hear, the queen rather likes Whiterun and its environs, and can’t wait to get out of Castle Dour.” He winked at Elisif, who blushed.

That much was certainly true. And the new Dragonsreach, though now made of stone, was still light and airy by comparison, with vaulting ceilings and high windows. The narrow, dark corridors had been kept to a minimum.

But all of that would have to wait.

“I can think of no one more worthy of the honor,” she said, placing a hand on Lydia’s. “Unfortunately, Lydia won’t be available for service here, or anywhere else in Skyrim, for the next several months at least.”

She waited a moment to let this sink in, taking in the questioning, confused looks and mutters, not least Lydia’s.

Then she added: “And neither will I.”

Gasps came from all around. “What do you mean?” Lydia squeezed her hand. “What’s wrong, my love?”

Elisif didn’t look surprised. “It’s true, you really do hate Castle Dour.”

“I can’t deny it. But here’s the real issue: before we got so caught up in investigating these murders, Lydia and my advisers and I had been discussing Skyrim’s need for allies, both from its neighboring nations and provinces, and beyond. I had thought to send Brelyna and J’zargo on these diplomatic missions. And then I thought, who better than the queen herself? I wanted only to ensure the realm wasn’t on the verge of falling apart before announcing my plan.”

“I’ll say it again,” said Elisif, “you really do hate Castle Dour. And I can’t blame you, I hate that dark place too. And then there are all the duties and cares of being High Queen. I could see the toll it was taking on you, and Lydia as well. And look at the both of you now, healthy and glowing and happy. It’s quite a change in just a few weeks. I can see how these errands of diplomacy will be good for you.”

Map of Tamriel

“Not just that,” Deirdre said, though she knew it mostly was. “I truly feel that our need for allies is our most pressing concern. After failing in this most recent tactic, the Thalmor must surely be preparing an all-out attack. And as capable as Brelyna and J’zargo will be, I’m the one with the contacts: Kematu in Hammerfell, my mother’s family in High Rock, Malukah the Bard in Cyrodiil. Kharjo will soon be in Elsweyr. Even Shahvee, whom I befriended in Windhelm, could give us contacts in Blackmarsh.” She knew she was stretching it now. One conversation did not an alliance make. “And I made Faralda arch-mage of the College of Winterhold. She must have contacts with the more reasonable factions in Summerset who oppose Thalmor dominance.”

“You mean to travel to Summerset?” Elisif asked. “You do love an adventure, don’t you?”

“My queen,” said Ralof, “this will be dangerous. Allow me to accompany you with a squad of soldiers, in addition to your Royal Guard.”

“No, my friend, we will need to travel secretly, and our party must be small, traveling across country off the main roads wherever possible. Not even the Royal Guard will accompany the four of us.”

“Again ensuring maximum adventure.” Elisif smiled.

“And General Ralof,” Deirdre went on, “you’re needed here. Elisif will need you in command of the army.”

“What?” Elisif was no longer smiling.

“You know I always thought you should be High Queen. I would name you Queen Regent. The realm will be in good hands with both you and Falk running things. That is, if the rest of the jarls agree?”

It took a moment, but they all nodded, even Ulfric, seated at the other end of the table from Elisif. “Falk’s already had many years running the kingdom,” he said, “let him run it some more.”

“Yet it is a new Skyrim you’ll be ruling in my stead. Are you both ready for the challenge?”

Elisif looked at Falk, who nodded. “My husband always wanted everyone, not just the Nords, to be treated fairly, and I wanted that too. We will do our best to see that everyone is treated equally before the law, to settle all disputes between the different peoples justly and swiftly before they can fester, and do everything we can to promote goodwill among all the people.”

“I couldn’t have said it better myself.” Deirdre looked around at Lydia, then Brelyna and J’zargo. They all looked eager. “What do you say, my friends? Shall we stop by Solitude to collect our necessaries, then be on our way? I’ve heard Hammerfell is lovely at this time of year.”

Brelyna looked at J’zargo. “If we got married in Hammerfell, my family would never find out.”

J’zargo gave a contented purr, placing a hand on Brelyna’s back and flexing his claws in just the way he knew she liked. She responded with her own murmur of contentment.

Lydia raised her mug. “To new adventures! I mean, new errands of diplomacy!” Laughter rang around the table, along with hearty shouts of “Hear, hear!”

Deirdre drank deep from her own mug. It was the sweetest mead she’d ever tasted.

Feminism Politics

More on Diversity in Fiction

That Facebook conversation I had the other day continues to resonate. The male writer with whom I was discussing diversity in awards said, “Equality … is about judging on merits relevant to the task.” I could only think of a rather snarky comeback (my default mode), saying, “That all sounds very egalitarian, but also very convenient for us white men.”

Fortunately, science fiction writer Foz Meadows is much more articulate than I am, and has a post showing why celebrating diversity in fiction, especially in awards, is not mere tokenism that ignores the quality of the works under consideration. To understand her post, titled “Hugos and Puppies: Peeling the Onion,” you probably need to know who the “Puppies” are: a group of conservative SF writers (they probably say they’re “not political”) who launched a successful campaign to nominate slates of other conservative (straight, white, though I’m not sure all were male) authors for this year’s Hugo Awards. I don’t know all the details of the huge controversy that ensued, but Meadows’ points seem to apply equally to Nicola Griffith’s study of gender bias in awards. If we say awards should reward novels of women’s experience equally with those of men*, aren’t we automatically saying that the quality of those works is less important? No, says Meadows:

Inasmuch as any of the Puppies can be said to have a reasonable concern at the bottom of all their rhetoric, which often comes off as little more than “we think books about people who aren’t straight white dudes are boring”, it’s the worry that certain stories are being rewarded because they contain X character or are written by Y author rather than because they’re actually good. And given the way such books are often discussed and lauded by those who love them, where these aspects are openly stated as pros, you can see where the concern comes from. After all, the difference between saying “this book is great because it had a queer protagonist” and “this book is great because it had a well-written protagonist” seems, on the surface, pretty obvious: one is concerned with a single aspect of characterisation regardless of its execution, and the other is concerned with execution alone. So clearly, if you’re vaunting queerness (for instance) as though it’s a synonym for quality, you’re at risk of recommending mediocre stories on a tokenistic, uninformed basis.



Meadows goes on to show that quality and increased diversity are totally compatible, but then shows that you have to go through a series of steps to see why that’s true. Going through all those steps, especially when debating someone whose views you don’t know well, and especially on the internet or Twitter, is difficult. As Meadows puts it, “But in order to explain why this is so, there’s six onion layers we need to unravel: context, experience, awareness, representation, language and taste.”

For me, laying out how those layers interact revealed something I have long felt, but could only express as, “But it’s not fair!” Here’s the full post. It’s long, but well worth the read.

One aspect Meadows doesn’t much consider is whether objective criteria exist at all: “The Venn diagram of why we love something is seldom a perfect circle with its objective strengths, inasmuch as such strengths can be reasonably said to exist.”

In fact, the criteria for judging a work are only ever developed from within a community of readers, and those criteria develop simply through people pointing to what they like. It’s not hard to see that a homogeneous group is likely to value the same things. Take the case of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I might say, “PB&J sandwiches are great because of the blend of savory and sweet.” I’ve now asserted “a blend of savory and sweet” as a measure by which to judge sandwiches. Gauging by the popularity of PB&J in the U.S., I might conclude that this is an objective criterion because “everyone” agrees with me. But make a PB&J sandwich in an English youth hostel and you’ll find a bloke telling you, “Ugh, you can’t mix the savory and the sweet like that!”

Is it any different when evaluating literature? In the 18th and 19th centuries, the community of readers that formed the first criteria for judging the novel in English was quite narrow: middle and upper class whites, with the critical establishment dominated by men. Even then, the reading community was fracturing along lines of gender and race and genre, but with the “high-brow” and novels by white men receiving most of the attention, and with the hallmarks of those works being deemed universal and objective. Thus, in the ’60s and ’70s, when African-American writers began calling for greater attention not only for themselves but for their literary forebears who had been forgotten, they were criticized for being “too political,” “too particular,” “not universal like white, male authors.”

Today, the fracturing of “the reading community” has gone even further, and the visibility and power of those reading communities formerly excluded from “literary culture” has grown with the Internet (causing some critics like this one to bemoan the death of that culture). So it’s ludicrous to talk about one objective set of criteria by which to judge literary works. We can’t even agree whether the criteria should be “beautifully wrought prose,” “a thrilling plot,” “deep psychological insight,” “relatability of the protagonist,” “universal themes,” “an exploration of the woes of the human condition,” “fast-paced page turner,” “a realistic depiction of the world around us,” “an inventive creation of a far-off world,” or “a close eye for detail.” Adding “represents a diverse point of view” as a marker of quality seems no more or less specious than any of those others.

In the end, I think we should all read what we like to read, write what we like to write, and vote for what we want to see rewarded. Oh, and pay attention to voices different from our own group, and especially those that have previously been excluded — but I guess that’s just my criterion.

*This probably distorts what Griffith is saying with the data she and the Literary Prize Data group are gathering, which is more like, “The fact that far more prizes go to work focusing on men’s experience is an indication of bias in the judging.” (And if you don’t believe the skewed award numbers indicate a bias, then by logical extension you must believe that novels of women’s experience are somehow less worthy.)

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