The Literary Canon Why Can’t It Include Women and People of Color?
Okay, So What Exactly Is The Canon? • In A briefly nutshell, it is roughly all those classic books you were ever forced to read as a kid in high school, junior high or even in college. You know, plays by Shakespeare, poems by Robert Frost, maybe a novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Some of it you might have really liked openly or even thought secretly (hey this stuff is cool).
Okay, So What Exactly Is The Canon? • So what is wrong with the canon? Well, look around the next time you’re at Barnes and Noble or you’re watching Oprah and she’s hanging out with Maya Angelou or Toni Morrison or promoting some new book. Lots of people are writing books that are not getting read even if they are “old” and “good” because they are not written by the “write” people.
Okay, So What Exactly Is The Canon? • Still don’t get it? The Canon in theory is supposed to take the best literature from all major genres (poetry, fiction, non-fiction etc…) and include the work. In theory this should include women, men and people of different colors, religions, abilities, races etc… However too often it doesn’t and the canon comes across as racist and sexist.
Why Is It This Way? • Good question. One not completely answerable. When you deal with art (and yes, literature is creative, people think of it as art), it comes down to taste (what people like and what they don’t). Often, academics and other experts get to choose what is in canon as well. • This means though the canon can change over time—meaning writers can be added or subtracted as the case maybe.
For Example • In the 18th Century the writers of this time period were not fans of William Shakespeare. They believed his work to be considered trite and hackneyed. • Now, we consider an 18th Century female, Aphra Behn to be a genius but this is a late 20th addition to the canon in the past 20 years or so.
Canon • Some people feel that canon needs to be more flexible and more representative based on all the cultures writing within a society at a time. • However, some academics feel this is incorrect and still choose to seek the same guidelines used continuously when choosing works thus ensuring a mainly Caucasian and male canon.
Canon • This angers some writers, like the famous poet, Adrienne Rich who feels the canon has now become a symbol of power to hold over the powerless as well as cultural prison. • This is ironic because Rich would be a writer who would unquestionably be in the canon. Despite being female she has one the Pulitzer twice as well as every major writing prize for poetry at least once.
Separate But Equal Canons • Some have gone with the separate but equal route (canon of Women’s Writers, Hispanic Writers etc…) while this “specialness” is helpful if at any point you only want to read these writers for this amount of time, it is at some point insulting to only read them in this context. • Which is why the canon for many needs to change.