The Canon is one of the most controversial aspects of literary criticism. I think that goes without saying. Most of us were first introduced to it at school when we are given a reading list or we learned in English (or French or German or Italian…) class that there were certain standard books that were considered “good” books and all too many, probably the ones we enjoyed reading most, that were not considered “good”. We laboured through Dickens and Balzac and Goethe and Carducci and Lope de Vega, all too often vowing never to read such books again, unless we were one of those swots who actually enjoyed reading such stuff. We were even more exposed to it if we studied a literature-based course at university, while many of our friends were absorbed in Dune or Tolkien or John Grisham or Harry Potter or Georgette Heyer.
Some of us may have taken notice of Harold Bloom, litcrit extraordinaire and his seminal book The Western Canon. Bloom’s book came in for a lot of flak, though his choice was fascinating. We can and, indeed, should all disagree with some of his choices but there is no doubt that they are interesting and most, if not all, of his suggestions are worth reading if you wish to be the fully educated, well-rounded Renaissance man or woman. There are several problems with Bloom and other canonisers. Here is my take on this, though I am well aware that my views are by no means original.
1) Bloom and other proponents of a Western Canon tend to stock their list with Dead White Males or DWMs as they will henceforth be known in his post. Nothing wrong with DWMs. Writers like Shakespeare, Dante, Flaubert, Lermontov and many other DWMs wrote some quite good stuff. My website is stashed with DWMs. However, around 51% of the world is not male, probably around 80% of the world is not white and 100% of people (excluding the odd zombie – you know who you are) are not dead. This means the perspective, the experience and the contribution of the vast majority of the world is ignored. Women, non-whites and living people have all produced some very worthwhile reading. While the Canon had long been criticised, it faced its first major, concerted attack with the rise of the feminist movement. Though there had long been a feminist attack on the Canon – think Virginia Woolf, for example – feminist writers, such as Betty Friedan and Kate Millett from the US and Simone de Beauvoir and Germaine Greer from France and Australia respectively, led the way. Soon there was a series of excellent works focussing on women and literature such as Ellen Moer’s Literary Women and Elaine Showalter’s A Literature of Their Own, both of which are still well worth reading today. Publishers then started publishing or republishing writings by women (see my website for examples of women publishers).
It wasn’t just women who justly felt excluded but also people of colour, particularly those from former European colonies. Post-colonial literature soon dealt with some of those problems and publishers such as Heinemann, with their African Writers Series, started publishing books from former European colonies. Inevitably the French were better at this, with mainstream publishers such as Gallimard publishing many works from former French colonies.
But the DWMs weren’t giving up. In 1998, Random House published a list of the 100 best novel of the 20th century in the English language. The average age of the selection committee was 68.7, all were white and all but one male. Of the 100 books they selected, eight were by women (all white), three by the obvious African-Americans and one by V S Naipaul, a man not known for being at the forefront of the feminist revolution. The 88 novels were by white males, some of whom weren’t yet dead. There were many responses to the list, including, in particular, Erica Jong’s interesting though flawed list (Adrian Mole!) But if the Random House represented the literary canon, then God help us.
2) There are other reasons for opposing the canon. The canon plays it safe, almost by definition. Ulysses was on the list but it wasn’t always, being considered too experimental and too obscene. The experimental, the obscene, the daring, the innovative are going to be excluded and they are the ones that need the promotion. Even now, the really experimental is not going to be included in the canon.
3) I do not include many genre novels on my website, primarily because I do not read many. However, I do accept that some have much to offer. Many literary writers have flirted with science fiction, crime and other genre fiction. The standard canon does not. One of my favourite authors is J G Ballard. Many consider him science fiction and nothing but. This is not the place to explain why he is so much more but suffice it to say that he definitely brings genre and lit fiction closer.
4) As well as excluding women, people of colour, the experimental and many of the living, the canon also tends to exclude the working class. Rohin Mistry wisely commented “Most fiction is about the middle class; perhaps because most writers are from the middle class. Working class fiction all too often is excluded from the canon.
5) The Random House was specifically English-language. Why? Because that is what they know. Yes, they have read the obvious foreign works, from Murakami to Gabriel García Márquez but I am betting that there is a lot of foreign literature about which they are stunningly ignorant and I would bet even more they have not read any books in a foreign language that have not been translated into English. Even Bloom, in his Western Canon, though he included many works from foreign countries did not, as far as I can determine, include any works that had not been translated in to English. Yes, many other countries have their own canons but, in many cases, they include a fair amount of foreign works and, while they might not include works not translated into their langauge, that is partially because so many more (particularly those originally written in English) have been translated into their language.
In a future post, I will try and say why I find the canon (partially) helpful and other stuff about the canon.