The Literary Canon
I just finished up a speech for English Class where I argued that the literary canon needs to be continually updated. While working on it, I began to think about it on a deeper level than the speech required and decided I might as well post my thoughts on my blog.
The definition of the literary canon is a selection of books that represent the best of literature, but more importantly books that shape and impact society. Consequently, the canon is the standard of literary quality. In other words, the books that are considered the best are used as a measure of other books’ worth. On the surface, it makes perfect sense. In a world where the number of books being published each day is staggering, we need a way to decide which books have literary merit and which don’t. But when the canon is outdated, the criteria for good literature becomes outdated too. And that’s what’s happened today.
The canon is mainly written by educated white men. Very few women or people of other cultures have made it into the canon. And since the canon lacks diversity, the definition of quality literature becomes synonymous with books lacking culture. The vast majority of books that win major literary awards are written by white males and feature a cast of white characters. Literary review columns in magazines and newspapers are similarly skewed. Source.
Since the literary canon only includes classics, only classics must be quality literature. Again, this argument seems valid until approached on a deeper level.
The support for classics is staggering and comes not only from literary highbrows but from the entire literary world. And rightfully so; they have stood the test of time. I myself enjoy reading classics and understand the importance of studying them. However, what shocked me was the number of people who claim that classic literature is ‘true literature’ and that modern literature has no literary value. They claim that classics are well-written, deal with universal subjects, and portray important themes, while modern literature is poorly written fluff. Not only is this an extremely opinionated statement that should not be voiced as a fact, but it is a generalization.
By keeping the literary canon, we are giving rise to a society that only appreciates books written by white men, and who cannot find value in modern literature. What does this mean for the future of literature?
The longer we wait to update the literary canon, the more embedded into society it becomes and the harder to reform.
Where do you stand on the classics vs contemporary debate? I’d love to hear from you!