Friday, 26 October 2012

The English Canon and Classics

Last week I had an Academic Community seminar and we were talking about the English Literature Canon. Of course this led to me thinking about Classics and their position in the Canon. There are a lot of different opinions about the Canon but I think there are some definite advantages. The canon, for those who don't know, is a "collection" of English literature works that are considered important in shaping literature through the years. For example, there is no canon without Shakespeare. He has had a massive influence on English culture and heritage and is recognizes by most people as a literary genius. 

There simply are texts, classics, that have changed or heavily influenced the development of English literature. And it therefore shouldn't surprise anyone that these have been put together into a so-called collection. A Canon can be really helpful if you want to guide your reading. When I composed my '100 Classics' post for the Classics Club I browsed through many different lists of Classics and articles about the Canon to see what would be considered Canon-worthy. In my eyes, a book becomes part of a Canon if it has a lasting impact on people. If it has made that impact, I think it is worth my reading time.

One of the main criticisms of the English Canon is that it is full of DWEMS (Dead White European Males). Yes, this is an official term. I disagree. I have never met anyone who says that Virginia Woolf, the Bronte Sister, George Elliot or Jane Austen do not deserve to be part of the English Canon. Of course there are more men in the Canon because they have been writing for longer and their writing has often been more influential because they were more likely to write about serious issues. Of course most of them are dead because contemporary authors aren't often "elevated" to being part of the Canon, although I'll get back to that point later. Women have slowly been working their way into the Canon as they have in everything else. Personally, I wouldn't want Ann Radcliffe to be part of the Canon just because she's a woman. I dislike her writing actively. I feel that pressuring women or culturally diverse authors into the Canon means you start looking for texts that fit those categories rather than looking for good texts, not saying that those texts aren't good. But the author shouldn't be the reason why the text is chosen to be part of the Canon.

Also, the Canon is an open 'thing'. It is not controlled by someone or by an institution. If my generation decides they love a book and we tell our children about it then this book will become part of what is the 'canon' when we are adults. In short, I agree with the philosopher John Searle, who said: "In my experience there never was, in fact, a fixed 'canon'; there was rather a certain set of tentative judgments about what had importance and quality. Such judgments are always subject to revision, and in fact they were constantly being revised." There are lists, surely, about what people consider the biggest works in English literature but these change and develop. Modern authors like Ian McEwan are practically part of the canon because his works win a lot of literary prizes but have also been made into popular movies, e.g. 'Atonement'. In the future, 'Harry Potter' might become a part of the Canon because it has come to represent England and British literature for many people.

I personally also believe that the Canon is a good thing for authors themselves. The Canon represents a collection of authors and works that are inspirational. Other authors, including aspirational ones like myself, should use the Canon as a way of gaining inspiration. The Canon shows how literature has developed, which themes have spoken to readers over the years, which literary devices to and don't work, etc. Knowledge of these works also enhances your reading pleasure. There are tons of intertextual links in modern writing, some obvious some less so and finding and understanding these can be amazing.

So, what do you think of the canon after my very short brain storm on it?

1 comment:

  1. Very well said! I agree with you on all points. Canon basically reflects what kind of literature a particular society values and naturally it changes over time just as a society/culture changes. The choice of texts included in canon should definitely be independent of who the author is. There are certainly more male authors in the English Canon, but as you said that is the consequence of a fewer number of women having opportunity to write and produce quality works in the past centuries. I think this is changing now. So, who knows, a hundred years from now genders might be equally represented in canon or women might prevail. Great post!