At this year’s Battle of Ideas the opening debate concerning literature was entitled To Read or Not To Read – The Canon and the 21st Century. Basically, is there a need for a literary canon in the 21st century? And if there is, should it be full of dead white European men, as Tim Black, deputy editor at Spiked summarized it.
Of course many shades of sexism, cultural imperialism and overt discrimination exist in the canon, if we take it to mean the Harold Bloom’s 26 authors including Shakespeare, Dickens, Dante and Chaucher. But within the canon, there is also huge variety of ideas, styles and experience. Put Virginia Woolf, Chaucer, Emily Dickinson, John Milton and Tolstoy in the pub together and it is fair to say that whilst the conversation would be fascinating and stimulating, there would be few shared cultural points and that between them they would not agree on much. The variety that exists within the canon is exhilarating. The roots for a reflective and radical group is there, if we just add newer and non European writers.
But the main criticism of the literary canon is of authority and the creation of elitst snobbery. Why should politicians and powerhouses of the past continue to rule in a society where it has been long accepted that there are different genders, races, ideas and ages all with things to say and the ability to say them? It is a construct, and so essentially becomes the influence of one person’s tastes upon another; just like The Guardian’s 100 Greatest Novels and the like.
There is a reason that books become prized, but the reasoning behind it can be dubious, based upon outdated ideals and conceit. By canonizing some books they become elevated not just because of their literary worth, but from a social standpoint. As Gupreet Kaur Bhatti said ‘are you a better person for having read certain things?’ The worth and value held by cultural commentators and those devising the canon gets transferred to the book and then to the readers. The main effect of canonizing literature is not on the book, but the person reading it. Maybe people who read Joyce or Dante are better people – but is this because they have read a tough must read piece of literature, or because they have engaged with the moral and artistic questions that the works pose. Taking books from their natural artistic and social environment and into an elite arena removes them from the constant cultural conversation that they should be part of. A literary canon in flux is not a problem. Like the philosopher John Searle said the canon is, or should be ‘a certain set of tentative judgments about what had importance and quality…subject to revision.’
These worthy books that become so elevated important as an essential tickbox to becoming a real adult therefore make it onto school curriculums, where the problem is heightened both by the way in which literature is consumed in schools at the vulnerable age group consuming it, and it became a hot topic at the talk, especially with Joe Friggieri, professor of philosophy at University of Malta, Dr Margaret Kean, Fellow in English at St Hilda’s College at the University of Oxford and David Herd professor of modern literature, University of Kent on the panel. This is where the focus really became one of engagement.
Many students don’t engage, they absorb. There is a fear that without really reading into and around texts and interpreting them students, indeed all readers, will become subsumed into the viewpoints of the book and take them as their own. Herd discussed the importance of reading ‘creatively’ and said that there ‘must be an active engagement to get any value from literature.’ Maybe that is fine for those studying and challenging, but not everyone does that. Should they therefore be told to what to read, and if so, should the books they read be carefully selected to shape their ideas and thoughts, as there can be no doubt however that we are shaped by our reading experiences, consciously or not.
The value of literature, as well as entertainment and escapism is to illuminate the richness and varieties of human experience. If the canon is limited to only novels by dead white men, are those varieties being communicated? Major writings are often so socially exclusive as to be irrelevant in the present day, a point made by Herd, but he rightly pointed out that a blanket criticism of books that are set in a time and place alien to most of us underestimates the intelligence of the reader. However, the experience of reading the work by them and the benefits gained are not the preserve of any one race, gender, or generation. There is a lot of value in engaging with idea outside of our own cultural framework, and it can be said that the loss of the historical perspective gained by reading the classics is detrimental not only an arts education but a cultural engagement. When UK education secretary Michael Gove noted that fewer than one in 100 GCSE students answered exam questions on novels published before 1900 maybe he had a point – that our students are suffering from some kind of cultural tunnel vision blindness.
A list of books doesn’t have to be something of oppression, and in an age where so many books are published, it can be helpful to have guidance. If a canon should exist, it should be diverse, including dead white men as well as young multicultural females. I doubt defenders of the canon are promoters of an elite hegemonic society of tory boys, but take a certain pride in good literature. What they need is to open their eyes to new and diverse work, and what we all need is to appreciate the value of good literature regardless of who it was written by. As Black said, by removing any of the currently canonized books worth becomes based on meeting diversity criteria – it’s identity politics. An author’s work transcends their biography and we shouldn’t reduce a work to the author’s sex and class and age. Sometimes dead white men have something to say. And as modern liberated people, we should be open to that.