Fighting the Literary Canon: English Literature in Universities

originally written for Glasgow Guardian

It’s no surprise to English Literature students that university courses are dominated by white male authors. Such an outcome is, after all, the inevitable product of centuries of oppression and patriarchy; a result clearly derived from a historical tradition which has effaced the subjectivity and self-expression of women, people of colour and anyone, in fact, who is not a white male. It’s a status quo which has been recently challenged by Yale undergraduate students, who have launched a petition combatting a core course requirement which obliges the students to study ‘canonical’ writers including Milton, Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Chaucer.

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My Modern American Women’s Writing reading list

In order to fulfil conditions of English majors, Yale students must spend two semesters studying what the Ivy League university terms ‘major English poets’, all of whom are predictably white males. Although the university defends this decision by stating that the core courses intend to immerse students in ‘abiding formal and thematic concerns of the English literary tradition’, the undergraduates have expressed concern that such essential requirements ignore the literary contributions of ‘women, people of colour, and queer folk’ and make it possible for students to undertake an entire degree in English Literature without encountering any authors who are not white males.

In an ideal world, of course, literature would be balanced to reflect the various identities, ethnicities and sexualities that exist in the world today. Unfortunately, this is not the case: as with most art forms, the representation of white men in literature vastly exceeds that of any other gender or race, precisely because the development of literature has largely reflected the viewpoints of the most socially privileged. Milton, Shakespeare and Chaucer were writing in periods where women were almost universally excluded from the public sphere and were frequently regarded as mere extensions of their husbands. Wordsworth and Alexander Pope, another celebrated poet on the course, wrote at a time when slavery was still legal in both Britain and America. Under such circumstances, it was unavoidable that white men would lead literary tradition and any dissenting voices or experiences would be mostly negated.

But literature has moved on. Women and people of colour are, and should be, recognised for their invaluable influences upon literature; so why do university courses insist on perpetuating the myth that innovative literature is the creation of a small band of white Western males? Whilst it is, of course, naïve to ignore the true literary value of writers such as Shakespeare, the idea of a ‘canon’ with which all literature students must be familiar is an unbelievably reductive position. Aside from obvious political or feminist motives, it condenses a university experience into a literary to-do-list of authors and texts just waiting to be ticked off, and further propagates the idea that valid literary merit can only be discovered through a narrow prism of experience, an assumption that marginalised writers have long been trying to shake off.

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A mix of women and men on my bookshelves…

In my own experience, straying beyond the literary canon has afforded me some of the most exciting and rewarding moments of my degree. I’ve had experiences which have been immeasurably enhanced by the discovery of new authors and texts, often from unexpected sources. A programmatic approach to the greats of poetry does not adequately represent the genuine love of literature that I or other English Literature students have, or reflect the diversity and breadth of interest of the student population which – shockingly – extends beyond a bunch of dead white men. Last year I took ‘Modern American Women’s Writing’, a course entirely based on the works of American female authors – although, unsurprisingly, sparsely populated by male students – which was undoubtedly one of the best modules I have taken during my time at university. The course was proposed as a response to the lack of female authors on other American Literature modules offered by the university, indicating that UofG is not immune from this type of criticism. Indeed, during my second year, it was strongly suggested by students that the core courses could benefit from a more inclusive attitude towards marginalised people, indicating that the problem lies with the limited conception of the ‘canon’ and universities’ reliance upon this exclusive group in the first two years of literary study.

Looking at one side of the story – the view of the colonisers, the oppressors, the privileged – allows only a restrictive understanding of the world and of literature in general. Former Yale student Katy Waldman expressed her belief that ‘the canon is what it is’, a statement which encapsulates the fundamental issue at the heart of universities’ lack of literary representation: change is needed in the wider world to reflect the multiplicity of voices impacting the vast and stimulating world of literature. Abolishing exclusionary core requirements is one step towards eliminating the lack of representation in the literary canon, and students will undoubtedly be better off for it.

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