Image: Unsplash
Image: Unsplash

The ‘literary canon’ throughout the years

The widely debated term ‘literary canon’ is used to classify a group of literary works that are considered the most important from a certain time or place. Derived from the Greek word kanôn meaning measuring rod or standard, the canon has been compiled by literary critics, scholars and teachers over time in order to assert which works of literature are ‘essential’.

However, people have questioned, particularly in the last 60 years, the validity of the canon due to its lack of diversity. The evolving list’s existence poses key questions: what would be considered canon today? Do we have to, and should we read canonised books? And perhaps most importantly, who should have the power to determine what works of literature are worth reading?

Writers whose works are generally considered part of the Western canon include well-known names such as Homer, Chaucer and Shakespeare. Pieces of literature may also belong to more specific canons, categorised by country or period. Examples of this include the American canon, under which works such as The Scarlet Letter and The Great Gatsby fall or the canon of Romantic English poetry which poets such as Blake, Wordsworth and Keats belong to.

Since the 1960s though there has been a shift in opinion towards the canon

Since the 1960s though there has been a shift in opinion towards the canon. Postmodern studies in particular have argued that canon is inherently biased as traditionally the main focus of the academic studies of history and Western culture has been primarily on Europe and men. A reassessment of the literary canon began as various literary and social movements pushed to the forefront literature that had previously been underrepresented.

Since the 1970s, feminist scholars worked to discover the ‘mother of the novel’ and works by gay and lesbian writers as well as those from working classes were paid more attention. The impact of the civil rights movement was reflected in recognition given to black authors such as in 1950 when Gwendolyn Brooks was the first black American to win a Pulitzer Prize for Literature and Toni Morrison was the first black woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993.

Significantly, the canon also expanded to include literature from Asia, Africa, the Middle East. Awards of the highest level, such as the Nobel Prize for Literature, track this shift in the 20th century. Yasunari Kawabata became the first Japanese author to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968, Nigerian Wole Soyinka became the first African to win the coveted award in 1986 and Egyptian writer, Naguib Mahfouz was the first Arab writer to win the prize in 1988.

To think of the canon only as the same group of texts compiled by white men of privilege hundreds of years ago is damaging 

Today’s canon therefore incorporates (or should incorporate) literature from all corners of the globe, from writers of all races, ethnicities, sexualities and genders. To think of the canon only as the same group of texts compiled by white men of privilege hundreds of years ago is damaging as it erases the stories of those who have already been forgotten for too long.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t still read the works considered part of what we might call the ‘original canon’ as they have much to teach us about the society in which they were produced and have influenced many other works of literature too. However, for this exact reason, we must also treat many canonised books with caution. Anyone reading Conrad’s Heart of Darkness must be able to recognise the racism within the narrative just as Hemingway’s hyper-masculinity and misogyny in his writing should be noted.

This angered many as the move was seen as a way of heightening nationalism and ignoring important work from other countries

The relationship between the canon and education is also fraught. This was highlighted in the UK a few years ago during Michael Gove’s stint as Secretary of State for Education. Gove changed the English literature GCSE syllabus requirements so that it would focus much more on works purely from Britain. This angered many as the move was seen as a way of heightening nationalism and ignoring important works from other countries.

The reaction therefore suggested that what we now think of as the canon, which works are important and should be studied in schools, includes texts from places and by authors outside of the ‘original Western canon’ according to some. While this can be viewed as positive, the fact that Gove introduced an overtly British syllabus shows that the canon is still dangerously seen as fixed by others.

But who really should judge whether Shakespeare’s Hamlet is better than Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude? Or whether Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe should be studied over Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice? These are difficult questions to answer because literature is inherently subjective and ever evolving. A fact that those given the power to choose which books are the ‘best’ should remember.

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