Western literary canon is out of fashion
November 21, 2022
The Great Gatsby. The Catcher in the Rye. The Scarlet Letter. These novels have several things in common: they are included in most American high school English curricula, their authors were white men, they explore specific themes, and they are in the literary canon.
The canon is a set of texts, often classics, said to be the most influential, definitive, and essential works in a culture’s media.
These texts often appear on shelves all over the world. There are works widely acknowledged as canon, ones that don’t make the cut, and ones that aren’t even considered.
In western literature, the texts considered to be canon are generally older, most containing similar themes, and written by demographically similar authors. The themes of these books are important, but as values and populations shift, these themes should be expanding. They should encompass the experiences and identities of more than just a small, elite part of western society.
“In the western canon and in the works that we read in school, it has a lot to do with American society as a whole, especially with American authors. It’s important to understand the American dream, its effects on society, what that means for the future, and what has happened in the past,” said Jack Stafford, a senior. Stafford is taking the AP Literature and Composition course at Carlmont High School. “There are a lot of things with our canon that we explore right now, themes that should be understood and looked very hard at, but I think we can expand that possibly into a bit more.”
While it is essential to consider the themes of these books and their implications in modern society, one must also remember that many of these books are outdated. They tend to lack the cultural context their current readers live with, and it can be challenging to find relatable. Reading is a transactional experience, in the words of Louise Rosenblatt. This experience creates meaning in the works; without reading relatable content, readers cannot complete that exchange. Thus, the work is meaningless to them.
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Without a connection to real life, a text becomes uninteresting and meaningless to the reader, impacting the reader’s view of other texts. The lack of diversity in the literary canon contributes to this lack of connection and interest, as many readers start with books assigned to them in school.
According to Audrey O’Sullivan, another senior taking the AP Literature and Composition course at Carlmont, the lack of diversity in the literary canon is a major contributor to a lack of interest in reading.
“This contributes to the narrative that ‘reading is boring.’ People have trouble seeing themselves in the books they read, and the average person who reads for fun is looking for something they can relate to as opposed to a convoluted Shakespeare play,” O’Sullivan said.
Making the canon more relevant, and thus lessening the lack of interest in reading, could start in the classroom. Christine Chai, an English professor at De Anza College, believes that instructors should consider student feedback when choosing texts for their curriculum. Appealing to students’ interests can lead to better participation both within the classroom and with literature as a whole.
“A lot of comments that [my students] made were that they were never interested in reading until they started reading about their community. That lack of interest shouldn’t be the burden of the students,” Chai said.
Chai is not the only instructor with this perspective. Audrey Goodman, an English professor at Georgia State University and a co-president of the Western Literature Association, agrees that academic institutions should update their curricula. While individual teachers are already diversifying the content of their coursework, Goodman believes this is not a change reflected in institutional policy.
“It’s difficult to imagine how to expand the curriculum without letting go of the way things are done, so there’s resistance to change on the institutional level. Many of the students I have are training to be teachers, and they’re eager to bring their new knowledge and expanded view of the canon into their teaching. I think they encounter difficulties in the school structure, the school board, and the board of education that regulates the curriculum,” Goodman said.
Institutional change aside, there are other ways to advocate for change in the western canon. Both Chai and Goodman try to incorporate diversity into their curricula, bringing in more relatable texts for their students and teaching about the works’ themes.
Goodman believes that identity should be a central subject in conversations about literature. She thinks that developing identity involves a process of reflection through accumulated experience, necessitating diversity in the literary canon, and that much of western literature has some common themes that emphasize connection and identity. However, only some of these themes are present in the literary canon.
“You recognize that [students] want to hear voices that speak to them in what they read. If they’re only given works that seem distant from them, they might not feel they have a place in that conversation. It’s important to hear a language that speaks to one’s identity, to say ‘Yes, I’m not alone in this,’” Goodman said. “If there isn’t a place to make that connection, students may not feel that they want to participate.”
Chai emphasizes that this focus brings in great participation. She has noticed that her students are more engaged when discussing texts that relate to them, so she incorporates these themes into her curriculum. Students are put off by the lack of relevancy in texts in the western literary canon, so bringing in more diverse texts is Chai’s way of making a place for them in the literary conversation.
“A lot of people complain, ‘Why do writers of color always write memoirs?’ But I think when these experiences are written, say, by Asian writers, Latinx writers, Black writers, LGBTQ+ writers, they write with all of their intersections. You see this with contemporary writers, but I think you can bring some classic texts into the discussion,” Chai said.
Students also find ways to compensate for the lack of diversity outside the classroom. They often look to outside sources to find connections they don’t see in canon literature. These sources include social media, other literature, and many other forms of connective pieces. One student looking to other literary forms is Sophia Awoyinka, senior and co-president of Carlmont’s Life and Literature Club.
“We select works of literature that we can analyze in a group setting and draw connections to in terms of society and our personal experiences. We examine the human condition through literature,” Awoyinka said.
The club looks mostly at short stories and poems. Students get to choose topics to discuss, and Awoyinka, with her co-president and fellow senior, Abby Kizner, find literature that falls under those topics.
“I want to take a step away from [the canon] so that we can understand more diverse or culturally different perspectives,” Awoyinka said.
Exploring new themes and ideas in literature is one of the main goals of the Life and Literature Club. Students dissatisfied with the content of their English classes look to this exploration to expand their perspectives.
Awoyinka believes that reading similar content every year leads to a closed-off feeling, where students don’t have an easily accessible avenue to learn about different perspectives and unique ideas.
“I feel that prevents intellectual diversity because we’re all getting fed the same opinions that have been repeatedly reinforced. We’re stuck in an echo chamber,” Awoyinka said.
Stafford agrees with this sentiment. He finds that many works in the canon follow similar patterns, which doesn’t allow for a more diverse array of perceptions. Instead of this focus, he thinks there should be more exploration of themes important to modern society, possibly bringing in more contemporary works to achieve this goal.
Including more contemporary works is one way that the western literary canon could expand. Much of the canon consists of “classic” literature from prior to the 21st century, written by authors living in the United States or western Europe.
O’Sullivan added that public opinion of more diverse works is one reason for the canon’s lack of inclusion.
“LGBTQ+ people and people of color have been historically oppressed, resulting in their work being seen as having lesser value by critics and the public,” O’Sullivan said.
Even setting aside the need for diversity in the canon, the books in the existing canon aren’t inherently problematic necessarily; rather, the similarity between books raises an issue. The current canon has important themes and lessons, but the frames of these themes are uninteresting to audiences because of how outdated they are. Students don’t see their importance and fail to look at the texts in a broader context, completely missing the point of reading them.
It’s important to hear a language that speaks to one’s identity, to say ‘Yes, I’m not alone in this.’”
— Audrey Goodman, English professor at Georgia State University and a co-president of the Western Literature Association
“We should take more of a focus on the text and less on just getting through a book and on to the next one,” Stafford said.
Looking at books in the context of modern society alongside the time frame in which it was written is a crucial part of literary analysis. Ignorance of both of these things and the subject matter of the works can be highly damaging to understanding and appreciating literature and the development of society. Take the Texas book bans, for example. Many of the banned texts carry themes that parents and administrators in Texas often disagree with. By banning these books, chances to learn about the world and develop unique perspectives are taken away, leading to dangerous ignorance in today’s youth.
Goodman believes that the book bans are an obstacle to education and free thought and is worried about the implications of this phenomenon.
Even with her worries, Goodman believes in the power of students, librarians, and instructors. She thinks they will continue to resist and potentially create backlash against the bans to support a diverse curriculum.
Chai agrees that the book bans are dangerous and have gotten way out of control. She is appalled by their state. She thinks there are solutions to events like this, which would try to eliminate the ignorance that leads to these bans.
“If we’re more conscientious and teach everybody’s histories in schools, then as generations grow, we’ll get better. We’re just dealing with so much backlash and ignorance, and part of it comes from things like white supremacy and the lack of knowledge about other cultures that comes with it,” Chai said.
The book bans are also a source of worry on the student side. As people who are developing their perspectives, students fear losing access and learning opportunities.
“Preventing people from getting access to different perspectives just perpetuates the current polarization we see in society. Since we’re so used to the common books and themes throughout western literature, it can be frightening, especially to a lot of older generations, when new concepts are introduced. That might be a source of some of this legislation,” Awoyinka said.
Stafford connected the book bans to societal ideals. Literature is an avenue for thought and free speech. Without literature, there is limited commentary on society. Many of the books banned in Texas deal with topics like race and sexuality, often offensive to conservative audiences. This censorship is a limit on free commentary, which Stafford thinks is harmful.
“A lot of book bans are just based upon things that religious extremists find offensive,” Stafford said.
The lack of diversity could be partly to blame for the ignorance causing book bans. Focusing on the same themes, character demographics, and author experiences leaves room for ignorance to fester. This then leads to even more exclusion of works from the canon and drastic measures such as book bans.
Many think that literary diversity should be the center of the western canon. The world has become more diverse, which should be seen in society’s core literature and educational standards. The western canon should reflect the diversity and changes of western society rather than simply focusing on the same texts that have been there since its inception.