Why You Don’t Have to Read the Literary Canon

Hi folks! So, last week I wrote a little blog post on why I think people should read the literary canon. The long and short of it was that there is value in reading older literature and it can make reading contemporary books more meaningful. So,  I had to write a post on why you don’t have to write the literary canon because being balanced is in my nature.

Flourish

Pale, Male and Stale

I Am Neither Man nor Woman
Charlotte Brontë was not having any of your gender-limiting bull. (misquoted, but still.)

Let’s look at the elephant in the room: the canon is exclusive AF. The literary canon is books that were valued by Westerners and has historically been defined by white men. There has been a shift in the 20th century to have a more diverse canon but short of finding highly curated lists (such as in uni modules) it is hard to escape its homogeneity. The fact that we have women featured at all is often due to them originally writing under a male pen name, so to say that the canon has a bias is an understatement.


Being Widely Read > Being Well-Read

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The hype exists with greats and classics of literature too and there are circles where there is a pressure to be well-read. But what does that even mean? Usually, it means that you’ve checked off some big, influential books off the list.

I think being widely read – so having read in different genres, time periods, types of texts by different authors, fiction and non-fiction – holds far greater value than say, having read the entire works of Dickens just for the sake of it (which was once an aim of mine!).


Just Because It’s in the Canon, Doesn’t Mean It’s Good

So, I love science fiction. I took a sci-fi module at university and I am also interested in reading the SF canon. But that doesn’t mean that everything I have read was good. Influential? Yes. Groundbreaking? 100%. Enjoyable? No comment.

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At uni, I studied Lolita which was interesting to pick at and analyse in a university setting. But it’s controversial for a reason and I don’t think I’d tell anyone that they needed to read this. Similarly, Pamela is considered the first English-language novel and I have (kinda) read it, but it is one of the most dull things I have ever tried to read.


Non-native English speakers

So, I’ve read a lot of high brow and high concept literature and it is not always easy. And I’m a native English speaker. So imagine someone who comes to English as a second (or third) language and they’re faced with archaic language must be so confusing. Reading books should never be hard work (unless you’re studying them…).


Books Ageing Poorly

Societies and cultures move together hand in hand and books often become dated, reflected in how they are written as well as their content.

Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None features a poem which predicts how each character is due to die. In modern publications, this poem is about ‘Ten Little Soldier Boys’. Before this, it was titled ‘Ten Little Indians’ and in the original printing, it was ‘Ten Little Niggers’. Reflective of history? Yes. Do we need to use this kind of language? No.

Ten Little Soldier Boys

This is a rare example where altering a small part benefited a new reader without taking away from the original book. Other amendments would be considered acts of censorship which I’m obviously not arguing for. But that means that there are books which contain outdated ideas or language. Not everyone will feel comfortable with, be able to ignore or even enjoy a book which has protagonists that are racist, sexist, homophobic, colonial etc. and that’s okay. I can handle some of these views in terms of historical context, but I refuse to read any more of say, H.P. Lovecraft, who was racist even compared to his contemporaries.

Flourish

This side of the argument was a lot easier to write, but what do you think?

 

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5 thoughts on “Why You Don’t Have to Read the Literary Canon

  1. This was another great post.

    Yes, I do think that some books have expiration dates, including ones that are considered classics. There comes a time when they may be so out of step with the current culture (or so problematic, as you mentioned) that they’re simply not going to speak to modern audiences the way they did decades or centuries ago.

    This isn’t a bad thing in my opinion. Just like every book can’t possibly appeal to every reader, not everything is meant to last forever.

    As I alluded to in my last comment, what is considered “canon” or “classics” should be an always-evolving thing. New authors should be added and old one culled as society itself changes.

    I don’t know if you’re open to suggestions for future posts here, so I’m saying this with absolutely no pressure whatsoever…..but would you be interested in coming up with your own list of modern-day classics? It sure would be interesting to see who you’d pick from the last 20 (30?) years.

    I’d blog about that, too, if you are interested in this idea. I write personal, non-blog-hop posts on my site on Mondays and Thursdays.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I definitely agree with the idea of an ‘evolving canon’ – that way, it would reflect those books that have stood the test of time and are relevant to readers today as well.

      That’s a great idea for a blog post and certainly one I will bear in mind for the future. I don’t think I could write one just off the top of my head though – partly because I’m not sure if I’ve read enough modern literature yet to make that judgement and partly because I’d need to think about how we could predict whether more recent books could stand the test of time. Perhaps an ongoing mental project until I’m ready to write about it. I would love to see your take on it though!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This was so good! Oh god I had to read Pamela at university as well. It is quite painfully boring. Also had to read Lolita, which is just straight up disturbing!

    I think you’re right, we’re not required to read this stuff. I haven’t read any HP Lovecraft but I didn’t know that about him – another one I now don’t have to bother with! Thanks 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This is ultimately why I decided not to study literature. I found many of the books I’d be expected to read so boring and not really having an effect on how I write for today. I do roll my eyes when someone hates on a books because of outdated ideas. Just like publishers control things for what’s popular it happened back in the day. It’s not necessarily the author. And if it is they were a product of their time just like we are of ours. ❤️ Great discussion Arub!

    Liked by 1 person

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