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.
Pale, Male and Stale
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
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.
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.
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.
This side of the argument was a lot easier to write, but what do you think?