When us literature junkies start talking about the canon, it sounds normal. We all nod and know exactly what is being talked about. To someone who doesn’t religiously bury their nose in books digging up every possible meaning, metaphor, simile, historical reference, and who knows what else, the canon is just something on a pirate ship that goes boom! (See canon picture below. Photo credit by Niki Busler of Once Upon a Design) But, unfortunately, that’s not what the canon is in literature terms. It’s much less menacing and violent.
Let’s do a little background before we really get started getting the skinny on what the literary canon is all about. Back in the day in Greece, there was instrument called the kanôn which translates to “straight rod,” something that was used during construction for surveying. It’s the concept of measuring that was appealing in using this Greek word for our purposes in literature. Our modern form of the canon is similar but in reference to measuring and surveying literature.
In high school and many college literature classes, I’m sure your teachers have stressed the importance of Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton, Dickens, and many other influential writers. All of these writers make up the literary canon which then refers to a means of measuring other works of literature to a certain standard, skill, and value. Okay, seems simple you say. Well it isn’t really as easy as chalking it up to certain individuals. In literature, we accept what the canon is, but there is movement and upheaval to change the outlook and perception of the canon. What do all of the writers I mentioned have in common? If you guessed “they’re all a bunch of old, dead, white dudes” then you guessed correctly. The “traditional” literary canon seems dated and not nearly as diversified as the world we live in (i.e. tunnel vision). If literature and writing is supposed to express emotions and experiences and invoke political/social changes, then considering only one group of people relevant or as “the standard” doesn’t really do much good, does it? Pushing to expand the canon to include ethnic and gender diversity will not only broaden our horizons of perception of certain issues/emotions, etc., but it will, in turn, make literature more interesting and engaging. Not everyone can relate to Romeo or Juliet being in a forbidden love. Or being an orphan taken in by thieves only to find out that you really come from a decent background with a bit of money involved like Oliver Twist. By widening our look at the canon, we can include authors like the Bronte sisters, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Ralph Eillison, Richard Wright, and SOOOOOO many others.
Reality check here: if students think that the standard and value of writing is that of Dickens, Chaucer, and Shakespeare, some writers in which they have trouble even reading, then they are going to think their own writing is inadequate or that all literature is “hard” and they cannot connect with it. In a nation where 32 million adults are illiterate, the last thing we want to do is scare them off to trying to delve into some good literature. I am not saying that the classics aren’t important or not worth studying (NOT SAYING THAT AT ALL!!!), I am just saying that they shouldn’t be the only pieces of literature that we consider high class and valuable.
On that note: stay tuned for next week where I talk about why the classics ARE still important (and no I won’t just be talking about the old, dead, white dudes).