Literary Canons

The literary canon is built on consensus about the importance of certain works but its actual contents are open for debate.

Oct 08, 2017

rosy Illustration by Rosy Tahan

“No offense, Gaby, but why do I always see you read, how should I say this, less-conventionally-read authors?”

I stop telling my friend about Carl Frode Tiller’s Encircling. I pause. He backtracks, saying it’s not a bad thing, of course, but for someone who is interested in literary canons I sure do spend a lot of time reading books that aren’t really in the mainstream — in fact, it seems like I only ever read books that aren’t mainstream, which is cool, of course, but yeah, I’m just saying.

Fair enough. Part of my capstone deals with the very question of canonicity, and how a new literary tradition can be structured when its current formulation still relies heavily on its predecessor. The predecessor is the tradition of dead white men, a phrase that makes literature scholars’ eyes roll back so far down their body that they enter their stomach and need to be thrown up out of disgust. Sorry. It’s gross, but it’s true.

When you think of something as part of the literary canon, as Literature with the capital L, you implicitly assign a set of meanings onto it. Perhaps this meaning is simply that it has to mean something, something you’re not yet sure of, but that you think is there. You think that the work is important — maybe not to you, but important to those in the know. Literary canonization affects the status of a work, and thus the status of those who read it. Reading Chaucer and The Arabian Nights and being able to say how Virginia Woolf lies in conversation with Sun-Tzu becomes a line on someone’s intellectual CV.

I can see what you’re about to say, it’s pushing against your teeth. “What if I was told that insert-title-here is important? What if I can’t see what the big deal is? Isn’t this just another case of academia imposing certain standards of knowledge that we, as the academic youth, must forcibly comply with, else face potential extinction in a trial by combat involving some sort of military junta?” You’re frazzled, about to beat Grapes of Wrath against your forehead until you finally get it, man.

Relax. I haven’t read East of Eden, On the Road, Lolita — sorry Rosy! — or Anna Karenina. I’ve only tackled a handful of Jane Austen novels, have not touched Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tángere and El Filibusterismo, and have yet to read Edward Said’s Orientalism the whole way through. I’ve come to accept the fact that for every canonized book I read, someone’s going to push another one right under my nose. After my friend’s comment, I trudged to The Strand — which, by the way, I think is the Times Square of bookstores, in the bad way — and bought copies of The Old Man and the Sea and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, which I devoured, almost literally. Two off the list, and infinity to go!

This, ladies and gentlemen, is the paradox that the literary canon is built on. The literary canon is supposed to be composed of a set list of books, with emphasis on set. It’s not meant to be a game of eternal whack-a-mole. There’s supposed to be a consensus on what this canon is made of, and not vague gestures to just, you know, dead old white men — sorry, don’t gag.

The reality is that there’s no consensus, and although people are happy to point their fingers at Dickens and Homer, that’s more of a value judgment than a seal. Knowledge of the canon is, to some extent, another set of standards, another box we need to check in order to show that we understand the weird and wonderful world of academia.

I’ll let you in on a little secret — I’m not sure the literary canon exists. Insofar as it’s built on consensus about the importance of certain works, Shakespeare is the only author I can think of everyone agreeing to. And yet if we were to say that the literary canon is Shakespeare, people’s noses would scrunch up in disagreement, and scrunch up so much that they would start to get wrinkles on their nostrils. Sorry. It’s gross, but it’s true.

Although the contents of the literary canon are open to debate, its classification system remains relatively stable. I began this piece saying that we grant importance to canonized literary works, and that this importance is tied to meaning. Literature itself provides a mirror into one’s psyche; works become canonized because they help shape how we view ourselves and our societies.

The pessimistic Patrice in me is quick to point out that these worldviews are less idealistic than we think they are, and that there are certain politics involved in deciding which segments of society become represented in literature. What sells? The reason why the old literary tradition still prevails is because it has established a reputation for itself, in part just by being around for so long. This worldview issue is especially difficult in societies whose literary presence is not as established — which image of themselves do they project? What will people want to see? We are quick to christen Nick Joaquin as the next Gabriel García Márquez, which is definitely a feat in itself, and yet suggests that the only texts worth our time are those that emulate something else.

New literary traditions will have to be built around this label of canon, one that is in itself charged with about a million ways to approach it. Despite supposedly being all about the text, canonization isn’t really about just the text. It’s about power structures, it’s about how readers are taught to approach certain texts, it’s about a whole set of qualifications and standards that are in themselves eternal whack-a-mole games. While I’d like to argue for Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North as a part of the literary canon based on literary merit alone, there’s a lot of factors that contribute to that position: its overt connection to Shakespeare, its one-time translation into English, its publication history, on and on and on until you fall asleep and my capstone gets finished. Whichever comes first.

Literary merit is, therefore, only a part of the equation. The rest of it is composed of how a text balances all these other histories and cultural traditions that have come before it. It’s safe to say that any text that can solve that equation belongs in the canon.

Gaby Flores is a contributing writer. Email her at [email protected]

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