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What’s wrong with the literary canon?

This elusive and slightly archaic category, ‘the literary canon’ seeps into what we know and what we think we know about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ literature. On a simple level, the ‘literary canon’ refers to a body of texts, narratives and writers considered to be the most important and influential in a particular time or place. As part of this canon, literature older than the 19th century tends (for obvious reasons) to privilege predominately male, white writers. In stark contrast then, surely modern literature should seek to challenge these boundaries?

As promoted in class, learning about the past is only useful in so far as to see how it has changes the present day. Yet, for years now literature courses have been dominated by the same old names: a limited mashup of authors like Austen, Swift and Dickens. It is by no mistake that these names are constantly referred to as ‘representative’ of English literature, with their significance (in one way or another) contributing to challenging or satirizing their contemporary British society. However, to leave the list there and dismiss the endeavors of modern authors (multi-ethnic and all), is to rob students of a wider world of work that goes beyond these rigid categories. Despite modern authors insight into what is actually happening at this moment in time, they still have to wedge their way into this canon. Critically acclaimed author Yvonne Owou’s Dust manages to defy this norm and wins a spot onto literature modules, however there are many more out there that still deserve the limelight. As an English Literature student, we are often taught to look at a novel, play or poem in contextual  and historical terms. Yet it becomes a troubling method when it stops there.

Joe Sacco’s comic book Palestine is rarely classified alongside other high-brow political literature, strictly because of its experimental or atypical format (you guessed it…the comic book). It is rather comical that canonical authors have gained their popularity due to these exact features. Modernist, surrealist and avant-garde writers and thinkers have carved out a name for themselves precisely from their experimentation with words, images and style. So why is it when comic books actively play with words, images and style (just like avant-garde writers), that this is somehow not ‘high-brow’ enough? Despite the varying content, Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves all-share similarities with Sacco’s works, in their ability to make the everyday strange, and to stretch our perception of what we think we know about society and politics. Surely then, Sacco’s decision to use a style predominately associated with superheroes and fantasy is a clever one. Like with the surrealists of the last century, Sacco uses this ‘childlike’ medium to deal with issues that has troubled the last two decades in a comical and engaging way.

The question still remains to circulate ‘what actually is the canon’? For further insight, lets dive into the etymology of this elusive word. Its origins derive from the Greek word ‘kanon’, meaning a measuring rod or rule in law in which to follow. This vague definition seems to offer no answer to what exactly this measure is, or what it will be measured against. If we are always measuring against Dickens and Austen, then surely writers like Sacco and Owuor can never make the cut in any mainstream English course. However, if this measure looks at creativity and innovation no matter its writer or presentation, than the confines of ‘canon’ doesn’t seem so restrictive. It seems that if this measure of literary worth in terms of innovation and creativity would be put up against other forms of writing: a short story, rap song or comic book, they would all pass.

Renowned authors Aldous Huxley and John Steinbeck were in their time known for their unpopularity, rather than the success we know of them today. If this is the case, there is some hope for budding authors of experimental or ‘low-brow’ style to go beyond the measure of what the canon measures right now and into something that is more representative of what British culture actually looks like today.

Featured image: Flickr

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