So yesterday’s post prompted a lot of good comments (by the way, I’m very impressed by how much you guys have read). A lot of people were talking about how this list is fairly white, very Western, and I might add, very male-centered. With the exception of Achebe and Marquez, all the writers are American or European. And there are significantly more men than women. And in terms of sexual orientation, only Baldwin is there.
This list is, however, broader than the list I was given to read for my MA – a list that included Spencer, Eliot, Woolf, but no people of color at all. On the College Board list, we have Silko and Morrison, Walker and Ellison. This list is an improvement if still not ideal.
Of course, we could argue that the canon simply represents the state of history, that people of color and women didn’t write for public consumption much or if they did, that material didn’t survive. But we seem to keep finding great writers who were writing secretly – particularly in terms of slave narratives and the domestic journals of women – and this makes me wonder if we don’t need to broaden our definition of something that is canonical.
Then, always, people want to argue what makes something canonical – is it great writing? A unique perspective? Historically-set? Thematically great? I don’t have any of the answers to these questions, but I think they should continually be drawn out and considered.
What I do know is that Euro/American straight men alone should no longer be the people deciding what is worth reading. But to change that dynamic – which is thankfully already in flux – we all have to participate in the discussion. We have to read – as we do – but we have to encourage other people to read, too – our students, our friends, people we see on the bus – we need to model broad and wide reading.
I would also argue that we need to stop demeaning work that some people consider less than “literary.” If we keep saying that mysteries and horror novels (by the way, Stephen King’s book On Writing is one of the best I’ve read on the subject), aren’t “real” writing, then we are excluding a huge group of readers from participation in this conversation.
In our time, reading is on the decline in a serious way, and so I think we have to encourage reading in any form it takes – even on devices like Kindle. I admit I don’t love reading on a screen, but if my students will read Midnight’s Children online, then more power to them – at least they’re reading.
So I ask you – my fellow readers – how do we get people reading more? And what should they read? What would you add to the “canon” if you could? Do share.