On the Ingrained Biases of the Literary Canon

Image courtesy of CCAC North Library

The books of the literary canon were written almost exclusively by straight men of European descent. There are exceptions: a handful of Russian authors, a few white women, a smattering of hispanic authors, and so on. But these make up a fraction of a fraction of the list of “classic books.”

So, let’s just start by saying, you know, this is a problem. And it’s a problem not just because of the exclusionary qualities, but because it’s a self-perpetuating issue. We teach students that books of a certain nature are “good,” which informs the definition of “good books” for those who will define the literary canon as it continues on to new iterations. And not just a problem because it’s a self-perpetuating issue, but because it threatens to limit one of the core benefits of reading as a practice: The cultivation of empathy through increased awareness of experiences dissimilar from our own.

But let me step back for a second and talk at this from a few different angles.

My Experience with the Canon

I want to be clear that the books in the canon are worthy entries, and there have been only a handful that I’ve regretted reading. Some of my favorite books (Picture of Dorian Gray, The Great Gatsby, Brave New World, etc.) are classics written by white dudes. So, really, I’m feeling more like a concerned citizen here than a rioter. But I also feel I have enough perspective that I can speak on this issue.

That perspective I’ve gathered over the years? Well, I began exploring famous literary work at an earlier age than many, though I really have to blame my parents — two English-department professors. Then there were my undergraduate years, where I took eight or so literature classes. And in the break between my undergrad and graduate work, I specifically went about reading famous books that I hadn’t gotten to previously.

When I got to the end of that process and reflected on what I read, it was painfully clear how limited the scope was when it came to representing perspectives outside the “norm” of white European dead guys. And even more recently, going about my graduate reading, I’ve found the issue continues: I’ve read 11 books so far this year. Nine were by white people. Ten were by men. Clearly, I need to be doing more to counter-balance the tendencies of the canon … but more on that in a moment.

How Did We Get Here?

I’d say the reason the canon has primarily white people of European descent is pretty straightforward: That’s where people spoke English. And when we’re looking at French or German or Spanish literature, I’d say its inclusion is about cultural dissemination, the simple fact that they were neighbors with England and more likely to share academic and other communities.

As for the lack of women, well … that gets trickier. I’ve raised some ire with this statement before, but I’m going to go for it anyway: I think it’s largely because women didn’t write as much or as well. This isn’t to say that cultural biases didn’t also play a role, disregarding or setting aside fine work by female authors. And it certainly isn’t to say that the lack of strong writing work was because women lacked the inborn talent. Rather, I’m simply trying to say that men were able to write more books and better books because men had the power, the education, the resources to read and learn, and the permission to have writing as a valid pursuit.

Women, for the centuries where much of the canon was being developed, did not have those advantages. When we see a female writer included in the canon, it’s usually a woman from a class position that allowed her access to resources typically reserved for men. And those resources — time to write, connections that would yield rich feedback, access to education, exposure to the best books of the time — are vital for producing excellent work. The genius theory that it’s all in-born is bunk. So societal role and power dynamics influence the ability of any given group to output successfully.

That same social dynamic also contributes to why we don’t see as many books from minorities. Racial minorities have historically been disempowered, and that’s bound to impact the ability to write often and well. And until quite recently, our culture suppressed the voices of those in the minority as far as sexual orientation or identity is concerned.

Some of these cultural tendencies are on the mend. Some have been largely resolved. Others continue, in small or large ways. But even as things shift and we see more and more work published by women, the canon rarely inducts those female writers.

The Self-Perpetuating Cycle

I get annoyed when people say Shakespeare is the “best writer the English language has ever seen,” or other similar nonsense. First, the very idea that this title can be given to anyone seems absurd. And second, it’s clear to me that Shakespeare is so often classified as “great” partially because we have based our definitions of greatness on Shakespeare.

Weird way to start? Let me see if I can get to my point. Subjectivity is a significant aspect of the reading and writing process. You may love 1984, I book that I found dull and self-important, and I wouldn’t think that makes you an idiot. And you may hate Brave New World, a book of a similar genre that I found to be charming and insightful, and that hatred wouldn’t make you stupid either. There is space for many styles. But academia? Well, academia — the source of much of our canon — struggles when it comes to subjective pursuits.

While some portions of academia successfully own the subjective qualities, there is a longstanding tendency to make objective claims about literature. And in a subjective realm, making an objective claim requires that you put definitions to something that is, by default, amorphous. You have to pick out the qualities that you decide, through whatever method, make writing “good.”

To me, the only good is impacting the audience. But to academia, a litany of implied or directly stated qualities have become the ruler by which new works are evaluated. However, when you’re constantly building on the previous iteration of the canon and referring to those works to make sure your ruler is valid, it’s inevitable that definitions of good will conform — to at least some degree — to the existing works.

Does all that make sense? I’m rambling here, I know, but what I’m getting at is that there are certain tendencies that are distinctly tied to the culture and heritage of European descent. There are qualities likely to be present in male culture or hetero culture but that may not be present outside that circle. And if you’re defining “good writing” according to what’s present in the canon, only those who learn according to the canon — that is, people of a certain class position — are likely to be able to live up to those standards.

We have defined “good writing” as having the qualities found in the work of white straight men of European descent. Now the canon’s new iterations are judged by those same standards, and it filters out much of the work that doesn’t match. Make sense? Cool.

But Why Is This a Problem?

Just as it’s silly to claim there is a singular form of “good writing,” there is no singular way to claim the “right” purpose of a book. But one of the many benefits that comes from reading actively is that you expand your empathy. The degree to which empathy is increased by reading is hotly debated, but visible results have been found in rigorous studies. And so long as we can agree that empathy is an important foundation for the sort of society we all want to live in, we can move on to the next important question.

Empathy for whom? (By the way: “whom” is stupid.) If we narrowly define those we relate and connect to, we set up walls. Walls that build up in our implicit associations and unexamined behaviors. Walls that become part of the fabric of how we think and who we are and the sort of world we help create.

I don’t agree with everyone. There are cultures with whom I disagree consistently (e.g., conservative Islam cultures). There are perspectives on gender and sexuality that don’t sit right with me. There are beliefs and thoughts and ways of being that I’m never going to adopt as my own. But that’s not the point. The point is to be able to empathize, to understand, and to respect the fundamental humanity of those around me.

That’s what reading does. It expand that empathy. And while reading books from and about European white dudes will increase my empathy in a general sense, it’s also important to learn about other groups and cultivate that empathy, expanding the definition of “us” that will work as the fabric of how I think and behave. And maybe you want the same thing.

So What Can We Do About It?

Duh: Read more books by people of different cultures and perspectives. Find the space if you’re being inundated with “classics.” Maybe bring up the concern with teachers and see if they can throw in some of their favorite books by non-white, non-European, or non-dude people. And recommend the ones you enjoy to your friends and fellow readers, supporting them in expanding their horizons.

Go read 100 Years of Solitude. Not a perfect book, but the opening chapter might be the best I’ve ever read.

Go read Beloved by Toni Morrison. It’s the next one on my list, and we can share our thoughts.

Read books that make you uncomfortable. Books that make you second guess yourself. Books that scare you.

Don’t stop with reading. Watch documentaries. Check out interviews. Make friends in foreign countries. Find a pen pal.

Set a specific goal. I’m aiming to read one book from each continent (except Antarctica) per year. I’m aiming to read at least five books by women per year.

And be mindful of the tendency in the canon, of the problem, of the many benefits of pushing against it. The things that most shape our lives are not the ones that roar into vision, but the ones that remain invisible.

Tell me how it goes. And write on.