The Problem With the English Canon or Why do we Always Read Dead White Dudes?

Who decides which books we read in English lectures? Why are so many white men's books lauded over those of women or people of colour? These are questions that many literature students deal with on a frequent basis. We are taught to ascribe certain works with a degree of 'literariness' which seems to be completely constructed and artificial. But when we look further into the root of this distinction, it appears to be rather more troublesome. 

When I think of the literary greats, certain figures always spring to mind: Shakespeare, Chaucer, Dickens, Orwell, Kafka, Joyce, Wilde and the list goes on. Aside from a few remarkable figures including Austen and Dickinson, women don't really get much of a look in. The representation of BAME people is even worse, with an almost exclusive white bias. 

In fact, in a definitive ranking of the best writers of all time, a measly 6 out of 100 are female with even fewer being non-white.

The problem comes when we attempt to diagnose and alleviate this issue. Who decided to favour this specific group and how do we begin to tip the scales in the other direction? There is of course much value in canonised works, most of my favourite novels included in this category. But complete adherence to these rigid guidelines allows for the proliferation of a certain viewpoint and a form of academia which is simply no longer relevant. 

In the same way that history books are often penned by the winners of colonial expansion, the canon was formed by a group of academics who prioritised their work above the marginalised and less respected authors. There is hence no point in blaming our predecessors for the formation of the canon as it currently stands as the contemporary culture enabled such a dismissal of diverse viewpoints. 

What we can do now is a conscious reshaping of the canon to fit a more diverse and equal clientele. In a world that is rapidly modernising and liberalising, we need to change our academia accordingly. The voices of the oppressed should have equal weight and consideration and we need to start reporting properly on their side of the conversation. There is so much that we can learn from unlikely forms of literature that provide an utterly disparate perspective from the one we are usually fed.

When I look at my own set texts for the term, the same problem arises: the list consists of Shakespeare, Milton, Swift, Pope and Behn. This is a male-dominated, exclusively white list which does little to fully reflect the society and literary traditions present in the studied period of 1550-1740. 

University course conveners need to wake up and realise that literary value exists outside the limits of the canon and that consciously selecting texts from the same white, male pool is contributing to the erasure of the other side of history and isn't providing students of English Literature with the well-rounded education that they deserve. In continuing this canonical tradition, we are supporting an outdated hegemonic culture of prejudice and exclusion which simply doesn't fit the bill any more.