Lit with Lindsay: Expand the English canon

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We’ve been talking about books for a while now — almost an entire semester, actually — and from column to column, we’ve circled around issues involving inclusivity in literature.

We’ve been keeping it positive, I think — from learning to love “Beowulf” to embracing the hate-read, my message in writing “Lit with Lindsay” has consistently discussed different ways in which we as individuals can approach literature without prejudice. So now, as my parting message, I want to leave you with one last thought involving inclusivity in literature:

We need to reform the racist, sexist, exclusive literary canon — specifically as it’s taught at UC Berkeley.

As much as I have to say about the ways in which individuals can approach literature in more inclusive ways, it’s almost pointless to talk about literary inclusivity as if it’s really up to the individual reader. The larger problem in literature is that the canon as it’s taught within the English major works as an exclusionary system.

Look — for the English major at UC Berkeley, there are four required foundational courses. These courses are English 45A, 45B and 45C and a class on Shakespeare. The 45 series is meant to provide a survey of essential literature in English, from “Beowulf” to the 20th century; this series, plus a class on Shakespeare, is supposedly the essential basis of study in English lit.

With this in mind, let’s consider the demographic of authors whose work we study. Using information from the English department’s fall 2015 course catalogue, I found the following: If you take the most representative of each of the classes in the 45 series into account, a student will, at best, read only three works by underrepresented minorities and five works by women during the course of four classes and 16 foundational units. This isn’t even a true total of eight books written by minorities, because some of the books are written by women of color.

So what’s the problem?

The problem is that the overcrowding of white male authors in the “foundational” literary canon silences minority voices, and this is an act of oppression. Not by the white male authors, who overpopulate the canon, but by the people who perpetuate this demographic skew — that is, all of us.

By accepting that the “essential” reading in the English major includes so few underrepresented minority authors, we’re saying that their voices don’t matter as much as the voices of white male authors. By accepting the miserably tiny demographic of minorities in the canon, we implicitly agree that the writing done by minorities isn’t as valuable, that their stories are less relevant and that in some significant sense, they do not belong in the canon — not in the way that white men do. And by relegating classes with curriculums more invested in diverse representation to elective status, we assert that listening to minority voices is merely optional.

So, while a lot of great literature in English has been written by white men, and while much of this literature really is essential reading, something has to be done to reform the canon and make it more representative. After all, if literature is meant to tell stories — to communicate different voices and perspectives across time and space — how can we justify amplifying white male voices in the canon so much that their voices drown out the rest?

As much as I personally want to believe that literature can be inclusive and that all stories can be considered under fair and equal scrutiny, I know that larger systems are at work even in filtering which stories — and, necessarily, which demographics — are promoted over others. And the selection of the literary canon of “foundational” works in an English curriculum is one of these systems.

So, as a parting message, I want to encourage you to read. Even though the individual can only do so much, read everything you can and everything you have time for — and through your reading, build your own canon.

Lindsay Choi writes profiles and the Thursday column on literature. Contact her at [email protected].a>.