A Year Expanding the Canon: Reading Non-WASP Stories

I had what's considered a traditional education when it comes to literature: The standard curriculum for an English major during my undergrad, further exploration of the literary canon in my MFA program, and independent reading guided by the "classics." What this means is that I am fairly fluent when it comes to the traditional, English-language "canon."

But, of course, I am talking about a fairly narrow category here: That traditional canon is made up largely of straight white dudes of Anglo-Saxon descent. (The term "WASP" is sometimes used to describe the typical group of "white, Anglo-Saxon protestants" who—among other things—typically dominate these canon texts.) Yes, there's a small smattering of non-white or non-male authors, but they're the exception.

When I realized how narrow the scope of my reading had been, I made efforts to familiarize myself (in some small measure) with the breadth of work available out there. While I don't pretend to have worked my way into any kind of expertise, the year I spent focusing on non-WASP writers was illuminating.

The Invisibility of "Normal"

Perhaps the biggest single lesson for me was how much I took the canon for granted as a universal, unquestioned default. I was reading "the greats," "the classics," "the canon," and throughout my education never stopped to analyze what that meant in terms of representation. The traditional canon was the water I was swimming in, and not something I ever thought to criticize.

During my MFA, where I was given some freedom to build my own reading list, I took my first real look back on all that I'd read. Until that moment, I honestly didn't realize just how white, straight, male, and British my reading had been to that point.

In recognizing where my reading had stopped and how unrepresentative of the world's population (or even my own country's population) this work really was, I also had to reckon with the filter that had brought me that canon. The canon is, after all, an attempt to narrow down the vastness of all literature into a few dozen books that can become shared reference points. But that filter is not divorced from the political and power structures of the centuries in which said filter was created: The (often forceful) dominance of white culture, the prioritization of male perspective, and the devaluation of all other viewpoints has been baked into the canon. Not maliciously, perhaps, but (I'd say) inarguably. And, unless it's questioned directly, it remains an invisible but powerful force.

The Value of Broad Reading

The (often forceful) dominance of white culture, the prioritization of male perspective, and the devaluation of all other viewpoints has been baked into the canon.

That's a shame, because reading from authors of diverse backgrounds comes with many benefits. One of the greatest benefits of reading, as a whole, is that it expands our capacity for empathy. That's not just an empty assertion, either: This has been studied on more than one occasion.  But I'm left to wonder: If we're only reading the words of straight white dudes talking about the experiences of straight white dudes, then … aren't we limiting our opportunity for empathy? Might it be that we have drawn (or perhaps, more accurately, reinforced) a border that defines which people are worthy of empathy?

Beyond directly practicing empathy, diverse reading also offers the chance to connect with the experiences of those outside of the majority group. As I see it, this does two things. First, it lets us recognize the many ways that the similarities within the human experience will always outweigh the differences. Second, it shows us important experiences specific to a given background. The cultural elements, identity experiences, and other background-specific perspectives are certainly impactful. For those who have had such experiences, there is great value in seeing such struggles reflected in fiction. For those outside of those experiences, reading such work can provide an opportunity for greater insight and understanding.

I also feel that writers, specifically, stand to gain a great deal by exploring stories outside of the traditional canon. The canon has long been in conversation with itself, and so developed both aesthetic qualities and general priorities. By moving away from that conversation, new alternatives become more apparent. To cite just one example, works like The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende and 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez are multi-generational stories that focus on an extended family as opposed to a singular protagonist. This shift in focus is not something I'd even considered a storytelling option while focused on the standard canon.

Expanding the Canon

As Sunili Govinagge noted when she did an experiment similar to my own, "White authors reign in book reviews, bestseller lists, literary awards, and Amazon.com recommendations." While this bias in publishing and book criticism perpetuates the issue by limiting new additions to the canon, I believe it also works the other way around: By prioritizing and emphasizing a specific sort of story for so long, we have made such stories the safer bet for publishers. That won't change on its own.

It is not my argument that we should abandon Dickens, Shakespeare, Wilde, Fitzgerald, etc. I believe that almost all works within the canon are of merit. Nor is it truly possible that we can add in everything without making cuts of some sort: The point of the canon is, as I noted, to act as a filter. There's a point of expansiveness at which the filter is no longer functional.

I don't think we can ever truly get away from social perspective and cultural elitism playing some role. I feel English professor Stephen Behrendt said it well when he stated:

Canons are always about closed communities—who is excluded is at least as important as who is included. It is the ‘in’ crowd that usually controls the entrances, which means that the canonized or canonical writers largely resemble those who have judged them to be ‘major’ or ‘important’ or ‘classic.' But this judging still rests on the tastes and preferences of the judges, who have traditionally been conditioned, whether they are aware of it, to prefer certain things—familiar things, mostly—over unfamiliar ones.

But for that very reason, I think you can't just sit back and follow the path of least resistance—as either an individual or an educator. There's no immediate fix to the entrenched socio-political beliefs that have influenced the existing canon, but it doesn't feel like a big ask to set aside a slice or two of the pie. For every two or three books you read by white men, for instance, make sure you're reading at least one book by an author of an underrepresented background. For those structuring courses, dedicating a unit to explicitly appreciating non-WASP writers can only benefit students. Maybe that's not enough—probably that's not enough—but it's more than we seem to be doing right now.

I'm a white, straight(ish) dude, and I benefit from the system that has shaped the literary canon. In many ways, I'm not much of a useful advocate. And, in writing all this, I can't help but feel this is more an  admission of my own failings and ignorance, with the majority of others already realizing what it took me so long to see. However, by reflecting on my experience, I hope that I may open a couple doors for others who have been similarly limited by a traditional literary education.

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