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Friday essay: the literary canon is exhilarating and disturbing and we need to read it

Let’s critique the literary canon, but we shouldn’t throw the Brontës out with the bathwater. The Brontë Sisters, by Patrick Branwell Brontë, circa 1834.

Friday essay: the literary canon is exhilarating and disturbing and we need to read it

The Age of Criticism, Martin Amis once wrote, started in 1948 and ended with OPEC.

That is, it started with the publication of F.R. Leavis’s The Great Tradition – the book that, more than any other, is synonymous with a narrow and elitist English canon – and ended in economic crisis.

For Amis, this was a giddy utopian time in which everybody who was anybody agreed that literature mattered. For the Leavisites, literature was a depository of shared human values – of “felt life”. For the intellectuals of the New Left, it was a potent source of social-cultural arguments.

Either way, Literature – not writing, or English, or textual studies, but big “L” literature – was the central cultural formation around which everything turned.

Until, that is, the Age of Criticism ended abruptly in the global stagflation of the early 1970s. And all the hippyish young men – and let’s make it clear, they were invariably men – discovered that literature was “one of the many leisure-class fripperies”, as Amis puts it, that the world could do without.

By the end of the 70s, literary criticism crawled back into the academy to contemplate its own death – or worse, its own irrelevance. In the public imagination, literature gave way to film, television and music, and, subsequently, the rise of the Internet, as central repositories of cultural meaning.

By the end of the millennium, English – no longer English Literature – became a weird sort of sub-cultural pursuit, which academic Simon During once evocatively likened to “trainspotting” (in the sense of lonely dysfunctional men clad in anoraks standing in the rain at train stations). Literature, said During, was less and less a canonical cultural formation and more and more a pile of mouldering old books.

Has literature become a weird hobby? carnagenyc, CC BY-NC

But even for the self-confessed “trainspotters” safe inside the universities, literature through the 1980s and 1990s seemed to be losing relevance. The words on the page were suddenly insufficient. The study of writing gave way to the study of Ideology and the study of Theory.

There is absolutely no doubt that literature has a long history of being employed as an ideological extension of the State. It was co-opted into the “Civilising Mission” of colonial bureaucrats and became part of the jingoistic imperatives of the “Nation-Building Project” of pre and post war Australia.

As intellectual ventures, then, deconstruction and reconstruction were long overdue. The canon is, after all, a fiercely contested body of work that scholars – for one fiercely contested reason or another – have decided was influential in shaping the history of western culture. If one way to define the canon is “what gets taught”, then it became clear that “what gets taught” had to change.

In the 1980s, the Feminist Canon was consolidated, posing a formidable challenge to the Masculinist Canon. And then, in the bitterly contested Culture Wars of the 1990s, the Great Tradition itself was finally unmasked – not only were all the Great Men Dead but all the Feminists Were White.

Decorations in the city of Cartagena. Fredy Builes

But as the Death of the Human followed the Death of the Author, literature – whether Australian, Comparative or Post-Colonial – began to look less like a living corpus and more like a corpse.

One aspect of the problem ­– perhaps – was that in their haste to unmask the hidden cultural allegiances of the canon, academics appeared to lose interest in the practice of writing.

The dilemma is aptly satirized in David Lodge’s novel Changing Places (1979), in which it propels the maniacal ambitions of Professor Morris Zapp (often read as a thinly disguised caricature of the literary critic Stanley Fish).

Zapp’s project – first cast in the 1970s, but developed through Lodge’s trilogy of campus novels through to the 1980s – was to start with Jane Austen then work his way through the canon in a manner calculated to be “utterly exhaustive”.

The object of the exercise, Zapp said, was “not to enhance others enjoyment and understanding” of writing, still less to “honour the novelist herself”. Rather, it was to put a “definitive stop” to anybody’s capacity to say or enjoy anything. The object was not to make the words live, but to extinguish them.

And yet, if literature has been, as Lodge mischievously argued, thoroughly “Zapped” – that is, consigned to the dust heap – then why is it that three decades later there are still few things better calculated to end in tears and acrimony than an essay on the English canon?

“Dead white women” replaced by living men

Of course, literature is not just a pile of musty old books. It is also a dense network of cultural allegiances and class beliefs. Nowhere does this become more apparent than in the processes of list-making that have been fuelled by curriculum building and accountability projects.

In an era of TEQSA and the AQF, with its CLOs and TLOs, its ERAs and QILTs (forget about the meaning of these acronyms – for Marxists, read “alienation”; for Romantics, read “soulnessness”) academics everywhere are being asked to make lists (and more lists), of what their students ought to read and ought to master.

They are then asked to benchmark those lists and set them (like murdered corpses) in concrete.

Designed to enhance accountability, these list-making exercises have not always been accountable. They take what are often fiercely contested ideas – like the literary canon – and turn them into numbers. I am not alone in having seen unit outlines conspicuously devoid of women and indigenous writers.

At school level, the problem gets worse. Recently, the wife of the Victorian Premier Catherine Andrews called for increased gender equality in the selection of texts for inclusion in the VCE. In 2014, 68.5 percent of the books on the list were written by men. (Last year, it dropped to 61 percent.)

A swift study of high school literature curriculums undertaken in the same year revealed that many other Australian states and territories had published high school English curriculums featuring up to 70 percent of texts by male authors.

This is not the intellectual legacy of the historical fact of patriarchy. Rather, in reading through the density of curriculum documents, an uneasy sense emerges that as the old Feminist Canon – comprising Jane Austen, George Eliot and the Brontes, for example – comes off the curriculum, the so-called “dead white women” are not being replaced by contemporary female – let alone Indigenous or poly-ethnic – authors but by contemporary male ones.

In NSW, the gender count of HSC English texts has actually gone backwards. While male writers made up 67 percent men in an earlier curriculum they comprised almost 70 percent in the one most recently published.

This reflects the material reality of a literary sphere in which – as successive Stella counts have shown – books written by men get disproportionately more reviews than books written by women.

It is useful to note, if only for purpose of comparison, that in the heyday of the elitist Leavisites, exactly half of the four “great writers” he catalogued in The Great Tradition were women. As Leavis wrote,

The great English novelists are Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James and Joseph Conrad.

Shakespeare first collected edition of Poems. Shannon Stapleton

The blunt instrument of the Stella text count may shed some light on the problem of gender relations, but there are more difficult issues at stake when it comes to questions of ethnicity and race. Anita Heiss, for example, has written about the Indigenous writers who ought to be studied in the school curriculum but currently are not.

In NSW, the Board of Studies responded to criticisms about gender bias in the curriculum by stating that the books had been chosen on the basis of “quality”.

Which merely leaves one wondering how on earth the great women writers – from Toni Morrison to Alice Munro – failed to make the cut. It also leaves one wondering whether the curriculum builders – a committee apparently composed largely of women – were oblivious to the ideological content of the thing they benignly call “quality”.

And what of the universities that were responsible for their education? When students are taught that literature is an ideological space in which redemption through male genius masquerades as rigour and analysis, for example ­– or that literature enacts a benign silencing that naturalises the ascendancy of white European culture – are they also being taught the skills required to detect such silencing and masquerading in themselves?

It is not just a question of what to read, but also how to read – of teaching students to read critically and carefully.

Paying close attention

Of course the canon should be taught. It is not the function of a university to foster ignorance in the name of politics. Like it or not, the canon is part of our cultural heritage. It is a powerful, and culturally influential body of work. In choosing not to teach it – or, rather, in refusing to critically engage with it – you are actually disempowering students.

The question is not whether or not it should be taught, but how.

I do not teach the canon. But this is not because I do not want my students to read those books – indeed, I actually do.

I do not teach the canon because I am not a teacher of English, let alone English Literature, but a teacher of writing. Struggling through four or five “great books” over the course of a semester is simply not as valuable for my students as working through 50 or 100 different writers, writing in 50 or 100 different styles, for 50 or 100 different reasons – not all of them for Literature.

Where another lecturer may see a canon in need of fortification or demolition, I content myself with a single passage. I want my students to understand it deeply and critically, at the level of the sentence. Why and how is a certain word used, and to what effect?

I also teach Adaptation, focusing attention on writers adapting work from out of the canon, or ‘writing back’ to it. This might include adaptions of Jane Austen, from Rajshree Ojha’s Aisha to Gurinder Chadha’s Bride and Prejudice (2004).

A ‘micro’ book of Pushkin’s poetry. Reuters photographer

It might include novelistic adaptions such as the Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), Jean Rhys’ haunting portrait of Bertha Rochester, better known as the mad woman in the attic in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847) (who resurfaces yet again as the eponymous character in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938)).

In this way canonical works are brought into dialogue with the works of a dozen different writers, taught flexibly and openly, with a weather eye to change and re-evaluation. Teaching minor and popular works can actually be more challenging and therefore revealing for students. It also shows the students just how alive and influential these stories are.

But once the books are torn apart, I also want my students to tidy up and put the books back on the bookshelves – by which I mean understand the diversity of traditions and cultural perspectives from whence they came. I want them to make critically independent judgments.

Leavis wasn’t shy about making judgments. Indeed, he ought to be as famous for the canon that he trashed, as for the canon that he sanctified. He trashed Milton. He trashed Shelley and Keats. He called Dickens a mere “entertainer”. He said there was no English poetry worth reading since John Donne – with the exception, that is, of Gerard Manley Hopkins and (of all people) Thomas Carew.

What was valuable in the work of Leavis was clearly not any value-ridden “judgments”. Still less his almost evangelical mission to uncover the “human life” expressed in the writing. Rather, what Leavis and the New Critics in the United States did was replace the then predominant encyclopedic and bibliographic approach to writing with an attention to the meaning and texture of words on a page. Though Leavis roundly declared that he had absolutely no time for the teaching of writing, he read technically and fluidly, anxiously and probingly, as a writer reads.

This was the substantial intellectual legacy of Leavis. It was not in his moral seriousness, or his earnest and occasionally joyless pronunciations on the canon, but in his deployment of “Practical Criticism” or close and detailed reading as the means to critique it.

Skimming, or reading quickly to grasp ideologies or theories will not teach a student about the use of language, not when the real revelations are located between the words, in the structure of the sentences, and in the relationship between sentences and the world.

“Practical Criticism” means reading with closer critical attention to the way words mean and deceive, disturb the mind, power the emotions, tell truths or merely masquerade as them.

Here is yet another reason to teach the canon. The canon is quite simply the largest repository of exhilarating and disturbing words we have.

To recognize that words have a weight and a materiality and an affective power is not to believe that they are somehow free of ideology or politics – that they are torn loose from culture or history – but quite the reverse. It is to understand in a more nuanced and substantial way how writing works.

In a world that still conducts much of its life and its business in words, this is – as the curriculum builders say – the “transferrable skill”.