This post has been churning around in my head for awhile now. For those who haven’t read the “About” section on this site, I was an English major at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. As such, I’ve read a lot of books considered “classics” (or, in academia, those books which make up the Western canon). I read them because it was required of an English major, not because I liked them. I read them because I wanted to be an author, and it is widely known that to write, you must read. I read them because I was told they would make me a better writer.
And maybe in some ways, they did. But I’m no longer convinced it is these specific books that make one a better writer. In fact, I think in some ways, they can be harmful. Because the authors at issue are almost universally white, cisgender, straight men. Not surprisingly, that makes a lot of their work racist, homophobic, and patriarchal. They do not reflect the reality of the world around us, not anymore (and arguably not when their books were written, either), nor do they reflect the reality of any world I want to live in. To quote one of these men, Albert Camus, “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.” But how can the Western canon represent the current truth? How can it help us learn to write our own truths when it doesn’t even accurately convey its own?
Yet, the thing that haunts me most is the thought of what we could be missing out on by encouraging our students to mimic a Western canon that is no longer relevant. Think of all we could have if we didn’t force this trite old sameness down the throats of every high school student in America. We could have more readers, more writers. We could inspire more voices to tell more stories, more truths. We could lift up creativity, in all fields, across all specialties and scopes. I mean, what if Black students didn’t have to read about the “heroism” of Atticus Finch? What if they were never subjected to a lecture on why it’s “okay” that Twain used the n-word 219 times in Huck Finn? What if indigenous students didn’t have to read the words “the only good Indian was a dead Indian” written by some white woman who didn’t know the first thing about their culture(s)? What if female students didn’t have to read about an all-male cast descending into chaos and savagery (and thereby be forced to contemplate what their role is in placating this behavior) in Lord of the Flies? What if our students didn’t have to follow around a main character who sexually assaults two little girls in A Clockwork Orange? What if none of these children were ever forced to sympathize with their oppressors? Would that really make them worse writers?
Or would it make them better?
Would it make the writing less or would it simply make it different? If we didn’t have these “influences” would we be more or less free? I mean, isn’t literature about freedom? Expressing oneself in the fullest and truest way possible? And how can you be free to write from your own experience and your own culture if none of your “influences” saw you as human?
What kind of impact would it have if instead of To Kill a Mockingbird, we passed out copies of The Hate U Give? Hell, what kind of impact would it have if we just went ahead and accepted the fact that a lot of the Western canon is simply boring? I mean, how many people out there do you think hate reading because someone handed them Moby Dick and they read three pages about how white some whale was and decided books were not for them? Seriously though, even the whale is white? What if we gave them Six of Crows instead? Why can’t books be both instructive and interesting?
The thing is: they can. And they are. There are a lot of books out there that are both; books that academics (and even teachers) snub their noses at because they’re classified as “young adult” or “fantasy” or “genre fiction.” I mean, I have actually seen educators, good educators I know, say things like, “THUG was really great considering it’s young adult.”
Like… what? Seriously, though. What?
Anyway, I think it’s far past time we stop and ask ourselves: Why are these labels seen to be bad things? Is it who writes these stories that make them less? Because if it’s that, it should really be evaluated. Or is it that reading these stories is fresh and interesting and fun? And if it’s that, whoever said that reading had to be boring or painful to be worthwhile? I mean honestly, what kind of message are we sending with that notion?
Anyone else think it’s time that we cancel the classics? And if not, why do you think they should stay? Anyone want a good mix of both? Let me know (respectfully, please) your thoughts in the comments.
❤ Always, Aimee