Firing the Western Canon, Gender Edition

A few days ago, Brooklyn-based author Anna Szymanski published a quite excellent article about gender perspective in literature. For a year, she only read women authors; the experience of reading a male author afterwards, for her, likened to the dancing hamsters from Kia commercials. She rightly points out an important structural problem: that, especially in high school and below, women are subject, in large part, to learning about their identities from men. She notes:

Because fiction — like all media — functions partly to teach young people how to construct their own identities. Some critics may argue that we shouldn’t let young women be influenced by film, television, the Internet or even books, but unless you’re raised in a soundproof booth on an Amish farm, you’re going to be influenced. And, the truth is, you should be — especially by literature. That’s kind of the point. But white men can’t be the only ones doing the influencing. It’s not that white male writers are somehow inherently sexist. It’s just that their perspective is limited. Because white men, as it turns out, are not actually omniscient oracles.

The political import of literature can never be too strongly stated. Many recent major-media-outlet defenses of the humanities collect around the idea that literature, and its study, are important because they teach us what it means to be “human.” They’re right–––literature provides a way to access minds other than one’s own and worlds different from whichever one happens to be contemporary. Both of those capabilities are social ones, tied directly to how people identify to themselves and to each other. Szymanski’s piece delivers this point brilliantly.

That said, the response of a number of commenters on the Huffington Post version of the article illuminate a related problem in literary pedagogy. It’s a common response on these sorts of articles: claims that gender discrepancies in high school syllabi and the canon are simply the result of men outnumbering women in demographics of published authors. For example:

It’s sad that for most of history women didn’t have the same access to education as men, the result was that men dominated literature, and most other forms of public discourse.

Did it ever occur to the author that perhaps there were just a lot MORE men writing novels back in the day? Perhaps she is encountering cultural attitudes because these classics were written a LONG TIME AGO?

There’s reason to believe those claims are statistically true. Misogyny’s insidious tentacles do certainly squirm into many areas of public life, the publishing world–––then and now–––certainly, and inexcusably, among them. That said, there could be one more unacknowledged area where this structural sexism is occurring, which if better addressed might help with representation issues on high school syllabi: the definition of literature itself.

This issue is implied in the second commenter’s post; he reflexively talks about “novels” and “classics” without acknowledging that there could be a gender bias in the very use of those terms. The novel, especially the European and American novel, is the mainstay of most introductory English classes. It takes up more class time, is superficially easier to organize class time around, and happens to be ingrained in the convention of talking about literature through a code of author names and titles. Books are everywhere, and we associate textual unity with the space between covers. But these books, when published for literary markets, tend to reflect publishing conventions. Why wouldn’t societies that believe in the supremacy of the male experience have a publishing industry to match?

Because of this, the major avenues for women’s writing, historically, were not the things that ended up being the focus of the publishing industry in the West, and the association between contemporary ideas of “classic works of literature” and male-centric demographics continue to plague discussions about women’s representation in literature. There’s no reason this has to be or focus. We could give proper place to Sappho’s achingly beautiful lyric poetry in a unit on the Greeks. Harriet Jacobs’ slave narrative or Frances Willard’s diary fit well in discussions of 19th century American literature (). It’s also certainly not the case that men always define literary shifts and paradigms. The Akkadian poet Enheduanna, a priestess, is reputed to be the earliest known author, and the first novel, The Tale of Genji, was written by a lady-in-waiting named Murasaki Shikibu.

So it may be the case that the commenters are right, that more of what we understand to be “classic literature” is and has been produced by men. But that suggests merely that our definition of  “classic” and “literature” is unnecessarily limited. When we look to poetry, the diary, and literature outside of Europe, we see women writing frequently and very well, in ways that are interpretable and moving and humanizing. Just because the publishing culture of old made a terrible mistake doesn’t mean we have to keep repeating it.

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One response to “Firing the Western Canon, Gender Edition

  1. Thanks so much for discussing my article! I completely agree with you that part of the gender bias results from the fact that we don’t consider private writing (e.g., letters, journals, etc.) part of literature. I feel like including more of this type of writing would only broaden our understanding of the literature of any given historical period, but so many professors would rather have their students read another Dickens novel instead. Sigh.

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