Fair warning: 1) This isn’t meant to be offensive or dismissive; 2) I got distracted and went off on a tangent; 3) This is probably not the most well thought out post I’ve ever written; and 4) I think these types of dialogue building questions are important and as I mention near the end, this is just a gut response.
“Dead white guys” are all too often the focus when it comes to discussions of the Western Canon. We’d love to see members highlight classic works or authors that are overlooked in the canon that deserve recognition. Pick one/or more and tell us how their work resonates for our century and/or for you. As always, you determine what is a “classic” in your point of view, including works from 2000+, and works from anywhere in the world. // Or, if you have trouble thinking of an author/work to highlight, you could simply discuss the topic itself: What is “The Western Canon” — have you thought about who/what determines which works are recognized from human history?”
As someone who is pale (white), male (born), and will one day be stale (old) not to mention western (American), I’m not sure how to think about this question. I do completely understand the necessity of asking the question and the vital importance of broadening the definition of classics, but for some reason the way the question is phrased it got under my pale skin. 😉
I know the intention of the question is to create dialogue and to broaden perspectives, but it’s amazingly how easily the pendulum swings from one direction to another. Until it gets to the middle where there is no motion it will constantly swing from one extreme to another. I only bring this up as I spent a year studying Gender, Sexuality and Queer Theory and felt constantly torn down and felt that my opinions were disregarded or even openly mocked because of my race, where I happened to be born and my gender.
It’s the entire idea of how far can political correctness go before it goes too far? I don’t think in any way this question goes too far, I’m just making an observation. So rather than answering the question I went and looked at my last few years of reading to look at some basic statistics of what I read (and specifically the Classics Club) for my own interests. I’ve been thinking about this for quite some time after Claire at the fabulous Word by Word wrote this great post about books written by women. She blogs about literary topics which constantly keep me on my toes about what I’m reading and how I’m choosing to read what I read.
- My Classics Club List
- By Gender: 42% Female; 58% Male
- By Language: 75% English; 25% Non-English*
- By Race: 86% White/Caucasian; 14% Non White/Caucasian
- 2010 – 48 Books (started the blog in July)
- By Gender: 31% Female; 69% Male
- Translated Works: 6%
- 2011 – 57 Books
- By Gender: 25% Female; 70% Male; 5% Mixed Group
- Translated Works: 7%
- 2012 – 81 Books
- By Gender: 47% Female; 52% Male; 1% Mixed Group
- Translated Works: 6%
- 2013 – 83 Books
- By Gender: 61% Female; 39% Male
- Translated Works: 8%
Overall, I’m not surprised to see that my reading is roughly split between female (44%) and male (56%) or that it is overwhelmingly English (only 7% overall works are translated). I think this is an issue which is far greater than “The Western Canon,” and is, and has been, a discussion for literature in general. From access to translations to gender biased publishing there are many ways to question my reading habits. for example I know there is a disproportionate number of LGBT authors on my list than there would be on others.
When I made my Classics Club list, the only requirement I had, other than the books I knew I wanted to read, was to have at least one book in a native language from each continent (translated to English) and that was incredibly difficult to find! Whether the books from other continents were written in a conquering language (French, Spanish, English) or whether the books just haven’t been translated to English, I’m not sure but it was incredibly difficult to fill out the list.
I guess on a broader level my gut response would be why does it have to be about the western canon? I’m assuming it’s because the overwhelming majority of participants (and moderators) are English-speaking and have therefore been constantly inundated with English-speaking works from elementary school on, however in middle, high school and at college there was a requirement that I take a non-english speaking (global) literature course, and perhaps that’s why I feel this might be read as dismissive, but let’s face it many people read (and write) what they know and what’s closest and most familiar to them. This topic is fascinating and there are far greater discussions out there you can read, but this is just my gut reaction to (and probably not really an answer to) the monthly meme.
I’m sure all of us will continue to think about what we read and the choices we make in selecting our works, but unless we’re all read to commit to something like an around the world challenge like Biblioglobal (and she discusses the issue of translations as well!) I think the best we can do is to be conscious of our choices and make sure to read something that makes us uncomfortable, regardless of who the writer is, and to stretch our cultural boundaries by reading something we believe to be completely other to us; after all, you never know who you might discover.*These categories are inherently problematic, but it was the easiest way I could quickly break it down to create this post. It is also presumptive based on research I did when I first built my list so it could easily be off by a good bit.