Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Blurred lines

Yesterday we discussed issues of literary canon, minority literary canons, and labeling in general.  I remember someone making a point that men (for example) should definitely be encouraged to write feminist literature; however, they should not be included in an anthology of Women’s Literature.  I would be inclined to agree with this.  I think supporting the cause of feminism is wonderful but is not the same as living as a woman and therefore experiencing the world as a woman.  Nevertheless, this again begs the question of: what should be included in specific canons?  If I wrote about the experience of a Latina living in Tennessee, would it be included in the Latin American canon, even though I’m Caucasian?  I also wonder: if someone of Latin American descent writes a novel about a dog on an adventure (which seemingly has nothing to do with race), is this inevitably included in the Latin American canon because of the author’s ethnicity?  Should canon only consider the experience of the work itself as detached and separate from the author’s identity?  Or should the author’s identity or what we would label as the author’s identity be considered?  Are there any English writers who moved to America and wrote about the American experience and are included in our canon?  Yes, Robin Thicke, I hate these blurred lines, and the questions regarding canon are endless.  Seriously, though – if I wrote a gory horror story, I really don’t think that should be included in a women’s lit canon just because I’m a woman.  That story would have absolutely zilch to do with the topic of women’s lit.

I think this kind of discussion of canon is necessary.  Just because something is widely accepted as being in the canon does not mean that I have to like the work or admire the work’s excellence.  I also think that creating these separate canons showcases different kinds of literature that deserves to be recognized.  What’s at stake is the exclusion of brilliant authors and their work because they have been ignored by the so-called “canon.”


  1. First up, Grammar-Nazi time, mainly because I see the error frequently and it's not terribly becoming of English majors:

    Second, I don't think we need be concerned that works irrelevant to a topic (eg, your gory horror story in feminist lit example) would be included in canon. I think I'm right in thinking that canon is exclusively the best of the best in a given field, or at least the works that need be read. Dictionary says (fourth given definition): "the list of works considered to be permanently established as being of hte highest quality"

    Granted that, no need to concern ourselves with worthless works being included merely because of their author's identity.

    Third, Re: your question "Should canon only consider the experience of the work itself as detached and separate from the author’s identity?" I think so in the majority of cases.

    I will perhaps grant that it'd be odd to included male authors in the Norton Anthology of Women's Literature, and can concede that in that sense, identity may be relevant to establishing a literary canon in that regard.

    HOWEVER, should a piece say something objectively recognized as insightful about a topic, perhaps it ought to be considered as relevant to the canon regardless of the author.

    Let me give a few example cases to illustrate an awkward entailment of views opposed to mine:

    Queer Canon Author: An author long believed to be homosexual has been included within an established "Queer Canon" for a number of years. Queer Theory critics believe the canon to be greatly strengthened due to his contribution. On his deathbed, the authors confesses that he actually has no attraction to the same sex whatsoever, and in fact, DELIBERATELY PRETENDED to be gay, merely to increase his notoriety.

    Anonymous Author: An anonymous author publishing without a name releases a work widely recognized as a brilliantly written piece about being a woman in Western society. May feminist critics believe and assume the author MUST have been a woman, because of their remarkable insight into the plight of women in a patriarchal society, but can never be sure. The author's work gets included in the Norton Anthology of Women's Literature, and feminist critics strongly believe the anthology is better off because of the author's inclusion. Years down the road, it turns out the author was, in fact, a straight white guy.

    In both cases, it seems a great piece of lit that's relevant to the canon gets included in the canon, despite of the author's identity. Has anything WRONG happened here? Perhaps with hindsight we might think it odd, but is it really a problem? I think not. And I think the ball is in my opposition's court to show that it IS a problem.

  2. I think it's great that Kendal has begun this discussion, but I want to weigh in before things go in a different direction. One, it's not at all clear to me that works are necessarily included in the canon because they're "great" literature. That notion has changed radically over time: _Moby-Dick_ was a critical failure on its publication, and Melville's reputation declined so dramatically in the late 19th century that he wasn't read again until the 1920s. (They misspelled his name in his NYT obituary.) There's a tautology here: we view these works as great bc they're included in anthologies and reading lists, and because they are catalogued in these venues, we label them "great." Usually, hopefully, they're not terrible, but there are taste-makers out there--academics, critics, popular writers like the ones Arac talks about in _HF as Idol and Target_--who determine what gets read. That's why, as Kendal s

    There's an interesting case that's relevant to Jarrett's point: Emma Dunham Hawkins-Kelley, an African American woman writer of the 19th century: her work was recovered by Henry Louis Gates Jr and included in the Schomburg Library of Black Women Writers. Later genealogical research revealed her to be white ( We don't know much about her biographically at all, other than this. What do we do with cases like this? Was EDKH African American? Probably not. But did she make a worthy contribution to representations of black women's lives in the late 19th c? I think so. Little cases like this trouble the easy equation between the body of the text and that of the author...

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  4. Yeah, it's those cases that worry me as well, hence my example cases.

    Perhaps if the issue can't be easily settled with a clean cut one way or the other, we ought to favor Kendal's position and suggest that more often than not it's required you be part of the demographic your work seems to be directed at for inclusion in canon. But occasionally, when the quality of the work is high enough, even in spite of the author's identity, it ought to be considered for conclusion in canon.

    Since non-inclusion in canon doesn't really mean that the work can't be read and distributed or something along those lines, I don't think there's THAT much at stake here. I'd be on board with granting the aforementioned conclusion.

  5. oops, comment deleted. i guess professor likes using the term grammar nazi. good 2 know.