Sunday, 7 August 2016

Canons to the left of me. Canons to the right of me. Here I am stuck in the middle with you.

What books should be studied in schools? That one, single question is enough to divide people. Teachers. Schools. It is like the ultimate pub discussion. Pick one list over another and you neglect a huge group of people. Where are the females on the list? Ahh, you must hate women! You are trying to repress their voices, you nasty little person.

The problem with a canon, a list of books, is its purpose. It seems to have a mystical and magical purpose in society. Some see it as a source of harmony. Some see it as the glue to unite a nation. Some see it as a flag representing what makes our nation great. Some see it as a personal Jimmy Cricket, whispering into the soul of a child. That’s why people get so passionate about it. Politicians remove books from the canon based on these notions. Teachers get angry.

The canon doesn’t reflect society
There is an expectation that the canon should reflect modern society and culture. My family is Welsh and short so I am disappointed that the cannon doesn’t have many Welsh texts featuring short people. Modern society is complex. A list that reflects our modern world will need to be constantly changing and fairly proportional. Soaps try to emulate modern society, yet they often fail badly. Eastenders is a reflection of no world I know. It isn’t even a reflection of London. It is a watered down version of what we ‘think’ it is. It is a flavour of the modern world. A soap might deal with modern people but they don’t deal with modern situations. I have yet to see a teacher working all the hours God sends in a soap, worrying he is neglecting his family.

If we were to make a list of books for students to read based on the current ethnicity (I could only find statistics dating to 2011) then a canon should look like this:

86% White

2.2% Mixed / Multiple Ethnic Groups

7.5% Asian

3.3% Black / African / Caribbean / Black British

1.0% Other Ethnic Group


Of course, this will change and will continue to change. Then, if it is to reflect modern society, we should have books from different genders, sexual orientations, classes and gender. We also need to consider having a text relating to Ireland, Northern Ireland, Wales, Scotland and other commonwealth states. Therefore, the complexity of creating a list to reflect society is complex. We have so many different rich and different elements in society that is hard for a list of books to achieve. The inclusion of one element will negate another element of society. No cannon can accurately reflect society as it is constantly evolving and changing.

I think half our problem is to do with our understanding of what a canon means. There are two main definitions: 

1.     NOUN

1.     a general law, rule, principle, or criterion by which something is judged:

2.       a collection or list of sacred books accepted as genuine

You see I don’t see canon as a list of sacred books; I see it as a general rule to judge others against. The canon is the starting point to judge others. They aren’t the holy, sacred books of perfection. Instead, they are the starting point to compare with others.

The canon should help students find a voice
The other argument I have heard about the canon is that the canon doesn’t help students to find their voice. Or, find a text that speaks to them. This is the one argument I really struggle with. I find it a little bit too mystical for my taste. The book that really ‘spoke’ to me was ‘Jane Eyre’ and the bit the resonated with me was the bit where Jane was stuck in the wilderness. It really struck a cord. Why? I don’t know, but it did. Now, obviously my teacher knew me very well so they decided an orphaned, Victorian, governess unlucky in life would talk to my soul. Of course they didn’t. The magic wasn’t created by a teacher who picked a book to speak to me. The magic was that some tiny bit in a great story was profound and meaningful, and affected me. A moment I go back to, time and time again. Either, I was a corseted Victorian lady in a previous life, or good literature makes connections when others don’t see them.

One person I have argued with about the canon was that it limited and stopped people having a voice. I politely disagreed. It might have been an issue in the past to make sure that students experienced others in the same situation as them, but there is this marvellous thing called the internet, where student can now see and communicate with others in the same situation and circumstances as them. Those voices are out there for young people on blogs, Youtube videos and other media platforms. There are hundreds and hundreds of voices. There are even Facebook groups for them. In my day, that wasn’t an option. You were closeted in more ways than one. That’s why the books chosen were probably more important in the past than today. So, any notion that a canon is restricting a child develop a voice is complete hokum. Society is about hundreds and hundreds of voices communicating daily through Facebook and Twitter. One silly list in a classroom is not going to oppress the voices out there. There are thirty different voices. Unless you read thirty different texts, you are not going to hit everybody in the classroom. You will probably appeal to one voice and neglect twenty nine others in your quest to speak to a child’s soul. 

When does putting someone on the list become tokenistic? I see society from a disabled person’s point of view. I have a daughter who has to use a wheelchair. Because of that one single thing, I see how society tries, and the key word is tries, to include disabled people in society. All too often it is tokenistic. Oops. We need to tick off the disabled demographic. True, they are included in lists, but they are never presented as full, rounded people. Often, disabled people are presented as people to empathise with or usually feel sympathy for. The inclusion of a disabled person in a story is usually to hit people with the ‘under-dog’ story. My daughter has endless exposure to stories about sympathy inducing disabled people and that affects her mind-set. I don’t want that to happen. Because disability is tokenistic in films, stories and soaps, she can’t identify with these people. I don’t want her to equate disability with failure, fear and challenge. The Paralympics did the exact opposite. They shown disabled people as achieving, fighting, competing and succeeding people. That’s the message I want.

We could all add some other elements to the canon of texts, but wouldn’t it be tokenistic. The books would be there on principle and not merit. It would be paying lip service to it and not actually dealing with it properly. Take the lack of female voices in the canon. Would adding a few female authors change things? Or, would it just be a superficial activity? Things would be studied because someone has been told to study it. For me the best approach, is to integrate things. I teach texts from the canon and then introduce texts for comparison. Look at how this voice presents it. How is it different? Why might their view be different? Oh, it is written from a woman’s point of view – I didn’t see that.
Is the problem also that we are too sensitive to things? We are too conscious about gender, ethnicity and class that it  is at the front of our minds. Surely, the text is important and that gender, ethnicity and class are incidental things. If we obsess about gender, then the text isn’t a text but a badge of ideology. It stops being a story, a poem, a play, but a calling card for our own ideological persuasion or someone else’s. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Is oppression in books in the mind of the reader?
If we define texts by gender, ethnicity, religion and class, then we too are defining people by their gender, ethnicity, religion and class. Equality is seeing through these defining features. A story is a story. It might not be your kind of story, but it will inform you of other peoples' lives. Plus, by learning about others, you learn something about yourself.  We, after all, define ourselves in relation to others.

Banning books  
The great thing about the English classroom is that we don’t ban books. They disappear from circulation but we don’t ban them as other countries do. If we did ban book, then I’d agree we have a problem with the canon as it would be fully prescriptive. We don’t ban books so we can and should use other books and authors in the classroom. And, that is down to the school and the teacher.

You might say that Chris, but surely the exam boards are limiting the choices by favouring the canon? Fair point. But, I think the selection of text by the exam boards is down to ease, accessibility and consistency. We could have one exam board studying Latvian love poetry and another focusing on novels written by Welsh pig farmers. The point of judgement must be consistent, clear and transparent. The new GCSEs at least do that to a point.

We need to stop wittering on about a canon. It is the starting point to judge other texts against. The dead white males are there, but do you know what? They are there to compare to other texts to judge and compare against.  My job as a teacher is to open doors and make the sparks of connection. If we think a list of books is limiting us, then the problem isn’t the list, it is the teacher. I teach the classics, featuring dead white males and I will break out to read extracts from Alice Walker or Thomas Gunn to judge against the classics. Our students need more and more good quality texts.

One argument we often have about the canon is that it isn’t relevant to things today. Charles Dickens’ ‘Oliver Twist’ has so much relevance to today: an elite few prey on the weak, poor and vulnerable in society and blame them for the evils of society. It is common experience that can translate to all parts of society – a minority as a victim in society. Relevant to today?

A classic book teaches us something about the past, something about today, something new and something we didn’t know about society and ourselves. Why is Shakespeare read in so many different counties? Why are his plays performed in every country? It isn’t because he is a dead white guy; it is because he writes about the experiences we all experience. He doesn’t write about his unique, narrow perspective; he writes about the experiences that connects us together as humans. We all love. We all hate. We all make mistakes. We all have faults. We all laugh.  If you cut us, do we not bleed? We all bleed so maybe we should stop looking at the canon as dividing us and maybe see how it unites us. Cut it and see if it bleeds like others.
Thanks for reading,


  1. Chris so many well balanced and we'll argued points. I found myself nodding and reading comments out load to my hubby because lots of what you've written about is so true. Thank you for hitting the nail on the head. Su Chapman (Chappers44)

  2. Lots of interesting and thought-provoking points, Chris. Based on your national statistical analysis, the localized canon for London or Birmingham (where I live) would be quite different from one that reflected life in rural Scotland or Shropshire! At the other extreme , we surely inhabit an increasingly globalized consciousness?

    The discussion of canon(s) and canonicity used to be a required first year seminar topic at Uni. It serves as a helpful way into student participation about what / how /why we read texts. In that sense it's quite helpful as it reveals inescapable gaps and weaknesses which may be grounded in (un)conscious choices of teachers, publishers, and society. How different is the canon of 1866, 1916, 1966, 2016? In fact the canon is a living organism; it is not simply a reading list.

    How often is Mary Shelley the token romantic feminist? Or Jane Austen the voice of Augustan / neo-classical values? Who is the female Shakespeare? (The Tragedy of Mariam, the Fair Queen of Jewry is a Jacobean era drama written by Elizabeth Cary, Viscountess Falkland, and first published in 1613. The play is the first work by a woman that was published under her own name. The play received only marginal attention until the 1970s, when feminist scholars recognized the play's contribution to English literature. Since then the play has received a large amount of scholarly attention....)

    My conclusion is that the canon should be discussed and interrogated, but it should not simply become either a tick-box exercise or a strait-jacket of political conservatism / correctness.

    Narrow canons can always be challenged because the complexities and inclusive contradictions of classic works open rather than shut down critical debate. Moreover, an oppositional element and sense of diversity ought to be built into critical strategies. This means that questions about gender, sexuality, disability and class as as valid as questions about stylistics, form, structure, characterization. Ultimately, great works are rich encounters with words and worlds.

    1. I totally agree. Questions about gender, sexuality and other factors are important in understanding, but they shouldn't be used to define, label and quantify a text. That is where I think we are at the moment. Texts are mostly defined by one quality and not a collection of qualities. Thanks Ian

  3. I'm not sure that a canon needs to be geographically representative, since fiction is imaginary anyway. The issue I do think we need to face up to is the fact that half the population is female, but that when the 19th century classics were being written, women often had to take on a male name to have any chance of getting published at all. I think it's a mistake if we present our female students with significantly more male than female voices as signifying the 'best of the best', and we refuse to see the impact this might have. My sense is that this just entrenches the problem. Even today, women will often take on gender neutral or male names to achieve success in publishing. Are we not going to try to push past this in classrooms, for the next generation?

    1. But, then are you not developing the myth that a female can only succeed in society if she pretends to be male? The female classics often write in a male voice or adopt one. Plus, the classic notion of gender was very fixed and constant in those days. Gender and notions of gender have become very flexible nowadays and I think our view of it should be more flexible.

      I also think by asserting a difference in reading materials you are propelling a societal issue. Boys read boys. Girls read girls. The stereotypes are there. You might be adding to the by making a gender issue out of things. Why can't girls play with cars and guns? Why can't boys play with dolls? A toy is a toy. Society tells a child it is only acceptable for one gender to play with it. It is still a toy, however. The adults around the child cause the issue.

      A book is a book. My role, as a teacher, is to allow a children to experience the book and learn from it. How I teach the book is important? If I use it for some kind of gender politics, I could be reinforcing sterotypes. Equality is about being treated equally and seeing above ethnicity, gender, class, disability and other defining aspects. Defining texts on the basis of gender is not equality. It is a half-hearted attempt to achieve equality. True equality would mean this discussion wouldn't exist.

      Plus, if we keep revisiting texts where women are presented as weak and powerless, in their eyes or others, could we be partly reinforcing old stereotypes that we want to abolish? Jane Eyre - an emotional driven woman is mad and needs to be locked away. I don't want my disabled daughter to read some texts about disability because they are written to highlight the struggles a disabled person faces to an able person. My daughter knows the struggles. She doesn't need those voices. She needs other voices. A voice who help her under her life better. If she read a book about the struggles a disabled person has, it would reinforce her own struggles. I think it would cause the opposite of emancipation. I think it would reinforce the cycle that if you are born disabled you must live a substandard quality of life.

      A lot of literature outside the canon focuses on the minority as the victim in society. What if our emphasis on the minority actually spreads rather repels this idea that a minority, or perceived minority is a victim in society? Instead of equality we a propelling myths of inequality and powerlessness.

      I would go as far as to say that I want my daughter to read anything but books about disability. She understands perfectly well what it is to be disabled. She also knows what it's like to be female too.

    2. I wasn't meaning that it's to do with what the books are about, I think it's much more to do with seeing models of someone like me, being a writer, that is important for me seeing it as a possible career for myself. If I only ever get to read books my male authors, why would I see it as a thing that I could do? My kid said to me the other day about how exciting it was that Hilary Clinton might become the first female president - that's the kind of model she needs if she's going to believe it is possible for her too.

      It's not about knowing what it's like to be female, it's about know what women can do because you are presented with plenty of models of them doing it.

  4. I understand, but I think we need to credit girls with more intelligence. They will have experienced so many writers by Year 7 that it will be ingrained in their subconscious that there are female writers. Comparing writers and politicians isn't fair. There are millions, including you, of female writers and very few, well-known, females in power in comparison to men. Living breathing people should be the models.

    I think the issue here isn't in the classroom; it is an issue spread through society. A simple list of books is seen as the source of bile and venom in the classroom. Society must change how women are treated. Why is a list of books such an issue? The fundamental people responsible for change are parents. A child spends more time with their parents than teachers. My book list is not a magic wand. It will provide token models but it will not change the heart and minds of people. A parent will change this entrenched perspective. Telling a child it is an option, is more important. A school could model but a parent can help open those doors.

    We, after all, are reflections of our parents. Maybe in 50 years time we will have watered down these entrenched views.

    Happy chatting

    1. My sense is that, if a list of books *isn't* an issue, then why can't it just be representative of society? Why do we need to cling to the idea that we 'know' that some books are better than others? What does that familiar phrase even mean - 'the best that has been thought and said'?

      The 'great American Novel' is an interesting case in point - is it truly the case that no American woman has even written a 'great American novel' or is that an example of how entrenched our belief is that men are somehow 'better' writers than women? Why is there a huge pay gap between male and female writers? Why is more review coverage given to men than to women? Why do I keep seeing lists of 10 best education books that have only one woman on them? Once you start really looking at the field of publishing, you see all kinds of inequalities (especially, I suspect, if you are female ...)

  5. Sue, I think by default a list will never make everyone happy because it is a list. A reduction of everything possible to a short few. My point made was the starting point shouldn't be the source of equality. The where next should be the source of equality.

    I do feel for the gender issue for female writers. Maybe as you have a foot on the door, you should be helping others on the way. You bring a system down from the inside and you are on the inside. 😀


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