Canon Fodder!

31 October 2012

When we think of great literature, names that spring to mind are Shakespeare, Dickens and Austen. We either ignore or are ignorant of of Kathy Acker, E.L. Doctorow or Milan Kundera—just three names that are about to be compromised even more, as the English and Theatre Studies program recently announced a decision to cut three of its subjects at the end of 2013: Backgrounds to English Literature, Postmodernism, and the sexily titled Art/Pornography/Blasphemy/Propaganda (APBP). According to Professor Ken Gelder, Head of English and Theatre Studies, the aim of the changes is “to make ourselves a little bit more contemporary and to think about some new subjects which will take us into newer areas of the humanities.”

Cannon Fodder

Compared to the rest of the English program, Postmodernism and APBP are two subjects that contain a large majority of contemporary texts. Texts written after 1960 are few and far between in the English major; moreover, English Honours has no subject entirely devoted to contemporary texts. This kind of disparity between the number of literary classics and contemporary texts we study in the English major is disappointing, especially for people such as myself whose Honours theses focus on contemporary literature.

At a Melbourne Writers Festival schools’ event this year, well-respected Young Adult authors John Larkin and Emily Rodda both cited Jane Austen as necessary reading. Larkin even likened reading an Austen novel to “being massaged with coconut oil and words”.

As well as Austen, writers like Charles Dickens and the Brontës are listed in the canon. Further, modernists such as Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, though they countered their predecessors stylistically, have still made their way in. The contemporary and the postmodern, however, have yet to reach this status of widely accepted literary genius.

Gelder mentioned students, especially from the private school sector, who are used to studying canonical literature and want to study more of it when they get to university. “I often get emails from…private school sector [students],” he said. “They sometimes think we’re not canonical at all. They think we’ve abandoned the canon. But we haven’t, not at all.”

Certainly, Pride and Prejudice is a book one supposedly must read in order to participate in a literate society. But if we try instead to instil in young readers the idea that there is more to the literary canon than Austen, we can encourage them to choose literary pathways that might be more catered to their tastes. If they hate flowery, pre-War language, they should know there are equally good alternatives, and that the next best thing is not Twilight.

Gelder also said the English program has “lost something like five or six staff over the last six or seven years” and its expertise in contemporary literary studies in particular is waning. This is a side effect of ignoring the contemporary’s credibility: if contemporary literature is constantly being snubbed by the canon, future academics and teachers won’t devote careers to it.

Furthermore, the mass of literature available today means there is so much more to choose from, which predictably results in difficulty trying to pick texts that are most representative of certain eras or themes. However, this is no reason to cut entire subjects from the program; if anything, it should be an incentive to include a wider variety of texts, to broaden the scope of what we study. Although it is important to have canonical texts as a background to English literary studies, universities should be looking at more contemporary texts as well, because they influence the way we read just as much.

In short, a text’s canonical status does not always equate to an academic one. Likewise, a text’s contemporary publication does not make it “of the masses”, or somehow unworthy of being studied. What about the critique of consumerism in Don DeLillo’s White Noise? What about the way Thomas Pynchon laughs at narrative itself in The Crying of Lot 49? What about the blasphemous parody that is Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses? Or the way Bret Easton Ellis juxtaposes advertising and violence in American Psycho?

The above examples are my efforts to boil down some of what I learned in Postmodernism and APBP when I did them. But I have failed. One cannot simply gloss over the many themes addressed by contemporary texts in so few words. And this is exactly why we should study them — because I don’t have the expertise, or the space, to teach you about them here. The university is supposed to give students enough reading to substantiate an English major, and contemporary texts form an integral part of that.

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