Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Canon Fodder

I am only days away from teaching another section of Introduction to Literature, which is one of my favorite classes to teach. Still, as I ready my syllabus, I find myself wishing that I had more control over what my students are able to read.

Not that any of this will mean much to a majority of my readers, but the reading list for my intro class contains, among others, the following works:

Now, let me make this clear: nothing is wrong with any of these works. I like each and every one of them.  However, I dislike the fact that they (and others like them) seem to be the only works ever in introductory anthologies. In many ways, they are rapidly becoming the literary equivalents of those pop songs that are always being overplayed on the radio--the "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing" or "I Will Always Love You" of literature, if you will.

One rationale behind this unimaginative trend of over-anthologizing is the noble propagation of the literary canon, or that collection of literary texts that is meant to represent the best of the best in literature. Advocates of the canon argue (and I oversimplify for clarity) that certain works stand as artistic exemplars of their time and genre, and therefore deserve to be studied more than other similar works from similar periods. So, students now study Shakespeare's Hamlet or Othello, rather than Titus Andronicus or King Lear, because somewhere along the line someone decided that Hamlet and Othello were exemplary English Renaissance tragedies. Such reasoning, of course, further suggests that non-canonical works, or those rarely anthologized, are best left to the experts--or at least to those who respond well to the major works in the canon.

I'm not a fan of the literary canon, although I understand the reasoning behind establishing a pool of culturally significant texts. My main concern is that the great stories and poems of our time, such as those listed above, are becoming tiresome, used up, and worn out. The litery canon needs to be a vast collection of texts, and we need anthologies that aim for originality and variety. 

Please, all of you lazy anthology editors out there, don't let Flannery O'Connor or William Faulkner or William Carlos Williams become the Spin Doctors of literature studies. Stop this mad epidemic of over-anthologizing! Give variety a chance. 

Besides, I think I can stomach only one year more of student speculation on the fate of Connie and Arnold Friend.  

1 comment:

  1. So - for your next blog will you post the literary pieces that you would like to teach?