Saturday, August 10, 2019

WITMonth Day 10 | Creating a new canon

The literary canon is dying.

It's hard not to feel that there is no longer reason to have a fixed literary canon. In an era in which readers may freely find books that suit their tastes, are exposed to a far wider range of books than ever before, and have endless "best of" lists every year in just about every genre imaginable from which to choose their next read, the idea of a single canon seems almost... quaint. What does the canon give us? Why do we even need it?

Yet of course, the canon remains the foundation of our literary approach. Like it or not (and I feel that most readers today fall into the latter category, for a variety of reasons), canons provide a framework for how we approach and discuss literature in a shared way. No, we don't necessarily agree that Catcher in the Rye is a good book, but the vast majority of US-based readers have read the book for school and can frame an argument around it. The canon defines experiences we deem to be universal, important, or indeed essential. By virtue of including a book in the canon, we also immortalize it in a particularly unique way.

The problem is that the canon in its current shape is flawed to a shocking degree. If we look at "100 Best..." lists from even just the past decade, we find gaping holes and shocking omissions. I don't even mean this on a personal taste level, I mean... entire continents are often missing. Women are grossly underrepresented. The canon is inevitably heavily tilted toward the language in which it's presented and blatantly Anglo/Euro-centric even when it claims to be international. It is depressingly white. And straight. And... and... and...

This even extends to lists that claim to break free of the canon's constraints. You'll recall my criticism of Boyd Tonkin's 100 Best Novels in Translation, where my ultimate conclusion was that "exclusion is a choice". As I wrote at the time, "But when crafting a new canon, isn't the whole point to be introducing and promoting new and diverse works? If in creating a new list of titles in translation, you fail to give space to exactly the writers that would be surprising and exciting for a diverse readership, what exactly are you achieving?" It was in that post that I first mused aloud over the idea that would eventually develop to become the 100 Best Books by Women in Translation. It was in response that particular canon, and that particular imbalance.

The literary canon is dead.

The 100 Best WIT (to use the shortened name) is not going to be a perfect encapsulation of all literature by women in translation. Though I'm hesitant to reveal too much before the final, dramatic release, I feel comfortable in pointing out that the current list as it stands is strongly tilted toward contemporary titles... and indeed titles published within the last year or two. It is obvious that availability and accessibility are often guiding readers in their picks - after all, how can readers vote on books that they've never been exposed to? A crowd-sourced list will inevitably be more of a popularity contest than anything else. Which is... honestly okay. The official canon itself has long been a popularity contest of sorts, except the books included are those that remain popular years after their publication. And when you're talking about a group that has been so marginalized for so long, it is unsurprising that the list ends up being tilted more modern/contemporary since only in recent years has awareness spread enough for readers to become exposed to more books by women in translation.

But here's what else I can say about this new list: It spans the world in a way that, to the best of my knowledge, few other lists ever has. The top two titles on the list so far (and competition is close, so this may yet change!) are books by non-European women writers. Many books are by queer writers and about queer characters. There are books from almost every continent on Earth (Oceania is, I believe, currently the only human-populated region with no representation). There's sci-fi, nonfiction, children's literature, picture books, YA, mysteries, and more. Some of the books have been massive bestsellers, some have flown under the radar. Some are books that have only recently been published in their original languages, some are ancient classics that transcend literary definition.

This is what I want the new canon to look like. Because whatever flaws the final list will have (and I'm certain every reader will find something to critique, because there's no way to create a "Best of" list that doesn't anger basically everyone!), it does, at the very least, showcase the world in a way that the "official" literary canon never has. This list too will not encompass everything - there are countless English-language writers who doubtlessly deserve a spot in a full-scale canon, and I suppose* some men writers have also proven themselves adequate enough. This new canon is simply an alternative - what happens if we assume for a moment that the default is something else? What happens if we throw away our notions of what defines the "literary canon" and start over, with clear eyes and a fresh mind?

The literary canon is dead. Long live the literary canon!

* This is a (hopefully obvious) joke

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