Issues + Advocacy

26 Writers. Four Women. None Black. It’s Time to Banish the Western Canon.

One author’s quest to re-frame the way we think about "great books."

One summer when I was in high school, I got it in my head that I should stop writing diaristic poetry or the first chapters of quickly-abandoned young adult novels and instead write serious fiction. And so I began writing short stories, almost all with male protagonists. My writing about teen girls was silly, I thought. My writing about a teenage boy could be the next Catcher in the Rye. Without even being consciously aware of it, I had absorbed the understanding that serious literature was about men.

Where had I possibly gotten that idea?

There’s a deep-seated cultural bias in favor of male writers — that their stories are important and universal and women’s stories are frivolous, or niche. If you were to ask a random person on the street to name five great writers, I’d bet money that at least four of them would be men. (It’s not scientific, but if you look at the user-generated list of “The Best Writers of All Time” on Ranker, you have to scroll twenty spots before a woman appears. Twenty-two spots on the “Best Novelists” list).

There’s a deep-seated cultural bias in favor of male writers — that their stories are important and universal and women’s stories are frivolous, or niche.

The same is true even when you ask a non-layperson — consider the late Harold Bloom, an esteemed literary critic and Yale professor. In his book The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages, Bloom creates a list of writers whom he deems to be the most important literary figures of the western world. Of the twenty-six writers, only four are women, all white. Only two of the writers are Latin American. None are black.

Of the twenty-six writers, only four are women, all white. Only two of the writers are Latin American. None are black.

One could argue that Bloom’s list is descriptive and not prescriptive — that is to say, to claim that he’s not to blame for a universal bias towards male literature, he’s just pointing it out. But it just doesn’t work like that: the idea of the “Great Works” is self-reinforcing.  People who want to be well-read will read the books on the list of the greatest books of all time, and then when they make their lists of the greatest books, it’s more than likely that those earlier books will be included.

(I’m a little embarrassed to say I notice that phenomena in myself when I go to art museums. I know very little about art. But I like to pretend that I’m a cultured and educated person. And so I’ll find myself wandering up and down the clean white hallways, spending what I assume to be an appropriate amount of time looking at each piece of art until I come across something by an artist whose name I recognize. “Ah,” I’ll think silently. “A Monet. Yes. Indeed. This is the good art. I found it.”

The end result, at least in the literary world, is that threatened, middle-aged white men will be decrying the death of civilization if students are reading Zora Neale Hurston instead of Faulkner when, more often than not, those threatened middle-aged white men have read neither.

This summer, the Wall Street Journal ran an op-ed from Andy Kessler, smugly declaring that college summer reading lists are “brainwashing” soon-to-be freshmen into compliance with the “woke” coterie of political correctness.

“At Bucknell,” Kessler writes, “They’re reading ‘Station Eleven,’ which is ‘set in the eerie days of civilization’s collapse.’ Get it? ‘The world is going to end in 12 years if we don’t address climate change,’ as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez alerted us. Read up, then pop a Zoloft.”

I can promise you that Kessler didn’t read Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel, before he dismissed it as liberal propaganda. Do you know how I know? Because Station Eleven has absolutely nothing to do with climate change. It’s about a Shakespeare troupe, in the aftermath of a disease outbreak. Turns out, if you read beyond the first sentence of a book’s summary, you can in fact learn things!

I wrote the book THE WHITE MAN’S GUIDE TO THE WHITE MALE CANON, a (gently) mocking compendium of the classic all-male heroes of the literary world, in part to poke fun at this idea that the Great White Men of literature are invulnerable and all-powerful. Most of those men are great writers. A lot of them are also truly terrible people, and it isn’t a betrayal of Western civilization to point that out. And maybe when we clear away some of the absolutely terrible people from our shelves (guys, Norman Mailer stabbed his wife), we’ll leave more room for Jane Austen, George Eliot, Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath and dozens of other women writers that people have accidentally overlooked or purposefully ignored.

Maybe when we clear away some of the absolutely terrible people from our shelves (guys, Norman Mailer stabbed his wife), we’ll leave more room for dozens of women writers that people have accidentally overlooked or purposefully ignored.

And the-male dominated canon isn’t a problem that exists in the past tense. According to the latest Vida survey, both the New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books had male critics outnumbering their women counterparts at a rate of three to one.  Fewer than 40% of all books submitted by publishers for the Man Booker prize are by women.  The institutions that will help to shape what the future of “great literature” will look like remain biased in favor of men.

There is nothing wrong with celebrating great works of literature from white men. But the canon is a massive ship with a tiny rudder; it takes a tremendous amount of time and energy in order to shift its direction. Without a conscious effort, we’ll be regurgitating the limited scope of art from back in the days when the only perspectives that were considered important enough to care about were from white men. But this is 2019, and it’s about time we all rallied around women writers. Let’s turn this ship around.

Dana Schwartz is the author of THE WHITE MAN’S GUIDE TO WHITE MALE WRITERS OF THE WESTERN CANON. She lives in Los Angeles.