Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Canon Formation and Ghettoes in Literary Studies

I suppose I should start by saying that I'm not really in the mood to compose this post. I've got to teach shortly, and I'm not really feeling like writing or anything. That said, I feel like if I don't write about this now, then I won't write about it because the moment will have passed, and so, here it goes:

All around people have been doing this "woman writers" meme, and when first I saw it, I thought, "oh, I should do that!" Then, well, it seemed long and I didn't feel like it, but also as I looked at it, I just couldn't get it up to do it. Why? Well, I think my "woman writers" phase has come and gone. This isn't to say that I don't read women writers (I do), that I don't work on women writers (I do), or that I don't teach women writers (I do). The problem, I think, is that as I've developed as a reader and a critic, I more and more have a problem with characterizing writing by female authors as different or specific or outside of the dominant canon. This is not to say that women (or writers of color or whatever) do not bring different voices or perspectives to the table in their writing because obviously they can/do, but it is to say that by sticking them off to the side somewhere that texts by these writers then can be ignored in terms of the dominant canon of literature. If Ralph Ellison is taken care of by African-American lit, we don't need to weigh down our American-Lit Survey with his writing. Ultimately, Ralph Ellison can continue to be excluded from the canon of American Literature. Similarly, if Intro to Women's Lit can take care of a writer like Mary Wollstonecraft, then I don't need to bother with including it in the Survey of British Literature II. It's not literature; it's women's literature, and so I - and my students - need not worry about it. When we talk about "woman writers," are we in fact excluding their texts from those lists of Great Books that continue to be dominated by men?*

Now, I'm not advocating for a course of action in which we do away with all "special interest" courses. I think that there is a place for such courses, and I know that I was empowered by such courses as an undergraduate. My own reading history is such that I needed those courses in order to find books that spoke to me. (In my junior and senior years of high school, I read a grand total of 3 women writers - THREE - and of those three, only one was something that was assigned to the whole class - The Awakening by Kate Chopin - one was for extra credit - Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys - and one I read for a book report - The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot, whom I was surprised to learn was a woman because I'd never heard of her. In other words, I was dying for an introduction to writing by women, and I needed women's literature courses in order to make that happen. Oh, and I was in high school/college in the 1990s - it's not like I'm talking about some pre-feminist era in which women writers had yet to be re-discovered.)

When I was an undergraduate, I was militant in my refusal to read male writers on my own time, and I rarely chose to write papers on male writers. I think that I fuzzily thought that this move on my part was a meaningful political choice - or at least I characterized it as that to myself - but I think the truth is that I was operating on personal preference more than any sort of political conviction (which would explain the paper that I wrote on Wallace Stevens' "13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird"). I liked the idea of myself as some sort of literary activist, but the reality is that these choices were more about my development as a woman than they were about any sort of literary critical position on my part. I needed to read certain writers (Jean Rhys, Virginia Woolf, Margaret Drabble, Doris Lessing) and so I did.

But, for the most part, I read them on my own. Aside from the female authors I read in a few women's literature courses that I took, the female authors that I read in an academic context were tokens on syllabi full of male authors. (This was true in classes with feminist/female instructors as well as those taught by nearly-dead white men.) The women's literature courses that I took all counted for my women's studies minor, and that was why I took them, and those classes were filled with others like me. The converted. Sometimes there was a rare exception of somebody who ended up in the course by accident. (Example: that poor boy who accidentally took "The Feminization of Literacy in 19th Century England" and who, as was customary in our department, was trying to say something about "Lit Crit," but said "Lit Clit" instead - as the only male taking the class. Hilarious!)

Moving into graduate school, I had a similar experience. It was rare that women writers were given equal time to male writers, and most of my "on my own" reading tended to be by women - but by this point I realized that this was the case not out of some sort of activist higher ground that I was standing on but because I wanted to read these books. And listen up, folks: my specialty is 20th century literature. There is no reason in the whole world why a range of women weren't on my syllabi in the courses that I took - no reason except that to include them would have forced the instructors to make the hard choices to exclude a male author that was conventionally included. And as long as there's a women's literature course out there in which to stick all of those inconvenient women writers, it's easy to convince oneself that one need not make those hard choices. In other words, such courses offer an alibi for NOT revising the canon, even as they came into being as an effort toward expanding it.

To me, the utility of the canon is, in fact, that it leaves things out. It shows us what we value at a given time, and it shows what "counts." If the canon for British Literature from 1800 doesn't include short stories by Jean Rhys but the canon for women's literature does, then what does that say? Which of these canons has more value in a culture which continues to be patriarchal?

Also, many of my students would never take a women's literature course. So if I choose Tennyson over Elizabeth Barrett Browning, or if I choose James Joyce over Katherine Mansfield in a general studies course, that means something crucial to the picture that they have of what counts as literature and whose voices count in literature. The fact that "Introduction to Women's Literature" exists does not solve this problem. Morevover, the fact that there are lists of "women writers" that all "feminists" should read doesn't solve the broader problem within literary studies that by relegating such writers to the "women's" list - the ladies' room, the room of their own, if you will - that they get left out of a broader discussion of what makes literary value and what counts as great writing. Ultimately, we haven't - even after postmodernism and post-structuralism and all of the other posts - stopped believing in Literature-capital-L or Great Writing, as syllabi all over the internet show. And that list is still a short list, and that list is still dominated - even in the 20th and 21st centuries, if syllabi are any indication - by male writers. I suppose what I'm saying here is that as long as we are content to leave texts by women writers to their own segregated lists that this isn't going to change. And the common comment from students - especially male students - that I hear that they've never read a book by a woman until my courses will persist. And men will have further support in resisting identifying as feminist because, you know, those books aren't "for" them. From "women's literature" to "chick lit" is but a step, folks, and it's a rare man that reads "chick lit" on his own time.

So it's not that I'm against reading books by women. I think it's important to read books by women. But I think that it's important to read them in the social and historical context in which they are written - which means with and alongside books written by men - and not only in isolation.

*Incidentally, we can talk about this in terms of other literary ghettoes as well - lesbian or gay writing, African-American writing, Latino writing, etc.


Cats & Dogma said...

I started to compose a long response, but I'd be hijacking your comments before they even got rolling, so I'll just resolve to do something over at Cats and Dogma (and thanks for the link!)

Anonymous said...

oooh, this is going to make me write a post about ghettoes in my discipline because it's the same sort of thing.

meg said...

I feel you w/r/t the postenlightenment period, but I think it's a different case for early-period women writers. Personally I don't enjoy teaching that course, but it draws the students like flies (often it's the only course they take in the Middle Ages), and there are relevant questions about authorship that get discussed differently.

EmmaNadine said...

I have followed the trend and posted my response in my own blog. Thanks for getting me thinking.

Terminaldegree said...

I recently wrote something about this on my blog (about women composers)...

I've run into the same problem when studying female commposers and performers. Too often they seem to be stuck on a sidebar in music textbooks, under a heading that ought to read "Women you've never heard of because their husbands [and our editing board] liked it better that way." A lot of it is great music. But even in the 21st century, students ask, "If she was that great of a composer, wouldn't we have heard of her already?" The ghetto is all too real in music, too.

Thanks for writing this. I really agree that the isolation technique isn't enough.

Casey said...

Very interesting. Seems like this points us in the direction of ultimately reassessing what we read literature for -- if it's for political progress, cultural awareness, and historical understanding, I think the emphasis on women writers will remain. If it's for lasting wisdom, however, we might rethink some of the canon. Thankfully, in the 20th century, at least, women writers have an even share in contributing to the wisdom of the world by way of novel-writing. But go back to 1850 or so and it's very difficult to find. Does Susan Warner's _Wide, Wide World_ have anything to tell 21st century readers? Even more to the point, does _Uncle Tom's Cabin_ (beyond just historical understanding, that is)?

If men produced more lasting literature in the 19th century, should we be surprised? It doesn't reveal anything about woman's inability to rise to the intellectual level of men; instead, it just shows to what degree women were actually stultified by the patriarchal culture of the time.

Dr. Crazy said...

Ok, so I'll take the last first:

First, I guess that I'm not sure that one can separate political progress/cultural awareness/historical understanding from "wisdom." To me, the best literature addresses things on both sides of that divide.

Second, I think I take issue with your claim that women in the 1800s didn't have a literary voice in terms of the novel. While it is true that we see fewer women novelists in American literature in the 19th century, the 19th century is pretty much the moment when women in England take on the profession of writer, and it would be very easy I think to do a very canonical 19th century novel course with few to no men on the list (think about it: Austen, the Brontes, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell - and with how long these novels are, you're pretty much done with just those). Now, it's true that I'm no fan of _The Wide Wide World_ (yes, I've read it - in graduate school, as well as reading the atrocious _Ruth Hall_) and I think there are interesting historical reasons why women don't dominate the American novel in the 19th century in the way that they do in England, and so for that reason, I think it IS worth putting these "bad books" on syllabi. Also, it gives one a reason to read Armstrong's _Desire and Domestic Fiction_ which is superb ;)

As far as women having parity in the 20th century with male writers... I don't buy that, and again, I'm a 20th century person. I think more often than we'd like to admit people think that including Woolf on the syllabus means that "women" are represented adequately - still.

Dr. Crazy said...

I get what you're saying about the difference between early-period writers and post-enlightenment. As I don't work on early period stuff I'm not sure what else to say, but I suppose I would be interested to see somebody who does know these issues talk about them. As I've been thinking about this post and about the comments and responding posts of others, I'm fuzzily considering the ways in which this discussion might be reoriented around a consideration of hyper-specialization in literary studies and how that and canon formation go hand in hand. Again, this is all fuzzy in my head right now, but I think that it would be interesting to hear somebody who works on early-period stuff take this on, if only because I feel ill-equipped to do so :)

Piss Poor Prof said...

I don't think there is much value in discussing the relative merits of male versus female writers (insert ghetto group of choice) as all discussions are, to be precise, relative.

I think the idea you are moving towards, if I may be so bold, is one of canon formation and time. The time aspect, which I will blogwhoring write more in my own blog, it seems, is central. There is simply, given the current structure and orientation, not enough class time for everyone or everything. So, what choices will be made?

I think that if academia is to get serious about opening the canon, then it should be done NOT with specialized courses (at least not in undergrad, and should be used sparingly in grad) but with longer, more inclusive surveys. Instead of restricting American lit to pre and post Civil War, which takes a full academic year, why not 4 classes where there is more time to explore all manner of texts (critically acclaimed AND those not so much).

But wait, we can't add more required hours...then shift the requirements within the hours allotted. That is, instead of requiring 6 hours of Brit Lit & 6 of Am Lit, require 12 continuous hours of one over the other. The student would have to choose between Emma and Huck Finn, but with 12 hours to explore over-looked texts, the context of said texts could be better established (impact of patriarchy, need for voice, etc.) and explored.

What I am saying is instead of factionalizing the lit., exploring it in larger context with more players...and if you need to cut out a large segment for the general undergrad (say Brit. Lit., World Lit., etc.), then so be it.

What do you think?

Dr. Crazy said...

A bold suggestion, PPP, and one that I go back and forth on. On the one hand, I think that this idea that one would become familiar with the canon in one of the core surveys is a good one but on the other, one of the things that I really love about the survey courses is that they give a quick and dirty overview - that they introduce students to a whole bunch of stuff so that students can figure out what they like. If you've got to choose American or British in your first year as an English major, you may not even know what you're choosing. And then there's the whole problem of change-of-major students or transfer students, who don't necessarily have two years to devote to surveys in a traditional way (Freshman and Sophomore years, eg.).

I think time is what is at issue here, and what interests me is how we choose to use the time that we have in core courses of the curriculum. I like the idea that the undergraduate major should give them a solid and general foundation in literature - without specializing in one identity-category or another - but how do we achieve that? I may need to do another post about this.... hmmm....

But first I shall go read your post about it, PPP :)